When John F. Kennedy was elected he appointed Attwood as the US Ambassador to Guinea. He also served as adviser to Adlai Stevenson, the United States representative to the United Nations. Attwood was the leading advocate inside the Kennedy Administration for talking to Castro about the potential for improving relations. He was supported by McGeorge Bundy who suggested to Kennedy that there should be a "gradual development of some form of accommodation with Castro".
In April 1963 Lisa Howard arrived in Cuba to make a documentary on the country. In an interview with Howard, Fidel Castro agreed that a rapprochement with Washington was desirable. On her return Howard met with the Central Intelligence Agency. Deputy Director Richard Helms reported to John F. Kennedy 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 US Government."
CIA Director John McCone was strongly opposed to Lisa Howard being involved with these negotiations with Castro. He argued that it might "leak and compromise a number of CIA operations against Castro". In a memorandum to McGeorge Bundy, McCone commented 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."
Arthur Schlesinger explained to Anthony Summers in 1978 why the CIA did not want John F. Kennedy to negotiate with Fidel Castro during the summer of 1963: "The CIA was reviving the assassination plots at the very time President Kennedy was considering the possibility of normalization of relations with Cuba - an extraordinary action. If it was not total incompetence - which in the case of the CIA cannot be excluded - it was a studied attempt to subvert national policy."
Lisa Howard now decided to bypass the CIA and in May, 1963, published an article in the journal, War and Peace Report, Howard wrote that in eight hours of private conversations Castro had shown that he had a strong 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." Howard went on to urge 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."
Attwood read Howard's article and on 12th September, 1963, he had a long conversation with her on the phone. This apparently set in motion a plan to initiate secret talks between the United States and Cuba. Six days later Attwood sent a memorandum to Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman and U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Attwood asked for permission to establish discreet, indirect contact with Fidel Castro.
On September 20, John F. Kennedy gave permission to authorize Attwood's direct contacts with Carlos Lechuga, the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. According to Attwood: "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." Howard met Lechuga at the UN on 23rd September 23. Howard invited Lechuga to come to a party at her Park Avenue apartment that night to meet Attwood.
The next day Attwood met with Robert Kennedy in Washington and reported on the talks with Lechuga. According to Attwood the attorney general 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, he thought the matter was "worth pursuing."
On 5th November 5, McGeorge Bundy recorded 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." Bundy designated his assistant, Gordon Chase, to be Attwood's direct contact at the White House.
Attwood continued to use Lisa Howard as his contact with Fidel Castro. In October 1963, Castro told Howard that he was very keen to open negotiations with Kennedy. Castro even offered to send a plane to Mexico to pick up Kennedy's representative and fly him to a private airport near Veradero where Castro would talk to him alone.
John F. Kennedy now decided to send Attwood to meet Castro. On 14th November, 1963, Lisa Howard conveyed this message to her Cuban contact. In an attempt to show his good will, Kennedy sent a coded message to Castro in a speech delivered on 19th November. The speech included the following passage: "Cuba had become a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics. This and this alone divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible."
Kennedy also sent a message to Fidel Castro via the French journalist Jean Daniel. According to Daniel: "Kennedy expressed some empathy for Castro's anti-Americanism, acknowledging that the United States had committed a number of sins in pre-revolutionary Cuba." Kennedy told Daniel that the trade embargo against Cuba could be lifted if Castro ended his support for left-wing movements in the Americas.
Daniel delivered this message on 19th November. Castro told Jean Daniel that Kennedy could become "the greatest president of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas." Daniel was with Castro when news arrived that Kennedy had been assassinated Castro turned to Daniel and said:"This is an end to your mission of peace. Everything is changed."
President Lyndon B. Johnson was told about these negotiations in December, 1963. He refused to continue these talks and claimed that the reason for this was that he feared that Richard Nixon, the expected Republican candidate for the presidency, would accuse him of being soft on communism.
Attwood also served as Ambassador to Kenya (1964-66). When President Jimmy Carter was elected to office, Attwood once again visited Cuba to meet Fidel Castro. When he returned, he reported to the new administration on Cuba's continuing interest in better relations with the United States.
William Attwood died in 1989.
In a report for Look after my January visit, I wrote, "We can thank our lucky stars that Castro was no Communist." This statement may sound naive today, but it was valid then. CIA Director Allen Dulles told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, "We do not think that Castro himself has any Communist leanings," but warned that he could lose control of the situation and that his brother Raul was "more irresponsible." Vice President Nixon, after meeting Castro in Washington in April, also said he was not a Communist but "a captive of the Communists." I doubt he was ever anyone's captive but he did publicly embrace Communist doctrine in 1961, after the Bay of Pigs, though not Soviet discipline. That June, Khrushchev told Kennedy that Castro was "not a Communist but U.S. policy could make him one."
In the spring of 1959, when he came to the States at the invitation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he got something of a hero's welcome. Even the Eisenhower Administration was prepared to discuss economic aid to Cuba, but his finance minister, Rufo Lopez Fresquet (who was to resign a year later), was instructed by Castro to reject any offer. "We did not come here for money," he loftily told the assembled American editors.
No one quite like him had yet appeared on the world stage, and I was curious to find out more about the man. So Sim and I and Andy St. George, a free-lance photographer who had covered the December fighting, flew to Havana on June 22 and stalked Castro until July 1, when we boarded his private plane and talked with him during the four-hour round trip to Camaguey. As I wrote later, "In some ways it's harder to find the man, now that he's prime minister, than it was a year ago when he was an outlaw hiding in the Sierra Maestra mountains. He is seldom in his office. His daily schedule changes from hour to hour as he rushes around the city and countryside. He sleeps when he feels like it, at odd hours and in a variety of beds. Sometimes he just disappears. I pity any Martian landing in Havana and asking a Cuban, 'Take me to your leader.' "
He was touring the provinces when we arrived, so I talked with a variety of people ranging from the rabid dowager crying, "I want to kill!" at a fund-raising party to hire assassins, all the way across the spectrum to Carlos Franqui, the bitterly revolutionary but anti-Communist editor of Revolucion, who believed in Fidel (as everyone called him-and still does) but worried about some of his new associates, like the Communist leader and later vice-president, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. Among the moderates still in the government, like Lopez Fresquet, who felt he should be running Cuba, I found more alarm about inefficiency and chronic disorganization than about communism, although brother Raul was suspected of helping the formerly anti-Castro Cuban Communists to infiltrate the power structure.
On the night of June 28 we got word that Fidel was returning to Havana at 2 a.m. and would be staying with his Girl Friday, Celia Sanchez. We went to her apartment building at nine, learned he was still asleep, fraternized with the languorous barbudos and eventually headed for the presidential palace, where he had scheduled a cabinet meeting for 1 p.m. We settled down for an all-day vigil in the company of hangers-on, favor seekers, vagabond Nicaraguans and genial but heavily armed guards. Just to fill time we visited with the president, Dr. Urrutria, who, as a reformist, deplored the radicalization of the revolution. He was forced to resign nineteen days later by Castro, who explained quite accurately that Urrutria was "not a revolutionary." Urrutria wisely sought and was granted political asylum in the Venezuelan Embassy.
