Pentagon Estimated 18,500 U.S. Casualties in Cuba Invasion 1962

… but If Nukes Launched, “Heavy Losses” Expected:

  • Gen. Taylor Proposed Major Retaliation if Cubans “Foolhardy” Enough to Try to Repel U.S. Invasion with Nuclear Weapons
  • But Taylor Warned There Would Be “No Experience Factor Upon Which to Base an Estimate of Casualties”
  • Pentagon Accountants Estimated Missile Crisis Cost $165 Million Dollars, Over $1.4 Billion in Current Dollars

Published on The National Security Archives, Electronic Briefing Book No. 397, by William Burr, October 16, 2012.

The Pentagon during the Cuban Missile Crisis – Part I. New Documents:  

Fifty years after President Kennedy considered invading Cuba to take out Soviet missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis, newly declassified Pentagon documents published today by the National Security Archive (www.nsarchive.org) describe the potentially catastrophic risks of the invasion including 18,500 American casualties in the first 10 days, even without any nuclear explosions.

U.S. intelligence had detected at least one nuclear-capable short-range nuclear weapon launcher (the Luna/Frog) with the Soviet troops in Cuba, so Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Maxwell Taylor told President Kennedy – in a crucial November 2, 1962 memorandum published here for the first time – that U.S. invasion plans were “adequate and feasible” as long as no battlefield nuclear weapons came into play. If the Cubans were “foolhardy” enough to use nuclear weapons against the invasion, U.S. forces would “respond at once in overwhelming nuclear force against military targets.” Taylor cautioned, “If atomic weapons were used, there is no experience factor upon which to base an estimate of casualties. Certainly we might expect to lose very heavily at the outset if caught by surprise, but our retaliation would be rapid and devastating and thus would bring to a sudden close the period of heavy losses.”

Taylor’s memo came in a tense period when U.S. generals pressed for an invasion, based on their skepticism about the October 28, 1962 announcement by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that he would withdraw the ballistic missiles in Cuba. Decades later, Soviet evidence would reveal nearly 100 tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba that the U.S. never identified, including cruise missiles 15 miles from the U.S. base at Guantanamo.

Luckily, U.S. and Soviets capabilities were never put to the horrible test that Taylor described. Many of the “military targets” that Taylor had in mind were located in western Cuba, e.g., IL-28s were at San Julian, so apart from the death and destruction that nuclear detonations would have caused to local populations, prevailing winds (to the northeast) could have brought radioactive fall-out to Havana and further to the Florida coast.

The Taylor memorandum is one item in a compilation of documents focusing on the role of the Pentagon during the missile crisis and drawing upon material recently released by the National Archives, some of it only months ago. A related compilation, “The Pentagon Day-by-Day during the Missile Crisis,” including chronologies, personal notes, office calendars and diaries, will be part II of National Security Archive’s special collection of Defense Department material. Today’s publication shows top level policymakers, including President Kennedy, asking Defense Department officials for information and the latter preparing proposals, plans, and reports to support policymakers in the National Security Council’s Executive Committee (ExCom), as they deliberated over how to induce Moscow to withdraw nuclear missiles and bombers from Cuba. The compilation also includes Joint Staff and Air Force contingency plans as well as material prepared by other agencies which surfaced in Pentagon files.

Another item in today’s publication provides cost estimates of the missile crisis prepared in response to request made by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Several months after he asked Pentagon Comptroller, Charles Hitch, for cost figures, Hitch provided a preliminary answer: the missile crisis cost at least 165 million dollars [FY 1963 dollars], with some spending that was still unaccounted. In current FY2013 dollars, adjusting for changes in price levels since 1962, the cost of the missile crisis for the Defense Department was in the range of $1.43 billion.

The Taylor memorandum, the Hitch report and other documents in today’s publication are from formerly classified collections of the records of the U.S. Air Force, records of the Secretary of Defense, and the files of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Maxwell Taylor. Documents from these collections shed light on the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Staff planners, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other government agencies in the preparation of contingency plans, strategic readiness measures, and intelligence assessments. Among the disclosures:

  • “Deceptive” activities taken by the U.S. military before the crisis to signal to Cuban and Soviet intelligence U.S. “intent either deceptive or real” to take military action. [See Document 40B]
  • Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay’s proposal to General Taylor for actions by the Strategic Air Command, including airborne alert and “maximum readiness posture”, which SAC translated into Defcon 2, the readiness level just before nuclear war [See Document 6].
  • Proposals to escalate the blockade against Cuba, in the event that negotiations with Moscow over the missile deployments did not work, with measures including expanding the contraband list, changing the location of ship intercepts to a few miles off Cuba, and changing blockade procedures (e.g., forbidding “submerged operations”) [See Document 10].
  • JCS Chairman Taylor’s memo to President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara on 27 October 1962, hours before a diplomatic settlement was reached, proposing air strikes and an invasion of Cuba [See Document 17].
  • “Operation Raincoat”-the code name for air strikes against Soviet missile sites if diplomacy failed [See Document 18].
  • “Operation Hot Plate”– the U.S. Air Force contingency plan to attack the Soviet IL-28 bombers deployed in Cuba in the event that diplomacy failed [See Document 29].
  • An Air Force proposal to put Cuban military “installations” on the target list as an option for nuclear attack in the Single Integrated Operational Plan [See Document 36].
  • A Defense Intelligence Agency estimate suggesting that Soviet forces in Cuba had a “possible nuclear capability.” [See Document 34]
  • A series of proposals by the Joint Chiefs and senior Pentagon officials to use the IL-28 crisis as leverage to induce a withdrawal of Soviet forces from Cuba.

Some of the items in this collection convey the hard-line thinking of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Staff and the corresponding military options that they preferred. A prime example is the Joint Chiefs proposal on 27 October 1962 for presidential approval of plans for air strike against the Soviet missile sites and an invasion of Cuba. Those plans were an option for the White House if diplomacy failed to induce the Soviet leadership to dismantle the missile bases, but the members of NSC Executive Committee [ExCom] were highly familiar with the JCS thinking to the point that they could joke about the latest iteration. Thus, according to the taped record of the 27 October ExCom meeting, after Taylor made a pitch for the JCS recommendation, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy teasingly said, “Well, I’m surprised!” President Kennedy was not interested in engaging with Taylor on the invasion plans, and probably found the brief for an invasion irrelevant when he was trying to think through a diplomatic settlement involving a non-invasion pledge and a trade of the Jupiter missiles. [1] … //

… (full text, Documents 1 to 42 A-B, Notes 1 to 21).

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