Operation Mongoose: Trying and Failing to Kill Castro - Cold War
When looking at Cold War history, there are words that keep cropping up. Examples include “CIA”, “Castro”, “Cuba”, and “assassination”. The word “Mongoose” on the other hand is one that appears with far less frequency and shouldn’t seem relevant at all. But, when linked to those other words, it is undoubtedly relevant. In between the fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, The United States, and the CIA in particular, set out to topple Cuba’s newly established communist government through a variety of methods which included intelligence gathering, covert operations, sabotage, economic sanctions, and psychological warfare. This project, titled Operation Mongoose, resulted in some of the Cold War’s most imaginative attempts to murder, maim, disable, discredit, or otherwise neutralize, El Jefe Maximo, El Commandate, Fidel Castro. I’m
your host David, and today we are looking at the CIA, Castro, and Mongoose. This is…The Cold War. Life is busy. Family, school, friends, work…we all have commitments in life but I never let any of this slow down my love of new ideas and perspectives which is why I love the sponsor of this week's video, Blinkist. In only 15 minutes of engaging, educational and entertaining content, I can discover the most important ideas and aspects, the A-ha moment, from over 5,500 non-fiction books and podcasts in 27 different categories, making it the perfect companion while I’m walking the dogs, making dinner, or driving back from dropping the kids at the hockey rink! I get to listen, or read, when I have time and when I want to! I recently listened to “The Spy and The Traitor” by Ben MacIntyre, a blink looking at the remarkable story of Oleg Gordievsky, the Soviet double-agent whose work helped prevent the Cold War from turning hot, something we can all appreciate as Memorial day approaches. Best of all, Cold War viewers can get a 7-day free trial and 50% off Blinkist Annual Premium by using our link in the description! This offer is only valid until May 29th, so go check it out now! For much of the Cold War, Cuba remained a thorny issue for the United States, a constant irritant if not a persistent threat. Secret US efforts to handle the
problem that developed across the Straits of Florida had started during the Eisenhower administration. The day before taking office, John F. Kennedy was informed of these efforts and was even advised by Eisenhower to continue and accelerate American plans to deal with Cuba. Planning for the not-so-secret operation continued, and by February 1961, the CIA presented the new President with a plan for Operation Zapata. The plan was revised by the President to decrease the direct involvement of the US military before the plan was carried out in April of 1961.
Operation Zapata is more commonly known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. We’ve already released an episode looking in more detail at the failure of the operation and if for some reason you haven’t already watched it, we highly recommend that you check it out. As a quick recap, an assault group of over a thousand CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed in Cuba with only limited support from the U.S. Air Force, with the goal of overthrowing Castro. The operation failed, with most of the invasion
force surrendering to the Cuban military. For the United States, as well as for Cuban exiles, the Bay of Pigs was a spectacular failure. Not only did it prove to be an embarrassment for the United States, but it was also a tremendous boon for Castro domestically. In a secret meeting between Kennedy’s special assistant Richard Goodwin and Cuban representative Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the iconic revolutionary and t-shirt icon “wanted to thank [the US] very much for the invasion… [which] had been a great political victory for them – enabled them to consolidate – and transformed them from an aggrieved little country to an equal.” As a result, at a meeting of the National Security Council, President Kennedy ordered a full reassessment of American policy towards Cuba. Created specifically for this purpose, the Cuba Study Group performed a tactical analysis of the failed invasion and delivered a report to the President. The recommendation was to reconsider the Cuban problem in light of known factors and
to provide new guidance for political, military, economic, and propaganda action against Castro. A challenge though: Kennedy’s arsenal was quite limited. Cuba wasn’t the only concern that America’s foreign policy makers had to deal with. There was the hope of resuming negotiations for a nuclear test ban treaty as well as the issue of Berlin. When Kennedy first met Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, the two leaders found no compromise on the issues under discussion. Khrushchev refused to discuss the proposed nuclear test ban separately
from general disarmament. Additionally, the status of Germany…Germanies?... remained unresolved. Combined with the fallout from the Bay of Pigs, things were becoming uncomfortably tense. For Kennedy, the fate of Berlin was inextricably linked to the fate of Cuba. Any American plan made to deal with Cuba had to keep Berlin in mind. An American blockade of Cuba would almost certainly result in a Soviet blockade of Berlin. And if America outright invaded Cuba, well, Germany might as well get used to mushroom clouds outside the window. Conversely, if the Soviets made a move
