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
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
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:
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