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
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Castro wanted to "do the talking himself," Vallejo told Howard, but he did not rule out sending an emissary to the United Nations "if there was no other way of engaging a dialogue." Howard suggested that Vallejo come to New York. Castro's concrete invitation set off a flurry of discussion inside the administration. Would such a trip be secure? Should the United States find out first what Castro was willing to talk about? Was Castro sincere, or was he trying to manipulate a reduction of U.S. pressure? What were the political dangers of an accommodation with Cuba? Should a dialogue even be attempted?4
John Kennedy's position, as conveyed from Bundy to Attwood, was that "it did not seem practicable" to send an American official to Cuba "at this stage," but he remained open to the idea. "The President decided that it might be useful for me to go down to Cuba and see Castro," Attwood recalled in an oral history statement in 1965, "but first we'd have to know what the agenda was." Kennedy preferred to begin the secret talks with a meeting between Vallejo and Attwood at the United Nations. The White House expected Vallejo to speak to a change in Cuba's position on the issues that concerned the United States--an end to Soviet influence and to subversion in the Western Hemisphere. As Bundy indicated in a Secret/Sensitive memorandum of the record, "without an indication of readiness to move in these directions, it is hard for us to see what could be accomplished by a visit to Cuba."
On November 14, Lisa Howard conveyed this message to Vallejo and set up a phone date for him to talk to Attwood at her home, a conversation that took place five days later at 2 a.m.. When Vallejo reiterated Castro's invitation, Attwood replied that a "preliminary meeting was essential to make sure there was something useful to talk about."
According to Attwood, Vallejo said he could not come to New York at this time, but that "we"--meaning he and Fidel--"would send instructions to Lechuga to propose and discuss with me an agenda for a later meeting with Castro." When Attwood passed this information on to Bundy, he was told that after the agenda was received, "the President wanted to see me at the White House and decide what to say and whether to go [to Cuba] or what we should do next." As Attwood testified behind closed doors to a special Senate committee in 1975, "that was the 19th of November, three days before the assassination."
In those last three days, President Kennedy himself sent two messages to Castro. The first came in the form of a speech before the Inter-American Press Association in Miami on November 19. The foundation of the speech was a top secret strategy paper, "The Future of Cuba," which listed "the 'conversion' of Castro" as a possibility for meeting U.S. policy objectives. Cuba had become "a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics," Kennedy stated. "This and this alone divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible." According to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a special assistant to the president who helped write the speech, Kennedy's language was intended to convey to Castro the real potential for normalization between the two countries.
Kennedy's second message was delivered to Castro by French journalist Jean Daniel on November 22. Daniel had met with Kennedy in late October--a meeting arranged by Attwood to focus the president's attention on Cuba--on his way to Havana. Kennedy expressed some empathy for Castro's anti-Americanism, acknowledging that the United States had committed a "number of sins" in pre-revolutionary Cuba. He told Daniel that the trade embargo against Cuba could be lifted if Castro ended his support for leftist movements in the hemisphere. When Daniel observed that the president seemed to be "seeking a way out" of the poor state of relations with Cuba, Kennedy told him to "come and see me on your return from Cuba."
Daniel met with Castro on November 19, and again on the 22nd. "I interpreted Daniel's visit as a gesture to try to establish communication, a bridge, a contact," the Cuban leader would later recall. Before learning of the assassination, Castro told Daniel that Kennedy could become "the greatest president of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas." When an aide interrupted their conversation during their second meeting to report that Kennedy had been shot, Castro turned to Daniel and said, "This is an end to your mission of peace. Everything is changed."
In the aftermath of John Kennedy's death in Dallas, the status of the "Attwood-Lechuga tie-line" was put on hold at the National Security Council. Kennedy aides, now serving Lyndon Johnson, worried that Lee Harvey Oswald's reported pro-Castro sympathies would make an accommodation more difficult; that, unlike Kennedy, Johnson risked being accused of "going soft" on Communism. In early December, Ambassador Lechuga told Attwood that he had received a letter from Fidel Castro approving detailed talks and an agenda, and asked whether the dialogue would still go forward. "The ball is in our court," Gordon Chase reported in a Top Secret memo to Bundy. "What to do?"
