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Robert Kennedy and Castro


John Simkin
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The traditional view is that Robert Kennedy was determined to get Castro. Some people believe that RFK was plotting his assassination while JFK was trying to negotiate with Castro.

William Attwood's book, The Twilight Struggle: Tales of the Cold War (1987) provides some insights into this situation. Attwood was probably JFK's most important foreign policy advisor. He was the man who arranged the negotiations between the JFK administration and Castro in 1963.

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...

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."

The memo went on:

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."

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.

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  • 4 months later...

John,

Thanks for starting this thread.

I just got Ultimate Sacrifice, and began reading it backwards, and was surprised to come across this passage: (p. 777) "...The combined operation reached a critical juncture in December 1964. AMTRUNK's Tad Szulc met in New York City with Che Guevara for "several hours" on Deccember 13, 1964. 25. On Che's eight-day trip to the UN in December, he also had secret meetings with Senator Eugene McCarthy and former ABC reporter Lisa Howard, who had told the White House 'Che has something to say to us.' At that time, historian Jorge Castaneda says Che's relationship with Castro was at a low ebb and 'his situation [with Castro] was untenable." 26

I didn't get to the Attwood-Howard part yet, but I think the backchannel coms is more significant than the plans for a coup, which I don't believe were that far advanced to be successful on Dec. 1.

AMTRUNK is Szulc's offer/mission to find disgrunted Cuban military and pols inside Cuba and forment an internal coup, which we are led to belive would take place on Dec. 1, and include US military intervention, when needed, ie. Dec. 2.

That JFK/CIA is using journalists to take the lead on both missions is telling, and that they both met with Che in New York is almost unbelievable.

The footnotes refer to published books.

And oh, yea, God Bless Gene McCarthy. The only living witness, now dead.

His longtime secretary, Jean Stafford, was a neighbor of mine, and played bridge with my mother. She gave me his phone number and I talked with him at length a few years ago. I was reaching for his phone number to call him when his picture flashed on the tv, along with Richard Pryer, and I knew he was dead. Maybe he said something to Jean or left some records of this now reported meeting in NYC? I'll check this one out.

(Attwood might still be alive)

BK

bkjfk3@yahoo.com

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