Operation Mongoose: The Story of America’s Efforts to Overthrow Castro

And how they helped seal America’s fate in Vietnam

In the early 1960s, at the dawn of the Kennedy administration, Edward Lansdale had an enviable reputation as a can-do covert-action specialist. An advertising executive turned air force officer and CIA operative, he had in the early 1950s masterminded the defeat of the Huk Rebellion, a communist uprising in the Philippines, and helped to elect his friend, Defense Minister Ramon Magsaysay, as that country’s president. That earned Lansdale a ticket to Saigon in 1954, where, again on behalf of the CIA, he took under his wing another neophyte leader—Ngo Dinh Diem—and helped him to solidify power against heavy odds.

Lansdale’s growing fame led people to say (wrongly) that he was the model for the protagonist in The Quiet American and (rightly) that he was the inspiration for one of the few positive characters in The Ugly American. Some called him the “T.E. Lawrence of Asia” and the “American James Bond.” John F. Kennedy became an admirer, and turned to him for advice about Vietnam and counterinsurgency in general. As head of special operations for the Department of Defense, Lansdale appeared to be well on his way to becoming a dominant force on Vietnam policy within the U.S. government.

Yet by the beginning of 1963 Lansdale had been all but sidelined from Vietnam policy and was on his way to an early retirement from his powerful Pentagon post. By then the secret agent once seen as a Svengali who was able to cause the rise and fall of governments with a few notes from his famous harmonica was being derided by bureaucratic rivals as a “Madison Avenue … con man” and “lucky amateur.” That caricature would seep into journalistic and eventually historical accounts, coloring perceptions of Lansdale for decades to come.

What happened? How did Lansdale plummet so quickly and so far from the heights of power and prestige? His career—like many other promising elements of the Kennedy administration—foundered on the island of Cuba, with ramifications that would in time be felt on the other side of the world in Vietnam.

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Lansdale received a thankless assignment at the end of 1961: to overthrow Fidel Castro, the bearded young revolutionary who in 1959 had had seized power in Havana. The Kennedy administration initially had tried to topple Castro, who was seen as a communist threat in America’s “backyard,” by backing a CIA-organized invasion of exiles at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. That had turned into a fiasco. Now the Kennedys were hell-bent on getting rid of Castro any way they could, and they saw Lansdale as just the man for the job. His lack of experience with Cuba was seen as a recommendation: He was not tainted by the Bay of Pigs operation, which he had opposed.

Lansdale, who by now was special operations chief at the Pentagon and no longer on the CIA payroll, was assigned as chief of operations of a top secret, interagency task force known as the Caribbean Survey Group—soon to be designated, for cover purposes, Operation Mongoose. Lansdale had to rely on liaison officers from the State Department, the CIA, the U.S. Information Agency, the Defense Department, and other government agencies that were supposed to voluntarily cooperate with him. That ideal was not easy to achieve in practice, given the level of skepticism within the CIA and State Department toward the project in general and to Lansdale in particular—he had long feuded with bureaucratic rivals. “It was the most frustrating damn thing I’ve ever tackled,” Lansdale wrote two years later. “I was given full responsibility for a US effort, but had no say on disciplining or giving orders to US personnel working in this effort. Most of these were State and CIA folks who made it plain to me that they hated my guts. So about once a week I would formally request relief from this duty, and be told that this was unacceptable.”

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who took on Castro’s overthrow as his personal project, put intense pressure on Lansdale to achieve results. At meeting after meeting, the president’s younger brother stressed that there had to be “maximum effort” and that “there will be no acceptable alibi” for failure. “Let’s get the hell on with it,” he would say. “The president wants some action, right now.” His performance at Mongoose meetings reminded the CIA’s deputy director, Marshall Carter, of “the gnawing of an enraged rat terrier.”

After having sifted through various ideas to topple Castro, Lansdale on February 20, 1962, produced a detailed, if delusional, plan. The operation was supposed to start in March and culminate in October with what Lansdale described as the “touchdown play”: Castro’s overthrow. How on earth could Lansdale expect the weak and divided Cuban opposition, decimated at the Bay of Pigs, to prevail within less than a year? He prided himself on being unafraid to tell unpleasant truths “point blank” to his superiors, and he often had in Vietnam, but when it came to Cuba he succumbed to the temptation to tell his superiors what they wanted to hear in the hope that they would allow him to return to Saigon to once again chart American policy in South Vietnam. In his own defense, the best that Lansdale could say was: “I was hopeful and I put it down as a date without believing myself that it was a firm date—it was a prospective date of the early fall of 1962.”

