The Attempt to Remove Fidel Castro from Power: A Personal History
One morning early in 1960, we were reading the New York Times in bed when I happened to glance through a speech by the new dictator of Cuba. I knew very little about Fidel Castro beyond the fact that he was being portrayed as a reincarnation of Robin Hood (or was it Abraham Lincoln?) in the lyrical prose of Times correspondent Herbert L. Matthews.
I asked Sylvia (my wife) to read the Castro harangue. We both concluded that it seemed to be the product of an indoctrinated Communist. What if Castro was a Soviet agent? I thought that the time gap between his student days and his conquest of power was short enough so that the trail should be warning. I had a sudden urge to go to New York City, where the first wave of Cuban exiles could often be found, and try to solve the problem.
Sylvia tried to dissuade me, pointing out that I was working on a book on a more important subject-the geography of intellect. Conceding her point, I promised to spend no more than 48 hours in New York on the Castro matter.
Fortunately, I met two people in New York the next day who convinced me that Castro was a Communist: Ross, the editor of the NYC Spanish-language newspaper, a bitterly disillusioned early backer of Fidel, generously let me take his newspaper files on the hairy Cuban back to Washington with me even though we had just met. The second source was Lincoln Diaz Balart, the ex-brother-in-law of Castro who had also been his college room mate. Diaz Balart told me that Fidel used to pore reverentially over the Communist Party pamphlet editions of the lighter, shorter and more popular writings of Marx and Lenin.
I returned to Washington on schedule. Sylvia and I researched Castro's early career, using the Latin American press and journal resources of the Library of Congress. We interviewed dozens of Cuban refugees. In a month or so, I had the first draft of an article done. We submitted it to Life and Reader's Digest. Both periodicals rejected it after angry meetings of their editorial boards, in which the editors who wanted to publish the story called their opponents appeasers of communism and in which those who wanted to kill it characterized any attack on the bearded hero of the Caribbean as part of a plot by rightwingers and fascists.
What should we do? We now felt that the publication of the exposé was important. Not primarily because it revealed that Fidel was a Communist. As the year advanced, he was doing that for us. The more important message of the article was that the Latin American division of the State Department had deliberately pursued a policy designed to overthrow the government of Cuba and to bring about the triumph of Castro, despite the fact that at least one of its key people had abundant evidence that Fidel was a Communist.
The draft article was circulated privately. I was reliably informed that the CIA reacted adversely, but that FBI Director Hoover approved. Former Vice President Nixon agreed with it and wrote me to that effect.
I would later learn from the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, a mass circulation organ of' [lie time, that he would have accepted the piece without hesitation. However, I didn't know this at the time.
Rather than bury our findings, we decided to expand the draft article into a book. We found in Devin Adair Garrity a small publisher of courage and principle. We didn't want anything to interfere with our plan to visit Spain with our children that summer, so l finished the book in a few weeks.
Red Star Over Cuba, as the book would be called, would go through several American editions and at least three Spanish language ones, plus German and Portuguese translations, selling about a third of a million copies. Yet the New York Times and the other influential review media, which had generously reviewed my previous books, all quasi-liberal in orientation, ignored its existence.
Castro's triumph occurred when Eisenhower was President of the United States. The critical period was between Castro's landing in the Sierra Maestia mountains of eastern Cuba in 1957 with an insignificant force of 18 men and his triumph a few years later. During most of this period (June 1957 to August 1960), the office of Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs was held by a man called Roy Richard Rubottom and control of Cuban affairs was vested in Rubuttom's close associate, William Wieland. These two had been in Bogota in 1948 when a mass uprising by Communists and other revolutionaries, among, them Fidel Cast to, had attempted to seize power over Colombia and had caused over a thousand deaths and torched a large part of the city.
The evidence that Castro was either a Communist or some associated type of revolutionary terrorist should therefore have been clear to Rubottom and Wieland. This did not deter them from a course that would destroy the Batista regime, which was friendly to the United States, and substitute a hostile one which would in 1963 drive America and the world to the brink of nuclear war.
In March 1958, the State Department, on the recommendation of Wieland, imposed an arms embargo on the Cuban government, a clear signal to the Cuban army that the United States wanted him ousted or defeated. When the Cuban government staged presidential elections in November 1958, Castro called for the murder of all participating candidates and threatened voters with death. This terrorist move evidently did not persuade Rubottom and Wieland that they were supporting a mortal enemy of everything their nation stood for.
In December 1958, Wieland ordered Ambassador Earl E. T. Smith, a decent man and a loyal American, to tell President Batista that he no longer had U.S. support and must leave his native country forthwith.
These appalling acts told the generals commanding the armed forces of 'Cuba that they had better switch sides or perish. They surrendered without a battle or turned over to the enemy.
In this sorry narrative, Wieland was in close and friendly contact with New York Times correspondent in Cuba Herbert L. Matthews, the political activist who was busy selling Fidel Castro to the American people as a Robin Hood and a man who had previously been reprimanded by his newspaper for biased reporting.
Alan Courtney, a commentator on Miami radio, introduced me to John Martino and persuaded me to help him write the story of his imprisonment for several years in Castro's prisons. John told me he had helped set up gambling devices in Cuban hotels under Batista and had been arrested for returning to Cuba to get his employers' money out. I knew that the mob had largely controlled Cuban gambling and assumed John worked for them in a minor capacity.
The Martino story seemed to me a fascinating account from the inside of the experiences of his fellow prisoners, mostly political dissidents, as they faced execution. John Martino turned out to be a mild, very likeable man whose ash-white pallor revealed years of deprivation and suffering.
