9 Outlandish Covert Operations That The U.S. Government Actually Executed, From LSD Mind Control To Spy Cats

Published September 30, 2022

Operation Northwoods: The Government Operation Meant To Start A War With Cuba

Fidel Castro Government Operations

New York Times Co./Getty ImagesCuban leader Fidel Castro speaking in New York City in 1960.

In 1962, top U.S. military brass formed a plan to neutralize Fidel Castro, the revolutionary communist leader who had risen to power in Cuba three years earlier. They came up with Operation Northwoods, a series of false flag attacks that they hoped would incite a war between Cuba and the U.S.

Following the failed CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, U.S. Air Force General Edward Lansdale, the chief of operations for the anti-Castro Cuba Project, or Operation Mongoose, appealed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He asked them for a “brief but precise description of pretexts which would provide justification for US military intervention in Cuba.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by U.S. Army General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, then came up with a covert operation that involved a series of false flag attacks that they code-named Operation Northwoods.

Operation Northwoods

Public DomainOperation Northwoods proposed a number of false flag attacks that would provide “justification for for US military intervention in Cuba.”

Operation Northwoods offered several strategies. One suggested organizing “well-coordinated incidents… in and around Guantanamo” to make it seem like the U.S. base on the island was under attack. Rumors, “friendly” Cubans, and fake funerals could be used to make the attack seem legitimate.

Other false flag attacks included a “Remember the Maine incident,” referring to the unexplained explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, which gave the U.S. justification to go to war with Spain that same year. Sixty-four years later, the military proposed using “casualty lists” to trigger “national indignation.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff additionally suggested developing a “Communist Cuban terror campaign,” in Washington, D.C., or Florida that would target American civilians. They also proposed sinking a boat of Cuban refugees (“real or simulated,” the proposal coldly noted), attacking Cuban refugees, setting off explosives, and planting evidence suggesting Cuba wanted to attack South America.

They even suggested faking an “incident which will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner.”

But although its designers presented Operation Northwoods to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on March 13, 1962, President John F. Kennedy told Lemnitzer a few days later that he had no desire to use force against Cuba. And ultimately, Operation Northwoods never became anything more than a memo.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a double degree in American History and French.