Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered a series of secret contingency plans that included airstrikes and mining of Cuban harbors in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s decision to send Cuban forces into Angola in late 1975, according to declassified documents made public today for the first time.
“If we decide to use military power it must succeed. There should be no halfway measures,” Kissinger instructed General George Brown of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during a high-level meeting of national security officials on March 24, 1976, that included then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “I think we are going to have to smash Castro,” Kissinger told President Ford. “We probably can’t do it before the [1976 presidential] elections.” “I agree,” the president responded.
The story of Kissinger’s Cuban contingency planning was published today in a new book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, co-authored by American University professor William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh who directs the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project. Research for the book, which reveals the surprising and untold history of bilateral efforts towards rapprochement and reconciliation, draws on hundreds of formerly secret records obtained by the authors. The documents detailing Kissinger’s Cuban contingency planning in 1976 were obtained by Kornbluh through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.
According to the book, Kissinger’s consideration of open hostilities with Cuba came after a protracted effort of secret diplomatic talks to normalize relations — including furtive meetings between U.S. and Cuban emissaries at La Guardia airport and an unprecedented three-hour negotiating session at the five-star Pierre Hotel in New York City. Cuba’s efforts at supporting the anti-colonial struggle in Africa, the authors write, “was the type of threat to U.S. interests that Kissinger had hoped the prospect of better relations would mitigate.”
The book describes Kissinger as “apoplectic” with Castro — in oval office meetings Kissinger referred to the Cuban leader as a “pipsqueak” — for Cuba’s decision to deploy thousands of soldiers to Angola to assist the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party of António Agostinho Neto against attacks from insurgent groups that were supported covertly by the United States and apartheid regime of South Africa. Concerned that Castro would eventually broaden his military incursion beyond Angola, Kissinger counseled Ford that they would have to “crack the Cubans.” “If they move into Namibia or Rhodesia, I would be in favor of clobbering them,” Kissinger told the president, according to a March 15, 1976, Oval Office memorandum of conversation.
In the March 24 meeting with an elite national security team known as the Washington Special Actions Group, Kissinger expanded on the domino scenario. “If the Cubans destroy Rhodesia then Namibia is next and then there is South Africa,” Kissinger argued. To permit the “Cubans as the shock troops of the revolution” in Africa, he argued, was unacceptable and could cause racial tensions in the “Caribbean with the Cubans appealing to disaffected minorities and could then spillover into South America and even into our own country.”
Moreover, the lack of a U.S. response to the global exercise of military power by a small Caribbean island nation, Kissinger feared, would be seen as American weakness. “If there is a perception overseas that we are so weakened by our internal debate [over Vietnam] so that it looks like we can’t do anything about a country of eight million people, then in three or four years we are going to have a real crisis.”
Drafted secretly by the Washington Special Actions Group in April 1976, the contingency plans outlined punitive options that ranged from economic and political sanctions to acts of war such as mining Cuba’s harbors, a naval quarantine, and strategic airstrikes “to destroy selected Cuban military and military-related targets.” The contingency planners warned Kissinger, however, that any act of aggression could trigger a superpower confrontation. Unlike the 1962 missile crisis, stated one planning paper, “a new Cuban crisis would not necessarily lead to a Soviet retreat.”
Indeed, “a Cuban/Soviet response could escalate in areas that would maximize US casualties and thus provoke stronger response,” Kissinger’s national security advisers warned. “The circumstances that could lead the United States to select a military option against Cuba should be serious enough to warrant further action in preparation for general war.”
Back Channel to Cuba was released today at a press conference at the Pierre Hotel, the site of the first official secret meeting to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba in July 1975. The authors suggested that the history of such talks, and the lessons they hold, remain especially relevant at a time when both President Obama and President Raul Castro have publicly declared the urgency of moving beyond the legacy of perpetual hostility in U.S.-Cuban relations.
READ THE DOCUMENTS
Document 1: Memorandum of Conversation, February 25, 1976
During a conversation with President Ford in the Oval Office, Secretary of State Kissinger raises the issue of Cuba’s military incursion into Angola, implying that Latin American nations are concerned about a “race war” because of Cuba’s efforts in Africa. “I think we are going to have to smash Castro. We probably can’t do it before the elections.” The president responds, “I agree.”
Document 2: Memorandum of Conversation, March 15, 1976
In another Oval Office conversation, Kissinger raises the Cuban military involvement in Africa and expresses concern that Castro may deploy troops elsewhere in the region. “I think sooner or later we have to crack the Cubans … I think we have to humiliate them.” He continues to argue that, “If they move into Namibia or Rhodesia, I would be in favor of clobbering them. That would create a furor … but I think we might have to demand they get out of Africa.” When President Ford asks, “what if they don’t?” Kissinger responds, “I think we could blockade.”
Document 3: Washington Special Actions Group Meeting, Cuba, March 24, 1976
Kissinger convenes The Washington Special Actions Group-a small elite team of national security officials-on March 24 to discuss a range of options and capabilities to move against Cuba. “We want to get planning started in the political, economic and military fields so that we can see what we can do if we want to move against Cuba,” he explains. “In the military field there is an invasion or blockade.” Kissinger shares his domino theory of Cuban military involvement in the region. “If the Cubans destroy Rhodesia then Namibia is next and then there is South Africa. It might only take five years,” Kissinger argues. In discussing military options, he states, “if we decide to use military power it must succeed. There should be no halfway measures – we get no reward for using military power in moderation.” Kissinger orders the group to secretly draw up plans for retaliation if Cuban troops go beyond Angola.
