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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 3)

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.  

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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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