In the 1960’s, the United States was forced to deal with a communist regime 90 miles away from its shores. Due to the threat of mutually assured destruction with a direct war with the Soviet Union, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had to tread carefully concerning Fidel Castro and Cuba. Neither administration wanted war so close to its territory, but on the other hand, nobody wanted a communist regime in the Western Hemisphere. The best option was to attempt to “quietly” dispose of Castro and his allies through covert operations by the CIA and the Defense Department.
After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961, President Kennedy was determined to ouster Fidel Castro and install a government in Cuba that was more in line with US philosophy. In summer and early fall of 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and White House Advisor Richard Goodwin suggested US government begin sustained intelligence and covert operations against the communist regime in Cuba. US Air Force Brigadier General Edward Lansdale was tapped to head the project known as Operation Mongoose. Representatives from the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA were assigned larger roles in implementing the operation’s activities, while representatives from the US Information Agency and the Department of Justice were also called on occasionally to assist with the operation. BG Lansdale received briefings and updates from these agencies and reported directly to a group of high-ranking government officials, known as Special Group-Augmented (SG-A).
Operation Mongoose consisted of a program of covert action, including sabotage, psychological warfare, intelligence collection, and the creation of an internal revolution against the communist government. BGen Lansdale and fellow members of the SG-A identified internal support for an anti-Castro movement to be the most important aspect of the operation. BGen Lansdale hoped to organize an effort within the operation, led by the CIA, to covertly build support for a popular movement within Cuba. This was a major challenge. It was difficult to identify anti-Castro forces within Cuba and there lacked a groundswell of popular support that Cuban insurgents could tap into. Lansdale surmised that there was an even smaller window to recruit anti-Castro operatives in July of 1962 than there was in April of 1961 (when the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred). Within the first few months, an internal review of Operation Mongoose cited the CIA’s limited capabilities to gather hard intelligence and conduct covert operations in Cuba. The CIA and Lansdale estimated that they required 30 Cuban operatives. In a declassified memo to members of the SG-A, Lansdale recommended that whatever course of action be taken in Phase II of Operation Mongoose, it be done quickly. BG Lansdale did not rule out the possibility of direct military intervention in Cuba to achieve the Operation’s goals. US Operatives were, in fact, training an amphibious force (made up mostly of Cuban exiles) off the North Carolina coast for a large-scale attack on Cuba. The projected culmination of Operation Mongoose was supposed to occur in October of 1962. However, US intelligence determined the Soviets were building nuclear missile sites in Cuba. The ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis effectively ended Operation Mongoose.
Castro Protégé Che Guevara
Che Guevara fought alongside Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution. After the revolution, Castro and Guevara had philosophical differences about the direction their country was going. Castro favored a Soviet-style economy (where everything was controlled by the state), while Guevara envisioned an economy similar to what we see in Communist China today. By the late 1960’s Che settled in Bolivia where he wanted to, “…start two, three or many Vietnams in Latin America” and ultimately bring the United States to its knees. President Johnson, who was under sharp criticism due to mounting casualties in Vietnam, was loath to seeing communist insurgencies pop up in our own hemisphere. The order was given to eliminate Guevara. After seeing the United States fail to stop Castro, the US government wanted to prevent any more communist regimes in Latin America.
In the spring of 1967, Che created chaos in Bolivia. Communist insurgents, led by Guevara, were striking at will against the Bolivian Army. In the spring of 1967, the Bolivian Army and the US signed a memorandum of understanding that provided assistance from the US in fighting communism. In March of 1967, Major Ralph “Pappy” Shelton was tasked to put together an ODA of men from the 8th SFG to train and assist members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion of Bolivia. MAJ Shelton brought along an acoustic guitar as part of his kit to a small farm in Bolivia that was used as a training center. He would play his guitar at night and soon, members of the local population would join him. Because of the rapport he and his men built, Bolivians would share intelligence with Shelton and his ODA.
It was not all fun though. Shelton had transformed the 2nd Ranger Battalion into a lethal fighting force. On or about October 8, 1967, Bolivian forces had located Che Guevara on a farm and engaged Che and his supporters. The Bolivian government had initially stated that Guevara was killed in the battle, but it was later revealed he was captured and later executed. In an update provided to President Johnson, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow said of the death of Che Guevara, “…shows the soundness of our ‘preventive medicine’ assistance to countries facing incipient insurgency–it was the Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion, trained by our Green Berets from June-September of this year, that cornered him and got him.”
Featured image courtesy of Dailymail UK.