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Posts Tagged ‘Fidel Castro’

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PREVENTING ‘ANOTHER CASTRO’: JOHN F. KENNEDY AND LATIN AMERICA

In December, Presidents Barak Obama and Raul Castro announced that they would be taking steps to normalise US-Cuban relations thereby ending decades of animosity between the two governments. In a public statement, Obama declared it time ‘to cut loose the shackles of the past’ and do away with the enmity that brought about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although Cuba is currently in the headlines, the Caribbean island does not figure as prominently in US politics as it once did. During the Cold War, developments in Cuba had a profound effect on US policy towards Latin America as a whole. In particular, Washington officials feared that the Cuban Revolution would pave the way for other communist governments, allied with the Soviet Union, to emerge throughout the region. For President John F. Kennedy, this prospect made Latin America ‘the most dangerous area in the world’.

As a senator, Kennedy had initially called for a ‘patient attitude’ towards Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro who, after coming to power in January 1959, repeatedly denied being a communist. However, as Castro nationalised US property, delayed elections and accepted aid from the Soviet Union, Kennedy’s view shifted. 1 In the run up to the 1960 election, he repeatedly argued that Latin America was threatened by future communist revolutions.  ‘I have seen Communist influence and Castro influence rise in Latin America’ he declared and asked ‘By 1965 or 1970, will there be other Cubas in Latin America?’ 2

As President-Elect, Kennedy’s fears were supported by a government report which warned that ‘the present Communist challenge in Latin America resembles, but is more dangerous than, the Nazi-Fascist threat of the Franklin Roosevelt period and demands an even bolder and more imaginative response.’ A response came as, once in office, Kennedy established the ‘Alliance for Progress’ which ostensibly aimed to undermine support for radical social movements by funding Latin America’s economic development. 3  Kennedy asserted that the Alliance should aim to ‘eliminate tyranny’but as historian Thomas C. Field Jnr has revealed, in practice, US aid was used to support the increasingly authoritarian regime of Bolivian President Víctor Paz Estenssoro. 4

In 1961, Kennedy’s advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger cautioned that ‘Bolivia might well go the way of Cuba’ and argued that ‘we simply cannot let another Latin American nation go Communist; if we should do so, the game would be up through a good deal of Latin America.’ 5 By providing Paz with financial support and military hardware, Washington was able to ensure that the country’s leadership maintained an anti-communist stance and liberalised the national economy against the wishes of armed, left-wing trade unions. Yet the authoritarianism that Washington encouraged ultimately inspired civilian and military revolt against Paz, culminating in the 1964 coup that overthrew him. 6

Fears of ‘another Castro situation’ also informed Kennedy’s attitude towards British Guiana which, by 1963, was taking steps towards independence from the British Empire. At the time, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) held a majority in the colony’s assembly but US officials had concerns regarding the possible ‘communist connections’ of its leader Cheddi Jagan. Fearing that British Guiana would emerge as a ‘Castro-type state in South America’, Washington was keen to see the more conservative Forbes Burnham, leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), assume leadership of the colony following its independence.

The US government persuaded London to alter British Guiana’s electoral system to proportional representation and, in 1964, despite receiving the highest share of the popular vote, Jagan’s PPP lost its majority status in the legislative assembly to a coalition led by the PNC. Subsequently, in May 1966, the colony became an independent state, renamed Guyana and led by Burnam. 7

The Kennedy administration’s interventions in Latin America took a number of forms with each aiming to prevent ‘another Castro’.  As Thomas G. Paterson has argued, US officials were gripped by the ‘fear that the Cuban Revolution would become contagious and further diminish United States hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.’ 8 Now, with the Cold War concluded, this fear has diminished and at least some US officials desire a more cordial relationship with Havana.

Significant steps have already been taken to improve US-Cuban relations with prisoners released and the announcement that Washington will ease restrictions on commerce and travel between the two countries. Fidel Castro has tentatively backedhis brother’s rapprochement with Obama who intends to set up an embassy in Havana but tensions remain as officials from both countries have continued to criticise the others’ human rights record. While the future of this relationship is uncertain, it seems unlikely that Cuba will ever again be so central to US foreign policy as it was during the Kennedy presidency.

Mark Seddon completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2014. His research focuses on British and US interventions in Latin America during the Second World War and Cold War. You can find him on Twitter @MarkSedd0n.

For an overview of Kennedy’s policy towards Latin America see: Stephen G. Rabe, The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1999)

Notes:

  1. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), pp. 124-125. 
  2. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29403 
  3. Jeffrey F. Taffet, Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America (New York, NY, 2007), pp. 11-28. 
  4. Thomas C. Field Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (New York, NY, 2014). 
  5. Ibid., p. 14. 
  6. Ibid., pp. 189-196. 
  7. Stephen G. Rabe, U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story (Chapel Hill, NC), pp. 105-151. 
  8. Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Fixation with Cuba: The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro’ in Thomas G. Paterson (ed.) Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (Oxford, 1989), p. 127. 

