Operation Mongoose: The Attempt To Overthrow Fidel Castro

(Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Fidel Castro was one of the most famous figures of the Cold War. He was especially famous in the United States because United States government officials were desperate to see him removed from power. President Kennedy spent more time on Cuba than any other foreign policy problem during his time in office.

Operation Mongoose was developed out of desperation to get rid of Castro. Through this secret operation, the CIA and the Kennedy administration came up with what can only be described as wacky and outrageous plots to remove Castro from power — at any cost.

Fidel Castro laughing at a newspaper
Fidel Castro seems amused by an assassination plot, circa 1959. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Origins

Before John F. Kennedy was elected, the Eisenhower Administration and the CIA clandestinely explored ways in which Cuban leader Fidel Castro could be undermined and expelled from power. Castro’s communist policies, his close ties with the Soviet Union, and Cuba’s proximity to the United States made U.S. government officials anxious.

Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev
Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro (left) and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (right) in Moscow, circa 1964. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/ Stringer/ Getty Images)

Primary documents assert that the CIA explored the notion of assassinating Castro by enlisting the Mafia’s help before Kennedy came into office. The mafia, after all, would have a motive in wanting Castro killed after he had disrupted casinos, travel, and mafia business interests in Havana. Similarly, the mafia would give the CIA plausible deniability if an assassination plot was to be uncovered.

When Kennedy took office, these clandestine assassination plans were largely discarded. What was not abandoned, however, was the CIA planned invasion of Cuba. In March 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the CIA to train and arm a force of Cuban exiles for an armed attack on Cuba. When Kennedy became president in 1961, not only did he inherit this plan from Eisenhower but, against the advice of his military advisors, he decided to move forward with it.

John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower at Camp David, 1961
President John F. Kennedy and President Dwight Eisenhower contemplating the issues of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961 at Camp David. (Photo Credit: Underwood Archives/ Getty Images)

On April 17, 1961, around 1,200 Cuban exiles armed with American weapons and using American landing craft came ashore at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. The idea was that this exile force would motivate other Cuban citizens to rise up and overthrow Castro and his government.

The reality of the situation was, of course, much different than its idealized expectation. The plan immediately fell apart, over 100 of the attackers were killed, and more than 1100 were captured.

Operation Mongoose

It was in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that Operation Mongoose was created. After this failed invasion, the Kennedy administration was determined to get Castro out of power in Cuba- one way or another.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recalled both himself and the Kennedys being “hysterical about Castro at the time of the Bay of Pigs and thereafter.” From this point forward, the Kennedy administration and CIA ramped up their attempts to rid Castro of power in Cuba.

Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy in conversation.
Robert Kennedy (left) and John F. Kennedy (right) in conversation, circa 1959. (Photo Credit: Corbis via Getty Images)

In November 1961, a clandestine operation known as Operation Mongoose was officially authorized by President Kennedy. The goal of this operation was to do exactly what the Bay of Pigs invasion had failed to do — remove the Communist Castro regime from Cuba.

President Kennedy, who felt that his military advisors had betrayed him during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, put his brother Robert Kennedy in charge of overseeing the operation, while General Edward Lansdale was tasked with coordinating activities between the CIA, Defence Department, and State Department.

Portrait of Edward Lansdale
Portrait of Edward Lansdale. (Photo Credit: US Airforce/ Wikimedia Commons)

At a meeting on Cuba at the White House in November 1961, Robert Kennedy wrote that his “idea is to stir things up on the island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder, run & operated by Cubans themselves.” The goal was that by October 1962, a revolt would take place in Cuba, by Cuban people to overthrow Castro.

Dirty Tricks and assassination plots

The Kennedy administration undertook many tactics to get the Cuban people to revolt against Castro. These tactics included psychological operations led by Edward Lansdale, who created an anti-Castro radio broadcast to covertly aired in Cuba.

One operation that was suggested by Lansdale was titled “Operation Good Time.” This operation was meant to “disillusion the Cuban population” by circulating fake photographs of an obese Castro in a lavishly furnished room to make the Cuban people think he was taking advantage of the Cuban citizens.

CIA operatives in Cuba also circulated stories about heroic freedom fighters in hopes of rallying the Cuban people.

U.S.S. Enterprise anchored in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Starboard-stern view of the USS Enterprise anchored in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in March 1962. (Photo Credit: Pictorial Parade/ Getty Images)

However, the central portion of Lansdale’s plans against Castro was a series of large-scale “dirty tricks” meant to evoke calls to arms against Cuba in the international community.

Some of these “tricks” included having friendly Cubans in Cuban army uniforms attack the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay and sabotaging an empty U.S. ship in the harbor. Another “dirty trick” suggested carrying out a “terror campaign in the Miami area and other Florida cities, and even in Washington.” These attacks could be blamed on Castro and would allow for U.S. military intervention in Cuba.

Another dirty trick that came out of Operation Mongoose involved the Mercury space capsule and astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. The proposed idea was to “provide irrevocable proof, that should the Mercury manned orbit flight fail, the fault lies with the Communists, et al Cuba.” Planners suggested that this could be accomplished “by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove interference on the part of the Cubans.”

JFK and John Glenn
John F. Kennedy (left) and astronaut John Glenn (right) upon Glenn’s return from space with the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, circa 1962. (Photo Credit: Dean Conger / Getty Images)

Although none of these plans either proposed by or to Lansdale were ever adopted, attempts to kill Castro were undertaken by members of Operation Mongoose. This part of the operation, which became known as “Executive Action,” was run by CIA agent William King Harvey.

Supposedly, “executive action” was a CIA euphemism, defined as a project for research into developing means for overthrowing foreign political leaders, including a “capability to perform assassinations.” Harvey’s specific project was given the codename ZR/RIFLE. Harvey attempted to use mobsters to assassinate Castro but was unsuccessful in all attempts.

Decline

For all the imaginative plans and proposals developed, Operation Mongoose existed more on paper than in actual practice. Once the Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 16, 1962, President Kennedy suspended Operation Mongoose.

More from us: CIA Documents Reveal Early Plot Against Raúl Castro

Although efforts to overthrow Castro eventually resumed, Operation Mongoose was officially disbanded in 1963. However, it wasn’t until 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal that notes on Operation Mongoose surfaced for the first time.