November 17, 1962/September 11, 2001
The plot was aimed at New York: the most famous city in the richest nation on earth, and the most sought-after prize for any anti-American terrorist. Reports said it was put into motion by a cell of fanatical young men, who saw the United States, with its interventionist foreign policy, as the world’s oppressor.
A series of sensational attacks had been planned to hit almost simultaneously across the northeastern United States, with vast and indiscriminate loss of life. The targets were chosen because they were symbols of American wealth or the American military. New York was going to burn, and the world was going to watch.
That morning, New York was saved. The date was 17 November 1962. The fanatical young men were Cubans. They had planned to bomb Macy’s, Gimbel’s, and Bloomingdale’s department stores during the Christmas rush and, simultaneously, to hit military installations and oil refineries. It was announced to the press that agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation picked them up just in time, mostly from a costume jewelry business, and also broke up what it claimed was a “sabotage school” run by Cubans who had been linked to their country’s representation at the United Nations. From Washington, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy issued a statement praising the FBI. From Havana, Prime Minister Fidel Castro claimed that the arrests were “without foundation.”
History has few perfect parallels. On 11 September 2001, when a different group of anti-American fanatics did pull off an even more dramatic act of terror in New York City, there were plenty of differences between their fundamentalist Islamic ideas and those of the Cuban communists forty years before. But 17 November, coming just a fortnight after the Soviets had agreed to remove missiles from Cuba, had some similar themes. The United States’ attempts to promote its own brand of freedom, democracy, and free market capitalism had offended third-world ideologies. They rallied around an icon of anti-Americanism – in 2001, Osama bin Laden; in 1962, Fidel Castro. Both men were the sons of privileged families. Both became revolutionaries. Both drew their strength from their oppositional position to what is sometimes (and not only by its critics) called the American empire, though others prefer the term American hegemony: the political ambitions, military adventures, and economic programs of the United States abroad. Both of their movements – fundamentalist Islam and communism – served the same purpose in a crude but effective type of American domestic politics. They could be portrayed simply and powerfully as an ultimate evil bent on the destruction of the United States. Against them, the nation could be rallied.
On that basis, both attacks would attract the attention of conspiracy theorists, some of whom asked whether the impression made on the general public was so beneficial to the American government’s aims that it might have staged the attack itself. In the case of 17 November, the shocking thing is that the conspiracy theorists may well have been right. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had suggested in March 1962 that they could stage a terrorist campaign in Miami and Washington, and blame it on the Cuban government. There is no question that they were prepared to kill civilians in the process. Ideas put on paper included sinking boats full of real refugees fleeing from Cuba to Florida, and attempting to assassinate Cuban exiles. “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,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote. Repeatedly, Robert Kennedy himself suggested staging terrorist attacks on American military and diplomatic bases in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, and claiming that they were the work of Fidel Castro, to justify an all-out invasion of the sovereign state of Cuba. As these plots have come to light, it has looked increasingly like the official story of the supposedly “Cuban” attempted bombing of New York cannot be taken at face value. The question that must be asked about 1962 is not whether it is feasible that the government of the United States might have resorted to such techniques – evidently, it might – but what could have been going on among the palm trees on a couple of islands in the Caribbean to provoke a superpower to such extreme action.
– pgs. 1,2, RED HEAT: CONSPIRACY, MURDER, AND THE COLD WAR IN THE CARIBBEAN, by Alex von Tunzelmann, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011
March – May 1962
The prospect of Cuba switching its allegiance from Moscow to Peking horrified Khrushchev. “Politics is a game, and Mao Tse-tung has played politics with Asiatic cunning,” he wrote later, “following his own rules of cajolery, treachery, savage vengeance, and deceit.” Something dramatic had to be done to deter both the vengeful Mao and the vengeful Kennedy. In April, the answer occurred to Khrushchev: “What if we throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants.”
The hedgehog he had in mind was in the form of nuclear missiles. “If we installed the missiles secretly, and then the United States discovered the missiles after they were poised and ready to strike, the Americans would think twice before trying to liquidate our installations by military means,” he explained. “If a quarter or even a tenth of our missiles survived – even if only one or two big ones were left – we could still hit New York, and there wouldn’t be much of New York left.” But he did not seriously intend to fire the missiles. “The main thing was that the installation of our missiles in Cuba would, I thought, restrain the United States from precipitous military action against Castro’s government.”
That threat did exist. On 7 May, Bobby Kennedy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover met with officers of the CIA, to discuss a wiretapping case. During the briefing, it was revealed by the CIA officers that the Mafia had been paid by the United States government to assassinate Fidel Castro.
– pg. 265, ibid.
19-20 May 1962
On the night of 19 May, Marilyn Monroe rushed late on the stage at Madison Square Garden, wrapped in white fur. She dropped the coat to reveal her monumental figure dripping with sparkling rhinestones. As the audience roared approval, she sang a breathy “Happy Birthday” to the guest of honor, President John F. Kennedy. Afterward, he took the podium and remarked, “I can retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.” The president and the movie star later disappeared together into a private house party on the Upper East Side. Bearing in mind the time difference between New York and Moscow, and the reported lateness of the birthday celebrations, the president may well still have been admiring Monroe’s sweet, wholesome charms when, on the morning of 20 May 1962, Khrushchev told the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko that he had thought of placing missiles in Cuba.
A week later, the Presidium met at Nikita Khrushchev’s dacha and, over tea and pastries, informed a delegation that it was being sent to Cuba to tell Fidel Castro that he would be receiving nuclear weapons.
“The only way to save Cuba is to put missiles there,” said Khrushchev. Kennedy, he added, was too sensible to start a nuclear war, so the point was solely to deter any American invasion.
– pg. 267, ibid.
16 October 1962
At four o’clock on the afternoon of October 16, 1962, six days before President Kennedy declared the embargo, the United States Ambassador, John O. Bell, and Colonel Norman W. Geron, Chief of the United States Mission to Guatemala, came to my office, and conferred with Foreign Minister Jesus Unda Murillo and myself.
I informed my visitors that I had sufficient evidence to be convinced that there were nuclear weapons in Cuba, placed there by Russia.
I then offered the United States the use of locations on Guatemalan soil for the installation of missile sites and military bases. My gesture in offering these bases to the United States was not only to permit that country to defend itself against a possible aggression, but also to defend Central America and Guatemala from the same threat.
– pg. 222, MY WAR WITH COMMUNISM, Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1963
Ultimately, President Ydigoras became convinced that his ace in the hole would be the results of his meeting with President John F. Kennedy. According to his son, Ydigoras Laparra, his father thought that he had obtained an “understanding” with the White House that, in exchange for U.S. support for the annexation of Belize, Guatemala would grant American enterprises long-term concessions for the exploitation of minerals, petroleum, lumber, and fishing resources in that country. Ydigoras obviously believed that if he could come back with U.S. support for the annexation of Belize it would be a great nationalistic triumph that would neutralize the Army and most of his detractors.
At the private meeting that each president had with Kennedy, Ydigoras presented the American president with a copy of the report on the matter which previously had been carried by Carlos Alejos to Washington, and asked if he had seen it. Kennedy allegedly said that he had been shown the report by his brother, Robert. “Are these concepts acceptable?” Ydigoras asked Kennedy. The American president reportedly answered, “Yes.”
– pg. 285, MISUNDERSTOOD CAUDILLO: MIGUEL YDIGORAS FUENTES AND THE FAILURE OF DEMOCRACY IN GUATEMALA, Roland H. Ebel, University Press of America, Inc. 1998