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US-Cuba Embargo Goes Beyond the Cold War

The unequal US-Cuban power relationship stretches back to the turn of the 20th century.

Cuban propaganda poster in Havana featuring a Cuban soldier addressing a threatening Uncle Sam. Photo by KPu3uC B PoccuuCuban propaganda poster in Havana featuring a Cuban soldier addressing a threatening Uncle Sam. Photo by KPu3uC B PoccuuPresident Obama’s decision to reopen the US embassy in Havana and to begin easing commercial and travel restrictions continues to be regarded by supporters as the highpoint of Obama’s foreign policy agenda to date. But the move has its fair share of detractors, too. To understand the predominantly Republican opposition to trade liberalization with Cuba, we must look beyond the Cold War. We must look further back into America’s imperial past.

More Than a Cold War Hangover

The Democratic leadership has explained Obama’s sizeable shift in US policy toward Cuba. ‘We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests’, Obama stated. ‘Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.’ Nancy Pelosi similarly noted that ‘we must acknowledge our policy towards Cuba is a relic of a bygone era that weakens our leadership in the Americas and has not advanced freedom and prosperity in Cuba.’

Obama and Pelosi should look much farther back than the 1961 Cuban Embargo. The unequal US-Cuban power relationship stretches back to the turn of the 20th century.

Americans may have largely forgotten the first 60 years of US interventions in Cuban affairs – from the late 19th century to the mid-20th – but Cuban memories are longer. When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, his justification for doing so was not in stark cold-war anti-capitalistic terms. Rather, he harkened back to an earlier era of US-Cuban relations and to Cuba’s right to international freedom of trade. In a January 1959 speech, he warned that American diminution of Cuban sovereignty, stretching back to the late 19th century, would no longer be tolerated, and in front of the United Nations in 1960, Castro denounced American economic nationalist policies toward Cuba, declaring that it was an inalienable right that Cuba be allowed to freely ‘sell what it produces’ and to see its exports increase: ‘Only egotistical interests can oppose the universal interest in trade and commercial exchange.’ So when the Eisenhower administration showed itself indisposed toward normalizing US-Cuban relations, Castro turned instead to the other major geopolitical player, the Soviet Union, ‘to sell our products’.

In January 1961, stemming in part from the Cuban-Soviet trade agreement, the United States put in place the now infamous trade embargo against Cuba and severed diplomatic relations. The embargo has since stunted Cuban political and economic growth, and has accordingly served as an easy scapegoat for Fidel and his brother Raúl by allowing them to blame the United States for any and all economic woes befalling Cuba.

Even a cursory look at US trade policies toward other communist states shows how the US embargo against Cuba was – and remains – far more than a Cold War hangover.

Republican Imperialism of Economic Nationalism

In other words, if the embargo were merely an antiquated relic of the Cold War, how do we reconcile the contradiction of American trade liberalization with communist China during the Cold War, but not with Cuba even a quarter century after Cold War’s end? Is it perhaps from political pressure from anti-Castro groups within the United States? Considering that a majority of Cuban-American voters and US business interests would now favor easing political and economic restrictions against Cuba, that line of argument looks increasingly flimsy.

The primary inspiration for the Cuban embargo is something much more emotional and irrational than some outdated fear of communism at America’s backdoor. It is something that reaches back more than a century to America’s imperial past, something ingrained in the American psyche, a collective unconscious support for the nineteenth-century Monroe Doctrine: the self-ordained, unilateral US right to intervene in Western Hemispheric affairs. More specifically, the Cuban embargo is a modern-day manifestation of the Republican party’s longstanding imperialism of economic nationalism.

After the American Civil War, the Republican party stood proudly upon a political economic platform of high protectionism. And by the 19th century’s fin de siècle, it also stood proudly in demanding American colonialism. These two Republican planks – imperialism and economic nationalism – became entwined.

Republican President William McKinley, the ‘Napoleon of Protection’, oversaw the acquisition of a formal American empire following a successful US war against the Spanish in 1898. Newly obtained American colonies now included the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and, more informally, Cuba.

Cuba had been guaranteed ostensible independence from the United States, but the 1901 Platt Amendment allowed the United States ‘the right to intervene’ in Cuban affairs, including through military occupation, throughout the early twentieth century. The Republican administration of Teddy Roosevelt soon thereafter doubled down on undermining Cuban sovereignty through the restrictive 1903 Reciprocity Treaty, which maintained a discounted protective policy toward Cuban exports to protect US sugar growing interests. Following the treaty’s passage, Roosevelt expressed his private delight at the coercive idea of pulling Cuban political-economic strings through Republican-style trade reciprocity.

