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

(continued from page 6)

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:

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'."

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Comments   2 comment(s) October 23, 2013 5:03pm ET

Even though it's from 1999, this is an excellent, timeless article which I just came upon today. It's too bad this extremely important bit of JFK history is not more widely know. It needs to be published by the MSM! Thank you Mr Kornbluh!

David Savona October 24, 2013 11:49am ET

I'm glad you enjoyed this article by Peter Kornbluh. He has returned to the pages of Cigar Aficionado with an intriguing piece on the JFK Assassination. The story is in our December issue, which is heading to newsstands soon.

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