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JFK and Che

The Man Who Drafted the Order for the Cuban Embargo Recalls Puffing Cigars in the Kennedy White House, and a Not-So-Chance Meeting with the Famed Revolutionary
Richard Goodwin
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 1)

Cigars were an essential component in the glamour of the New Frontier and graced almost every Washington dinner party, where the men would light up after dinner while the ladies retired to another room. Nevertheless, it was in those primitive days of inherited sexism that I met my first woman cigar smoker. I was at a small dinner party to honor cellist Pablo Casals, the most renowned musician of his time, who was scheduled to perform at the White House the following evening. After the meal, I sat on the living room rug, smoking my cigar at the feet of the great man, when we were joined by the wife of future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, who lit a Havana of her own while we listened to Casals discourse with vehement disapproval on the evils of composer Arnold Schoenberg and atonality. I regret that I was not then prescient enough to realize that Mrs. Fortas was not an anomaly or a curiosity but a pioneer of her sex.

The next night, following a formal dinner in the East Room of the White House, Casals played for the fortunate guests, the incredible sound of his cello echoing through the historic rooms that now are graced almost exclusively by country singers. Afterward, a select few were invited upstairs to the living quarters, waiting anxiously as the president settled into his rocking chair. An air of relief swiftly displaced anxiety as he drew a cigar from his pocket and lit it. It was the signal we had been waiting for. The president had begun. Now we could do the same. A dozen hands plunged into jacket pockets as we withdrew our own cigars, many of which were quickly replaced as a waiter passed among us with a box containing Romeo y Julietas. But Kennedy himself let the box go by, obviously preferring his own choice as we talked and puffed through the memorable evening.

Of course, all the cigar world now knows that JFK smoked cigars. Less well known, perhaps, is that Bobby Kennedy followed his brother in this, as in so many matters. And they always seemed to be of Cuban origin. Even as Operation Mongoose, under Bobby's direction, was plotting to "destabilize" Castro, the younger Kennedy was enjoying the most renowned product of the island. "What a family," I often thought, which had learned to preserve so determinedly amidst contradiction.

But a good cigar was sometimes more than a smoke. In the summer of 1961, a box of cigars served to herald a major diplomatic initiative by Cuba, one that became widely discussed only this year with the release of newly declassified documents.

In August 1961--a few months after the Bay of Pigs--the finance ministers of all the American nations gathered at Punta del Este, a seaside resort in Uruguay. The purpose of the meeting was to establish the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy's sweeping new policy for Latin America. Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon headed the United States delegation and I represented the White House. Dillon was an impressive and distinguished figure as we entered the conference halls, but no one was looking at him. All eyes were on the youthful, bearded chief of the Cuban delegation, Comandante Che Guevara.

I never thought I might envy a communist, but there were moments, as I watched the young women following this fatigue-clad figure through the streets of the town, when I reflected how high the price of freedom might be. I, of course, was willing to pay it.

As I sat at the U.S. table in the conference hall, puffing a cigar of indeterminate origin, I was approached by a young Argentine diplomat whom I had met on a trip to Buenos Aires. "Che said he sees that Goodwin likes cigars," he said. "He bets you wouldn't dare smoke Cuban cigars."

"You tell him," I replied, "that I'd love to smoke Cuban cigars, but we can't get them." (Not completely true, as Cuba's security men were surreptitiously peddling cigars in the lobby of the hotel). That evening, two boxes of cigars were delivered to my hotel room. One box was for me. The other, more elaborate and inlaid with the Cuban seal, was intended for President Kennedy. It was accompanied by a note that said, in Spanish, "Since I have no greeting card, I have to write. Since to write to an enemy is difficult, I limit myself to extending my hand." It was signed "Che" over the typewritten "Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara."

The next day Che sent word that he would like to talk with me. A meeting was scheduled for the last day of the conference, only to be canceled by Dillon's order following an acrimonious exchange between him and Che. It is also possible that Dillon did not consider a presidential aide still in his twenties appropriate for such an encounter, although it was obvious that I had been chosen because Guevara wanted to talk with one of the "new Kennedy men," unencumbered by the rigidities and cautions of old-age diplomacy.

The conference ended, we drove to Montevideo where we would spend the night before returning to Washington on the plane Kennedy had provided. (Known as Air Force One when, and only when, the president was aboard). That evening, while eating dinner in the hotel, I was approached by two Latin friends who asked me if I would like to go to a party. The night was young, the plane would not leave until morning and my dinner companions were dull. I accepted without hesitation.

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