With the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in the headlines these days, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the whole war in that country – specifically, that the U.S. military did a lot of lying about it. In 2019, newspaper The Washington Post released the “Pentagon Papers”, detailing how American officials misled people throughout the 20-year conflict into thinking that America was making progress when it actually wasn’t.
But if you think that sounds bad, let me be the first to say that you ain’t seen nothing, yet. Specifically, let’s bring you back to the 1960s, when the U.S. military tried to get approval for something an order of magnitude worse. This is the story of Operation: Northwoods, when the U.S. military planned to kill American citizens and blame it on communists.
Our story begins in 1959, when a man by the name of Fidel Castro staged a communist revolution on the Caribbean island of Cuba. Cuba, as you may know, is incredibly close to the United States, and the US didn’t take too kindly to having a base for communism being set up in their backyard – revolution being the primary export of communist countries. And indeed, Castro immediately set about both securing his position, implementing his socialist reforms to the country, and influencing other Latin American countries in their own political conflicts.
The US didn’t take too kindly to this whole socialism thing, both because of the Cold War and because it was primarily American companies that were being affected by the new socialist policies. The US asked Castro if he could maybe knock it off, whereupon Castro left them on read. This went on for a few years, and relations between the two governments steadily deteriorated, until the US decided that they would prefer Castro gone. To that end, they tried countless times to assassinate him, undermine his regime, or overthrow him. Honestly, America’s actions in Cuba and against Castro are multiple videos all on their own, but those are stories for another time.
Anyways, Castro proved surprisingly difficult to get rid of. This led to the US trying increasingly radical methods to remove him from power, most of which were botched horribly. In the absence of any serious provocation by Cuba, the US couldn’t intervene militarily without looking really antagonistic to the rest of the world. Both Cuba and the US were aware of this, and so some characters in the American government decided that if Cuba wasn’t going to give them a reason to attack, then they were going to give themselves one.
Which leads us to March 13th, 1962, when the American Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) presented a proposal to the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Titled “Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba”, this document outlined the methods in which they would do just that. Specifically, one crazy idea after another.
The proposal for Operation Northwoods wasn’t a single clear, actionable goal. Rather, the initial memo was explicitly cited as a request for further planning, and as such most of what is in the document is just general ideas for ways to justify a war on Cuba. With that being said, there’s a pretty clear trend that emerges between the nine ideas that were actually drawn up in the original document.
First idea: citing the “desirability” of a legitimate provocation to invade Cuba and depose Castro, the US military would maneuver, posture, and position itself in such a way to make the Cubans think that America was about to invade. This would lead to a tense standoff, which would hopefully prompt the Cuban armed forces to attack preemptively, which would give America an excuse to attack right back. So far, so normal, but hold onto your seats, because we’re about to go off the deep end.
Second idea: a “series of well coordinated incidents” would be performed in and around the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, which for the three of you that didn’t know, is located on the island of Cuba. The authors of the memo were kind enough to list some of their ideas for what those incidents would be, with things like “capturing” Cuban saboteurs in the base, who would actually be friendly Cubans dressed as soldiers; having friendly Cubans start riots near the main gate; blowing up US aircraft or ammo crates on the base; and sinking ships in the bay followed by holding mock funerals for the “victims”. Can’t fault them for lack of commitment, I guess.
Third idea: a “Remember the Maine” incident could be staged, in which an American ship would be intentionally blown up either in Guantanamo Bay or near Havana and blamed on Cuba. For context, the USS Maine was an American ship that, in 1898, sunk in Havana Harbor after suffering an unexplained explosion, probably accidental in nature. This is a particularly galling suggestion, considering that there are conspiracy theories that the sinking was a false flag attack that the US blamed on Spain, sparking the Spanish-American War. By the way, one of those conspiracists is the Cuban government, which officially states that the US government sunk the Maine.