The only realistic way that Castro could have been toppled that fast was through an American military intervention. That is why Lansdale demanded an “early policy decision” on the fundamental question: “If conditions and assets permitting a revolt are achieved in Cuba, and if U.S. help is required to sustain this condition, will the U.S. respond promptly with military force to aid the Cuban revolt?” The answer from the White House was that President Kennedy was no more willing in early 1962 than he had been a year earlier, during the Bay of Pigs, to wage open war against Castro. Lansdale and his colleagues in Operation Mongoose were supposed to find some magical way to get rid of Castro quickly without ensnaring U.S. troops in combat. It was an impossible assignment, and led them to come up with ludicrous shortcuts.

Years later, Lansdale would be mocked for one far-fetched scheme in particular. Testifying to the Senate’s Church Committee in 1975, the CIA veteran Thomas Parrott related to incredulous committee members a plan Lansdale had developed for a U.S. submarine to surface near the Cuban coast and fire star shells into the sky in order to convince Cubans “that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent and that Christ was against Castro.” Parrott said that “by this time Lansdale was something of a joke in many quarters and somebody dubbed this Elimination by Illumination,” a catchy nickname that stuck to Lansdale thereafter like a tropical rash. In response, Lansdale indignantly wrote to Senator Church, “I assure you that this is absolutely untrue. I never had such a plan nor proposed such a plan.”

A document declassified long after Lansdale’s death and not previously cited by any other author makes clear that, notwithstanding Lansdale’s protestations, this story was mostly true. On October 15, 1962, Lansdale wrote a memorandum on “Illumination by Submarine.” It proposed firing “star shells from a submarine to illuminate the Havana area” after dark on November 2, All Souls’ Day, in order “to gain extra impact from Cuban superstitions.” The memo did not mention the Second Coming, but it did suggest that the star shells could be coupled with a CIA-generated “rumor inside Cuba, about portents signifying the downfall of the regime and the growing strength of the resistance.”

The “Elimination by Illumination” scheme did lasting damage to Lansdale’s reputation, but he was hardly the only or even the main culprit behind such far-fetched plots. Long before Lansdale was assigned to work on Cuba, CIA officers in 1960 had come up with brainstorms such as slipping Castro a box of cigars contaminated “with some sort of chemical” that would lead him to “make a public spectacle of himself” or feeding him a depilatory drug to make his beard—supposedly a source of his power—fall out. It was almost as if the Marx Brothers had been put in charge of America’s premier intelligence agency. Once Mongoose got under way, the flow of far-fetched ideas turned into a deluge.

Brigadier General William H. Craig, the Defense Department representative to Mongoose, submitted proposals such as Operation Free Ride (“Create unrest and dissension among the Cuban people … by airdropping valid Pan American or KLM one-way airline tickets good for passage to Mexico City, Caracas, etc”) and Operation Good Times: “To disillusion the Cuban population with Castro image by distribution of fake photographic material … such as an obese Castro with two beauties in any situation desired, ostensibly within a room in the Castro residence, lavishly furnished, and a table brimming over with the most delectable Cuban food with an underlying caption (appropriately Cuban) such as ‘My ration is different.’” An Air Force lieutenant colonel came up with an even more outlandish idea in response to a shortage of toilet paper and sanitary napkins in Cuba. He suggested that the CIA air-drop toilet paper into Cuba with pictures on alternate sheets of Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev to “drive Castro mad.”

A more sinister plot, known as Operation Northwoods, was submitted by General Lyman Lemnitzer on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It laid out a host of “pretexts which would provide justification for US military intervention in Cuba,” such as having friendly Cubans in Cuban army uniforms attack the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; sabotaging an empty U.S. ship in the harbor and blaming Cuba in a “‘Remember the Maine’ incident” (the United States had declared war on Spain in 1898 after the USS Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana harbor); or carrying out “terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington” that could be blamed on Castro. The U.S. armed forces could respond to such provocations, the chiefs gleefully recommended, by commencing “large scale United States military operations.”

It is hard to imagine a more outlandish or distasteful document, redolent of the ruse that Hitler used on August 31, 1939, to start World War II: Wehrmacht soldiers in Polish uniforms attacked a German radio station on the border with Poland. That the Joint Chiefs would seriously offer these suggestions shows the fevered atmosphere of the day. “We were hysterical about Castro at the time of the Bay of Pigs and thereafter,” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was later to say.

