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An Inconvenient Paper Trail

January, 2008
By John Huckans

One of the more interesting areas of ephemera is tied to both published and unpublished government documents. A lot of it, published in book form, finds its way into something called the “Congressional edition,” or more commonly, the “serial set.” A few of the more iconic (non-ephemeral) government documents from the past include Herndon and Gibbon’s Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon (published as a Senate Executive Document), various separate publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology, the Annual Reports and General Appendices of the Smithsonian Institution, the Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route… (also known as the Pacific Railroad Survey), and other monuments of 19th century Americana.

Over the past few decades, during fits of house cleaning, several regional depository libraries have disposed of their bound copy serial sets, opting instead for film, fiche, or electronic versions. When sold to the trade and disbound into original pamphlet format, many of the more interesting Reports or Documents (both Senate and House) were effectively exposed to the public for the first time.

Published documents form the basis for much of our official history. The unpublished material, especially declassified documents collected by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (in my opinion a national treasure), contain information that some people would prefer we not know about.

“Operation Northwoods” was the code name given to a proposed secret project to cook up fake intelligence to justify pre-emptive military intervention in Cuba in the early 1960s. Although a few books have discussed the operation, nothing beats hoisting people on their own petards by publishing the raw, unvarnished documents—you just can’t make this stuff up. Actually, some people did and others are still doing it.

In any event, on 13 March 1962 L[yman] L[ouis]. Lemnitzer, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, submitted a top secret memorandum to the Secretary of Defense in which a rather detailed proposal was set forth.

The cover letter of the 15 page “Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense” contains the subject line: “Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba (TS)” and is followed by several pages of introductory government-speak including paragraph 1 of “The Problem” – “As requested by Chief of Operations, Cuba Project, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are to indicate brief but precise description of pretexts (italics added) which they consider would provide justification for US military intervention in Cuba.” In the “Annex to Appendix to Enclosure A” the document begins to take on a surreal aspect, quoted below verbatim and in part:

2. A series of well coordinated incidents will be planned to take place in and around Guantanamo to give genuine appearance of being done by hostile Cuban forces.

  1. Incidents to establish a credible attack…

    1. Start rumors (many). Use clandestine radio.

    2. Land friendly Cubans in uniform “over-the-fence” to stage attack on base.

    3. Capture Cuban (friendly) saboteurs inside the base.

    4. Start riots near the base main gate (friendly Cubans).

    5. Blow up ammunition inside the base; start fires.

    6. Burn aircraft on airbase (sabotage)

    7. Lob mortar shells from outside of base into base…

    8. Capture assault teams approaching from the sea…

    9. Capture militia group which storms the base

    10. Sabotage ship in harbor; large fires—napthalene.

    11. Sink ship in harbor entrance. Conduct funerals for mock-victims.

  2. United States would respond by executing offensive operations to secure water and power supplies, destroying artillery and mortar emplacements which threaten the base.

  3. Commence large scale United States military operations.

3. A “Remember the Maine” incident could be arranged in several forms:

  1. We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.

  2. We could blow up a drone (unmanned) vessel anywhere in the Cuban waters. We could arrange to cause such incident in the vicinity of Havana or Santiago as a spectacular result of Cuban attack from the air or sea, or both… The US could follow up with an air/sea rescue operation covered by US fighters to “evacuate” remaining members of the non-existent crew. Casualty lists in US newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation...

Items four (4) through seven (7) suggest other possible land and/or air provocations (including use of an F-86 painted to look like a MIG to fake a Cuban air attack), however items eight (8) and nine (9) are the most ingenious and fascinating of all.

8. It is possible to create an incident which will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner enroute from the United States to Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama or Venezuela. The destination would be chosen only to cause the flight plan route to cross Cuba…

  1. An aircraft at Eglin AFB would be painted and numbered as an exact duplicate for a civil registered aircraft belonging to a CIA proprietary organization in the Miami area. At a designated time the duplicate would be substituted for the actual civil aircraft and would be loaded with the selected passengers, all boarded under carefully prepared aliases. The actual registered aircraft would be converted to a drone.

