named Operation Northwoods, the plans reportedly included the
possible assassination of Cuban émigrés, sinking boats of Cuban
refugees on the high seas, hijacking planes, blowing up a U.S. ship,
and even orchestrating violent terrorism in U.S. cities.
The plans were developed as ways to trick the American public and
the international community into supporting a war to oust Cuba's
then new leader, communist Fidel Castro.
America's top military brass even contemplated causing U.S.
military casualties, writing: "We could blow up a U.S. ship in
Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba," and, "casualty lists in U.S.
newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation."
Details of the plans are described in Body of Secrets
(Doubleday), a new book by investigative reporter James Bamford
about the history of America's largest spy agency, the National
Security Agency. However, the plans were not connected to the
agency, he notes.
The plans had the written approval of all of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff and were presented to President Kennedy's defense secretary,
Robert McNamara, in March 1962. But they apparently were rejected by
the civilian leadership and have gone undisclosed for nearly 40
"These were Joint Chiefs of Staff documents. The reason these
were held secret for so long is the Joint Chiefs never wanted to
give these up because they were so embarrassing," Bamford told
"The whole point of a democracy is to have leaders responding to
the public will, and here this is the complete reverse, the military
trying to trick the American people into a war that they want but
that nobody else wants."
Gunning for War
The documents show "the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up and
approved plans for what may be the most corrupt plan ever created by
the U.S. government," writes Bamford.
The Joint Chiefs even proposed using the potential death of
astronaut John Glenn during the first attempt to put an American
into orbit as a false pretext for war with Cuba, the documents show.
Should the rocket explode and kill Glenn, they wrote, "the
objective is to provide irrevocable proof … that the fault lies with
the Communists et all Cuba [sic]."
The plans were motivated by an intense desire among senior
military leaders to depose Castro, who seized power in 1959 to
become the first communist leader in the Western Hemisphere — only
90 miles from U.S. shores.
The earlier CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban
exiles had been a disastrous failure, in which the military was not
allowed to provide firepower.The military leaders now wanted a shot
"The whole thing was so bizarre," says Bamford, noting public and
international support would be needed for an invasion, but
apparently neither the American public, nor the Cuban public, wanted
to see U.S. troops deployed to drive out Castro.
Reflecting this, the U.S. plan called for establishing prolonged
military — not democratic — control over the island nation after the
"That's what we're supposed to be freeing them from," Bamford
says. "The only way we would have succeeded is by doing exactly what
the Russians were doing all over the world, by imposing a government
by tyranny, basically what we were accusing Castro himself of
'Over the Edge'
The Joint Chiefs at the time were headed by Eisenhower appointee
Army Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, who, with the signed plans in hand
made a pitch to McNamara on March 13, 1962, recommending Operation
Northwoods be run by the military.
Whether the Joint Chiefs' plans were rejected by McNamara in the
meeting is not clear. But three days later, President Kennedy told
Lemnitzer directly there was virtually no possibility of ever using
overt force to take Cuba, Bamford reports. Within months, Lemnitzer
would be denied another term as chairman and transferred to another
The secret plans came at a time when there was distrust in the
military leadership about their civilian leadership, with leaders in
the Kennedy administration viewed as too liberal, insufficiently
experienced and soft on communism. At the same time, however, there
real were concerns in American society about their military
overstepping its bounds.
There were reports U.S. military leaders had encouraged their
subordinates to vote conservative during the election.
And at least two popular books were published focusing on a
right-wing military leadership pushing the limits against government
policy of the day. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee published
its own report on right-wing extremism in the military, warning a
"considerable danger" in the "education and propaganda activities of
military personnel" had been uncovered. The committee even called
for an examination of any ties between Lemnitzer and right-wing
groups. But Congress didn't get wind of Northwoods, says Bamford.
"Although no one in Congress could have known at the time," he
writes, "Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs had quietly slipped over the
Even after Lemnitzer was gone, he writes, the Joint Chiefs
continued to plan "pretext" operations at least through 1963.
One idea was to create a war between Cuba and another Latin
American country so that the United States could intervene. Another
was to pay someone in the Castro government to attack U.S. forces at
the Guantanamo naval base — an act, which Bamford notes, would have
amounted to treason. And another was to fly low level U-2 flights
over Cuba, with the intention of having one shot down as a pretext
for a war.
"There really was a worry at the time about the military going
off crazy and they did, but they never succeeded, but it wasn't for
lack of trying," he says.
After 40 Years
Ironically, the documents came to light, says Bamford, in part
because of the 1992 Oliver Stone film JFK, which examined the
possibility of a conspiracy behind the assassination of President
As public interest in the assassination swelled after
JFK's release, Congress passed a law designed to increase the
public's access to government records related to the assassination.
The author says a friend on the board tipped him off to the
Afraid of a congressional investigation, Lemnitzer had ordered
all Joint Chiefs documents related to the Bay of Pigs destroyed,
says Bamford. But somehow, these remained.
"The scary thing is none of this stuff comes out until 40 years
after," says Bamford.