Castro barged into the palace about 10 p.m. and told us to follow him. We got our car and sped off in pursuit of his, stopping as he did at red lights, and trailed him to the Hilton-where he showered in a suite and again dashed off into the night, suggesting we meet at Celia's in the morning.
But he never got there. A barbudo on duty said he might be at the Agrarian Reform Institute, where we found a roomful of impatient people waiting for him. He finally burst in, harangued them for an hour and stalked out, with us, a Prensa Latina reporter and two barbudos close behind. Out at Air Force headquarters, which turned out to be our destination, all was confusion. The Air Force commander, Major Pedro Diaz Lang, had just resigned (he later fled to the U.S.) in protest at Communist infiltration. Fidel, Raul, Camilo Cienfuegos and Armando Hart of the inner circle were in conference. We kept getting arrested and released by long-haired teenagers in green fatigues. Some pilots we talked to told us, sotto voce, that they agreed with Diaz. Finally, we gave up on Fidel and went back to the hotel to make plane reservations home.
At eight the next morning, Andy woke us to say a reporter from Revolucion had located Fidel at 4 A.m. and persuaded him to take us along to Camaguey, a two-hour flight in the presidential DC-3. We were at the airport at nine and took off when he appeared at noon. We started talking in a mix of Spanish and English as soon as we were airborne, but he seemed nervous and distracted and after a while suggested we resume on the way back.
At Camaguey, we squeezed into the bodyguards' car - where Sim was more welcome than Andy and I - and lunched at Major Huber Matos's house, where Fidel and I got into a discussion of the Okinawan campaign and the efficacy of flamethrowers, while Matos, who had fought with him against Batista, was having his hair cut by a daughter. (Three months later, Matos, an outspoken anti-Communist, resigned when Raul was put in charge of the armed forces, tried for treason as a "false revolutionary" and sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment; after his release he came to the United States.)
There followed a two-hour speech to a throng of cattlemen, worried landowners and adoring youths, after which our two-car caravan roared off to another meeting before reaching the airport after dark. On the way, a car cut in between Fidel and us bodyguards, but all our companions did was honk the horn, yell and pound the outside of our car with their guns. I asked why they hadn't shot out the tires of the intruding vehicle. It hadn't occurred to them; besides, the occupants turned out to be young fans who only wanted Fidel's autograph.
It had been a long day and, for him, a long night before. But in the plane he found the energy to talk with me at length. And some of what he said is worth repeating today.
He started (as he would in later talks we had over the years) by asking me questions. How many other chiefs of state had I interviewed? He stopped me when I mentioned Nasser and wanted to know if I detected a resemblance between them. "You seem to be a lot alike," I said, "except that you're much more disorganized."
He leaned back and nodded. "I know," he said. "I try to do too much." His cigar glowed in the dim light of the cabin. Then he bent forward and gripped my arm. "But remember, I am an emotional man!"
He also wanted to know if I'd been to Russia and other Communist countries, and how people fared and how officials lived.
When I told him at least 90 percent of the people in countries like Poland hated the system, he wanted to know why. I explained what a real police state, imposed by the Red Army was like. I mentioned the collective farms, where the state robbed farmers of their land and livestock, and the Communist elite, who lived like privileged despots.
"That's terrible," he said. "We don't want anything like that here. People must have something to call their own. Their leaders must live simply. We want Cubans to feel free."
Was it true, he asked, that people in Communist countries couldn't get out? And wasn't an American who went to Russia accused of being a Communist when he came home? When I told him the Russians were in effect prisoners in their own land and that fifteen thousand American tourists would be going to the Soviet Union in 1959, he seemed genuinely surprised. "This is very, very interesting," he said. "I should have more time to talk with people who travel and who know about these things."
On April 21, 1963, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security adviser, wrote a memorandum entitled "Cuban Alternatives" that made the point, heretofore overlooked, that Castro's death would lead to "singularly unpromising" consequences for U.S. policy, since he would almost certainly be succeeded by his brother Raul. And there was little doubt that Raul was far more likely than Fidel to follow the Soviet script to the letter.
Bundy's memorandum also identified three possible alternatives to continuing futile plots and pinpricks indefinitely: (i) forcing "a nonCommunist solution in Cuba by all necessary means"; (ii) insisting on "major but limited ends"; (iii) moving "in the direction of a gradual development of some form of accommodation with Castro."
The last alternative, which grew out of a January proposal from Bundy to Kennedy about exploring the possibility of communicating with Castro, was then accepted by a new committee, the Special Group, which had assumed responsibility within the White House for reviewing and approving covert actions in Cuba. Sabotage had all but ceased early in 1963. Yet in June-the same month Kennedy delivered his famous speech on making the world "safe for diversity"-a sabotage program designed to "nourish a spirit of resistance and disaffection" was approved in the White House, and thirteen major operations planned for the November 1963 January 1964 period.
What could we-or should we-have been doing instead?
Four realities had to be kept in mind, and weren't:
First, Fidel Castro's one-man revolution was improvised, erratic, whimsical at times, but pervasive - and fueled by passionate popular support. Politically, he was an impetuous radical revolutionary - too undisciplined to be the Communists' satrap but not averse to using them and parts of their doctrine, nor to turning to the Soviet Union for the aid and trade he needed to keep going. His avowal in December 1961 that he'd always been a Marxist was believed by no one who knew him well; but his pride compelled him to say he was neither an opportunist nor some wet-behind-the-ears recent convert to Lenin's teachings.
Second, the revolution he'd set in motion could never be reversed after 1959. To turn the clock back, as the exiles hoped to do, would have meant closing schools and clinics, taking shoes away from children, returning most sugar plantations to absentee landlords, reopening Havana's casinos and notorious brothels and denationalizing expropriated firms whose owners had by now fled. There was just no way. The social and economic transformation of Cuba was too far advanced. Even if the revolution was mismanaged, as it was, the Soviets seemed willing to bail out their protégée indefinitely by buying his sugar above market prices and selling him oil below market prices. As a result, Castro has cost them billions of rubles over the past quarter century; but why should this concern us?
Third, the Cuban exile community, augmented annually by Castro's shrewd policy of letting the disgruntled leave-with one suitcase each created a voting bloc in Florida and some northeastern states that soon carried weight with politicians. Denouncing Castro became a ritual for candidates in certain congressional districts, even though there were more brutal and corrupt dictators then in power all over Latin America.
Fourth, the only identifiable U.S. interests in Cuba were to retain our naval base at Guantanamo Bay (which we have) and to prevent Cuba from becoming a center for Soviet subversion of Latin America.
As it turned out, the Soviets preferred using traditional (and obedient) Communist parties for this purpose, and Castro's forays in the area were such failures that he all but gave up trying to export his revolution in mid-1964, by which time it had become somewhat tarnished by economic failures. Che Guevara, more restless and romantic, carried his revolutionary torch a while longer until his death in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967.
My hunch, buttressed by what I've read and heard, is that by mid 1959 it was too late for us to influence the course or the pace of the Cuban revolution. Castro, like a runaway horse with the bit in his teeth, was going all out. He barely found the time to see our able and generally sympathetic new career ambassador, Philip Bonsal, who replaced two successive pro-Batista political envoys, Arthur Gardner and Earl Smith. Bonsal hadn't given up on Castro in July, as I said earlier, but that was before Cienfuegos's mysterious disappearance, Urrutria's ouster and Matos's arrest and conviction.
