In April of 1961, roughly 1,500 American-trained Cuban exiles invaded their homeland in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government. That assault, now referred to as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, ended up in failure, as the Cuban militia proved too powerful, capturing 80% of the invaders while killing most of the other 20%. The political fallout in the United States was massive, and the desire of the typical American to further engage Cuba in battle was understandably low. Further, other nations questioned America’s desire to attack a neighboring sovereign, especially one who had shown little in the way of aggression to the U.S. and was already the subject of American economic sanctions.
But the Cold War was in full force. The U.S. saw Cuba as subordinate to the Soviet Union and having a Soviet stronghold just 90 miles off Florida troubled the leadership of the American military. The Department of Defense (DoD) and the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) felt the need to revive civilian interest in overthrowing Castro and liberating Cuba. Absent a Cuban strike on Americans, though, this seemed unlikely. And no such Cuban strike was likely imminent.
So the DoD and JCS proposed to create such an attack themselves. A fake one, aimed at turning public opinion against Castro and in favor of continued military action against Cuba.
The plan, devised in 1962 and code named Operation Northwoods, had a simple yet striking goal: “to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.” The details, outlined in an appendix to an originally classified document titled “Pretexts to Justify U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba” (available starting here), included:
- Using friendly Cubans, pretending to be enemy fighters, to stage a fake (as in, there’d be no actual firearms discharge) attack on the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, replete with mock funerals after. This item may have included blowing up grounded planes and/or igniting ammunition stores on base to suggest sabotage — and of course, the fake saboteurs would be “captured.”
- Blowing up a U.S. ship (again, unoccupied) somewhere near or within Cuban waters, blaming the assault on Cuba’s air force or naval batteries.
- Creating a group of fake Cuban terrorist cells, targeting Cuban refugees in the United States. The plan allowed for some bodily harm to come to the targets — “to the extent of wounding” as seen in the top paragraph here – and also called for “sink[ing] a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated).”
- Painting U.S. fighter jets to look like Soviet MIGs and then harassing civilian flights with these planes — potentially looping in the commercial pilots to help convince passengers of the ruse.
- Potentially shooting down an aircraft traveling from the U.S. to Central America, purportedly transporting college students (but actually empty), as it passed over Cuban air space.
In almost all cases, the plan was designed to avoid killing American civilians, although the same could not be said for “boatload[s] of Cubans” destined for Miami. Regardless, the total death toll from Operations Northwoods was zero. Then-President John F. Kennedy rejected the idea and removed its lead proponent, General Lyman Lemnitzer, from his position as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bonus fact: The U.S. embargo of Cuba dates back to 1958 and its reach has been adjusted a few times since. (In general, the restrictions have been tightened, but on July 16, 2012, a U.S-sanctioned ship carrying humanitarian goods from Cubans in Miami to their families sailed into Havana.) The ban on importing Cuban cigars was not among the original restrictions — that was added in an executive order signed by President Kennedy in 1962. But JFK was, apparently, fond of the cigars. According to Pierre Salinger, then the President’s press secretary, one evening that year, JFK asked him to pick up about 1,000 of them by “tomorrow morning.” Salinger over-delivered, obtaining 1,200, and presented them to the President the next morning. As Salinger recounts: “Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country.”
From the Archives: Invading Canada: The story behind the U.S.’s now-retired plan to invade Canada, if need be.
Related: You still can’t buy Cuban cigars. But you can smell like them.