U.S. Military Wanted to Provoke War With Cuba

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 job.

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 edge."

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 Kennedy.

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 documents.

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.

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