In 1958, imaginative diplomacy on our part might have succeeded in persuading Batista to leave (as Marcos was persuaded twenty-eight years later) and allowing the democratic reformists to set up a government while Castro was still in the mountains-a government, backed by the army, in which his 26th of July Movement could play a role but not a commanding one-certainly until elections were held. I was told just such a course of action was proposed in Washington but flatly rejected by Ambassador Smith.
But if Fidel Castro was in fact committed to an anti-American policy, why did he sound so conciliatory in his talk with me? Indeed, why did he even bother to see me? The answer, I think, is that he had not yet turned against us (as he did, understandably, in 1960, when he learned of the Eisenhower Administration's preparations for the Bay of Pigs). He plausibly wanted normal diplomatic and trade relations with us, provided we didn't interfere with his revolutionary programs or even protest-as we did in May 1959 - the seizure of U.S. property without compensation under the new Agrarian Reform Law. Castro was erratic and, as he confessed to me, emotional. It was in character for him to say, "Let us be friends" - and mean it - even while taking economic and political actions in the name of the revolution that were certain to anger us.
My own view today is that our wisest policy would have been to accept the fact that Castro was firmly in control and treat him with benign indifference, letting him know our door was open if he wanted to talk (as I once told Sekou Toure). Harassing or insulting him served no American purpose and was also an unbecoming stance for a great power. After all, we held on to Guantanamo, even though he refused to accept the annual rental payment; we didn't need his sugar, and he was never a threat to our security except in our fevered political rhetoric. The missile crisis was a U.S.-U.S.S.R. stare-down, with Fidel as a bystander, furious when Khrushchev backed off; it was never a Cuban-American crisis. As for the lure of Castroism in Latin America, his efforts in that direction finally fizzled out in Caracas, and Castro turned his attention to agronomy. Look, which had opened a South American bureau in 1963 to cover the expected Fidelista penetration of the continent, closed it down two years later. Absent the specter of Fidelismo, readers of American mass magazines couldn't care less about that part of the world.
To sum up, our national interest was not served by a policy of unremitting hostility any more than it was in the eighties in Nicaragua. It merely isolated us progressively from the Organization of American States and, on the trade embargo, from our European allies, who continued to do business with Cuba. Even the Vatican has kept a papal nuncio in Havana through the years. We have managed to look both surly and scared and, since the Bay of Pigs, vengeful. Europeans often told me we kept slapping at Castro because he'd had the effrontery to thumb his nose at us, just ninety miles from our shores. All we really accomplished was to dispel the myth (to which some Americans still cling) that we are both innocent and omnipotent.
The foregoing considerations made me receptive to some signals I began picking up in September 1963 at the United Nations, where I was assigned to our delegation as special adviser on African affairs. Among my duties were keeping in touch with African delegates and trying to mitigate the effects of our frequent votes in favor of South African or Portuguese positions. (The lawyers who dominated our delegation persisted in viewing the General Assembly as a tidy parliamentary chamber or judicial body, which it certainly wasn't, instead of an unruly political convention where no one ever got nominated and scoring publicity points was the name of the game (along with letting off steam.) Even President Kennedy questioned our almost automatic support of Portugal, something the Pentagon insisted on to safeguard our bases in the Azores. (When I once mentioned to him that backing Portuguese colonialism hurt us in Black Africa, he mused aloud, "The navy keeps saying the Azores are vital to our security. But I bet they'd find an alternative if the Azores disappeared in a tidal wave.")
Anyway, on September 5, I was talking Africa with Lisa Howard, an ABC correspondent, who told me she'd recently interviewed Castro in Havana and was convinced he'd like to restore communications with the U.S. She offered to arrange a social gathering at her apartment where I could meet casually and informally with Carlos Lechuga, Cuba's representative at the U.N.
I told her I'd let her know, on the understanding that she would keep all such contacts confidential in exchange for exclusivity if there should be a story to be told somewhere down the road. But her impression reminded me of something Sekou Toure said to me during the 1962 missile crisis: "I'm sorry for Castro. I think he is a nationalist and a neutralist at heart, whatever he sometimes says. But he had neither the intellectual training nor the ideological experience to understand the Communists. I did-in the trade union movement-so I know how they operate. But Castro is naive and has allowed himself to be used by them. Even so, if you are flexible, I think he can be brought back to a neutralist position."
This could be the moment to be flexible, and in Washington a week later I mentioned the possibility of sounding out Lechuga to Averell Harriman, then an assistant secretary of state. He was intrigued and asked me to do a memo on it. Ken Galbraith, back from India and returning to Harvard, told me Harriman, rather than Stevenson, was the man to see in order to get the president's attention.
On September 17, I ran into Seydou Diallo, Guinea's ambassador to Cuba, in the Delegates' Lounge, and he volunteered the information that Cuba's economy was in a slump and Castro would soon be amenable to some sort of agreement with us. "He is salvageable," he said. "Give him another three months." Other Africans I talked to expressed generally the same view.
That day I wrote a "Memorandum on Cuba," based on the premise that the policy of isolating Cuba not only intensified Castro's desire to cause trouble but froze the United States before the world "in the unattractive posture of a big country trying to bully a small country."
According to neutral diplomats I have talked to at the U.N., there is reason to believe that Castro is unhappy about his present dependence on the Soviet Union; that he does not enjoy in effect being a satellite; that our trade embargo is hurting him-though not enough to endanger his position; and that he would like to establish some official contact with the United States and would go to some length to obtain normalization of relations with us-even though this would not be welcomed by most of his hard-core Communist entourage ...
All of this may or may not be true. But 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 ...
What I am proposing is a discreet inquiry into neutralizing Cuba on our terms. It is based on the assumption that, short of a change of regime, our principal political objectives in Cuba are: i. The evacuation of all Soviet bloc military personnel. ii. An end to subversive activities by Cuba in Latin America. iii. Adoption by Cuba of a policy of nonalignment.
I suggested the time and place for this inquiry were the current session of the U.N. General Assembly and that, having visited Cuba and talked with Castro in 1959, it would be natural for me to meet informally with Lechuga. If Castro was interested, one thing might lead to another: "For the moment, all I would like is the authority to make contact with Lechuga. We'll see what happens then."
On September 17, I ran into Seydou Diallo, Guinea's ambassador to Cuba, in the Delegates' Lounge, and he volunteered the information that Cuba's economy was in a slump and Castro would soon be amenable to some sort of agreement with us. "He is salvageable," he said. "Give him another three months." Other Africans I talked to expressed generally the same view.
That day I wrote a "Memorandum on Cuba," based on the premise that the policy of isolating Cuba not only intensified Castro's desire to cause trouble but froze the United States before the world "in the unattractive posture of a big country trying to bully a small country."
The next day, I showed the memorandum to Stevenson, who liked it. "Unfortunately," he said, "the CIA is still in charge of Cuba." But he offered to take it up with the president. Harriman was in New York on the nineteenth, so I gave him a copy too. He said he was "adventuresome enough" to be interested but urged me to see Bob Kennedy, whose approval would be essential. I called Kennedy and got an appointment to see him on the twenty-fourth.