This despite the fact that Cuban liberals wanted free trade with the United States. In 1902, for example, the Corporaciones Económicas, an influential conglomerate of Cuban creole businessmen, lobbied the US Congress for Cuban-American free trade. Luis V. de Abad, representing Cuban tobacco interests, at the same time was also appealing to Washington for trade liberalization instead of ‘prohibitive’ tobacco duties of over 125 percent, which had left the Cuban worker with ‘less bread and butter in his home’, and more ‘worse off than under Spanish domination’. And Juan Gualberto Gómez, leader of the Cuban Liberal Party, similarly castigated the 1903 Reciprocity Treaty, calling instead for unrestricted free trade with the United States.

But Republican economic nationalist politicians ignored such cosmopolitan Cuban demands. As historian Mary Speck has explored, Republican protectionist unwillingness to grant free trade to Cuba would thereafter culminate in the 1930 Hawley-Smoot Tariff, ushering in a new Cuban ‘era of economic depression and political unrest’.

Cuba’s Century-Long Desire for Free Trade

So when Raúl Castro called for an end to the embargo based on economic and humanitarian grounds in late December, he was therefore just reiterating a century-long Cuban call for free trade with the United States – a call that has for so long fallen on deaf American ears.

From this longer perspective of US-Cuban trade relations, the 1961 Embargo Act marked not the beginning, but the high-water mark of American economic nationalist imperialism towards Cuba.

When Republican politicians today like former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida say liberalizing trade ‘undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba’, or when House Leader John Boehner suggests that normalizing relations ‘should not be revisited… until the Cuban people enjoy freedom’, they are in fact undemocratically ignoring a century of Cuban demands for free trade.

Republican opponents of diplomatic normalization and trade liberalization also appear woefully ignorant of the fact that since the Second World War, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have advocated international trade liberalization for the expressed purpose of increasing political and economic freedom throughout the globe, even more so since the end of the Cold War. As Bill Clinton’s National Security Council advisor Anthony Lake put it in 1993: ‘On one side is protectionism and limited foreign engagement; on the other is active American engagement abroad on behalf of democracy and expanded trade.’

Thus, when Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio says ‘this entire policy shift… is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people’, he is reflecting a bygone Republican sentiment that was used to justify American imperialism toward Cuba a century ago: a protectionist sentiment that baldly contradicts the Republican party’s own neoliberal free-market rhetoric that it has espoused in the decades following the Second World War.

Rubio and other Republican detractors of Obama’s Cuban policy must throw away the antiquated remnants of America’s imperial past. Ending the Cuban embargo would be an excellent start.

Dr. Marc-William Palen is a lecturer in imperial history at the University of Exeter, and a research associate in US Foreign Policy at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney. His forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press is The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896.

 

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When J.F.K. Secretly Reached Out to Castro

Michael Beschloss

The New York Times    December 17, 2014

In December 1962, at the Orange Bowl in Miami, President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, greet newly freed Brigade 2506 members, who had been captured by Fidel Castro’s government in the previous year’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Credit Cecil Stoughton/The White House, via John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library

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.”

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H-Diplo-LOGO
The Assassination of Kennedy Fifty Years Later: The Cuban Question Mark 1
An Essay by Charles Cogan, Affiliate, Harvard Kennedy School

November 22, 2013

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was intimately linked, if only in a subliminal fashion, to American actions against Cuba at the beginning of the 1960’s, which in turn formed part of an aggressive and interventionist policy that marked the early phase of
the Cold War.

The assassination itself was carried out by a sole killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, out of his admiration for Fidel Castro and his animosity toward the American Government and its President.

The question that remains open after fifty years gone by is whether Castro, who was perfectly aware of the Kennedy brothers’ plots against him – thanks to a Cuban double agent who had proposed to the CIA that he assassinate Castro – had ordered his intelligence services to collaborate with Oswald in his action. Until now, nothing solid has emerged to support this thesis.

In December 2006, The Atlantic, the prestigious magazine founded in Boston in 1857, published a list of the 100 most influential Americans in the history of the country. The list included, besides presidents, also writers and others, including…baseball players. But the list did not contain the name of John F. Kennedy. This was certainly not due to inadvertence. It was a slap, the motive behind which was unclear…unless it was a relic of the religious wars – Kennedy having been the first Catholic president of the United States.

