Operation Northwoods

On 13th March, 1962, General Lyman Lemnitzer presented Robert McNamara with a top-secret memo, urging President Kennedy to order a variety of shocking incidents to create a rationale for invading Cuba. Code named Operation Northwoods, the memo suggested that the administration should arrange a terror campaign in Miami and Washington that would create international revulsion against the government of Fidel Castro.

President John F. Kennedy summoned Lyman Lemnitzer to the Oval Office on 16th March, 1962, where they discussed Operation Northwoods. Kennedy rejected the idea and three months later he told Lemnitzer that he was being moved from the Pentagon to become Commander of U.S. Forces in Europe.

Primary Sources

(1) David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (2007)

The military leaders did not spell out how their exploding bombs would be limited to only wounding, not killing, their unsuspecting victims and how they could be assured that the only casualties would be innocent Cuban refugees, and not American bystanders. But the U.S. military has long been overly confident in its precision.

There is no record of how McNamara responded to this cynical proposal by his top military officers when Lemnitzer met with him that Tuesday afternoon. But the sinister plan, which was codenamed Operation Northwoods, did not receive higher approval. When I asked him about Northwoods, McNamara said, "I have absolutely zero recollection of it. But I sure as hell would have rejected it.... I really can't believe that anyone was proposing such provocative acts in Miami. How stupid!"

Like the president, McNamara regarded Lemnitzer with barely disguised contempt. "McNamara's arrogance was astonishing," said a Lemnitzer aide. "He gave General Lemnitzer very short shrift and treated him like a schoolboy. The general almost stood at attention when he came into the room. Everything was 'Yes, Sir,' and 'No, Sir.' "

Lemnitzer even fell afoul of fashion-conscious Jackie Kennedy. "We all thought well of him until he made the mistake of coming into the White House one Saturday morning in a sport jacket," she contemptuously remarked, underlining how class and culture, not just politics, divided the Kennedy White House from the military.

Lemnitzer, a far-right ideologue whose endorsement of General Edwin Walker's paranoid indoctrination of Army troops had raised the suspicions of Senator William Fulbright's Foreign Relations Committee, was equally dismissive of the Kennedy crowd. He thought their administration "was crippled not only by inexperience but also by arrogance arising from failure to recognize [their] own limitations.... The problem was simply that the civilians would not accept military judgments."

On March 16, three days after his meeting with McNamara, Lemnitzer was summoned by President Kennedy to the Oval Office for a discussion of Cuba strategy that was also attended by McCone, Bundy, Lansdale, and Taylor. At one point the irrepressible Lansdale began holding forth, as usual, on the improving conditions for popular revolt inside Cuba, adding that once the glorious anti-Castro revolution began, "we must be ready to intervene with U.S. forces, if necessary." This brought an immediate reaction from Kennedy, ever alert after the Bay of Pigs about being sandbagged into a military response in Cuba. The group was not proposing that he authorize U.S. military intervention, was it? "No," Taylor and the others immediately rushed to assure him.

But Lemnitzer could not restrain himself. He jumped in at that moment to run Operation Northwoods up the flagpole. The general spared the president the plan's more gruesome brainstorms, such as blowing up people on the streets of Miami and the nation's capital and blaming it on Castro. But he informed Kennedy that the joint Chiefs "had plans for creating plausible pretexts to use force [against Cuba], with the pretexts either attacks on U.S. aircraft or a Cuban action in Latin America for which we would retaliate."

Kennedy was not amused. He fixed Lemnitzer with a hard look and "said bluntly that we were not discussing the use of U.S. military force," according to Lansdale's notes on the meeting. The president icily added that Lemnitzer might find he did not have enough divisions to fight in Cuba, if the Soviets responded to his Caribbean gambit by going to war in Berlin or elsewhere.

Despite the president's cold reaction, the joint Chiefs chairman persisted in his war campaign. About a month after the White House meeting, Lemnitzer convened his fellow service chiefs in "the tank," as the JCS conference room was called. Under his direction, they hammered out a stern memo to McNamara insisting "that the Cuban problem be solved in the near future." That would never be accomplished by waiting around for Ed Lansdale's fairy-tale popular uprising, the memo made clear. There was only one way of getting the job done: "The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that a national policy of early military intervention in Cuba be adopted by the United States."

Lemnitzer was wearing out Kennedy and McNamara's patience. After a National Security Council meeting in June, the president took the general aside and told him he wanted to send him to Europe to become NATO's new supreme allied commander. Kennedy would replace Lemnitzer as the nation's top military man with the more amenable Max Taylor. He would have one less warmonger to harass him about Cuba.

(2) Operation Northwoods (13th March, 1962)

We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized. Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots, the arrest of Cuban agents and the release of prepared documents substantiating Cuban involvement also would be helpful in projecting the idea of an irresponsible government.