Meanwhile, Stevenson told me he had talked to the president about the Cuban initiative when he came to New York on the twentieth to address the General Assembly, and got his agreement to go ahead. For some reason, Stevenson was not keen on my seeing Robert Kennedy, but I trusted Harriman's instincts. Bob had been deeply involved in our Cuban relations and would expect to be consulted about this gambit; also, he had his brother's ear as did no one else.
I did tell Lisa to organize her cocktail party, and on the twenty-third Lechuga and I found ourselves talking about Fidel and the revolution in a corner of her apartment. He said Castro had hoped to establish some sort of contact with Kennedy after he became president in 1961, but the Bay of Pigs ended any chance of that, at least for the time being. But Castro had read Kennedy's American University speech in June and had liked its tone. I mentioned my Havana visit in 1959 and Fidel's "Let us be friends" remark in our conversation. Lechuga said another such conversation in Havana could be useful and might be arranged. He expressed irritation at the continuing exile raids and our freezing $33 million in Cuban assets in U.S. banks in July. We agreed the present situation was abnormal and we should keep in touch.
On the twenty-fourth I flew to Washington, gave Bob Kennedy my memo, which he read, and told him of my talk with Lechuga the night before. He said my going to Cuba, as Lechuga had mentioned, was too risky-it was bound to leak-and if nothing came of it the Republicans would call it appeasement and demand a congressional investigation. But he thought the matter was worth pursuing at the U.N. and perhaps even with Castro some place outside Cuba. He said he'd consult with Harriman and McGeorge Bundy.
On the twenty-seventh I met Lechuga in the U.N. Delegates' Lounge-always a good place for discreet encounters because of its noise and confusion-and said it would be difficult for me, in my present capacity as a government official, to accept an invitation to Cuba; however, I was authorized to talk to anyone who came here from Havana. He said he'd pass my message along. Meanwhile, he warned me he'd be making a tough anti-American speech on October 7, but not to take it too seriously.
On October 2, Bundy called to say that Gordon Chase, one of his deputies, would be my White House contact and to keep him informed.
The next day, I lunched with an old friend, Jean Daniel, the editor of the French socialist newsweekly L'Observateur, who said he was going to Washington and then Havana to see Castro, who he had reason to believe would now be receptive to some bold diplomacy from our side. I called Ben Bradlee, then Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, who knew Daniel, and suggested he try to get him an appointment with the president.
On the seventh, Lechuga made his speech, denouncing our trade embargo and the exile raids as warlike acts. It got a lot of applause, even from the moderates, who instinctively sympathized with a small country standing up to a superpower. Stevenson had asked me for a draft of a reply, in which he said that Castro could have peace with all his neighbors if he stopped trying to subvert other nations and taking orders from Moscow and instead started honoring the original democratic pledges of his revolution.
On October 19, a Greek town planner named Doxiades, just back from Havana, dropped in to tell me Castro was sincerely interested in normalizing relations with us.
Two days later Chase called and I told him the ball was still in Lechuga's court.
On the twenty-fourth, the president saw Daniel after Bradlee told him of his forthcoming trip to Cuba. Kennedy blamed our pro-Batista policy in the fifties for "economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation" and added, "We'll have to pay for those sins." But he said the Cuban problem now had a Soviet dimension in that Castro was doing the Kremlin's bidding and acting as its agent in Latin America: "The continuation of our economic blockade depends on his continuation of subversive activities." But as Daniel wrote later, "I could see plainly that John Kennedy had doubts and was seeking a way out."
On the twenty-eighth, Lechuga told me Havana didn't see how formal talks could be useful just now but he'd be glad to continue chatting with me anyway. Lisa Howard had meanwhile been in touch by phone with Castro's personal aide, Major Rene Vallejo. He told her Castro did want to talk personally and privately to us about improving relations and was glad we were ready to listen. She told him about our proposal for a meeting at the U.N., but Vallejo said Castro couldn't leave Cuba just now.
On the thirty-first, Vallejo called her back and said Castro would like a U.S. official to come and see him alone. He appreciated the importance of discretion and therefore offered to send a plane to fly the official to a private airport near Varadero, where no one else would see him. She told him I was the official concerned and would get in touch.
I kept Stevenson informed and also called Chase, who told me on November 4 to come to the White House the next day. There, I briefed him and Bundy on Vallejo's message to Lisa. Bundy said the president was more interested in this Cuban exercise than was the State Department. (I knew he could see the political advantage of possibly weaning Castro away from the Soviet fold.) He asked for a chronological memorandum describing all the exchanges that had taken place since my first talk with Lisa.
On the twelfth, she told me Vallejo had phoned again suggesting I come to Varadero from Key West on an American plane, which was bound to attract less attention than a Cuban plane in Florida. Bundy then called, reiterating that the president favored a preliminary discussion about an agenda, perhaps with Vallejo, at the U.N.-and to call Cuba and tell him so.
During the next four days I tried to reach Vallejo but either the circuit was out or he was. Finally, on the eighteenth, I spoke to him at 2 A.M. and told him the White House position. He said Castro would send instructions to Lechuga to discuss an agenda with me. He spoke fluent English and called me "sir." (Many years later, Castro told me he was listening in on our conversation.)
I reported to Bundy in the morning. He said once an agenda had been agreed upon, the president would want to see me and decide what to say to Castro. He said the president would be making a brief trip to Dallas but otherwise planned to be in Washington.
Meanwhile, in a speech the day before, the president said of Cuba that it had become "a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics. This and this alone divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible." Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who helped in the preparation of this speech, said it was intended to help me by signaling to Castro that normalization was possible if Cuba simply stopped doing the Kremlin's work in Latin America (such as trying to sabotage-vainly, as it turned out-the upcoming Venezuelan elections).
Daniel saw Castro on November 20 and told him of his meeting with Kennedy. He found the Cuban leader thoughtful and attentive; he had Daniel repeat what Kennedy had said about Batista. "He has come to understand many things over the past few months," Castro concluded, adding, "As a revolutionary, the present situation does not displease me. But as a man and a statesman, it is my duty to indicate what the bases for understanding could be."
They met again on the twenty-second, just as the news of Kennedy's assassination was broadcast. Castro seemed stunned. "Es una mala noticia, " he murmured. "This is bad news. This is a serious matter, an extremely serious matter. There is the end of your mission of peace." And later: "At least Kennedy was an enemy to whom we had become accustomed."
He also predicted to Daniel that the Cubans would be blamed for it, as they were for several days after the murder. What Fidel did not know was that Desmond FitzGerald, a senior CIA official, was on that very day, in Paris, giving Rolando Cubela, whose code name was AM/ LASH, a poison pen with which to kill Castro. There is no evidence that Kennedy knew this either. And indeed, what motive would either of them have in plotting the death of someone they were planning to communicate with?
One thing was clear: Stevenson was right when he told me back in September that "the CIA is in charge of Cuba"; or anyway, acted as if it thought it was, and to hell with the president it was pledged to serve.
After November 22, the Cuban exercise was gradually laid to rest by our side. On the twenty-ninth, I told Lisa, who was seeing Lechuga, that I had no instructions yet to call it off. On December 2, Lechuga confirmed getting a message from Vallejo authorizing him to talk to me "in general terms"-and had I heard anything from Washington? I called Chase and said the next move was up to us.
