Note: Of the many crises confronted by John Kennedy during his time in office the Cuban Missile Crisis was the most significant, both for the nation and in terms of the effect it had on him personally. Never before or since has the nation come so close to nuclear war. In the next two installments of this series on the reasons for the decline of the U.S. as a nation we will examine this crisis and walk through it completely. To understand the events that transpired in the year following the crisis, the last year of Kennedy’s life, you must understand what happened across thirteen days in October 1962…here is the whole story…MA


I do not believe another American president during peacetime ever had to deal with an array of crisis situations like those faced by John Kennedy during the brief time he was in the White House. Not all of these situations were Cold War related. By the fall of 1962 the Civil Rights movement had been building for some time in the United States. It had been 7 years since Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, thus igniting the Montgomery Bus Boycott and bringing national attention to the young Baptist minister leading the Boycott, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Through those seven years the Civil Rights movement had grown to the point that it was challenging the practice of racial segregation in schools all across the South. One of those schools was the University of Mississippi. A black man named James Meredith, who had twice before been denied enrollment by university officials and the district court, was finally granted his right to enroll by appealing the district court decision to the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court which had voted 2-1 in Meredith’s favor. The door was now open; it remained for Meredith to walk through it and he determined to do so by enrolling at Ole Miss for the fall 1962 term.

James Meredith

Winning the legal battle, as Meredith would find, was the easy part. Upon his arrival at the University to enroll the campus erupted in violent protest with some 2500 white students, Ku Klux Klanmembers and off duty police squared off against a hastily assembled group of several hundred federal marshals, deputized prison guards, border patrol and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents assigned by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to protect Meredith. Through the violent night of September 30th 1962 with the Kennedys monitoring the situation from the White House the federal officers and deputized personnel protecting Meredith repelled attack after attack from the mob using tear gas while dodging bricks, rocks, pipes, Molotov cocktails, sniper fire and the occasional shotgun blast. 166 federal officers and dozens of protesters were wounded and two people were killed before the long night was over, but on the next day, October 1st, 1962 James Meredith successfully enrolled at the University of Mississippi.

While another major step towards ending segregation in the South had been taken, the violence of the situation at Ole Miss portended more fierce Civil Rights battles in the future. For John Kennedy, however, there would be no time to evaluate what had happened in Mississippi or to plan for potential similar future occurrences in the South. On Sunday, October 14th 1962, nearly two weeks after Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss, a U-2 spy plane photographed what appeared to be medium range, nuclear ballistic missile launch sites being constructed in west Cuba. What would come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis was underway.

Cuban missile launch site

By the time they were photographed by the U-2 spy plane the Soviet Union had been working on constructing medium range ballistic missile sites in Cuba for a number of weeks. As noted earlier, Soviet Premier Khrushchev had persuaded Fidel Castro to agree to the drastic action of installing the missile launch sites as the necessary deterrent to prevent the U.S. from once again trying to invade Cuba and depose the Cuban leader. They had good reason to think that just such an effort was underway by the United States. I have already mentioned “Operation Northwoods”, the crackpot scheme dreamed up in spring of 1962 by Joint Chiefs Chairman General Lyman Lemnitzer and ostensibly approved by the other Chiefs that involved a variety of plots to make Castro look guilty of attacking U.S. bases, ships or citizens and therefore justify a U.S. invasion of Cuba. In late 1961, clearly bypassing the CIA and military, Kennedy himself had authorized a plan called Operation Mongoose and chose none other than Ed Lansdale as the man to run it and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy as the man to run Lansdale.  (Yes…the same Ed Lansdale who ran the Philippine operation and the Saigon Military Mission) The whole point of Mongoose from Kennedy’s viewpoint was to provide a covert operation against Castro that his administration actually controlled and could therefore trust, as opposed to what he had experienced already from the CIA and military. This, of course, drove a deeper wedge between Kennedy and his National Security establishment, who felt the Kennedys were meddling in what was rightfully their turf; the area of covert operations.