  2. Take off times of the drone aircraft and the actual aircraft will be scheduled to allow a rendezvous south of Florida. From the rendezvous point the passenger-carrying aircraft will descend to minimum altitude and go directly into an auxiliary field at Eglin AFB where arrangements will have been made to evacuate the passengers and return the aircraft to its original status. The drone aircraft meanwhile will continue to fly the filed flight plan. When over Cuba the drone will being (sic) transmitting on the international distress frequency a “MAY DAY” message stating he is under attack by Cuban MIG aircraft. The transmission will be interrupted by destruction of the aircraft which will be triggered by radio signal. This will allow ICAO radio stations in the Western Hemisphere to tell the US what has happened to the aircraft instead of the US trying to “sell” the incident.

9. It is possible to create an incident which will make it appear that Communist Cuban MIGs have destroyed a USAF aircraft over international waters in an unprovoked attack.

  1. Approximately 4 or 5 F-101 aircraft will be dispatched in trail over Homestead AFB, Florida, to the vicinity of Cuba…

  2. On one such flight, a pre-briefed pilot would fly tail-end Charley at considerable interval between aircraft. While near the Cuban Island this pilot would broadcast that he had been jumped by MIGs and was going down. No other calls would be made. The pilot would then fly directly west at extremely low altitude and land at a secure base, an Eglin auxiliary. The aircraft would be met by the proper people, quickly stored and given a new tail number. The pilot who had performed the mission under an alias, would resume his proper identity and return to his normal place of business. The pilot and aircraft would then have disappeared.

  3. At precisely the same time that the aircraft was presumably shot down a submarine or small surface craft would disburse F-101 parts, parachute, etc., at approximately 15 to 20 miles off the Cuban coast and depart. The pilots returning to Homestead would have a true story as far as they knew. Search ships and aircraft could be dispatched and parts of aircraft found…

For the complete text, go to the George Washington University website:

Fortunately people in the Kennedy administration decided against the plan, if only on tactical grounds, probably realizing that exposure would leave the Cuban government in occupation of the moral high ground and the clear winner in terms of world opinion. That’s not to say this sort of thing hasn’t been tried before or since. By now most of the literate population has learned something of the true nature of the events surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Operation Cyanide, WMD in Iraq, and so forth.

Manuscript letters and diaries, polemical tracts, political posters and the like, are the real stuff of historical Americana. The first histories appearing shortly after the American Civil War, while useful in many ways, did not tell the whole story—not by a long shot. After nearly 150 years, unpublished letters and diaries of Northern and Confederate soldiers continue to turn up at book fairs, each one adding a bit to the true history of what really happened. Politicians, generals and official historians may tell a good story, but soldiers on the ground tend to tell the truth.

You can see an example of this in the widely acclaimed Ken Burns film documentary of the Second World War that has been shown lately on PBS television. Burns has used film, letters, and hours of recorded interviews with surviving soldiers and civilians (mostly American, but German and Japanese as well) to convey the subtext, intended or not, that those who view wars of the past with a perverted air of nostalgia, either never served on a battlefield or are shameless members of the chattering classes who make it their business to get others to do what they were or are unwilling to do themselves.

Even now, some government people and lobbying groups representing foreign interests are working hard to invent pretexts and false provocations in order to drag this country into a military confrontation with Iran (a potential ally not so long ago) and other countries in the region – another example of how our elected politicians rarely miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. A lot has been written on this subject, most of it published on the Internet (where, in addition to talk radio, many present-day pamphleteers live), with precious little finding its way onto paper. For example, before the publication of Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire: How the Americans Lost Their Country, (2003), written before the invasion of Iraq, partial chapters were published on and similar websites.

Cyber-pamphleteering, obviously unsuccessful in the above instance, lends itself to potentially wider distribution (with great savings in printing and mailing costs) but in the end may be less effective than the paper article. Less effective because most of it appears on special interest web sites and blogs where they’re read mainly by groups of like-minded individuals. There’s nothing wrong with the church choir having a newsletter – the trick is to get other people to read it, or to put it another way, the circle may be unbroken but it doesn’t do any good if the circumference remains the same.

Paper can reach beyond the circle of usual suspects to a broader audience, as once happened to me near Russell Square when I accepted a pamphlet entitled Beware of Religious Fanatics Handing out Pamphlets from a religious fanatic (not really) handing out pamphlets. I would never have found their website — but I did read the pamphlet.

Good historians often rely on ephemera to provide missing pieces of the human narrative, but now the job has been vastly complicated with the increased use of web-based repositories of information and electronic mail. And even though the current administration is now being criticized for the apparent destruction of millions of e-mails in violation of the Presidential Records Act, years ago all it took was a match. In the meantime one must hope that the National Security Archive at George Washington University remains intact.