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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 5)

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?  

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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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