in Berlin, the United States needed to have a response in Cuba available to them. For these reasons, any unprovoked American move against Castro had to be reasonably soft in nature. By November 1961, President Kennedy and his advisers had come up with an initiative, which would centralize, expand, and intensify efforts against the Castro regime. Operation Mongoose
was born, and Air Force General Edward Lansdale would supervise it. You will recall Lansdale for his involvement in suppressing the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines as well as organizing Operation Passage to Freedom in Vietnam. We have episodes on both of these, by the way. Now, Operation Mongoose would involve assets from the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA and was assisted by the US Information Agency and the Department of Justice. The focus of the anti-Castro effort was now shifted. In his first assessment of Mongoose
activities, Lansdale describes it this way: “The initial work of the group has been to sharply re-orient the U.S. effort, from being simply an unintegrated series of harassment activities to become a program designed to help Cubans build a popular movement within Cuba, which can (with outside help) take effective actions [to proceed with] deposing the Communist regime.” But, the operation ran into trouble. A January 1962 report by Lansdale indicated that the CIA lacked the capability to execute operations in Cuba and that more intelligence in-depth was required. The main problem, however, was the insufficient recruitment of Cuban operatives. You need manpower to DO things, after all. So, to enlist Cubans, the CIA established a station in Florida, referred to properly as JM/WAVE but also known as Wave Station or just Miami Station. The center had an annual budget of over $50 million, it employed a staff
of over six hundred, and even leased over one hundred vehicles. Meanwhile, Lansdale outlined a 32-point list of tasks assigned under Mongoose, and within a month, a timetable was worked out. The plan, presented in February, was made of six parts. 1) “Action”. The operatives would start arriving in Cuba. 2) “Build-up”. Inside Cuba, a revolution would be encouraged, and outside, there would be political, economic, and military pressure put on the Cuban government. 3) “Readiness”. Operatives’ capabilities would be increased to allow further
steps. 4)“Resistance”. Guerilla operations would start. 5)“Revolt”. By October 1962, the communist regime would be overthrown through an open Cuban rebellion. 6)“Final”. A new Cuban government would be established. Sounds optimistic, right? Use a handful of operatives to incite Cubans to rebel and overthrow Castro, in a matter of only 8 months. Now, if you are skeptical about the plan, you are not alone. The head of the CIA John
McCone disliked the plan and argued for more aggressive action, potentially including direct military intervention. Germany be damned. Now, McCone had a reason to be skeptical. In March of 1962, the CIA had produced a report describing the situation in Cuba. In a rather gloomy assessment, the CIA concluded that, although Castro was supported by just a quarter of the Cuban population, most Cubans on the island accepted the regime as Cuba’s defacto government. Lansdale himself concluded that “the Cuban people feel helpless and are losing hope fast”. The report described Cubans as “grumbling and resentful, but apparently hopeless and passive, resigned to acceptance of the present regime as the effective government in being with which they must learn to live for lack of a feasible alternative”. The prospects
of an armed rebellion looked very remote. But, by this time, Mongoose had achieved, well, remarkably little. Its only success story inside Cuba was intelligence gathering, including aerial photographic reconnaissance. We should point out that by the end of July, eleven CIA teams had infiltrated Cuba but sabotage had not taken place, at least, not US-sponsored sabotage. The operatives had barely even started to attract recruits. Some American progress was, however, being made in the field of international diplomacy. Since
the start of Operation Mongoose, the State Department had been working to ensure the support of the Organization of American States, the OAS, in the struggle against Castro’s regime. In an OAS meeting at Punta del Este in Uruguay in January 1962, Cuba was condemned and then suspended from the organization. The OAS took a stand against the so-called “Communist Offensive in America”, and the United States took the lead by announcing a trade embargo on Cuba. This embargo remains in effect to this day. You may have heard of it. Now, as part of Mongoose, plenty of ideas on how to weaken Castro were proposed. For example, Lansdale suggested “low-key resistance sabotage”, which would include dumping sugar into the gasoline tanks of public and official vehicles, stealing spark plugs and distributors from cars, and throwing stones with threatening notes into officials’ residences.
