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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 2)

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.  

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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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