Two days later, Lechuga approached me in the Delegates' Lounge to say he now had a letter from Fidel himself, instructing him to talk with me about a specific agenda. I called Chase, who replied all policies were now under review and to be patient.
Jean Daniel returned from Cuba that week, convinced that Fidel wanted to reach a modus vivendi with us. I phoned Schlesinger and Chase at the White House and arranged an appointment for Daniel with Bundy.
On the twelfth, I told Lechuga to be patient and that so far as I knew, we weren't closing the door. (Neither of us knew then that it would be six years before we would meet again-in Havana.)
The General Assembly was coming to an end, and the next day I finally had the satisfaction of casting a vote in the Fourth Committee against South Africa on the question of self-determination for Namibia, which was (and still is) illegally occupied by the South Africans.
President Johnson came to New York and lunched with our delegation after reassuring the General Assembly that he'd be carrying on Kennedy's policies. At lunch, he told me he'd read my chronological account of our Cuban initiative "with interest."
And that was it. I was named ambassador to Kenya in January, and during my Washington briefings I saw Chase, who told me there was apparently no desire among the Johnson people to do anything about Cuba in an election year.
On April 7, Johnson did decide to discontinue the CIA-controlled sabotage raids against Cuba, which John McCone, the CIA director, interpreted as giving up our long-standing objective of overthrowing the regime. Later, Johnson was quoted in an interview as saying that when he took office he had discovered that "we had been operating a damned Murder, Inc., in the Caribbean."
What part, if any, our Cuban gambit played in Kennedy's assassination is the kind of question that now seems pointless to raise. While we kept the exercise under wraps (apparently not even the secretary of state was fully apprised), the CIA must have had an inkling of what was happening from phone taps and surveillance of Lechuga. The news could then have trickled down to the frustrated Bay of Pigs veterans still huddled around their CIA case officers, still hoping for another invasion attempt. An accommodation would have dashed these hopes. Many Cuban adventurers like Frank Fiorini, alias Frank Sturgis, who would wind up working the catacombs of Watergate, could easily have been aroused by what Schlesinger has referred to as "a broadside of unknown origin that told Cuban exiles in Miami that 'only one development' would return them to their homeland - 'if an inspired Act of God should place in the White House within weeks a Texan known to be a friend of all Latin Americans."'
Aroused enough to help perform the "act"? I don't know and don't care to speculate about it.
Following is a chronology of events leading up to Castro’s invitation on October 31, to receive a U.S. official for talks in Cuba:
Soon after joining the U.S. Mission to the U.N. on August 26, I met Seydou Diallo, the Guinea Ambassador to Havana, whom I had known well in Conakray. [Attwood had been U.S. Ambassador to Guinea from March 1961 to May 1963].
He went out of his way to tell me that Castro was isolated from contact with neutralist diplomats by his “Communist entourage”….He, Diallo, had finally been able to see Castro alone once and was convinced he was personally receptive to changing courses and getting Cuba on the road to non-alignment….
In the first week of September, I also read ABC correspondent, Lisa Howard’s article, “Castro’s Overture,” [In War/Peace Report, September, 1963] based on her conversation with Castro last April. This article stressed Castro’s expressed desire for reaching an accommodation with the United States and a willingness to make substantial concessions to this end. On September 12, I talked with Miss Howard, whom I have known for some years, and she echoed Ambassador Diallo’s opinion that there was a rift between Castro and the Guevara-Hart-Alveida group on the question of Cuba’s future course.
On September 12, I discussed this with Under Secretary Harriman in Washington. He suggested I prepare a memo and we arranged to meet in New York the following week.
On September 18, I wrote a memorandum based on these talks and on corroborating information I had heard in Conakry…..
On September 23, I met Dr. Lechuga at Miss Howard’s apartment. She has been on good terms with Lechuga since her visit with Castro and invited him for a drink to met [sic] some friends who had also been to Cuba. I was just one of those friends. In the course of our conversation, which started with recollections of my own talks with Castro in 1959, I mentioned having read Miss Howard’s article. Lechuga hinted that Castro was indeed in a mood to talk. I told him that in my present position, I would need official authorization to make such a trip, and did not know if it would be forthcoming. However, I said an exchange of views might well be useful and that I would find out and let him know.
On September 24, I saw the Attorney-General in Washington, and gave him my September 18 memo, and reported my meeting with Lechuga. He said he would pass the memo on to Mr. McGeorge Bundy;…..
On September 27, I ran into Lechuga at the United Nations, where he was doing a television interview in the lobby with Miss Howard. I told him that I had discussed our talk in Washingon,….Meanwhile, he forewarned me that he would be making a ‘hard’ anti-U.S. speech in the United Nations on October 7.
On October 18, at dinner at the home of Mrs. Eugene Meyer, I talked with Mr. C.A. Doxiades, a noted Greek architect and town-planner, who had just returned from an architects congress in Havana, where he had talked alone to both Castro and Guevara, among others. He sought me out, as a government official, to say he was convinced Castro would welcome normalization of relations with the United States if he could do so without losing too much face….
On October 20, Miss Howard asked me if she might call Major Rene Vallejo, a Cuban surgeon who is also Castro’s current right-hand man and confidant. She said Vallejo helped her see Castro and made it plain to her he opposed the Guevara group. They became friends and talked on the phone several times since the interview….
On October 21, Gordon Chase called me from the White House in connection with my September 18 memo. I brought him up to date and said the ball was in his court.
On October 28, I ran into Lechuga in the U.N. Delegates Lounge….I said it was up to him and he could call me if he felt like it. He wrote down my extension.
On October 29, Vallejo again called Miss Howard at home…
On October 31, Vallejo called Miss Howard, apologizing for the delay and saying he had been out of town with Castro and “could not get to a phone from which I could call you.” He said Castro would very much like to talk to the U.S. official anytime and appreciated the importance of discretion to all concerned….
On November 1, Miss Howard reported the Vallejo call to me and I repeated it to Chase on November 4.
On November 5, I met with Bundy and Chase at the White House and informed them of the foregoing. The next day, Chase called and asked me to put it in writing.
If the CIA did find out what we were doing, this would have trickled down to the lower echelon of activists, and Cuban exiles, and the more gung-ho CIA people who had been involved since the Bay of Pigs. If word of a possible normalization of relations with Cuba leaked to these people, I can understand why they would have reacted so violently. This was the end of their dreams of returning to Cuba, and they might have been impelled to take violent action. Such as assassinating the President.
By 1963 he (Kennedy) had learned a great deal. He would have become a great president." (Castro recalled my exploratory talks at the U.N. and felt Kennedy was killed by certain elements, including Cuban exiles, who feared U.S. policy in Cuba and Vietnam was about to change. He mentioned Lee Harvey Oswald's vain attempt to get a Cuban tourist visa as a possible provocation aimed at pinning the murder on Castro ("Was it even Oswald who applied?") and suggested I read the material Cuba turned over to the Warren Commission.