Document 4: Cuban Contingency Plan Summary, (ca. April 1976)
This document is a summary of the Cuban Contingency survey considering the possible U.S. reactions to continued Cuban and USSR “Angola style” intervention. The summary notes that the U.S. is already engaging in some efforts to dissuade further intervention through “public warnings, signals to the USSR, changes in our African policy and some measures designed to isolate Castro.” While any U.S. response will affect U.S.-Soviet relations, “It is easier to bring pressure on Cuba, as the closer and weaker partner in a tightly interwoven relationship, than on the Soviet Union.”
Document 5: Cuban Contingency Plan Paper 1, (ca. April 1976)
According to this lengthy contingency planning paper, the objective of these plans is to prevent a pattern in which Cuba and the USSR “arrogate to themselves the right to intervene with combat forces in local or regional conflicts.” The contingency plan outlines four courses of action that vary on a scale of seriousness for deterring continued Cuban intervention, including: political pressure, actions against the USSR, a scenario of actions (combining political, economic and military measures), and military steps. Any actions taken towards Cuba could spur greater tension with the USSR. “In short, confronting Cuba — the weaker partner — is an obvious step toward confronting the USSR.” Political measures are presented as the best option for dissuading Cuba because of the increased chances of a U.S.-Cuban “incident” stemming from military actions. Along with the possibility of an incident, this document notes that “one of Cuba’s main foreign policy objectives has been to normalize relations with the countries of this hemisphere.”
The document outlines the option for a quarantine. As Cuba is highly dependent on imports and foreign military equipment (from the USSR), especially by sea, the U.S. would be able to exacerbate Cuba’s greatest vulnerability. On that same theme, the paper points to the U.S. base at Guantanamo as the greatest vulnerability for a Cuban response to any U.S. military actions. Other military steps outlined in the plans include mining Cuban ports and conducting punitive strikes against selected targets.
Document 6: Cuban Contingency Plan Paper 2, (ca. April 1976)
This paper covers several categories of U.S. actions against Cuba: deterrence, pressure to cease and desist, interdiction of Cuban action under way, and retaliation. Any form of deterrence taken by the U.S. would have to be “predicated on a willingness to take some action if the deterrence failed.” However, and reiterated once again, any action taken to confront Cuba would also incite a confrontation with the USSR. The possible military measures presented include three forms of quarantine (selected war materiel, POL imports, maritime blockade excluding food and medicine), mining Cuban ports, and punitive airstrikes on selected targets.
The document notes two important ambiguities — the role of Cuban military involvement in Africa and the threshold to determine the U.S. response to a Cuban provocation. “In sum, there is a good chance the US will be confronted by an ambiguous situation, in which Cuban intervention is not clearly established.” As well, there is “no precise threshold” which would determine the U.S. response, except to state that the threshold would be low if Cuban action were directed against the US or its territories (Puerto Rico), higher in the Caribbean and Latin America, and highest in Africa.
The document states that “we should further make it clear that we are not reverting to the shenanigans of the early 1960’s” and that the U.S. is not violating any international agreements. While the Soviets in 1970 indicated that they regarded the 1962 U.S.-Soviet agreement as still in force, the “failure of the Cubans to permit the UN supervision renders the US pledge technically inoperative.”
Document 7: Kissinger Aide-Memoire to Cuba, January 11, 1975
This conciliatory message drafted by an aide to Kissinger, and approved by the Secretary of State, was given to the Cuban side at the first meeting between U.S. and Cuban representatives, which took place at a cafeteria in La Guardia airport. “We are meeting here to explore the possibilities for a more normal relationship between our two countries,” it begins. The objective is to “determine whether there exists an equal determination on both sides to settle the differences that exist between us.” While the ideological differences are wide, Kissinger expresses hope that such talks will “be useful in addressing concrete issues which it is in the interest of both countries to resolve.” As a gesture to the Cubans, the U.S. will permit Cuban diplomats (accredited to the UN) to travel from New York to Washington and may begin granting additional visas to Cubans for cultural, scientific and education meetings. For Kissinger, “no purpose is served in attempting to embargo ideas.”
Document 8: Memorandum for the Secretary, Meeting in New York with Cuban Representatives, January 11, 1975
In a briefing paper on the first secret meeting at La Guardia airport, Kissinger’s aide Lawrence Eagleburger reports on the tone and exchange of views. The Cubans stated they had no authority to negotiate at that time, but emphasized the importance of removing the embargo as a “sine qua non” for talks. Eagleburger reports that he wanted to “leave both Cubans with a clear understanding that while I had received their message, I was in no way prepared — even unofficially — to accept [removing the embargo] as a precondition to further talks.” Even though at times there was a seemingly difficult tone in the meeting, as Eagleburger explains, “the atmosphere of the meeting was extremely friendly.”
Document 9: Memorandum of Conversation, Pierre Hotel, U.S.-Cuba Meeting, July 9, 1975
This meeting marks the first formal negotiating session to explore normalized relations between the United States and Cuba. To break the ice, Eagleburger suggests that Kissinger is disposed to meet with the Cuban foreign minister during the upcoming UNGA meetings in September. Assistant Secretary of State William D. Rogers begins by explaining that Washington would support lifting multilateral sanctions at the OAS and that the United States would then begin to dismantle the trade embargo, piece by piece, in response to similar gestures from the Cubans. Over the course of the next three hours the U.S. and Cuban officials discuss a series of reciprocal and bilateral improvements of relations, with much of the meeting focused on the Cuban responses to the points raised by the U.S. side. Responding to the piece by piece approach of the U.S., the Cuban representatives reiterate that any precondition for talks remains the lifting of the embargo. “We cannot negotiate under the blockade,” Ramon Sánchez-Parodi argues; “until the embargo is lifted, Cuba and the United States cannot deal with each other as equals and consequently cannot negotiate.”