Operation Dirty Trick: or, How Castro Would have Been Blamed if a Mercury Mission had Failed
Updated: May 16
Mercury-Atlas 6, the first manned American orbital mission, launched on February 20, 1962 and carried John Glenn and his spacecraft Friendship 7 on one of the most historic missions in history. Although it had been almost a year since the Soviet Union had put the first man in space and in orbit, the three-orbit mission was a massive success that boosted American morale for the rest of the decade. However, if such an important and high-profile mission was to fail, the American space program would have a more difficult time catching up with the Soviets now than during the past four years. While NASA was planning for Glenn's flight, military planners at the Pentagon were considering blaming Cuban dictator Fidel Castro if the mission failed.
Mercury-Atlas 6 launching from LC-14 on February 20, 1962 (NASA)
The proposal was called Operation Dirty Trick and was part of Operation Mongoose, a set of plans aiming at starting a revolution in Cuba to remove Castro from power. According to documents made public back in the 1990s, Dirty Trick's goal was "to provide irrevocable proof that, should the MERCURY manned orbital flight fail, the fault lies with the Communists et al Cuba" (Lardner & Pincus). How was this going to be carried out? According to a memo, "by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans." Dirty Trick emerged from an older plan called Operation Cover-Up in which the Department of Defense would attempt to convince Cuban officials that the US space program was a cover for something else. Just what that "something else" would have been was never even considered.
Operation Dirty Trick was obviously shot down by President Kennedy almost as soon as it was proposed. It was merely one of dozens of plans aimed at removing Castro from power and exterminating communism from Cuba. Some of the better-known other ideas were to doctor photographs of Castro as obese and/or surrounded by women, stage a Cuban attack on an American airplane, and drop one-way tickets to major Central American cities to stir a mass exodus from the country.
President Kennedy and John Glenn circa 1962 (americanrhetoric.com)
Fortunately for NASA and the US, Mercury-Atlas 6 was an astonishing success and no plans like Operation Dirty Trick were ever proposed again. On a completely unrelated note, Fidel Castro died a mere thirteen days before John Glenn in late 2016. If Glenn's mission had failed, though, despite President Kennedy's disapproval of the plan, who's to say extreme measures would not have been taken to place the blame the enemy as the country mourned the loss of one of its best and brightest? Fortunately, we will never know.
President Kennedy peering into the cockpit of Friendship 7 after MA-6 (NASA)
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Lardner, George, and Pincus, Walter. “MILITARY HAD PLAN TO BLAME CUBA IF GLENN'S SPACE MISSION FAILED.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Nov. 1997, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1997/11/19/military-had-plan-to-blame-cuba-if-glenns-space-mission-failed/24eb451e-bdb2-441a-9b83-c4e8aecd6aa1/.
Novak, Matt. “13 Horrifying Ideas America Had For Invading Cuba.” Paleofuture, 14 Apr. 2015, paleofuture.gizmodo.com/13-horrifying-ideas-america-had-for-invading-cuba-1697348447.