JFK and Castro
The Secret Quest For Accommodation Recently Declassified U.S. government Documents Reveal That, at the Height of the Cold War, John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro Were Exploring Ways To Normalize U.S.-Cuba Relations
In February 1996, Robert Kennedy Jr. and his brother, Michael, traveled to Havana to meet with Fidel Castro. As a gesture of goodwill, they brought a file of formerly top secret U.S. documents on the Kennedy administration's covert exploration of an accommodation with Cuba--a record of what might have been had not Lee Harvey Oswald, seemingly believing the president to be an implacable foe of Castro's Cuba, fired his fateful shots in Dallas. Castro thanked them for the file and shared his "impression that it was [President Kennedy's] intention after the missile crisis to change the framework" of relations between the United States and Cuba. "It's unfortunate," said Castro, that "things happened as they did, and he could not do what he wanted to do."
Would John F. Kennedy, had he lived, have been able to establish a modus vivendi with Fidel Castro? The question haunts almost 40 years of acrimonious U.S.-Cuba relations. In a Top Secret--Eyes Only memorandum written three days after the president's death, one of his White House aides, Gordon Chase, noted that "President Kennedy could have accommodated with Castro and gotten away with it with a minimum of domestic heat"--because of his track record "of being successfully nasty to Castro and the Communists" during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Castro and his advisers believed the same. A CIA intelligence report, based on a high-level Cuban source and written for National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy in 1964, noted that "Fidel Castro felt that it was possible that President Kennedy would have gone on ultimately to negotiate with Cuba...[as an] acceptance of a fait accompli for practical reasons."
The file on the Kennedy administration's "Cuban contacts" that Robert Jr. and Michael took to Cuba (declassified at the request of the author) sheds significant light on a story that has never been fully told--John Kennedy's secret pursuit of a rapprochement with Fidel Castro. Along with papers recently released pursuant to the Kennedy Assassination Records Act of 1992, the documents reveal the escalating efforts toward negotiations in 1963 that, if successful, might have changed the ensuing decades of perpetual hostility between Washington and Havana. Given the continuing state of tension with Castro's regime, this history carries an immediate relevance for present policy makers. Indeed, with the Clinton administration buffeted between increasingly vocal critics of U.S. policy toward Cuba and powerful proponents of the status quo, reconstructing the hitherto secret record of Kennedy's efforts in the fall of 1963 to advance "the rapprochement track" with Castro is more relevant than ever.
John F. Kennedy would seem the most unlikely of presidents to seek an accommodation with Fidel Castro. His tragically abbreviated administration bore responsibility for some of the most infamous U.S. efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution: the Bay of Pigs invasion, the trade embargo, Operation Mongoose (a U.S. plan to destabilize the Castro government) and a series of CIA-Mafia assassination attempts against the Cuban leader. Castro's demise, Seymour M. Hersh argues in his book, The Dark Side of Camelot, "became a presidential obsession" until the end. "The top priority in the United States government--all else is secondary--no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared" is to find a "solution" to the Cuba problem, Attorney General Robert Kennedy told a high-level group of CIA and Pentagon officials in early 1962. The president's opinion, according to CIA minutes of the meeting, was that "the final chapter [on Cuba] has not been written."
Unbeknownst to all but his brother and a handful of advisers, however, in 1963 John Kennedy began pursuing an alternative script on Cuba: a secret dialogue toward an actual rapprochement with Castro. To a policy built upon "overt and covert nastiness," as Top Secret White House memoranda characterized U.S. operations against Cuba, was added "the sweet approach," meaning the possibility of "quietly enticing Castro over to us." National Security Council officials referred to this multitrack policy as "simil-opting"--the use of disparate methods toward the goal of moving Cuba out of the Soviet orbit.
By April 1963, alongside proposals for covert sabotage, diplomatic pressure and military contingency plans, "gradual development of some form of accommodation with Castro" was listed in high-level NSC option papers. In a memorandum on "The Cuban Problem," Kennedy adviser McGeorge Bundy provided the rationale for this type of initiative: There is always the possibility that Castro or others currently high in the regime might find advantage in a gradual shift away from their present level of dependence on Moscow. In strictly economic terms, both the United States and Cuba have much to gain from reestablishment of relations. A Titoist Castro is not inconceivable, and a full diplomatic revolution would not be the most extraordinary event in the 20th century.