Much attention was given to psychological warfare, including the establishment of a Radio Free Cuba, which would incite Cubans to rebellion. Declassified CIA documents show a wide variety of the discussed forms of action. Some of them are mild, such as demanding that Cuba, as the self-proclaimed “only free territory in the Americas” hold actual UN-observed free elections. Other proposals included spreading counterfeit money, disseminating defective repair parts, conducting false-flag attacks on US and US-aligned shipping, or even supporting pirate(!) attacks on Cuba’s coastal targets. Yes, pirates. A particularly sinister idea
was to engage in biological warfare against Cuba’s agricultural sector. Biological agents of allegedly natural origin could be spread, harming animals and producing crop failures, thereby damaging the Cuban sugar industry. The idea was scrapped as way too risky for America’s public image in the event it was discovered. Particularly famous, or, rather, infamous, are the CIA's plots and attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. It is important to note that these
attempts started before Mongoose and continued even after Mongoose was suspended. The former chief of Cuba’s counterintelligence Fabián Escalante stated in 2006 that there had been a total of 634 assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. El Comandante himself famously stated, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.” The CIA's involvement in these matters was addressed in a Church Committee report, which was published secretly in 1975 as a part of a US Senate investigation of abuses by the CIA and other Intelligence agencies. The report, which was declassified in 2007 and naturally drew some public interest showed evidence for eight plots involving the CIA, fifteen plots in which the CIA had no involvement, and nine more, in which the CIA had contact with the suspects but not for assassination purposes. And the difference in numbers makes sense. After all, there were many people who wanted Castro’s head figuratively, and maybe even literally, detached from his body.
So, what exactly were some of those plots? Well, in one, they hired a Cuban to arrange an accident that would kill Castro. Just not Fidel, instead, his brother Raul. The Cuban was promised a college education for his sons in the event of his death. He failed in his mission, however. Another plot was to give Castro a box of cigars contaminated with a botulinum toxin, so
toxic that it would cause death after just putting a cigar in his mouth. The cigars were produced and given to an unidentified person, but we don’t know what happened afterward. The plot failed. Then, the CIA made contact with the criminal underworld, seeking their help in assassinating Castro. Through an ex-FBI agent Robert Maheu, the job was given to a Mafioso, John "Handsome Johnny" Roselli. Handsome Johnny recruited two more mobsters: Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante, leading figures of the Chicago and New Orleans underworld, respectively. Like something out of Grand Theft Auto, this odd-squad tried poisoning Castro with highly-toxic botulinum pills, but the Cuban man that Roselli gave the pills to lost his position in the Cuban government, and as a result, also lost access to Castro’s drinks. Now, A backup had been arranged in case something happened to
the first person, but they apparently had a case of “cold feet” and backed out. Roselli tried again, hiring more Cubans and having them supplied with poison pills, explosives, detonators, rifles, handguns, radios, and a boat radar. The heist didn’t take place and another failure was notched. The CIA considered more plans. One of them was to rig an exotic seashell with an explosive
and deposit it where Castro normally went diving. Another idea was to present Castro with a contaminated diving suit. They even went so far as to buy the suit and dusted the inside with fungus meant to cause a chronic skin disease. Additionally, a breathing apparatus contaminated with tubercule bacilli was also arranged. Reports on what happened to the suit afterward
are contradictory and unclear. The plot failed. The CIA also hired an operative in the Cuban administration, Rolando Secades, referred to as AM/LASH. Secades was eager to try to assassinate Castro, asking the CIA for sniper rifles and grenades. A cache with weapons apparently was dropped, and Secades received some explosives, a pistol, and a FAL rifle equipped with a silencer. Another device offered to AM/LASH was a poison pen with a needle so fine the victim, intended to be Fidel, wouldn’t notice its insertion. Ironically, the pen was given to Secades the same day Kennedy
was assassinated. Eventually, contact with AM/LASH was terminated. The plots all failed. The CIA also went for character assassination. There was a plan to spray Castro’s broadcasting studio with a form of LSD, intended to sabotage his speech and take the shine off of the charismatic leader. After all, who would trust El Commandante if he was ranting about giant talking butterflies in the corner of the studio! The plan was dropped.
