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By the fall of 1962, President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had spent the better part of a year orchestrating a massive and multifaceted campaign aimed at toppling Cuban dictator Fidel Castro from power.
The initiative, code named "Operation Mongoose," drew on the brainpower and energies of the U.S. government's most senior officials and ranged from balloon drops of anti-Castro pamphlets and cartoons to covert sabotage of Cuban industry and infrastructure. In time, it would even include active plotting to assassinate the Cuban dictator, with the Central Intelligence Agency clandestinely enlisting the aid of the era's reigning Mafia chieftains.
Suddenly that autumn, however -- and only temporarily -- the Kennedy brothers were forced to back off.
The intervening event, newly declassified files show, was the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The new restraint was formalized at a tense gathering of the Special Group, an elite cadre of policymakers drawn from the ranks of the National Security Council, on October 26, 1962. It was the twelfth of the famous "thirteen days" that saw the world teetering on the edge of nuclear war, after the U.S., relying on state-of-the-art aerial reconnaissance photography, discovered that the Soviet Union had installed nuclear missiles on Cuban soil.
"It was agreed that all plans for dispatch [of saboteurs] should be suspended," declared a Top Secret memorandum of the session, adding that "instructions were issued during the course of the meeting designed to recall the three teams already on the way" to Cuba. "No major acts of sabotage should be undertaken at this time."
To drive home the point that Operation Mongoose needed to take a back seat to the more urgent task of defusing the superpower confrontation, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara chimed in, while Attorney General Kennedy, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other Special Group members listened carefully. "Mr. McNamara," the memo recorded, "thought that MONGOOSE in the short-term should be considered in the context of (a) providing support for action designs to get rid of the missiles, and (b) support for a possible invasion."
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These deliberations were among the revelations tucked away in some 7,500 pages of files amassed by the younger Kennedy and withheld from public view until now. The unsealing of RFK's confidential files on Wednesday, a half-century after the events they chronicled, drew a handful of researchers and historians to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
While an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 pages of RFK's files remain classified -- the documents released by the library were peppered with redactions and withdrawn items -- those that were unsealed provided fresh insight into the extraordinary influence that their owner wielded in the Kennedy White House. They make clear that as the president's brother and a ruthless practitioner of realpolitik in his own right, RFK exercised power second only to that of President Kennedy himself, and shaped policy on a broad range of issues -- from counterinsurgency measures in Vietnam, Latin America and Iran to the proliferation of what were known, even then, as "weapons of mass destruction" -- in a manner that far exceeded the typical purview of the attorney general.
A Top Secret memo distributed to the Special Group in May 1962, for example, appeared to show that Bobby Kennedy virtually predicted the missile crisis, seven months before aerial reconnaissance photographs first captured evidence of the Soviets' nuclear aggression.
"At the 22 March meeting," the memo stated, "Mr. Robert Kennedy asked the Special Group...what would be an appropriate course of action for the United Sates to take in the event that the Soviets establish a military base in Cuba."
A Pentagon official noted: "Since the Special Group...has assumed that overt U.S. military force will have to be used to end Communist control of Cuba, Mr. Kennedy's question is particularly pertinent."
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Yellowing carbon sheets bearing the usual welter of classified markings -- as well as the rather unusual imprint of a red rubber stamp reading MONGOOSE -- show that RFK was also forced, early and often, to referee disputes among lower-level officials about how Operation Mongoose was to be prosecuted.
Brigadier General Edward Lansdale, a legendary master of the dark arts of psychological warfare and covert operations, frequently dashed off memos to RFK exhibiting frustration at the slow inter-agency pace of Mongoose.
On October 15, 1962 -- one day after the Kennedys learned of the Soviet missiles on Cuba -- Lansdale urged the attorney general to take a tougher line with the intelligence community. "When the President asks for something, he should get it," Lansdale wrote in a memo captioned "Sabotage Program, Mongoose." "He has asked for action [to overthrow Castro], yet CIA indicates it has these actions 'under study' or 'in preparation' despite the fact that it has claimed to be ready to go...I believe you will have to hit CIA per the head personally."
The next day, Lansdale sent RFK another Top Secret memo, hoping to prod him to stern action in a Mongoose meeting scheduled for 2:30 that afternoon. "You can strike a real blow for action by looking [senior CIA officials] Dick Helms and Ed Martin in the eye and telling them you are very dissatisfied with the initiative and the results in this project," the general wrote. "Lay it directly on them..."
But RFK had already received conflicting counsel from his own staff. Administrative aide James W. Symington, later a congressman, had written the attorney general earlier that year to caution him against accepting Lansdale's advice wholesale.
"Lansdale's emotional focus on Castro's overthrow has obscured his peripheral vision," Symington wrote Kennedy, in a memo declassified in 2002. "[The] State [Department] will not support any action which, if leaked, would point to a U.S. policy of overthrowing the Cuban regime."
Symington noted that CIA officials had found "little proof" that Castro was seeking to subvert other Latin American governments, and added:
"If the genesis of Mongoose was the President's desire to knock off Castro without counting the cost...then there is no need to 'justify' the operation in those terms."
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Students of the Vietnam War will find of interest a February 1962 briefing paper that RFK received from Roger Hilsman, then the head of the State Department's intelligence unit. In "A Strategic Concept for South Vietnam," first declassified in 2012, Hilsman emphasized that the struggle against Communism in Southeast Asia could not be won solely by military means, and lamented that, where basic counterinsurgency doctrine was concerned, "there is as yet no real understanding of these concepts at the working level" of the U.S. government.
Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt South Vietnamese president whose regime the U.S. was backing, Hilsman described as "an old-fashioned Asian ruler" who harbored fears about his allies in Washington. "He is concerned," Hilsman wrote, "that the United States will someday decide to engineer a coup" against him. Diem was ultimately killed in a coup in Saigon in November 1963, a violent episode in which some historians have indeed suggested the Kennedy administration was complicit.
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Within weeks of Diem's death, President Kennedy would be felled by a sniper's bullet in Dallas. On November 21, 1963 -- one day before the assassination of the president -- RFK was among a select group of senior U.S. officials to receive a memo from Deputy CIA Director Richard Helms, in which the latter, recounting a recent trip to Miami by JFK, stated: "Some were organizing hostile or rowdy shows of dissatisfaction to embarrass the President."
Perhaps the most personal of the documents released in this batch was a handwritten note that then-CIA Director John McCone sent to Bobby and Ethel Kennedy two months after the assassination of President Kennedy.
"Your thoughtfulness...touched me deeply," McCone wrote on December 23, 1963, "coming at a time when deep sadness so fills your own lives."
"I know how difficult this season is for both of you," he continued, "and I can say almost nothing to comfort you except to tell you that the heartbreak that you are experiencing is keenly felt and shared by your many friends and admirers."