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
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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.
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