Fourth idea: a “terror campaign” would be conducted against Cuban refugees in or trying to reach the United States. This idea was elaborated upon with suggestions such as sinking a boat full of refugees heading for Florida, or making attempts on the lives of Cuban refugees already in the US. Alternatively, a few explosives could be planted in strategic locations so as to “project the idea of an irresponsible government”. They sure are one to talk.
Fifth idea: make it seem like Cuba is interfering in other nearby countries. Out of all the ideas, this one was probably the most plausible, since Cuba was, in fact, interfering in other nearby countries. Like we said, exporting the revolution and all that. Even so, this idea called for having American aircraft breach the airspace of countries like the Dominican Republic, burning crop fields with “Soviet Bloc” incendiary weapons, and tying that up with intercepting “Cuban” messages to communist movements coupled with “Cuban” arms shipments washing up on Dominican beaches.
Sixth idea: use an American aircraft, painted to look like a Soviet MiG fighter, to harass a civilian aircraft near Cuba. This would be helped along with a pilot who would possibly be in on the whole thing, who would announce to the passengers that a MiG fighter was harassing the plane. The memo straight up admits that this particular idea sounds incredibly dangerous, which it absolutely does, fellas, good observation.
Seventh idea: fake hijackings of civil aircraft or ships, and blame them on Cuba. That’s basically all it says. Guess they had to pad their memo out, kind of like the writer for this script.
Eighth idea: create an incredibly elaborate and expensive ruse to make it look like the Cuban air force shot down a civilian aircraft. This idea had a lot of detail behind it, which probably means the person who wrote it was pretty attached to it. To start with, an aircraft would be painted and numbered as an exact duplicate for an actual registered civilian aircraft, which would belong to a CIA shell company in Miami. This duplicate would be swapped for the actual aircraft at some point, with the actual aircraft being converted into a drone. A complicated maneuver would then be pulled off, with both aircraft being sent up, the actual plane being sent back down and reverted to its original status, and the drone continuing over Cuba. The drone would then send a mayday signal that it was under attack by Cuban aircraft, and then a bomb would be remotely detonated via radio, destroying the drone mid-air. Out of all the ideas on this list, this one is easily the most convoluted; that was the simplified explanation, by the way.
Ninth idea: basically the same premise as the previous idea, with a US Air Force plane instead of a civil plane. A pre-briefed pilot with an alias would work with other Air Force pilots to conduct a military exercise in the Gulf of Mexico. Once they reached a certain point near Cuba, the pilot would radio that he had been attacked by Cuban aircraft and was going down. Of course, the pilot wouldn’t actually be going down – he would be flying to a secure base where he would land, drop his alias, and his plane would be painted over. Then, a submarine would release broken aircraft parts, as well as an open parachute and other flotsam, which would be “discovered” by search and rescue teams. We definitely get the impression that this and the previous idea were favored by the authors, due to all the specifics that were included in them.
So, that’s all of the ideas that were pitched in the initial proposal. A few actual maybe good ideas, a bunch of really horrible ones for various different reasons, and the pretty salient fact that some high ranking people in the United States government were proposing state-sponsored terrorism to invade another country. Yeah, no wonder President Kennedy thought these people were nuts.
We’re Not Doing That
Speaking of John F. Kennedy, he rejected Operation Northwoods out of hand. In another memo describing the interactions over the proposal, Kennedy bluntly stated that military force was off the table and that maybe he should reassign some of the generals to West Berlin where they couldn’t cause as much trouble. This would fit into how Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis later that year – the generals howling for war against Cuba, and Kennedy having to restrain them to prevent some catastrophic fallout. Nuclear fallout, that is.
After the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s assassination, Cuba sort of fell by the wayside as the war in Vietnam began to take up more attention. Of course, that wasn’t the end of suspicious actions related to the military, as seen with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and, well, basically the entire Vietnam War. It was, however, the last time that Cuba would take up such an important space in American policy. Which, all things considered, was probably a good outcome for everybody.