On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the eve of the broadcast of a new documentary film on Kennedy and Castro, the National Security Archive today posted an audio tape of the President and his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, discussing the possibility of a secret meeting in Havana with Castro. The tape, dated only seventeen days before Kennedy was shot in Dallas, records a briefing from Bundy on Castro's invitation to a US official at the United Nations, William Attwood, to come to Havana for secret talks on improving relations with Washington. The tape captures President Kennedy's approval if official US involvement could be plausibly denied.
The possibility of a meeting in Havana evolved from a shift in the President's thinking on the possibility of what declassified White House records called "an accommodation with Castro" in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Proposals from Bundy's office in the spring of 1963 called for pursuing "the sweet approach…enticing Castro over to us," as a potentially more successful policy than CIA covert efforts to overthrow his regime. Top Secret White House memos record Kennedy's position that "we should start thinking along more flexible lines" and that "the president, himself, is very interested in (the prospect for negotiations)." Castro, too, appeared interested. In a May 1963 ABC News special on Cuba, Castro told correspondent Lisa Howard that he considered a rapprochement with Washington "possible if the United States government wishes it. In that case," he said, "we would be agreed to seek and find a basis" for improved relations.
1. Please tell President Johnson that I earnestly desire his election to the Presidency in November… though that appears assured. But if there is anything I can do to add to his majority (aside from retiring from politics), I shall be happy to cooperate. Seriously, I observe how the Republicans use Cuba as a weapon against the Democrats. So tell President Johnson to let me know what I can do, if anything. Naturally, I know that my offer of assistance would be of immense value to the Republicans - so this would remain our secret. But if the President wishes to pass word to me he can do so through you (Lisa Howard). He must know that he can trust you; and I know that I can trust you to relay a message accurately.
2. If the President feels it necessary during the campaign to make bellicose statements about Cuba or even to take some hostile action - if he will inform me, unofficially, that a specific action is required because of domestic political considerations, I shall understand and not take any serious retaliatory action.
3. Tell the President that I understand quite well how much political courage it took for President Kennedy to instruct you (Lisa Howard) and Ambassador Attwood to phone my aide in Havana for the purpose of commencing a dialogue toward a settlement of our differences. Ambassador Attwood suggested that I prepare an agenda for such talks and send the agenda to my U.N. Ambassador. That was on November 18th. The agenda was being prepared when word arrived that President Kennedy was assassinated. I hope that we can soon continue where Ambassador Attwood's phone conversation to Havana left off… though I'm aware that pre-electoral political considerations may delay this approach until after November.
4. Tell the President (and I cannot stress this too strongly) that I seriously hope that Cuba and the United states can eventually respect and negotiate our differences. I believe that there are no areas of contention between us that cannot be discussed and settled within a climate of mutual understanding. But first, of course, it is necessary to discuss our differences. I now believe that this hostility between Cuba and the United States is both unnatural and unnecessary - and it can be eliminated.
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. We are not weak… the Revolution is strong… very strong. Nothing, absolutely nothing that the Untied States can do will destroy the Revolution. Yes, we are strong. And it is from this position of strength that we wish to resolve our differences with the United States and to live in peace with all the nations of the world.
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.
The impact of present US policy 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... 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.
The CIA was reviving the assassination plots at the very time President Kennedy was considering the possibility of normalization of relations with Cuba - an extraordinary action. If it was not total incompetence - which in the case of the CIA cannot be excluded - it was a studied attempt to subvert national policy.... I think the CIA must have known about this initiative. They must certainly have realized that Bill Attwood and the Cuban representative to the U.N. were doing more than exchanging daiquiri recipes…They had all the wires tapped at the Cuban delegation to the United Nations….Undoubtedly if word leaked of President Kennedy’s efforts, that might have been exactly the kind of thing to trigger some explosion of fanatical violence. It seems to me a possibility not to be excluded.
President Kennedy received me at the White House on Thursday, October 24. My appointment had been scheduled for 5:30. I waited in the Cabinet Conference Room, and at 5:45 the President, following his usual custom, came to look for me himself so that he could escort me into his office. He apologized for the delay, not so much as a courtesy or to flatter me, but to explain the scheduling of his time, which seemed to be very strictly organized. As we passed through the small room where his secretary was working, we caught a glimpse of Mrs. Kennedy leaving by a French window on her way to the private garden of the White House. The President called her back to introduce me.
It was still Indian summer in Washington. The weather was very warm, and both the President and Mrs. Kennedy were very lightly dressed, thus enhancing the impression of youth, charm, and simplicity which was in rather surprising contrast to the solemnity of entering these august chambers. The President (athletic looking in his well-tailored suit, speaking with quick, abrupt gestures and a mobile expression but, at times, freezing up and becoming disconcertingly, almost, I would say, completely expressionless) invited me to be seated on the semi-circular sofa which was in the middle of his office. He sat in a rocking chair opposite the sofa. The interview was to last from 20 to 25 minutes, and it was interrupted only by a brief telephone call...
I brought up the subject of Vietnam and Cuba, saying that the Gaullists were not the only ones in France who deplored certain mistaken US policies. I pointed out that the first time I had the opportunity of meeting John Kennedy, he was a Senator and had just made a resounding speech on the subject of Algeria. Had the ideas set forth in that speech been faithfully applied in Saigon and Havana? Here my notes are very specific, and I shall let the late President speak through them.
“We haven’t enough time to talk about Vietnam, but I’d like to talk to you about Cuba. Incidentally, our conversation will be much more interesting when you return, because Ben Bradlee (of Newsweek) tells me you are on your way to Cuba now.
“Every now and then I read articles in the European press pointing out that we Americans were blind to what was happening in the Cuban situation. I have just learned that General de Gaulle himself regarded Communism in Cuba as nothing but the accidental and temporary form of a will to independence from the United States. Of course it is very easy to understand this ‘will to independence’ around President de Gaulle.”
John Kennedy then mustered all his persuasive force. He punctuated each sentence with the brief, mechanical gesture which had become famous:
“I tell you this: we know perfectly well what happened in Cuba, to the misfortune of all. From the beginning I personally followed the development of these events with mounting concern. There are few subjects to which I have devoted more painstaking attention. My conclusions go much further than the European analyses. Here is what I believe.
“I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it. I believe that the accumulation of these mistakes has jeopardized all of Latin America. The great aim of the Alliance for Progress is to reverse this unfortunate policy. This is one of the most, if not the most, important problems in America foreign policy. I can assure you that I have understood the Cubans. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will go even further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.”
After a silence during which he was able to note my surprise and my interest, the President continued: “But it is also clear that the problem has ceased to be a Cuban one, and has become international - that is, it has become a Soviet problem. I am the President of the United States and not a sociologist; I am the President of a free nation which has certain responsibilities in the Free World. I know that Castro betrayed the promises made in the Sierra Maestra, and that he has agreed to be a Soviet agent in Latin America. I know that through his fault - either his ‘will to independence’, his madness or Communism - the world was on the verge of nuclear war in October, 1962. The Russians understood this very well, at least after our reaction; but so far as Fidel Castro is concerned, I must say that I don’t know whether he realizes this, or even if he cares about it.” A smile, then: “You can tell me whether he does when you come back. In any case, the nations of Latin America are not going to attain justice and progress that way, I mean through Communist subversion. They won’t get there by going from economic oppression to a Marxist dictatorship which Castro himself denounced a few years ago. The United States now has the possibility of doing as much good in Latin America as it has done wrong in the past; I would even say that we alone have this power - on the essential condition that Communism does not take over there.”