During December, Johnson was brought up to speed on the Cuba initiative. When the new president visited the U.S. delegation to the United Nations at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel on December 17, he told Attwood that he had "read my Cuban memo recapitulating the events or discussions in the fall with interest." But at a December 23 staff meeting, Bundy told White House officials that Johnson's concern about appearing sufficiently anti-Communist during the 1964 election--he expected the Republican candidate to be Richard Nixon--would prevent any initiative toward Cuba. According to Attwood, Bundy told him that "the Cuban exercise would probably be put on ice for a while."
Recently declassified records reveal that the back-channel contacts between the United States and Cuba continued in 1964--and even escalated in substance and significance. With Attwood assigned to be ambassador to Kenya, Gordon Chase became the main advocate of continuing the secret accommodation diplomacy. Ongoing talks would "tend to keep Castro's temperature and the Caribbean noise-level at a low pitch between now and November," Chase wrote in one Top Secret/Eyes Only report to Bundy, attempting to turn the 1964 elections into an argument for continuing the exploration with Cuba. News headlines such as "U.S. Accommodates with Castro" would not be good for Johnson's election prospects, Chase noted in another memo, titled "Talks with Castro." But Johnson "might live superbly with a headline which reads: USSR Ejected from Cuba." A U.S.-Cuba deal, "if consummated," Chase argued, "would constitute a magnificent victory for the U.S.--the ejection of the Soviets from the W. Hemisphere."
Once again, the ever tenacious Lisa Howard played the part of intermediary. In early February, Howard traveled to Havana to make another ABC TV news special on Cuba. When she returned, she carried a rather extraordinary memorandum--a "verbal message given to Miss Lisa Howard of ABC News"--addressed to Lyndon Johnson from Fidel Castro. It read:
1. Please tell President Johnson that I earnestly desire his election to the Presidency in November...though that appears assured. But if there is anything I can do to add to his majority (aside from retiring from politics), I shall be happy to cooperate.... If the President wishes to pass word to me he can do so through you [Lisa Howard]. He must know that he can trust you; and I know that I can trust you....
2. If the President feels it necessary during the campaign to make bellicose statements about Cuba or even to take some hostile action--if he will inform me, unofficially, that a specific action is required because of domestic political considerations, I shall understand and not take any serious retaliatory action.
3. Tell the President that I understand quite well how much political courage it took for President Kennedy to instruct you [Lisa Howard] and Ambassador Attwood to phone my aide in Havana for the purpose of commencing a dialogue toward a settlement of our differences....I hope that we can soon continue where Ambassador Attwood's phone conversation to Havana left off...though I'm aware that pre-electoral political considerations may delay this approach until after November.
4. Tell the President (and I cannot stress this too strongly) that I seriously hope that Cuba and the United States can eventually sit down in an atmosphere of good will and of mutual respect and negotiate our differences. I believe that there are no areas of contention between us that cannot be discussed and settled in a climate of mutual understanding. But first, of course, it is necessary to discuss our differences. I now believe that this hostility between Cuba and the United States is both unnatural and unnecessary--and it can be eliminated.
5. Tell the President he should not interpret my conciliatory attitude, my desire for discussions, as a sign of weakness. Such an interpretation would be a serious miscalculation....
6. Tell the President I realize fully the need for absolute secrecy, if he should decide to continue the Kennedy approach. I revealed nothing at that time....I have revealed nothing since....I would reveal nothing now.
Bundy's office did not officially respond to this message, but Castro and Howard nevertheless conducted themselves as if this back channel had been approved. In June 1964, Howard turned, once again, to the United Nations--communicating directly with U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and establishing what Chase called a "Castro/Lisa Howard/Stevenson/President line." During a visit by Howard to Havana, Castro told her that he would refrain from taking any action that would cause a crisis before November, including shooting at U-2 surveillance planes. In a "Secret and Personal" June 26, 1964, memo to the president, Ambassador Stevenson reported that Castro felt that "all of our crises could be avoided if there was some way to communicate; that for want of anything better, he assumed that he could call [Howard] and she call me and I would advise you."