For the Kennedy White House, there was nothing incongruous about such a policy turnaround, Bundy explained in an interview shortly before his death, in 1996. "We wanted to make a reality check on what could or could not be done with Castro," he said. President Kennedy, according to Bundy, "clearly thought this was an exploration worth making because it might lead to something." Kennedy was "strong enough to explore it in a politically nondangerous way."
Then, as now, the dangers of domestic politics mitigated against any open effort at a dialogue. With the president already thinking ahead to the 1964 elections, the key problem, Bundy recalls, was "finding a way to do it" that was secure and reliable. "We didn't have a department of peaceful tricks," he noted cryptically. By mid-1963, the Kennedy White House was waiting for what Bundy referred to as "a target of opportunity" to talk to Fidel.
It is a historical irony that the opportunity to communicate with Castro arose from the two most hostile episodes in U.S.-Cuba relations: the CIA-directed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis. Negotiations for the ransomed return of 1,200 Bay of Pigs prisoners provided the contacts and confidences under which the first messages could be passed; and the Kremlin's unilateral decision to withdraw its nuclear missiles appeared to provoke a Cuban-Soviet breach that the United States could exploit.
Castro's anger at Khrushchev for failing to consult him on the end of the missile crisis caught the attention of U.S. policy makers. An intelligence report on "Future Relations with Castro" prepared by the State Department in June 1963 noted that the "Soviet refusal to run the quarantine and its acquiescence in withdrawing the missiles shook the foundation of Cuban foreign policy." Since the missile crisis, the report stated:
Castro has indicated, sometimes vaguely, sometimes rather clearly, through various channels, public as well as private, that he is interested in an accommodation with the United States. His immediate disillusion over the Soviet missile crisis posture probably prompted him to grope for a policy which would diminish his dependence upon the Soviet Union.1 In March 1963, Cuban minister Raul Roa Garcia sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General U Thant hinting that Cuba was interested in friendly relations with the United States. European businessmen returning from Havana told CIA sources that Castro wanted to deal with Washington. By June 5, the CIA had accumulated a half-dozen intelligence reports, according to a secret summary by Deputy Director Richard Helms, "suggesting Cuban interest in a rapprochement with the United States."
The first private channel through which Castro directly transmitted this message was James Donovan, a New York lawyer negotiating the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. In the late fall of 1962, Donovan became the first American emissary to gain Castro's ear, and his trust. Secretly representing the Kennedy brothers, Donovan arranged a trade of $53 million in food and medicine for the Bay of Pigs captives; in early 1963, he continued his trips to Havana to secure the release of two dozen American citizens, including three CIA operatives, held in Cuban jails.
Debriefed by U.S. intelligence officials after each trip, Donovan described his meetings with Castro as "most cordial and intimate." In late January 1963, as he was boarding his plane to return to the United States, Donovan reported, Castro's physician and aide-de-camp, Rene Vallejo, "broached the subject of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S." Vallejo also extended Castro's invitation for Donovan to return to Havana for further talks "about the future of Cuba and international relations in general."
In early March, a State Department official suggested that Donovan be instructed to tell Castro that breaking Cuban relations with the Sino-Soviet bloc was a nonnegotiable U.S. demand for improved relations. But Kennedy overruled him. "The President does not agree that we should make the breaking of Sino/Soviet ties a non-negotiable point," stated a Top Secret/Eyes Only memorandum recording Kennedy's instructions to security adviser Bundy. "We don't want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill. We should start thinking along more flexible lines."
Kennedy's surprising position "must be kept close to the vest," the memo advised. "The President, himself, is very interested in this one."
The "Special Group"--the highest-level interagency committee responsible for Cuba policy--did not evaluate the issue of Donovan's talks with Castro, and the other intelligence reports on Cuba's interest in better relations, until June 6. According to minutes of their meeting, Bundy, CIA Director John McCone, State Department Deputy Undersecretary U. Alexis Johnson and others "discussed various possibilities of establishing channels of communication to Castro," and the group agreed that this was "a useful endeavor."