Mr. Kennedy then rose to indicate that the interview was over. I apologized for keeping him to ask two quick questions. The first: Could the United States tolerate economic collectivism? He answered: “What about Sekou Touré? And Tito? I received Marshal Tito three days ago, and our discussions were more positive.” Second question: What does the American government expect to gain from the blockade? Is the economic isolation of Cuba a punishment or a political maneuver?
Kennedy’s reply: “Are you suggesting that the political effectiveness of the blockade is uncertain? You will see when you go to Cuba whether it is or not. In any case, we can’t let Communist subversion win in the other Latin American countries. Two dikes are needed to contain Soviet expansion: the blockade on the one hand, a tremendous effort toward progress on the other. This is the problem in a nutshell. Both battles are equally difficult.” Then a last comment: “The continuation of the blockade depends on the continuation of subversive activities.”
The interview was over. I did not really wish to suggest anything, since I had never been to Cuba and, on the other hand, I had heard from all sides tales of the privations the Cuban people were suffering owing to their isolated economic situation. But I could see plainly that John Kennedy had doubts, and was seeking a way out.
That same evening I recounted this conversation in detail to an American colleague - an intimate friend of President Kennedy, through whom I had obtained this interview - and to the editor of The New Republic. Both my confidants, who knew the President a thousand times better than I, agreed that John F. Kennedy had never before expressed himself so specifically and with such feeling on his understanding of the first phase of the Castro revolution. They hesitated to draw any political conclusions from his remarks. However, they were not surprised at Kennedy’s invitation to come and see him again when I returned from Cuba.
In February 1996, Robert Kennedy Jr. and his brother, Michael, traveled to Havana to meet with Fidel Castro. As a gesture of goodwill, they brought a file of formerly top secret US documents on the Kennedy administration's covert exploration of an accommodation with Cuba - a record of what might have been had not Lee Harvey Oswald, seemingly believing the president to be an implacable foe of Castro's Cuba, fired his fateful shots in Dallas. Castro thanked them for the file and shared his "impression that it was (President Kennedy's) intention after the missile crisis to change the framework" of relations between the United States and Cuba. "It's unfortunate," said Castro, that "things happened as they did, and he could not do what he wanted to do."
Would John F. Kennedy, had he lived, have been able to establish a modus vivendi with Fidel Castro? The question haunts almost 40 years of acrimonious U.S.-Cuba relations. In a Top Secret - Eyes Only memorandum written three days after the president's death, one of his White House aides, Gordon Chase, noted that "President Kennedy could have accommodated with Castro and gotten away with it with a minimum of domestic heat"--because of his track record "of being successfully nasty to Castro and the Communists" during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Castro and his advisers believed the same. A CIA intelligence report, based on a high-level Cuban source and written for National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy in 1964, noted that "Fidel Castro felt that it was possible that President Kennedy would have gone on ultimately to negotiate with Cuba... (as an) acceptance of a fait accompli for practical reasons."
The file on the Kennedy administration's "Cuban contacts" that Robert Jr. and Michael took to Cuba (declassified at the request of the author) sheds significant light on a story that has never been fully told - John Kennedy's secret pursuit of a rapprochement with Fidel Castro. Along with papers recently released pursuant to the Kennedy Assassination Records Act of 1992, the documents reveal the escalating efforts toward negotiations in 1963 that, if successful, might have changed the ensuing decades of perpetual hostility between Washington and Havana. Given the continuing state of tension with Castro's regime, this history carries an immediate relevance for present policy makers. Indeed, with the Clinton administration buffeted between increasingly vocal critics of U.S. policy toward Cuba and powerful proponents of the status quo, reconstructing the hitherto secret record of Kennedy's efforts in the fall of 1963 to advance "the rapprochement track" with Castro is more relevant than ever.
John F. Kennedy would seem the most unlikely of presidents to seek an accommodation with Fidel Castro. His tragically abbreviated administration bore responsibility for some of the most infamous U.S. efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution: the Bay of Pigs invasion, the trade embargo, Operation Mongoose (a U.S. plan to destabilize the Castro government) and a series of CIA-Mafia assassination attempts against the Cuban leader. Castro's demise, Seymour M. Hersh argues in his book, The Dark Side of Camelot, "became a presidential obsession" until the end. "The top priority in the United States government - all else is secondary - no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared" is to find a "solution" to the Cuba problem, Attorney General Robert Kennedy told a high-level group of CIA and Pentagon officials in early 1962. The president's opinion, according to CIA minutes of the meeting, was that "the final chapter (on Cuba) has not been written."
Unbeknownst to all but his brother and a handful of advisers, however, in 1963 John Kennedy began pursuing an alternative script on Cuba: a secret dialogue toward an actual rapprochement with Castro. To a policy built upon "overt and covert nastiness," as Top Secret White House memoranda characterized U.S. operations against Cuba, was added "the sweet approach," meaning the possibility of "quietly enticing Castro over to us." National Security Council officials referred to this multitrack policy as "simil-opting"--the use of disparate methods toward the goal of moving Cuba out of the Soviet orbit...
Which country initiated the secret dialogue in the fall of 1963 remains a subject of historical dispute. The feelers toward a rapprochement "originally came, one might say, from their side," testified William Attwood, the key U.S. official involved in the subsequent talks, in a top secret deposition in 1975. In an interview, Cuba's former ambassador to the United Nations, Carlos Lechuga, insisted that "this was a Kennedy initiative, not Cuba's."
A year later, Lisa Howard died under suspicious circumstances. Her death was attributed to suicide. Supposedly she took one hundred phenobarbitols at mid-day in a parking lot where she was found wandering in a daze. She had been fired because she had "chosen to participate publicly in partisan political activity contrary to long established established ABC news policy." Suspicions about her death"..... if ever substantiated.....would make her the second female news reporter (after Dorothy Kilgallen) whom assassination critics suspect was silenced because of her knowledge of the assassination."
Before her death, Lisa turned against Robert Kennedy, who was running for the U.S. Senate in New York. At a group meeting she organized with Gore Vidal in support of the incumbent Senator Keating, Bobby was described as " the very antithesis of his brother....ruthless, reactionary, and dangerously authoritarian." Explaining her reasons for forming the group she said, "if you feel strongly about something like this you can't remain silent. You have to show courage, and stand up and be counted." After ABC fired her she continued her "partisan political activity" remarking in a debate over Robert Kennedy that "Brothers are not necessarily the same....There was Cain and Abel." An interesting comparison.
In the wake of the Kennedy assassination there have been many more deaths than those of Mary Pinchot, Lisa Howard, and Dorothy Kilgallen. District Attorney Jim Garrison, of New Orleans, who investigated the Kennedy assassination said that "witnesses in this case do have a habit of dying at the most inconvenient times... a London insurance firm has prepared an acturial chart on the likelihood of 20 of the people involved in this case dying within 3 years of the assassination and found the odds 30 trillion to one.
