The New York Times December 17, 2014
President Obama’s surprise effort to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, concurrent with an economic embargo, recalls the two-track approach — economic and sometimes military force, along with secret, sporadic attempts to find some kind of accommodation — that formed American policy toward Cuba during the most dangerous years of that relationship.
On Monday evening, Nov. 18, 1963, at the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach — four days before his assassination — President John F. Kennedy, wearing black tie, told the Inter-American Press Association that only one issue separated the United States from Fidel Castro’s Cuba: Castro’s “conspirators” had handed Cuban sovereignty to “forces beyond the hemisphere” (meaning the Soviet Union), which were using Cuba “to subvert the other American republics.” Kennedy said, “As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible.”
The president had asked his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, for language that would open a door to the Cuban leader, although, as Sorensen later observed, the audience was “a very tough anti-Castro group.”
That same day, Ambassador William Attwood, a Kennedy delegate to the United Nations, secretly called Castro’s aide and physician, Rene Vallejo, to discuss a possible secret meeting in Havana between Attwood and Castro that might improve the Cuban-American relationship, which had been ruptured when President Eisenhower broke diplomatic ties in January 1961.
Attwood had been told by Castro’s U.N. ambassador, Carlos Lechuga, in September 1963, that the Cuban leader wished to establish back-channel communications with Washington. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy worried that such talks would leak and embarrass his brother on the eve of his 1964 re-election campaign, but the president quietly encouraged Attwood to pursue the matter.
Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, told Attwood that J.F.K. wanted to “know more about what is on Castro’s mind before committing ourselves to further talks on Cuba.” He said that as soon as Attwood and Lechuga could agree on an agenda, the president would tell him what to say to Castro; in the meantime, J.F.K. had to make a trip to Texas.
Had Kennedy survived, the Attwood back channel might conceivably have led to some improvement in the relationship between Havana and Washington, but the odds against it were formidable. By allying Cuba with the Soviet Union, Castro was in flagrant defiance of America’s Monroe Doctrine, and Kennedy was eager to stop it.
In April 1961, he had authorized an invasion of Cuba by C.I.A.-supported Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. When that failed, Castro’s regime jailed more than a thousand members of the invasion brigade, who were released in December 1962 in exchange for $53 million in medical supplies and food. President Kennedy greeted the freed prisoners at the Orange Bowl in Miami. They presented him with their battle flag, which J.F.K. pledged to return to them “in a free Havana.”
Trying to recoup from the Bay of Pigs disaster, the Kennedy administration covertly unleashed Operation Mongoose, which included sabotage, paramilitary raids, guerrilla warfare and – although differences remain to this day over how much the president knew about them – efforts to assassinate Castro.
Kennedy saw Operation Mongoose as a substitute for authorizing a full-fledged American invasion to remove Castro from power. But the Cuban leader mistakenly presumed that Mongoose was actually the prelude to such an invasion, and he asked the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to do something to keep the Americans out. Castro’s request was one of the reasons that, in the fall of 1962, Khrushchev ordered nuclear-capable missiles sent to Cuba, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Kennedy settled the crisis, in part, by pledging that the United States would not invade Cuba; however that pledge was conditioned on the presumption that Castro would stop trying to encourage other revolutions like his own throughout Latin America. But Castro was furious that Khrushchev had not consulted him before making his bargain with Kennedy to end the crisis — and furious as well that U.S. covert action against him had not ceased. (In fact, on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination, the C.I.A., in Paris, gave a disaffected comrade of Castro’s a poison pen that was to be used against the Cuban leader.)
In September 1963, Castro appeared at a Brazilian Embassy reception in Havana and warned, “American leaders should know that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, then they themselves will not be safe.”
Late on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1963 — the evening before President Kennedy’s final full day at the White House — the C.I.A.’s covert action chief, Richard Helms, brought J.F.K. what he termed “hard evidence” that Castro was still trying to foment revolution throughout Latin America.
Helms (who later served as C.I.A. director from 1966 to 1973) and an aide, Hershel Peake, told Kennedy about their agency’s discovery: a three-ton arms cache left by Cuban terrorists on a beach in Venezuela, along with blueprints for a plan to seize control of that country by stopping Venezuelan elections scheduled for 12 days hence.
Standing in the Cabinet Room near windows overlooking the darkened Rose Garden, Helms brandished what he called a “vicious-looking” rifle and told the president how its identifying Cuban seal had been sanded off.
Helms (who died in 2002) told me in 1987 that he realized that in response to this evidence, Kennedy “wasn’t going to invade Cuba,” but that he was certain the president’s “real energy” on Cuba was directed toward covert action. Helms insisted that J.F.K.’s quiet efforts to communicate with Castro were at best “a feint” — “like most two-track policies, try everything.”
Helms’s skepticism about Kennedy’s back channel to Castro no doubt reflected the president’s careful efforts to show no sign of weakness on Cuba in front of his covert action director. And indeed, as Helms later related to me, Kennedy responded to the sight of the Cuban rifle by telling him, “Great work!”
The president reminded the C.I.A. man that he would be leaving on Thursday morning for Texas. He told Helms, “Be sure to have complete information for me when I get back from my trip.”