Ed Lansdale

In light of what we have learned about him thus far the choice of Lansdale by JFK as the man to run Mongoose may seem peculiar. He had started his career as regular military (Army) in World War II but quickly shifted to the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s war time precursor, where he had gotten his start on intelligence and counter-insurgency activities. As the CIA’s point man for the Philippine operation in the early ‘50s as well as the Saigon Military Mission, both of which were considered Cold War successes by the CIA, Lansdale was the most experienced man for the job the Kennedys wanted done in Cuba, that’s for sure. In the clandestine world he had become something of a legendary figure. Two novels were written loosely based on Lansdale’s Asian exploits; 1955’s “The Quiet American”and 1958’s “The Ugly American”, which was also made into a movie. Being originally U.S. Army as well as OSS, his clandestine career pre-dated the CIA and simply merged into it as that intelligence agency came onto the scene following 1947’s National Security Act. As he advanced in the clandestine world so did his military rank, eventually reaching Brigadier General. This gave Lansdale the appearance of being somewhat independent of the CIA and, in fact, a number of CIA men viewed him as a rogue and not to be trusted.

Fidel Castro

Indeed, Lansdale’s theories about dealing with the communists in the Cold War seemed to be at odds with many in the Agency, centering as they seemingly did on the notion that you had to win the hearts and minds of the people of the nation you were dealing with so that they would take on the fight against the communists themselves. It was probably this fact about him that so appealed to Kennedy, who had no intention of invading Cuba but very much wanted Castro ousted. (Keep in mind that in 1961-62 Kennedy was still a committed Cold Warrior. His chief difference from the Military/CIA advisors in his administration was that he knew that involving the U.S. military in the various covert ops being run was not only an outright violation of international law but also extremely dangerous in a nuclear age. He simply was not willing to risk an all-out war that would kill millions.)
Though he was a staunch anti-communist, Lansdale had made a study of the tactics used by Mao Zedong during his successful revolution in China. Mao had stated to his guerillas, “Buy and sell fairly. Return everything borrowed. Indemnify everythingdamaged. Do not bathe in view of women. Do not rob personal belongings of captives.” Lansdale recognized in Mao’s strategy the importance of the allegiance of the people and felt this needed to be incorporated into the various U.S. Cold War operations being carried out. At least that is the impression he tried to convey.

Col. Fletcher Prouty

Of course, with a man like Lansdale it is hard to know what the truth is or what he really believed. According to Col.Fletcher Prouty, who knew him since the early ’50s, Lansdale was “…the classic chameleon. He would tell the truth sparingly and he would fabricate a lot.” With respect to Lansdale, Prouty also stated, “I have heard him brag about capturing random Vietnamese and puttingthem in a helicopter. Then they would work on them to make them ‘confess’ to being Viet Minh. When they would not, they would toss them out of the chopper, one after the other, until the last ones talked. This was Ed’s idea of fun…as related to me many times.” To me this does not sound like a man really interested in winning the “hearts and minds of the people”. It is entirely possible that in taking on Kennedy’s Mongoose operation Lansdale was still carrying out some sort of CIA assignment designed to mislead JFK into thinking he was controlling something he wasn’t.

Whether Lansdale was or was not misleading the President, what we do know is that as Mongoose moved ahead into 1962 the types of operations it engaged in were sabotage operations within Cuba of one kind or another as well as propaganda and psychological schemes. One idea of Lansdale’s that never made it off the launching pad was a plot that involved getting a U.S. submarine to fire star shells into the sky in an effort to convince the naive Catholic Cubans on the island that the Second Coming of Christwas at hand in the hopes that it would inspire a revolt against Castro. (star shells are a type of artillery shell that is designed to explode in the air with a star-like shower of sparkles. They are ordinarily used for signaling or illuminating an area.) Though we don’t know that Kennedy actually was aware of Lansdale’s crazy scheme one has to wonder what he would have thought of it, being Catholic himself.