When a Marine at Guantánamo shot a Cuban on the base, Castro used this channel to inquire if the incident had been an isolated act or a provocation. After informing President Johnson, Bundy authorized Stevenson to tell Howard to tell Castro that there was no plan of provocation at the base, and the episode was contained.
In the early summer of 1964, the Cubans expanded their efforts to achieve a modus vivendi with Washington. Castro representatives asked the Franco dictatorship in Spain to play a role as a mediator. When that feeler failed to achieve a response from the Johnson administration, Castro went public with what the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research described as Cuba's "strongest bid to date for a U.S.-Cuban rapprochement." In a July interview with The New York Times, the Cuban premier proposed "extensive discussion of the issues" dividing Cuba and the United States. He offered to halt assistance to Latin American revolution if the United States halted exile operations against him and his government, and to release political prisoners and eventually indemnify U.S. corporations for expropriated properties if an accommodation with Washington could be reached.
In December, Castro, with the help of Lisa Howard, tried again to confer with U.S. officials, this time during the visit of Cuban Minister of Industry Ernesto "Che" Guevara to the United Nations. "Lisa Howard called me this morning," Chase informed Bundy on December 15. "She said 'Che has something to say to us' and that she is in a position to arrange a meeting." The White House and State Department were interested in what Guevara had to say, but the logistics of meeting secretly with him were troublesome. "The mechanics of talking to Guevara is the tough part," Chase reported to Bundy. "He is a real center of attention in New York (e.g. police, crowds) and it would be extremely awkward to try to get together with him privately." Still, the State Department decided to approach Guevara through a British intermediary at the United Nations--"my own very strong view is that we should keep Lisa Howard out of it as a middleman," Chase argued in one memo--to see if the Cuban minister had something substantive to share with Washington. This approach fell through when, to the consternation of Johnson administration officials, Howard invited Senator Eugene McCarthy to her apartment to meet with Guevara on December 16.
In a meeting at the Department of State the next day, Under Secretary George Ball debriefed McCarthy. According to a secret memorandum of the conversation, McCarthy reported that Guevara's purpose was "to express Cuban interest in trade with the U.S. and U.S. recognition of the Cuban regime." Ball "emphasized the danger of meetings such as that which the Senator had had with Guevara," because there was "suspicion throughout Latin America that the U.S. might make a deal with Cuba behind the backs of the other American states." It was essential, Ball admonished, "that nothing be publicly said about the McCarthy-Guevara meeting."
With that, the U.S.-Cuba contacts begun under the Kennedy administration came to an anticlimactic end.
Years later, William Attwood returned one more time to his role as an intermediary in U.S.-Cuba relations. After Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, Castro invited Attwood and his family to visit Cuba. Before leaving, Attwood informed Secretary of State-designate Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezinski of his trip, and wrote a comprehensive confidential report for Vance when he got back. His three-hour conversation with Castro covered a variety of issues, from Africa to Vietnam to U.S.-Cuba relations. Castro "recalled my exploratory talks with Lechuga at the U.N. that fall," Attwood reported. Future diplomatic relations were "up to us," according to the memorandum. "If we want to be friends, they'll be friends. If we want to continue being their enemy, they'll be our enemy. They've grown used to it."
Thirty-five years after Kennedy's assassination, the list of historical imponderables on Cuba is a long one. Had Kennedy been able to finish what he started with Castro, could the Cold War clashes--the conflicts over the Soviet military presence in Cuba, Cuban troops in Africa, Havana's support for revolution in Central America--have been avoided? Would the multiple immigration crises, including the Mariel boat lift in 1980 and the balsero crisis in 1994, ever have taken place? Might the scandals of CIA/Cuban exile efforts to assassinate Castro that now haunt the history of U.S. foreign policy never have occurred? Could the acrimonious conflict with U.S. allies over punitive trade policies toward Cuba have been averted? If Washington had worked out a modus vivendi with Havana and lifted the external threat that has united and mobilized Cubans for nearly 40 years, might Cuba's political system have evolved differently?
