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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 3)

As the sky lightened, I looked at my watch, realized our plane would leave in a couple of hours, and stood to leave. I extended my hand, but Guevara moved forward and embraced me--un abrazo. A communist, I thought, but a Latin American version, a blend the Russians would eventually find hard to deal with. I returned his gesture, my arms discovering an unexpectedly frail body.

I spent much of the flight home making notes of this encounter that I would later embody in a memorandum to the president, which after 35 years, was finally made public just a few weeks before I wrote this.

From Andrews Air Force Base, a helicopter took us to the White House lawn where Kennedy was waiting to welcome his delegation. After brief ceremonies, I walked with the president toward his office, telling him of my meeting with Guevara. Inside the Oval Office, I handed him the box containing the slim voluptuous cigars, which were not banded. "Are they good?" he asked.

"Good?" I replied. "Mr. President, they're the best."

Kennedy immediately took a cigar from the box, cut off the end, lit it and took a long, appreciative puff. Then he suddenly wheeled, pointing toward me, saying, "You should have smoked the first one."

"It's too late now, Mr. President," I rejoined, unaware that one of the plots to assassinate Castro had involved poisoned cigars. But perhaps he didn't know, either. Pointing toward the inlay on the box, he asked, "What's that?"

"It's the Cuban seal," I explained.

"Well, I can always keep the newspapers on top of it," he said, carefully placing the box on the table behind his desk.

In days to come he would allow me to take one of the cigars when I entered the Oval Office. (My own box was consumed rather swiftly.) A week or two later, I was emboldened to ask him for a cigar. "Your friends sent them, Dick," he said jokingly (I hoped), "take one." He opened the box, but it was now empty. He grimaced. Our disappointment was mutual. "Well," he said, "take the box. It's very nice, but I don't think the Cuban seal is exactly the right decoration for me." I took it, and have kept it ever since. It reminds me not only of those hope-charged years with Kennedy, but even more of Che, the romantic revolutionary who was killed while embarked on a doomed effort to lead a revolution in Bolivia. I was with Robert Kennedy when we learned of Che's death. It was not a happy moment. He might have been an "enemy," but he was a man of passionate belief who, in his own way, shared with us the conviction of the Sixties that entrenched power could be made to yield to human will and courage. And I liked him.

Richard Goodwin, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, is a writer living in Concord, Massachusetts.

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