Operation Mongoose served the Kennedy administration in another way as well and this may have been Kennedy’s real reason for it in the first place. With Republicans like Barry Goldwater and intelligence media assets like Life magazine (It is known that “Life” publisher Henry Luce had numerous intelligence and CIA connections) claiming that sufficient action wasn’t being taken to remove Castro, JFK could point to the various Mongoose activities as evidence that something was being done, thus satisfying the less hawkish elements of the American public. The CIA and top military were not misled by this however and by mid ’62 were very frustrated. They felt that Mongoose as it was being run would never result in deposing Castro. For Kennedy, of course, that was not the program’s intention, at least not by invasion. Because of this the CIA moved once again to take matters into its own hands. In his book “Brothers…The Hidden Story of the Kennedy Years” author David Talbot tells us that in early May of 1962 Richard Helms, the man who replaced Richard Bissell as Deputy Director Plans after Bissell was fired by JFK following the Bay of Pigs, realizing that Kennedy would never invade Cuba, instructed his top Agency Cuba man William Harvey to renew the CIA’s contract with the Mafiato assassinate Castro.

Richard Helms

As the order to “renew” the contract would indicate, this was not the first time the CIA had hooked up with the Mafia to get Castro. In August of 1960, well before JFK took office, CIA Director Allen Dulles approved a plan by which Mafia lieutenant Johnny Roselli was contacted by the CIA’s Robert Maheu. Maheu told Roselli that he represented a number of large businesses that took heavy losses when Castro took over Cuba and that they were willing to pay $150,000 to have Castro removed. Roselli in turn introduced Maheu to the Mafia bosses of Chicago and Miami, Sam Giancanna and Santos Trafficante respectively, out of which resulted several plots to kill Castro. For whatever reasons none of these escapades were successful. In May of ’62, when Helms gave William Harvey the order to renew the contract on Castro, Harvey once again went straight to Johnny Roselli. This time Giancanna and Trafficante were not involved directly and Harvey worked exclusively with Roselli it seems. Harvey’s initial idea was to give Roselli some poisoned pills that he could slip to a contact of his in Cuba who would then use them to poison Castro. This plan, however, was quickly scrapped in favor of using long range rifles to take Castro out. The CIA delivered the rifles to Roselli who arranged for them to get to Cuba but for some reason this operation also failed. Harvey continued to associate with Roselli on various other “get Castro” schemes and the two became friends, even vacationing together. Harvey provided Roselli with fake credentials as an Army colonel and allowed him complete access to the CIA’s station in Miami. Harvey’s adopted daughter became so accustomed to Roselli that she knew him as “Uncle Johnny”.

Johnny Roselli

In the mid 1970s, when the congressional investigatory committee chaired by Senator Frank Church was investigating the CIA, Helms and Harvey did their best to shift the blame for their bizarre schemes with the Mafia to John and Robert Kennedy claiming that the pressure they were bringing on the Agency to remove Castro included the demand to have him assassinated in any way possible, even through the use of the Mafia. They claimed or implied that Kennedy authorized these actions as part of Operation Mongoose. Their revisionist efforts got some traction and today you will still run into articles and books claiming that the Kennedy brothers were responsible for the CIA’s efforts at assassinating Castro including those involving the Mafia

Robert Kennedy

In his book “Brothers…The Hidden Story of the Kennedy Years” David Talbot presents evidence that counters this view and states outright that when Helms made the decision to once again use the Mafia to get Castro he did so outside the parameters of Mongoose and did not inform the President or his brother. On May 14th 1962, just a few days after William Harvey had handed Johnny Roselli the poison pills to kill Castro, Robert Kennedy had two men from the CIA in his office. The first was a long time agent named Sheffield Edwards and the second was a CIA lawyer named Lawrence Houston. Kennedy wanted to know from the CIA men why the CIA was attempting to block the prosecution of a private eye who was caught illegally bugging the Las Vegas hotel suite of comedian Dan Rowan the year before. (Yes, the same Dan Rowan who a few years later would become famous for the hit TV show Laugh In) Edwards and Houston told RFK that the reason was for national security purposes which on questioning turned out to be the fact that the private detective had been hired by none other than the CIA’s Robert Maheu as a favor to Mafia chief Sam Giancanna who apparently thought Rowan was sleeping with his girlfriend. Why, the Attorney General wanted to know, would Maheu do such a thing? The answer, of course, was that Giancanna had assisted the CIA’s earlier efforts at assassinating Castro and was now getting a favor in return.