To be sure, the "what ifs" of history are speculative. But the lesson of the aborted Kennedy-Castro initiative toward a rapprochement is clear: at the apex of the Cold War, and the height of tensions between Washington and Havana, diplomacy and dialogue were still possible. Amidst the charged international conflicts of the early 1960s, a U.S. president appeared willing, as one National Security Council memo put it, to "live with Castro personally and to assist Cuba"--albeit only "under certain circumstances."
Those circumstances--an end to Cuba's ties to the Soviet Union and support for Third World revolution--now exist due to the extraordinary changes in the international environment over the past decade. And recent events have created considerable opportunity for reevaluating a policy stuck in the time warp of the Cold War. Pope John Paul II's visit to Havana in January 1998--during which he urged Washington to "change, change, change" its hostile posture by ending the embargo--gave the United States the moral cover it needed to begin to reconsider its posture of diplomatic isolation toward Cuba.
After a comprehensive intelligence review, the Pentagon's unequivocal conclusion, released this May, that Cuba "does not pose a significant military threat to the United States or to other countries in the region," eliminated the national security justification for the policy. The decision last fall by 24 Republican senators along with three former secretaries of state--Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger and George Schultz--to formally call upon the Clinton administration to conduct a bipartisan reassessment provided the political space for a new national dialogue. This January, the report of the elite Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on Cuba--made up of conservative and liberal foreign policy luminaries--provided numerous creative ideas for abandoning the policy of old and moving in a new direction.
President Clinton, however, has ignored the policy opportunities and political openings. In January, he rejected the Republican proposal for a bipartisan national dialogue on Cuba policy, as well as any notion of an international dialogue with the Cuban government. Several small modifications were made in the U.S. posture--expanded remittances and flights, restricted licenses for the sale of agricultural products to Cuba--in order, as Clinton put it, "to provide the people of Cuba with hope in their struggle." But the antagonistic framework of the policy remains entrenched and, for the most part, unchanged. The most symbolic "people-to-people" gesture that the White House can muster: allowing the Baltimore Orioles to play two exhibition games with Cuba.
With the Cold War long over and tensions with Cuba at a minimum, serious diplomacy and dialogue on mutual interests would seem not only possible, but highly preferable to continuing a long-standing policy of unmitigated hostility. Clearly, high-ranking members of the Kennedy White House, and even Kennedy himself, thought a dialogue toward coexistence was possible--in a far more dangerous world than today. "All we have to do is simply to decide to treat Cuba like any other 'socialist' country and then sit down and resolve a few unresolved issues," Ambassador Attwood observed years after the Kennedy initiative. "I think it's about time we did, in our own interest as well as Cuba's."
Peter Kornbluh writes frequently on U.S.-Cuba relations. He is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental institute and library located at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. He is the editor of Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba (The New Press, 1998).
The documents cited in this report can be accessed at the archive's website: www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive.
1. Cuba's first message of potential reconciliation actually came after the Bay of Pigs invasion. In August 1961, Che Guevara held an unscheduled meeting with White House aide Richard Goodwin in Punta del Este, Uruguay, and proposed a modus vivendi between Washington and Havana. This now famous meeting [see Cigar Aficionado, October 1997--ed.] constituted the first high-level contact with Castro's government after the break in diplomatic relations in January 1961. In a secret August 22 memo for the president, Goodwin reported that the conversation was "free of propaganda and bombast." Among other proposals, Guevara said that Cuba was willing to pay for expropriated U.S. properties in trade, and was willing to discuss its revolutionary operations in other nations. Goodwin recommended "continuing the below ground dialogue Che has begun," and even assigned the CIA to come up with "a precise, covert procedure" for sustaining those communications. Until negotiations involving New York lawyer James Donovan more than a year later, however, no further talks took place.
2. The May 1, 1963, memorandum, "Interview of U.S. Newswoman with Fidel Castro Indicating Possible Interest in Rapprochement with the United States," bears Kennedy's scrawl, "Psaw"--a notation that the president had seen the document.
3. During this conversation on September 27, Lechuga took the opportunity to forewarn Attwood that he would be making a "hard" anti-U.S. speech at the United Nations on October 7. "I remarked that it wouldn't help reduce tensions," Attwood noted in a secret chronology of his meetings. Lechuga "replied he couldn't help making it because of the 'blockade'."