Another plan was to fill Castro’s box of cigars with some form of disorienting chemicals. The CIA was REALLY focused on Castro’s cigars, seen as an iconic part of Fidel’s public image. And speaking of targeting iconic aspects of El Jefe’s image, a plan was hatched to dust Castro’s shoes with thallium salts, resulting in his beard falling off. It was planned to take place during one of Castro’s foreign trips: he would leave his shoes outside the door of his hotel room to be shined. This was probably the plan that came closest to being successfully implemented but the plan had to be abandoned when Castro canceled the trip. SO, we all know that none of these plots succeeded and Fidel survived. So what happened? Well, defining moments of the Cold War happened.
The United States wasn’t the only country with an interest in Cuba. Throughout this period, the Soviet Union was increasing its military build-up on the island. American analysts thought that the Soviets wouldn’t undertake a heavy military deployment to Cuba, but new intelligence proved them wrong. The United States now faced “the most extensive campaign to bolster a non-bloc country ever undertaken by the USSR”. And reports only became worse. Soviet arms
shipments continued, and in the summer of 1962, evidence was found of the construction of surface-to-air missile sites in Cuba. The US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay reported that around one thousand Soviet and Czechoslovakian personnel were constructing a rocket and or missile base somewhere east of Banes. On October 14, a U-2 overflight confirmed America’s worst fears: a medium-range ballistic missile site in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis had started, and it would soon put the world on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse. Look for a future episode on this topic. Not the subject of this video of course, but stay tuned for that soon!
For Mongoose, which was supposed to see more active, more aggressive, and more ambitious activities, a rethink was necessary. Sabotage operations had been planned, even including those against Texaco and Shell and Esso oil refineries. But the truth on the ground was different. These sabotage operations weren’t launched by the start of October, and neither had any sort of visible domestic Cuban resistance materialized, in contradiction to the plan. After the U-2 overflight, Operation Mongoose felt out of favor. Robert Kennedy was especially harsh towards the operation, noting that sabotage efforts had been a complete failure, although he did concede that intelligence collection had improved.
The US administration started questioning the basic objectives of Mongoose, considering that perhaps it would be more effective to somehow drive a wedge between Havana and Moscow. All Mongoose activities ultimately ceased in December 1962. So, should we agree with Robert Kennedy and say that Mongoose was a failure? Well, it failed to fulfill its objectives and led to a worse situation for the Americans regarding Cuba overall, so, yes, definitely, Mongoose was a failure. A fiasco even. Despite its multi-million dollar budget, it lacked a well-conceived strategy and its need to maintain distanced secrecy meant it was unable to recruit and train a force strong enough to stage efficient acts of sabotage. President Kennedy both propelled but also restrained covert action, tying the Cuban question to that of Berlin. Castro stayed in power, smoked his cigars, and even kept his beard. We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode and to make sure you don’t miss future episodes of the Cold War, please subscribe and press the bell button, even if you need to escape accidental explosions, avoid mafia attacks, go diving in a spore-infested wetsuit, and evade the giant talking dragon that is defending his horde of cigars. Please consider supporting us
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