The Joint Chief’s Plan to Attack America–Operation Northwood

Scan of the Joint Chief's Operation Northwoods memo.

Scan of the Joint Chief’s Operation Northwoods memo.

The Cold War was, at its heart, a conflict between ideologies both economic and political. On one hand was the Western powers, with their liberal democracies and capitalist economies. On the other was the states of the Soviet Bloc, who favored communism, which in theory meant giving to each as they needed but in practice meant the concentration of all economic and political power under the authority of one party.

It is relatively easy to separate these two ideologies geographically between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Both sides jockeyed for influence in the others respective sphere of control, resulting in the flash points of the Cold War like Korea and Vietnam.

So when a Communist power established itself 90 miles from US shores in 1959, when Castro and the Communists took over Cuba, it left the US in a bind. This was the first encroachment of Communism into the Western Hemisphere. Worse, it could potentially give the Soviets a platform from which to launch nuclear missiles and bombers right into the heart of the USA. This fear would be realized during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came very close to a nuclear apocalypse.

The Kennedy Administration wanted Castro’s Cuba gone. An earlier attempt to do this was made in 1960. Dubbed the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the mission was conducted by the CIA. It failed miserably, due in part to a lack of military support.

While many attempts to kill Castro were laughable at best–from poisoned scuba gear to exploding cigars–the plan drawn up by the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the Bay of Pigs were nothing to chuckle at. They involved nothing short of committing terrorist actions against the American people, and blaming them on Cuba as a pretext for war. The sinister idea was dubbed Operation Northwood.

 

The Illusion of Cuban Aggression

Operation Northwood hinged on creating an illusion of Cuban aggression against the peace of the Western Hemisphere. The “projects” undertaken under the auspices of the operation would have to give the impression of a large scale attempt by Cuba to attack or otherwise destabilize its neighbors under the banner of poking at latent Communist sympathies in the populace.

This would be achieved by orchestrating a series of incidents that would build up on one another in the public consciousness and tip favor of public opinion toward war with Cuba. Also, it would give the US a list of grievances which could be used to justify a full scale invasion of the tiny island.

All of this would preferably be achieved before Cuba came under the sphere of Soviet influence. In 1962, the Cubans had not yet fallen under the aegis of the Soviet Bloc. They were not yet part of the Warsaw Pact, nor were they host to Soviet bases. Thus, if the war could be conducted quickly enough, it could be done without fear of Soviet intervention, which would effectively park World War III.

The Joint Chiefs considered several options to pull off the nefarious deeds. Several ideas in no particular order focused on the now infamous Guantanamo Bay. Rumors of attack would be spread by clandestine radio. Friendly Cubans in military uniforms would be hired to stage an attack. Sympathetic Cubans could be set up as saboteurs and “caught” in the base. A riot could be instigated at the base gates. Ammunition could be destroy by supposed saboteurs. Mortar shells could be fired from outside the base.

 

A map of Guantanamo Bay, which factored heavily in Operation Northwoods.

A map of Guantanamo Bay, which factored heavily in Operation Northwoods.

The Joint Chiefs seemed particularly interested in orchestrating a “Remember the Maine!” type incident, hearkening back to the popular rallying cry during the Spanish-American War. The Maine was a US war ship supposedly sunk by the Spanish. Its sinking was used to justify the Spanish-American War, which led to the US controlling Cuba for several years.

As the Joint Chiefs saw it, a “Remember the Maine” incident could be orchestrated in several ways. one of the more dramatic involved blowing up an unmanned ship near Havana or Santiago and passing it off as a Cuban air or sea attack. Cuban ships and planes who turned out to investigate the explosion would only serve to fuel the impression that the explosion resulted from an attack. Blowing up a ship near large cities would not doubt attract the attention of locals, who could act as witnesses and lend credibility to the story. the US would then launch rescue operations covered by fighter planes to rescue “survivors.” Casualty lists of the supposed crew would be published in American papers, hopefully causing anger and hatred toward Cuba.

Another, somehow even more despicable version of the plan involved orchestrating terror attacks against Cuban refugees in the US. Part of the plan involved sinking Cuban refugee ships en route to the US. Whether the ships were fake or populated by real, live people seemed to be a detail. the Us government could also foster attempts on the lives of Cuban refugees already on American soil, publicizing the ones that resulted in people being wounded. Finally, plastic bombs would be detonated in “carefully chosen spots.” Cuban agents would then be duly arrested and documents produced that substantiated that this was the result of a terrorist act by a rogue government.

