16 December 2018

The US was invading Cuba in 1962, but turned back

In 1962, the United States almost invaded Cuba. Almost.

The story of the Cuban Missile Crisis has been told many times, and there is little I can add to the history, except to say that the US was in the process of starting the invasion of Cuba, and that the invasion was called off. The following was told to us in a “Sociology of War” class at the University of Maryland in about 1982 or 1983. The United States was going to invade Cuba, and that airborne troops were in the air and on their way when Khrushchev “blinked” and Kennedy de-escalated.

Our professor was also an active duty US Army colonel (who by the end of the semester, had been offered a star to command a tank unit in Germany). He had joined the US Army as an enlisted man, a private. He progressed through the ranks, completed his university degree and was commissioned, and later completed his masters. In his early years, he was in the Airborne. He said of his year in Vietnam “when I arrived, I sprinted under fire from the airplane to a shelter, and when I left a year later, I sprinted under fire from the shelter to the airplane.” None of us doubted him, and the ribbons on his chest certainly were those of a warrior. 

He was also a scholar, and was teaching us about the importance of preparing a society for war; that leaders cannot simply say “bad guys, we must fight them” and automatically have the support of the people in pursuing a war. Likewise, there are processes that must be followed, steps if you will, to disengage a society from a war footing.

While speaking about the processes of preparing a society for war, he spoke about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how each step in the process played out. I do not remember all, but years later I was able to see those steps play out in preparation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He told the class that the official story was that the US was not about to invade, but that it would if there was no back down by the Soviets. As tensions rose, Kennedy stood firm and imposed the blockade on Cuba. All of this is well depicted in the film about the crisis, Thirteen Days

What that movie does not show is US airlifters flying from bases in the southern US toward south Florida. The Colonel told us that his unit had, on numerous occasions before the crisis, and at short or no notice, been mobilised and loaded onto aircraft and flown toward southern Florida, only to be diverted either back to their original base, or to another base in Florida. This was all about training and readiness.

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, something different happened, that convinced him and everyone on the airplane that they would be landing in Cuba.

Loading an airplane full of troops is not unusual, nor is ensuring they have all the support materials, ammunition, radios, maps (yes, paper maps) of potential landing areas, medics and their basic equipment. They were used to this. And so there was the usual shuffling and grumbling about flying around for no good reason. Where would they end up, or would they just end up back at base in 10 or 12 hours? 

What they did not expect, and had never happened, was that this time the medics brought the plasma on board with them.

Plasma has a shelf-life of well under 24 hours if not frozen, and when thawed, the usable life at room temperature is 4 hours. “Fresh frozen plasma is stored in approved freezers at less than -30°C.  It is thawed just before use (a process which takes up to 30 minutes) and once thawed, must be infused within 24 hours if kept at 4°C (or 4 hours if kept at room temperature).”

This had never happened. Plasma is too valuable to simply throw away when the airplane is turned back. The only reason they would bring the plasma on board, the Colonel told us, would be if there was a very real expectation that the medics would need to use that plasma.

This was important, and was a clear signal to everyone on the airplane that they would be landing in a potentially hot situation. They would not be landing in Florida this flight, they would be landing in Cuba.

All the grumbling stopped; all the wondering stopped. Everyone on the aeroplane new they would see combat by the end of the next day. Their sergeants had always told them that until the plasma is with you, you aren’t going into real combat.

The United States was going to war, and the invasion of Cuba was in progress.

We know now that Khrushchev “blinked”. We also know that part of the “blinking” was an agreement by the US to remove its Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey. So much is known about the Crisis. The story above was new to me, and I have not seen it told anywhere else; that the United States was already “in the air and on their way to Cuba”, and the American troops were going to land in Cuba.

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