In March 1962, the Cold War was ratcheting up to its most heated moment, with the world on the brink of a nuclear confrontation. A major flash point was the island nation just 90 miles off the Florida coast, having fallen into communist hands after a bloody revolution.
The U.S. had tried to free Cuba from Fidel Castro's rule in April 1961, just three months after John F. Kennedy succeeded Dwight D. Eisenhower as president. The CIA-backed plan ended in miserable failure and the military brass was itching to have another go. This time, America would stop at nothing - not even killing its own citizens and soldiers - to provoke a war with Castro's regime.
Operation Northwoods was conceived by the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and presented to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara by JCS Chairman Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer on March 13, 1962. The plan called for various plots against American civilian and military targets, on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and U.S. mainland - by U.S. government operatives.
That's right. Using Americans to kill and maim other Americans and blame it on Cuba. Now, the idea wasn't terribly original when it comes to warfare. The Second World War was sparked by not one but two such "false flag" incidents - the Japanese at the Marco Polo Bridge in China in 1937 and Nazi Germany in Gleiwitz near the Polish border in 1939.
It was an audacious - and diabolical - plan. Operation Northwoods was nothing if not ambitious. It called for assassinations of Cuban emigres, blowing up a U.S. ship, staging terrorist acts in major U.S. cities, even going so far as blaming a potential space flight explosion - with John Glenn aboard - on Cuba.
The plan's mission would be "to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere." And the result would give the U.S. a pretext to commence large-scale military operations against the island nation.
Kennedy was apparently outraged by the proposal, as he promptly sacked Lemnitzer from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lemnitzer's removal was perceived by the Pentagon hardliners as further proof that Kennedy was soft on communism, and their friction reached a crescendo during the Cuban Missile Crisis seven months later.
Though Kennedy had no stomach for Operation Northwoods and war with Cuba, a year later he did approve a CIA-backed coup to oust South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was executed, along with his brother, by the plotters. That removal of an allied leader dragged America into a full-scale war in Indochina, but JFK did not live to see it as he was also assassinated three weeks after Diem's demise.
Operation Northwoods remained buried in the archives until 2001, when its details emerged with the publication of James Bamford's "Body of Secrets." A few months later America would be hit by a genuine terrorist attack that claimed 3,000 lives, yet Northwoods would be cited by 9/11 truthers as evidence why it could've been an inside job.