Meeting on Cuba

Image: President Gerald Ford confers with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft in the Oval Office. 1974. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford LIbrary.
Why is the United States considering military actions against Cuba? Why are these officials concerned about what is happening in Africa? What do they believe should be done and why?
Compare the Meeting on Cuba to Operation MONGOOSE: In what ways are the proposed actions against Cuba similar? How do they differ? At the end of the Meeting on Cuba, Henry Kissinger expresses a concern that the United States should not appear weak: what other documents that you have read show the same concern?

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Fidel Castro, the communist Cuban dictator, remained a thorn in the side of the United States long after the resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (See Kennedy, Operation MONGOOSE, Central Intelligence Agency, Kennedy). In late 1975, Castro deployed 36,000 Cuban troops to the war-torn African nation of Angola to support its newly installed communist government. For its part, the United States supported anti-communist factions fighting to take power. Angola’s civil war, sparked by the abrupt withdrawal of Portugal (which had long held Angola as a colony), was thus viewed by the democratic and communist sides as an important Cold War battleground.

In the document below, numerous high-ranking security officials in the Ford administration discuss what to do in response to Cuba’s action. The discussion reveals recurring Cold War problems and policies: the spread of communism globally (in this case, in Africa); the continuing goal of the United States to remove communism from Cuba; the strong preference for military action; and the need of the United States to appear strong and effective in the eyes of the world. As Kissinger commented at the end of the meeting, “[if] It looks like we can’t do anything about a country of 8 million people [Angola], then in three or four years we are going to have a real crisis.”

—David Krugler

Source: National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book no. 487 (October 1, 2014). Available at

Time and Place: 10:48 a.m. – 11:10 a.m., White House Situation Room

Subject: Cuba


Chairman: Henry A. Kissinger

[State Department]: Robert Ingersoll

[Defense Department]: Donald Rumsfeld
William Clements

[Joint Chiefs of Staff]: Gen. George S. Brown

[Central Intelligence Agency]: Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters

[National Security Council]: Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft . . .1

Secretary Kissinger: Today we are going to discuss two subjects – Cuba and Lebanon. Cuba will be first. We want to get planning started in the political, economic and military fields so that we can see what we can do if we want to move against Cuba. We should get a range of options. Later there will be an NSC Meeting to discuss our objectives. Now we have to look at our capabilities so that the President [Gerald Ford] can make a political decision of what to do, and how to plan it. This should be done in such a way as to minimize the danger of leaks. So far in State there has been no planning.

Gen. Brown: In doing this it might be helpful to narrow the alternatives and look at one or two alternative courses.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Are you talking in terms of military planning?

Secretary Kissinger: There are a number of things that we can do which should be looked at. In the military field there is an invasion or blockade.

Secretary Rumsfeld: The other thing that should be considered is the effect this would have on our relations with the Soviet Union.

Secretary Kissinger: Right and that is the reason for our current threatening noises.

Gen. Walters: [response blacked out]

Gen. Brown: I don’t understand. I thought there already was a working group paper that had looked at a number of options.

Secretary Kissinger: What I am talking about is a planning group with a very restricted number of people. The members of the group would be at a reasonably high level so that we can avoid horrible platitudes in the paper. This is serious business. A blockade could lead us into a confrontation with the USSR.

Secretary Rumsfeld: We should lay out our political goals regarding Cuba and Africa and then focus in on them. There are an infinite number of things we can list of a political, military [words blacked out] nature which would affect Cuba’s position in Africa. How you do these things depends on your goals in Africa.

Secretary Kissinger: That is not necessarily so. The President may not want to or be able to carry out a plan just because he has one.

Mr. Clements: I am appalled at the way Cuban military forces are being used overseas. Are we just going to sit here and do nothing.

Secretary Kissinger: That is not for this group to decide. Those questions will be discussed at a full meeting of the NSC. Rhodesia is a lousy case but it is not the only problem of its kind in southern Africa. If the Cubans destroy Rhodesia then Namibia is next and then there is South Africa.2 It might take only five years and the South Africans just won’t yield. They are stubborn like the Israelis. The problem is that no matter how we build our policy in southern Africa anything that happens will appear to have resulted from Cuban pressure. We could make it a proposition that it is unacceptable to us to have the Cubans as the shock troops of the revolution. . . . This is a strategic problem regardless of our African policy. During my South American trip the President of Colombia arranged a small private dinner meeting. There were just four of us. We talked about Cuban intervention in Africa and he said he was frightened about the possibility of a race war. This could cause trouble in the Caribbean with the Cubans appealing to disaffected minorities and could then spillover into South America and even into our own country.

Secretary Rumsfeld: How do you prevent Cuba from doing that?

Secretary Kissinger: You deter them from even trying it. We must get it into the heads of the leaders of African countries that they can’t have it both ways. They can’t have both the Cubans in Africa and our support. It was the same situation we had with Egypt a few years ago. I told them they could not have both the Soviet presence and our support and now the Soviets have left. We have to know what we want to do. We should consider two or three likely courses of action and go into them in detail and see what problems would result. We don’t necessarily have to consider an invasion but we should look at various forms of blockade.

Gen. Scowcroft: This would be a two step process. There are a variety of things like an invasion which could be ruled out.

(11:01 a.m. Secretary Rumsfeld left the meeting for another appointment.)

Secretary Kissinger: I would hate to have to implement operations against Cuba as a reaction to some event. It should be well planned. George (Brown), you should pick two or three types of operations. If we decide to use military power it must succeed. There should be no half way measures – we would get no award for using military power in moderation. If we decide on a blockade it must be ruthless and rapid and efficient.

Gen. Brown: I agree. There is of course the Congressional angle. There is no sense in taking a course of action unless it can be completed in less than 60 days.3 There is no sense in starting an operation unless it can achieve its objectives quickly.

Secretary Kissinger: The President must know what would be involved in a blockade and what impact it would have on Cuba and the USSR.

Gen. Scowcroft: And Congress.

Secretary Kissinger: One thing that might be considered is a selective blockade, a blockade on outgoing stuff from Cuba and not on incoming items, except for purely economic things.

Gen. Brown: That was the sort of thing we did during the Cuban missile crisis. It was a quarantine involving only Soviet ships. One of the problems of just having a blockade on outgoing things is that most of the military equipment they are using in Africa comes directly from the Soviet Union.

Secretary Kissinger: That is the sort of thing we have to study. This is not the place to make a decision. If there is a perception overseas that we are so weakened by our internal debate so that it looks like we can’t do anything about a country of 8 million people, then in three or four years we are going to have a real crisis. It is important to get public support. . . .

  1. 1. Henry Kissinger was the Secretary of State and Robert Ingersoll was Deputy Secretary of State. William Clements was the Deputy Secretary of Defense; General George S. Brown was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Lt. General Vernon Walters was the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; and Lt. General Brent Scowcroft was the head of the National Security Council.
  2. 2. Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) and Namibia are nations in southern Africa.
  3. 3. Brown refers to the War Powers Act (1973) by which Congress, in response to the war in Vietnam, restricted the president’s ability to commit American forces overseas without the consent of Congress. According to the act, the president must notify Congress within 48 hours of the commitment of U.S. forces abroad, and those forces cannot remain for more than 60 days unless Congress authorizes them to stay longer.
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