Wreckage of the USS Maine, whose sinking sparked a war with the Spanish Empire. Operation Northwoods wished to replicate this with an orchestrated incident to justify war with Cuba.

Wreckage of the USS Maine, whose sinking sparked a war with the Spanish Empire. Operation Northwoods wished to replicate this with an orchestrated incident to justify war with Cuba.

Another potential avenue the Joint Chiefs saw that America could exploit to provoke war with Cuba involved other countries in the region. Tensions existed between Cuba and other Caribbean countries. The US was well aware of Castro’s support of subversive elements in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. the Joint Chiefs suggested exaggerating the importance of these efforts, not to mention contriving to add a few of their own. One scheme involved simulating an air raid on Dominican Republic cane fields, leaving evidence of Soviet made incendiaries behind. This would be done in tandem with intercepted messages from the Dominican republic Communist underground from the Cubans, and the convenient interception of Cuban arms shipments on a Dominican Beach. This would give the US a chance to come in playing hero, attacking Cuba and defending a smaller country from the big bad Communists.

 

Dummy planes and faux attacks

The final two scenarios outlined in one of the original memos relating to Operation Northwoods involved planes. the first was an elaborate plan to make it look lie the Cubans shot down a chartered civilian airliner en route from the US to Jamaica, Guatemala, or Panama. these countries were selected because a flight plan to them would pass over Cuban airspace. It was suggested that the passengers could be college students on holiday.

An aircraft at Eglin Air Force Base would be painted to appear as an exact duplicate of the plane to be used in the chartered flight. This duplicate would be swapped for the real thing and boarded with passengers, all flying under aliases. the registered aircraft would be converted into an unmarked drone. Both planes would take off and rendezvous south of Florida. the Passenger craft would drop its altitude and land at Eglin Air Force Base, where the passengers would be offloaded and the dummy plane scrubbed of any identifiers.

A Cuban MIG from the 1970s, likely similar to the crafts used during the 1960s.

A Cuban MIG from the 1970s, likely similar to the crafts used during the 1960s.

The drone, meanwhile, would fly on and begin transmitted a May day message over Cuba, stating that it was under attack by a Cuban MIG fighter. The plane would be destroyed by explosives triggered remotely by American handlers. Radio stations picking up the distress signal would inform the US of the attack. Since the entire operation would be clandestine, no doubt many in the government would have been genuinely shocked. the fact that the Us would be informed by outsiders would save the government having to,

The second aircraft related plot involved fooling the world with a supposedly unprovoked attack by Cuban MIGS on American aircraft. A flight of four or five F101 jets would be sent on regular exercises near the coast of Cuba. They would carry live weapons and be told to watch for MIGS. They would be told to fly no closer to Cuba than 12 miles form the coast. On one flight, a briefed pilot would fly at the tail of the formation. Near Cuba, he would broadcast that he had been attacked by a MIG and was going down. He would then immediately drop to a lower altitude and fly west to a secure base. The plane’s numbers would be switched, the the pilot would drop the identity he’d assumed for the mission and resume his own.

While the pilot was broadcasting, the attack, and bugging out toward the safe airfield, a submarine would surface and spread F101 parts across the surface of the ocean. The pilots flying back over the are would see the debris, and rescue ships could recover the parts

 

Out of control

The Operation Northwood came out of a time when the military was driven to distraction by both Cuba and what they saw as an administration that was too young, inexperienced, and liberal to deal with the Communist threat.

The Joint chiefs were headed by Eisenhower appointee Army General Lyman L. Lemnitzer. General Lemnitzer told the Secretary of State Robert McNamara about Northwood on march 13, 1962. Three days later, Kennedy responded by saying the US would never use overt force to solve the Cuba problem. Lemnitzer was later replaced as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and moved to another job. The Joint Chiefs would continue to plan Northwood scenarios into 1963, even after Lemnitzer was effectively sacked. These involved paying a member of the Castro government to attack Guantanamo Bay, low altitude flights over Cuba with the hope that the Cubans would shoot the spy planes down, or provoking a war between Cuba and another Latin American country in which the US could intervene.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and none of the scenarios in Northwoods were ever played out. The civilian leadership never wanted to provoke a war with Cuba, and the American public never wanted to fight one. Still, it is terrifying to think that a cabal of top military officials tried their hardest to lead American into a war in neither wanted nor needed, all in the service of what they saw as the national good.

 

Sources:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense. Subject: Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba.” United States Department of Defense. March 13, 1962.

Ruppe, David. “US Military Wanted to Provoke War With Cuba.” ABC News. May 1, 2001. http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=92662