There can be little doubt that the Kennedy assassination occurred because the young President's dream of peace. He had come to believe that his dream was possible and was killed because he took steps to bring it about.
It was March 1963, the height of the Cold War - a time of covert U.S. government assassination plots against Fidel Castro, Kennedy administration-sponsored exile raids and sabotage missions directed at Cuba.
It was also a time when Castro - still smarting from Moscow's failure to consult him about the withdrawal of missiles from the island in 1962 - was sending feelers to Washington about Cuba's interest in rapprochement.
President John F. Kennedy responded by overruling the State Department's position that Cuba break its ties with Soviet bloc nations as a precondition for talks on normal relations, according to an account to be published this week in the October issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine.
"The President himself is very interested in this one,'' says a March 1963 top-secret White House memo. ``The President does not agree that we should make the breaking of Sino-Soviet ties a non-negotiable point. We don't want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill. We should start thinking along more flexible lines.''
The article, JFK and Castro: The Secret Quest for Accommodation, is based on recently declassified documents and written by Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institute. It traces the secret U.S.-Cuban contacts during the last months of the Kennedy administration and into the Johnson administration.
Although the general outlines of the contacts have been known, the account adds considerable detail, particularly the key role played by the late ABC correspondent Lisa Howard, who interviewed Castro in April 1963.
In addition to Howard, key players were McGeorge Bundy, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' national security advisor, his assistant Gordon Chase and William Attwood, former Look magazine editor who at the time was an advisor to the U.S. mission at the United Nations.
On the Cuban side, the principal players were Carlos Lechuga, Cuba's U.N. ambassador, and Rene Vallejo, Castro's personal physician.
Initial overtures from Castro to Washington in late 1962 had been made through New York lawyer James Donovan, who had been enlisted by the Kennedy administration to negotiate the release of Bay of Pigs prisoners.
Efforts at normalization languished, however, until the involvement of Howard and Attwood started to bear fruit in the latter part of 1963.
In September, Attwood was authorized to have direct contacts with Lechuga, which were arranged by Howard at a Sept. 23 reception in her New York apartment. Attwood was to subsequently confer with Vallejo by telephone from Howard's apartment or she would relay messages between the two.
At one point, Vallejo conveyed a message to Attwood through Howard that said, "Castro would like to talk to the U.S. official anytime and appreciates 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 Varadero where Castro would talk to him alone. The plane would fly him back immediately.''
The invitation touched off a debate within the White House, with President Kennedy's position being that "it did not seem practicable'' to send an American official to Cuba "at this stage.''
Even so, the contacts continued to gain momentum until Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, when the "Attwood-Lechuga tie line'' was put on hold, with White House aides concerned that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald's reported pro-Castro sympathies would make an accommodation more difficult.
The back-channel contacts continued under President Lyndon Johnson through 1964, according to Kornbluh, but fizzled out in late 1964 as the fall presidential elections approached, despite ongoing efforts by Howard to keep them alive.
In December 1964, Howard made her final and unsuccessful effort by trying to arrange a meeting in New York between U.S. officials and Ernesto "Che'' Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary.
A few days before his assassination, President Kennedy was planning a meeting with Cuban officials to negotiate the normalisation of relations with Fidel Castro, according to a newly declassified tape and White House documents.
The rapprochement was cut off in Dallas 40 years ago this week by Lee Harvey Oswald, who appears to have believed he was assassinating the president in the interests of the Cuban revolution.
But the new evidence suggests that Castro saw Kennedy's killing as a setback. He tried to restart a dialogue with the next administration, but Lyndon Johnson was at first too concerned about appearing soft on communism and later too distracted by Vietnam to respond.
A later attempt to restore normal relations by President Carter was defeated by a rightwing backlash, and since then any move towards lifting the Cuban trade embargo has been opposed by Cuban exile groups, who wield disproportionate political power from Florida.
Peter Kornbluh, a researcher at Washington's National Security Archives who has reviewed the new evidence, said: "It shows that the whole history of US-Cuban relations might have been quite different if Kennedy had not been assassinated."
Castro and Kennedy's tentative flirtation came at a time of extraordinary acrimony in the wake of US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles and the missile crisis which led the world to the brink of nuclear war.
It began with a secret and highly unorthodox dialogue conducted through an intrepid journalist and former soap-opera actor and involved plans to fly a US diplomat from Mexico to Cuba for a clandestine face-to-face meeting with Castro alone in an aircraft hangar.
On a newly declassified Oval Office audiotape, recorded only 17 days before the assassination, Kennedy can be heard discussing the option with his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy.
The president agrees in principle to send an American diplomat, Bill Attwood, who had once interviewed Castro during a former career as a journalist, but he fretted that news of the secret mission would leak out. At one point Kennedy asks: "Can't we get Mr Attwood off the payroll?" If the diplomat was no longer on staff the whole trip would be deniable if it came to light.
Kennedy had been thinking about reopening relations with Havana since spring that year.
The key intermediary was Lisa Howard, an actor who had become a leading television journalist when she managed to land an interview with the Soviet leader, Nikita Krushchev.
In April 1963, she scored another coup - an interview with Castro, and returned with a message for the Kennedy administration, that the Cuban leader was anxious to talk. The message launched a frantic period of diplomacy, recounted in a television documentary broadcast last night on the Discovery Times channel, entitled "A President, A Revolutionary, A Reporter".
The president was receptive. The CIA was pursuing various schemes aimed at assassinating or undermining Castro, but Kennedy's aides were increasingly convinced Havana could be weaned away from Moscow.
In one memorandum a senior White House aide, Gordon Chase, says: "We have not yet looked seriously at the other side of the coin - quietly enticing Castro over to us," instead of looking at ways to hurt him.
According to Mr Bundy, Kennedy "was more in favour of pushing towards an opening toward Cuba than was the state department, the idea being... getting them out of the Soviet fold and perhaps wiping out the Bay of Pigs and getting back to normal".
The administration gave a nod to Ms Howard, who set up a chance meeting between Mr Attwood and the Cuban ambassador to the UN, Carlos Lechuga, at a cocktail party in her Park Avenue apartment.
The apartment then became a communications centre between Mr Attwood and the Castro regime. Castro's aide, Dr Rene Vallejo, called at pre-arranged times to talk to Mr Attwood, and in the autumn of 1963 suggested that Mr Attwood fly to Mexico from where he would be picked up by a plane sent by Castro. The plane would take him to a private airport near Veradero, Cuba, where the Cuban leader would talk to him alone in a hangar. He would be flown back after the talks.
Kennedy and Bundy discuss the plan on the tape on November 5. The national security adviser does much of the talking but the president is clearly worried that the trip will be leaked. First he suggests taking Mr Attwood off the state department payroll, but later he decided even that was too risky. Instead, he suggested Dr Vallejo fly to the UN for a confidential meeting to discuss the agenda of direct talks with Castro.
The plan, however, was sunk by the assassination. Ms Howard continued to bring messages back to Washington from Castro, in which the Cuban leader expresses his support for President Johnson's 1964 election and even offers to turn the other cheek if the new US leader wanted to indulge in some electoral Cuba-bashing. But the Johnson White House was far more cautious. The new president did not have the cold war credentials of having faced down the Soviet Union over the Cuban missile crisis. The moment had passed.