None of these plans were adopted, but the CIA did try to kill Castro. This part of the operation was run by William King Harvey, the pistol-packing, martini-swilling CIA representative to Mongoose. He had been assigned by the White House to run a program known as ZRRIFLE that tried to use mobsters to bump off the Cuban dictator. But Harvey did not tell Lansdale what he was up to. Everything was on a strictly “need to know” basis, and Harvey did not think that Lansdale, as an outsider no longer on the CIA payroll, needed to know. In any case, the CIA plots failed to eliminate the Cuban dictator.

The CIA had no more success, under Lansdale’s prodding, in mobilizing an internal insurgency against Castro despite a massive expenditure of resources. The CIA station in Miami, operating under the cover name Zenith Technical Enterprises, became its largest in the entire world, with some 15,000 Cuban exiles connected to it and so many boats ferrying agents and supplies to Cuba that it controlled the third-largest navy in the Caribbean. The CIA’s agents carried out a few sabotage operations, but, as future CIA Director Richard Helms was to write, “the notion that an underground resistance organization might be created on the island remained a remote, romantic myth.”

As 1962 progressed and Mongoose failed to produce results, tempers frayed all around. The relationship between Bill Harvey and Bobby Kennedy, a CIA officer recalled, was “bad from the beginning, and then it deteriorated steadily.” At Langley, a story was making the rounds that when Bobby Kennedy demanded to know why a team of exiles had not yet been infiltrated into Cuba, Harvey replied they had to be trained first. “I’ll take them out to Hickory Hill and train them myself,” Kennedy snorted, referring to his mansion in northern Virginia. “What will you teach them, sir?” Harvey shot back. “Baby-sitting?”

Confidence was also faltering in Lansdale. In a contemporaneous memorandum, a CIA officer wrote, “Practically everyone at the operating level agrees that Lansdale has lost his value.” It was hardly Lansdale and Harvey’s fault that they had not been able to achieve impossible results, but they were set to become the fall guys.

Once the Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 16, 1962, following the discovery of a Soviet missile base in Cuba, President Kennedy prudently suspended Operation Mongoose. The only positive outcome of the operation was that it generated the intelligence which tipped off Washington that the Russians were placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Leaks about Mongoose had also, however, encouraged Nikita Khrushchev to send missiles in the first place to safeguard the Castro regime from Yanqui aggression. After the crisis ended, Mongoose was formally disbanded early in 1963. Efforts to overthrow Castro resumed shortly thereafter, but Lansdale was no longer in charge.

Having failed to achieve the Kennedys’ most cherished objective, Lansdale lost their favor, and was left naked before his bureaucratic enemies. His military career ended less than a year after Mongoose did. “I think the thing that hurt me the most in the long run was the task that Kennedy gave me on Cuba,” he reflected decades later. “I’m sorry I ever got mixed up in those Cuban things.”

Lansdale’s Cuban failure was to prove historically significant not just for the future of that island nation but also for Indochina, because it ensured that he was cut out of American policymaking toward Vietnam just as relations between the Kennedy administration and the Diem government were reaching their breaking point over Diem’s handling of an uprising by militant Buddhists. The Kennedys were convinced that Diem’s heavy-handed repression was costing his government critical support in the struggle against communism—without considering whether the generals scheming to succeed him would prove any more popular. Throughout 1963, Lansdale presciently warned that giving the go-ahead to a military coup against Ngo Dinh Diem would be a catastrophic mistake. While Diem was flawed, Lansdale believed he was the best available choice, because he was not corrupt and he had nationalist credentials, having opposed both the communists and the French colonialists. By contrast, the leaders of the military plot against Diem were not only corrupt and lacking in democratic legitimacy but also tainted by their earlier service in the French army. Lansdale warned against Americans “trying to play God, by trying to pick a leader for Vietnam,” when a leader, no matter how imperfect, was already in place.

Lansdale’s warnings would be amply vindicated after the anti-Diem coup, which began on November 1, 1963, the very day Lansdale was forcibly retired from the Pentagon as a two-star general. One military dictator would follow another in South Vietnam, destabilizing that country and encouraging North Vietnam to step up its slow-motion invasion. President Lyndon Johnson concluded in 1965 that he had no choice but to commit American troops to save South Vietnam. Lansdale warned against a large-scale American troop deployment, just as he had warned against the anti-Diem coup, but his advice was again ignored.

South Vietnam was falling into the abyss, and it was going to drag America, tethered to it by an umbilical cord of commitments, down with it. Lansdale was left to watch this slow-motion tragedy unfold as a powerless spectator—a prophet without honor—his career having been ruined, and his reputation tarnished, by his inglorious association with Operation Mongoose.