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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

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.  

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'."

4. Gordon Chase addressed the anti-rapprochement position in a comprehensive November 12, 1963, memorandum, "Some Arguments Against Accommodation--A Rebuttal." Chase noted that "there are numerous advantages which accrue from a discreet approach to Castro. First, an approach will make it clear to Castro that he has an option which he may not be sure exists--i.e., to live with the U.S. on U.S. terms. Second, even if he rejects our offer, we will still learn a lot. Will he attempt to bargain on terms? Which terms? It would be interesting and useful to know what his sticking points are. Third, assuming Castro can't accept the terms, the mere fact that there were U.S./Cuban discussions about accommodation will tend to drive a further wedge between Castro and the hard-core Cuban communists, Che [Guevara] and Raul [Castro]."

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Comments   2 comment(s)

zambanini@comcast.net 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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