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The Cuban Missile Crisis 50th Anniversary: Castro, OPLAN 314/316, and Khrushchev’s Decision

Part 3 of a series on the anniversary of the October 1962 confrontation

As many problems as Nikita Khrushchev had in early 1962, another was beginning to fester in the one foothold he wanted to protect and expand in the Western Hemisphere: Cuba. Just three years away from the revolution that had put him into power as the new leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro had made himself into the blood enemy of President John F. Kennedy (JFK), his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (RFK), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“The fate of Cuba and the maintenance of Soviet prestige in that part of the world preoccupied me…While I was on an official visit to Bulgaria, for instance, one thought kept hammering away at my brain: what will happen if we lose Cuba? I knew it would be a terrible blow to Marxism-Leninism. It would gravely diminish our stature throughout the world, but especially in Latin America. If Cuba fell, other Latin American countries would reject us, claiming that for all our might the Soviet Union hadn’t been able to do anything for Cuba except to make empty protests to the United Nations.”

– Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, from Khrushchev Remembers

Castro had already offended American sensibilities by founding the first Communist nation in the Western Hemisphere, and regularly making a spectacle of himself at the annual United Nations (UN) meetings every fall in New York City. Much worse, he had refused to die. Despite several CIA-sponsored assassination attempts and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion (Operation Zapata – also sponsored by the CIA) in April 1961, Castro had evaded death on every occasion the U.S. had sent it toward him.

JFK and RFK

President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, were pursuing a two-track strategy to get rid of the regime of Fidel Castro. Photo courtesy of Norman Polmar, John D. Gresham, and Dino Brugioni

In the eyes of U.S. leaders, Fidel Castro was La Cucaracha del Caribe (“The Cockroach of the Caribbean”). They wanted him dead and his regime destroyed. And almost before the last of the blowback from the Bay of Pigs fiasco was over, the Kennedy brothers and the U.S. military made the destruction of Castro and his regime their number one priority.

Beginning in mid-1961, the Kennedy Administration began a two-track campaign to deprive Fidel Castro of his regime and life. The military part was built around a pair of quick-reaction Operational Plans (OPLANs), 314 and 316, rewritten from the existing Cuban OPLAN 312. Both OPLANs were design to rapidly mobilize an invasion force roughly the size of the U.S. force on D-Day, the only real differences between the two being the duration of the mobilization and the forces available at the end of that period.

For over a year in 1961 and 1962, Mongoose teams conducted a variety of raids and strikes on Cuban infrastructure targets including oil refineries, sugar mills, and maritime targets, including cargo ships. In addition, dozens of additional assassination attempts against Castro were considered, planned, and attempted. The target date for completion of Mongoose and execution of OPLAN 314 or 316 was ominous: October 1962.

The unconventional part of President Kennedy’s anti-Castro campaign was personally supervised by RFK out of the White House and Justice Department, and was known alternatively as Operation Mongoose and “the Cuban Project.” The operational end of Mongoose was led by Gen. Edward Lansdale, USAF and William Harvey of the CIA, with the actual forces being drawn from CIA resources, including the anti-Castro Cuban expatriate community. For over a year in 1961 and 1962, Mongoose teams conducted a variety of raids and strikes on Cuban infrastructure targets including oil refineries, sugar mills, and maritime targets, including cargo ships. In addition, dozens of additional assassination attempts against Castro were considered, planned, and attempted. The target date for completion of Mongoose and execution of OPLAN 314 or 316 was ominous: October 1962.

These plans were hardly a surprise to either Castro or Khrushchev, both of whom had few doubts about the intent toward Cuba by the Kennedys or the United States. For Khrushchev, the Cuba problem was just the latest challenge to his tenuous hold on power as the leader of the Soviet Union and the Communist World.

Kruschchev and Castro

While Kruschchev was determined to hold on to Cuba as a client state of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro was if anything more determined to hold on to power at all costs, and was consistently more aggressive than Kruschchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Photo courtesy of Norman Polmar, John D. Gresham, and Dino Brugioni

With his own strategic deterrent force in tatters, a growing vulnerability to nuclear blackmail from the West, growing political pressure from the Stalinist wing in his own government, and the only Communist toehold in the Western Hemisphere in jeopardy, Nikita Khrushchev was a man badly in need of a “Hail Mary” pass just to get some breathing room to operate. Khrushchev, however, was no ordinary national leader. A survivor of Josef Stalin’s homicidal and paranoid rule, 20 years earlier Khrushchev had been the political force behind the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. And in early 1961, he began to devise a spellbinding idea that might solve all his problems in a single stroke.

While vacationing in May 1962, Khrushchev began to tell members of his inner circle of a plan to forward-base a number of medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) to Cuba, along with a large joint task force (JTF) of ground, air, naval, and air defense forces. Drawn from the “belt” of roughly 300 MRBMs/IRBMs that held European targets “at risk,” the missiles, by being based in Cuba, would have just enough range to target cities and military bases throughout the continental United States.

While vacationing in May 1962, Khrushchev began to tell members of his inner circle of a plan to forward-base a number of medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) to Cuba, along with a large joint task force (JTF) of ground, air, naval, and air defense forces. Drawn from the “belt” of roughly 300 MRBMs/IRBMs that held European targets “at risk,” the missiles, by being based in Cuba, would have just enough range to target cities and military bases throughout the continental United States. In addition, the 50,000-man JTF would provide a bulwark against any American attempt to invade Cuba, and thus preserve the Castro regime. The target date for completion of this deployment would be October 1962, and it would be known as Operation Anadyr.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...