Operation Mongoose: Trying and Failing to Kill Castro - Cold War

Operation Mongoose: Trying and Failing to Kill Castro - Cold War

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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  

on Patreon at patreon.com/thecoldwar or through  YouTube membership. We can be reached via email   at thecoldwarchannel@gmail.com. This is The Cold  War channel and, as we think about the Cold War,   please remember, that history is shades  of gray, and rarely black and white.

2023-05-08 09:34

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