The CIA sources indicated that the Cubans would probably accept Donovan as a back-channel negotiator, but they also indicated that the United States would have to take the first step. The CIA's Helms quoted one Cuban source as stating that "Latin pride" would not permit Cuba to humiliate itself in the eyes of the world by making the first overture, but that the United States could "afford to be charitable and take the initiative."
Which country initiated the secret dialogue in the fall of 1963 remains a subject of historical dispute. The feelers toward a rapprochement "originally came, one might say, from their side," testified William Attwood, the key U.S. official involved in the subsequent talks, in a top secret deposition in 1975. In an interview, Cuba's former ambassador to the United Nations, Carlos Lechuga, insisted that "this was a Kennedy initiative, not Cuba's."
In fact, the immediate catalyst for the talks appears to have been a reporter for ABC News named Lisa Howard. A onetime actress and soap-opera star--in the late 1950s she was a regular on CBS's "Edge of Night"--Howard emerged on the media scene in 1960 as a correspondent for Mutual Radio Network. Covering the United Nations, she became the first journalist to score an interview with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. After ABC News hired her to cover the 1961 Vienna summit between Khrushchev and Kennedy, she became one of the first women to anchor a television news program--"The News Hour with Lisa Howard."
In 1962, Howard began peppering Cuba's U.N. mission for permission to go to Havana. "I am the woman who interviewed Khrushchev," she reminded Cuban officials in her correspondence. The American public wanted to know more about the Cuban revolution, she wrote; an ABC interview with Castro would serve the interests of both countries. In April 1963, she finally received permission to bring a TV crew to Cuba. To meet Castro, however, she had to prevail upon James Donovan to make the introduction. Castro granted her an exclusive televised interview--his first with a U.S. network since 1959, and a major journalistic coup for Howard and ABC.
Howard's Castro interview aired on May 10, 1963. The White House received a transcript of the program more than a week in advance and considered trying to block its broadcast. "Public airing in the United States of this interview would strengthen the arguments of 'peace' groups, 'liberal' thinkers, Commies, fellow travelers, and opportunistic political opponents of present United States policy," as well as provide Castro with a wide audience for his "reasonable line," warned a May 3 analysis provided to Bundy. On the other hand, "denial of ABC 'rights' to report the news would raise the question of 'managed' news."
Among the issues the Cuban premier addressed was the potential for better relations with Washington. He stated that a rapprochement was "possible [if] the United States government wishes it. In that case we would be agreed to seek and find the basis" for normalizing relations. A few months later, in a cover story, "Castro's Overture," in the liberal journal War/Peace Report, Howard wrote that in eight hours of private conversations Castro had been "even more emphatic about his desire for negotiations with the United States":
In our conversations he made it quite clear that he was ready to discuss: the Soviet personnel and military hardware on Cuban soil; compensation for expropriated American lands and investments; the question of Cuba as a base for Communist subversion throughout the Hemisphere.
In her article, Howard urged the Kennedy administration to "send an American government official on a quiet mission to Havana to hear what Castro has to say." A country as powerful as the United States, she concluded, "has nothing to lose at a bargaining table with Fidel Castro."
Behind the scenes, Howard assertively positioned herself as the key back-channel intermediary to facilitate such negotiations. Upon return from Cuba in late April, she briefed the CIA in detail on the substance of her lengthy talks with Castro. In a secret memorandum given to President Kennedy,2 CIA Deputy Director Richard Helms reported on Howard's view that "Fidel Castro is looking for a way to reach a rapprochement with the United States." After detailing her observations about Castro's political power, disagreements with his colleagues and Soviet troops in Cuba, the memo concluded that "Howard definitely wants to impress the U.S. Government with two facts: Castro is ready to discuss rapprochement and she herself is ready to discuss it with him if asked to do so by the U.S. Government."
CIA Director John McCone adamantly opposed Howard's approach to Cuba, arguing that it would leak and compromise a number of CIA operations against Castro. In a recently declassified May 2, 1963 memorandum to Bundy, McCone stressed that the "Lisa Howard report be handled in the most limited and sensitive manner," and "that no active steps be taken on the rapprochement matter at this time."