Sam Giancanna

One can only imagine what Robert Kennedy thought when Edwards and Houston told him about the CIA/Mafia “get Castro” plot of 1960/61. RFK had made a name for himself in the Senate in the 1950s with his investigations of and attacks on organized crime and now here he was being told that his own government intelligence agency had been in cahoots with the Mafia for the purpose of assassinating a foreign leader. The CIA men assured RFK that the Agency was no longer involved in such activities, either unaware of or simply lying about the fact that Helms and Harvey had initiated a new contract on Castro just days earlier.  Robert Kennedy’s meeting with Sheffield and Houston has become a controversial point in the history of JFK’s one thousand days in office. Richard Helms and others in the CIA claimed that at the time of the meeting the Attorney General was already aware of the CIA’s Castro contract renewal and that his apparent surprise at the news was just a reuse. RFK, they claimed, along with JFK were the ones who had pressured them into it. Yet this claim is contradicted by the testimony of none other than the CIA’s own attorney who was present at the meeting, Lawrence Houston. Before the Church Committee in 1975, as described in David Talbot’s book, Houston testified that he got the impression from the meeting that RFK was completely unaware of the CIA’s Mafia dealings and that he was disgusted to be put in a position where he would have to drop a case against organized crime because of the CIA’s shady activities.  

Ted Sorensen

A more eloquent defense of the Kennedys and particularly JFK as regards the CIA/Mafia assassination plots on Castro comes from someone who knew him very well and who was a good friend of Kennedy’s; his speech writer Ted Sorensen. Sorensen’s testimony before the Church Committee is quoted in Talbot’s book. With regard to the subject of JFK and political assassination Sorensen stated that it “…was totally foreign to his character and conscience, foreign to his fundamental reverence for human life and his respect for his adversaries, foreign to his insistence upon a moral dimension in U.S. foreign policy and his concern for the country’s reputation abroad…Particularly ludicrous is the notion that one of his background would have ever knowingly countenanced the employment for these purposes of the same organized crime elements he had fought for so many years.” (Both Kennedys had been involved in the Senate committees investigating organized crime and labor unions in the late ‘50s and were staunchly opposed to organized crime.)

William Harvey

Why would top CIA officers such as Richard Helms and William Harvey while under oath do their best to mislead and confuse the Senate Church Committee investigating the CIA’s assassination activities? On the face of it the CIA’s effort to smear the Kennedy brothers by charging they were responsible for the Castro assassination plots smacks simply of trying to save the Agency’s reputation and just possibly its existence. Underneath this one can discern a more sinister purpose however. If the Agency could make it appear that the Kennedys really were in control of and running the CIA and that it was doing their bidding then the idea that the CIA as some rogue element of government could have possibly been involved in JFK’s and RFK’s assassinations would appear that much more remote.  To Fidel Castro, however, sitting on his island in the Caribbean in the late summer of 1962, it made no difference whether it was Kennedy or the CIA behind the attempts on his life or the sabotages and harassment his nation was being subjected to. Cuba had already been invaded once at the Bay of Pigs. To sit and wait to be invaded again was suicide. So Castro made his move and arranged with the Soviets to have the medium range ballistic missile launch sites built as the necessary deterrent to another U.S. invasion.  When they were spotted by the U-2 spy plane on October 14th ,1962 the most intense Cold War crisis in history was launched. Across the next thirteen days the U.S. and the Soviet Union would teeter on the brink of all-out nuclear war. When it was finally all over John Kennedy had emerged from the crisis a changed man.


To be continued…

Copyright © 2013

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

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One Response to JFK and the Road to Dallas: The Cuban Missile Crisis, Part I— by Mark Arnold

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