Although he was an American citizen, Martino had received no help during his ordeal from the Embassy in Havana. Considering the long history of pro-Soviet infiltration of our Latin American foreign service, this did not astonish us. He felt bitter resentment toward the State Department and attributed its abandonment of him to pro-Castro American officials.
In 1963, John Martino came to me with a fascinating story. He had attended a meeting in Palm Beach at which a Cuban who used the nom de guerre of Bayo claimed that the Soviets had deceived President Kennedy and that Russian missiles were still in Cuba. Bayo said he knew tills because two of the Soviet officers guarding these clandestine missiles had defected, were being hidden and guarded by the remnants of the anti-Castro underground and were desperately anxious to tell their story.
I was told that this was an emergency. The Russians could be captured by Castro's forces at any time. John Martino said that their Cuban protectors could get them safely to the northern coast of the island and thence by boat to some agreed-upon rendezvous point in the Bahamas if we acted immediately.
Martino added that Bayo and the other Cuban patriots would have nothing to do with anyone from the CIA because they believed that the Agency had betrayed them at the Bay of Pigs.
Could I get a yacht, designate a time and place to meet on some remote Bahamas island, get there and bring the Russian officers to the American mainland? If it was to be done, it must be done immediately.
I accepted the Marino-Bayo story as true. For one thing, I couldn't see what anyone could gain by inventing it. The implications were tremendous. Presidential elections were looming. The incumbent Chief Executive would run as the young hero who had faced down Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis and removed a mortal threat to the nation. (The world was actually saved from thermonuclear disaster, not so much by JFK, as by the man "who blinked first" - Nikita Khrushchev.)
But if missiles were still in place in Cuba and pointed at American cities, Kennedy and the Democrats could lose the 1964 elections. I surmised that the Administration would take strong measures to see that the revelations, in fact even the existence, of the defecting Soviet field grade officers would probably be kept from the American people until after the elections. The obvious way to do this would he to intercept our yacht, rename the Russian rocket officers and, on grounds of national security, whisk them away to an undisclosed location. In the process. I might he arrested for attempting to smuggle illegal aliens into the U.S.
After turning these possibilities over in my mind, I phoned Jay Sourwine, the general counsel of the Senate Internal Security Committee, told him the story in confidence and asked him to give us John Doe subpoenas which we could serve on the Russians at sea. He informed me that this was legally impossible. My next step was to seek advice from a journalist friend. Ralph de Toledano of' Newsweek. Ralph told Senator Barry Goldwater about the Soviet defectors. The result was an agreement that the Russians would be immediately invited to Goldwater's ranch in Arizona, that he would call a press conference, enabling them to tell their story to the world, and that he would also give them enough money so they could start a new life, in America.
What had begun as a small, covert operation was now mushrooming into a fairly large enterprise. William Pawley, former US Ambassador, godfather of the World War II Flying Tigers and poker-playing crony of President Harry Truman, entered the picture. The CIA came aboard and took charge. The escorting boat would be Bill Pawley's yacht, the Flying Tiger. The Russians would be photographed on board by a Life magazine camera man. Henry Luce would see that their revelations reached the world.
The Bayo operation has been covered in several article and books. It has been a hunting ground for conspiracy theorists, such as Peter Dale Scott (Deep Politics and the Death ofJFK, University of California Press), who suggest that the Bayo affair was linked to the Kennedy assassination.
We know now that the defecting Soviet colonels never existed, that there were no Russian missiles left in place in Cuba, that the Bayo story was a hoax.
What happened to the Cubans who were offloaded from the Flying Tiger, heavily armed with ClA-supplied weapons? We know that the Pawley yacht weighed anchor ten miles to sea from the port of Baracoa in Oriente Province on the night of June 8, 1963. Three CIA people kept machine-guns trained on Bayo and his Cuban commandos as the latter piled into the speedboat that was to take them to shore (Warren Hinckle and William W. Turner, Deadly Secrets, p. 194). Weapons were aimed at the Cubans because the CIA considered the possibility that they were Castro agents and that the operation was an ambush.
The commandos vanished into the night. Pawley saw to it that a Catalina flying boat search the skies for them until a week had elapsed. The generally accepted theory is that their secret purpose had been to get modern arms with which to kill Castro, but that they had been intercepted and killed or captured in a firefight. A year or so after the tragedy, Bill Pawley told me he believed that the men never landed. When they boarded the speedboat, he warned them that it was dangerously overloaded and urged them in vain to take rubber rafts aboard. Pawley heard a large freighter pass between the Flying Tiger and the shore. He believed that the Cuban boat was swamped in the freighter's wake and that the men drowned.
Was their secret purpose to get CIA arms with which to kill Fidel Castro? This is the conclusion researchers have arrived at, but it seems to me illogical. When I was approached to find a yacht and meet the defectors at sea, there was no mention of sending armed commandos ashore. Nor did I have any access to assault weapons nor did Martino have any reason to imagine I would be willing or able to supply them.
The source of guns was the CIA and Bayo and his companions had made it abundantly clear that they distrusted the agency and wanted to have nothing to do with it.
The conclusion I draw is that Bayo's initial plan was to land two or three mysterious people in Florida, to allege that they were Soviet colonels and spread the story of missiles still in Cuba to influence the American presidential elections. The purpose would have been to defeat Kennedy since many Cubans believed he had betrayed them and their cause.
Would any such imposture have been promptly detected and exposed? Or would continuing uncertainty and suspicion have poisoned the air for the young President?
When the plan mushroomed to comprise a Cuban commando force, heavily armed by the CIA with weapons, none of which was, of course, of US origin, plans may well have changed. Assassination? Mere havoc and sabotage? We will probable never know.
This is an edited account from my book, Encounters With Communism (2003)