Indeed, nothing happened on this track until September, when Howard established her own trustworthy back channel into the Kennedy White House through William Attwood, an adviser to the U.S. mission to the United Nations. A former journalist who, as editor of Look magazine, had interviewed Castro in 1959, Attwood knew Howard and shared her belief that improved U.S.-Cuba relations were possible--and from the perspective of U.S. interests, preferable. At the United Nations he had heard from the Guinean ambassador to Havana, Seydon Diallo, that Castro was unhappy with Cuba's Soviet satellite status and "would go to some length to obtain normalization of relations with us." Howard's War/Peace article, which Attwood read, seemed to convey the same sentiment. On September 12, Attwood discussed the story with her by phone--a conversation during which the two set in motion a plan to initiate secret talks between the United States and Cuba.
In a two-page "memorandum on Cuba," dated September 18, 1963, and written for Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman and U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, Attwood laid out an argument for being given permission to establish discreet, indirect contact with Cuban authorities. The impact of present U.S. policy, he wrote, "is mainly negative: a. It aggravates Castro's anti-Americanism and his desire to cause us trouble and embarrassment. b. In the eyes of a world largely made up of small countries, it freezes us in the unattractive posture of a big country trying to bully a small country."
Since the United States was not going to overthrow Castro by overt force, other options could include a dialogue. "It would seem that we have something to gain and nothing to lose by finding out whether in fact Castro does want to talk and what concessions he would be prepared to make," Attwood concluded.
On September 20, Stevenson obtained the green light from President Kennedy to authorize Attwood's direct contacts with Carlos Lechuga, the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. "I then told Miss Howard to set up the contact, that is to have a small reception at her house so that it could be done very casually, not as a formal approach by us," Attwood would later recall. In the middle of the U.N. delegates lounge on September 23, Howard approached Lechuga and, according to Lechuga's recollection, said that Attwood "wanted to talk to me and that it was urgent." Howard invited Lechuga to come to a party at her Park Avenue apartment that night to meet Attwood.
In the midst of cocktails, finger foods and several dozen members of New York's high society, the first bilateral talks on the potential for a U.S.-Cuba accommodation took place. Standing in a corner of Howard's spacious living room, Attwood and Lechuga conferred on the interest of their respective leaders in what Attwood called "an exchange of views." Castro, Lechuga told Attwood, "had hoped to contact or get in touch with President Kennedy in '61 and then came the Bay of Pigs and that was that." Lechuga "hinted that Castro was indeed in a mood to talk," Attwood reported in a secret account of his meetings, and "thought there was a good chance that I might be invited to Cuba if I wished to resume our 1959 talks." As Lechuga remembers the conversation, it was Attwood who suggested going to Havana, stating that he was about "to request authorization from the President to go to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro and ask about the feasibility of a rapprochement between Havana and Washington." Both made it clear to the other that they did not yet have instructions from their governments on how--or whether--to proceed with this plan.
The next day, September 24, Attwood met with Robert Kennedy in Washington, gave him his memo and reported on the talks with Lechuga. The attorney general promised to pass along the information to Bundy, the national security adviser. Robert Kennedy, as Attwood would later testify in a top secret hearing, believed that a trip to Cuba would be "rather risky." It was "bound to leak and...might result in some kind of Congressional investigation." Nevertheless, the attorney general did think the matter was "worth pursuing."
So, too, did John Kennedy. In a meeting with Attwood on November 5, Bundy stated that "the President was more in favor of pushing towards an opening toward Cuba than was the State Department, the idea being--well, getting them out of the Soviet fold and perhaps wiping out the Bay of Pigs and maybe getting back into normal."
Throughout the fall of 1963, the Kennedy administration secretly expanded its back-channel dialogue with Cuba. Bundy designated his assistant, Gordon Chase, to be Attwood's direct contact at the White House. At the United Nations, Attwood informed Ambassador Lechuga that it would be difficult to go to Cuba, but that the United States was interested in meeting with Castro or a "personal emissary" wherever such a meeting could be set up.3 And Lisa Howard offered her home as a communications center for Attwood to converse directly to Castro through Rene Vallejo. A series of phone exchanges took place in October. Vallejo conveyed the following message through Howard to Attwood:
Castro would very much like to talk to the U.S. official anytime and appreciated the importance of discretion to all concerned. Castro would therefore be willing to send a plane to Mexico to pick up the official and fly him to a private airport near Veradero where Castro would talk to him alone. The plane would fly him back immediately after the talk.