I was astounded when I heard about the article in The Atlantic. Because, in spite of the meager legislative accomplishments of John Kennedy’s Administration and the brevity of his tenure – the ‘thousand days’ – cut short by the horrible attack at Dallas on November 22, 1963, it was he, and virtually he alone, who extricated the United States from one of the worst dangers in history –the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

At the end of the afternoon of October 27, 1962, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara paused on the steps of the Pentagon to look at the sunset, thinking at that moment that he might never see a sunset again2 – because on that day the Missile Cisis had reached its paroxysm: earlier in the day a U-2 observation aircraft had been shot down and its pilot killed. The attack had been carried out by Russian troops on orders of Fidel Castro.

I cite this anecdote of Robert McNamara to show that the margin between a political solution to the crisis and a nuclear holocaust was extremely thin throughout the thirteen days of the crisis – during which time the President warded off the insistent appeals by most of his senior military officers for an immediate attack on Cuba. In particular, Curtis LeMay, the head of the Air Force and the most hawkish of these officers, was disrespectful toward the ‘young’ President in person and railed against him during the latter’s occasional absences from the Situation Room.

The famous thirteen days comprised the period between the discovery of the missiles by the American U-2 airplane on October 15, 1962 and the move toward a political solution when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced on October 27 that he was removing the missiles from the island since Kennedy had agreed not to invade Cuba. During these thirteen days, the Soviet missiles had not become operational, giving President Kennedy a window of sufficient time to ponder a prudential solution to the crisis while avoiding the risk of a nuclear war with the USSR.

Another, and not negligible accomplishment of the Kennedy brothers at the dénouement of the crisis was their success in convincing the Soviets not to mention publicly that the solution that was found was more of a give and take than a humiliating retreat by the USSR: it was the withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey against the departure of the Soviet missiles from Cuba. Attorney General Robert Kennedy succeeded in convincing the Soviet Ambassador in Washington, Anatoli Dobrynin, that, because of the U.S. legislative elections that were coming up in the following month, the Turkish side of the agreement had to remain secret – otherwise President Kennedy would look weak before American voters. The Soviets stuck to their word, respecting the agreement made by the two interlocutors. But because of this fact, and from the point of view of public relations, the Soviet Union came off as the loser in the missile crisis.

The danger had been so great during the missile crisis that President Kennedy made an effort to ensure that such a situation should never arise again. A hot line was established between the White House and the Kremlin. In addition, the first agreement on nuclear disarmament – the Limited Test Ban Treaty – was signed in the summer of 1963.

A year after the missile crisis, on Friday, 22 November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated at Dallas. The back story to this act still remains mysterious, from the fact that the killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself shot dead before then end of the weekend. Fifty years later, the shadow over this incident persists. One can certainly situate the motivation of the assassin, Oswald. He was a great admirer of Fidel Castro. He had participated earlier that autumn in a rally in New Orleans in support of the Cuban regime. Subsequently, he sought to get a visa for Cuba at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. It was granted but only after the fateful weekend of 22-24 November.

What remains unknown is the question of contacts Oswald might have had with agents of the powerful Cuban intelligence service, the Directorate General of Intelligence (DGI), in Mexico City or elsewhere. And in the final analysis, the question remains open as to whether Fidel Castro himself might have been implicated in the assassination of the young American President. With fifty years having gone by, nothing concrete has emerged as to the involvement of the Cuban government or Cuban intelligence in the assassination; which leads to the conclusion — provisionally – that Oswald acted on his own, out of his admiration for Castro. Perhaps after the death of Castro more will be learned about the role of the Cubans.

Nevertheless Castro, because of his reckless temperament, and because of the information he possessed concerning the plots of the Kennedy brothers against his person, would make a perfectly credible sponsor of an operation to assassinate the President.

At the moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro seemed to want to bring on a nuclear holocaust which, though it would destroy the island of Cuba, would in his mind open the way to a communization of the world. The French newspaper Le Monde published on 23 November 1990 a series of letters exchanged between Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, in which the Cuban leader asked Khrushchev to initiate a nuclear war in the event that American forces attacked Cuba. (Subsequently the letters were published elsewhere, notably in The Armageddon Letters.3)

In sum, Fidel Castro was prepared to sacrifice his country for the benefit of a future world of communism. In a message to Khrushchev on 26 October 1962, Castro wrote, inter alia, the following:

If…the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that this aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.4

The message was clear, although implicit: if the Americans invaded Cuba, the Soviet Union should launch a nuclear attack against the United States.
In a message of 27 October, Khrushchev informed Castro that a solution was in sight, as President Kennedy had promised not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev advised Castro not to be carried away by his emotions and not to respond to provocations, such as the attack he ordered against an American U-2 airplane on 27 October, which claimed the life of the pilot. “Yesterday you shot down one of these [planes] while earlier you didn’t shoot them down when they overflew your territory. The aggressors will take advantage of such a step for their own purposes.”5 (At this point, Khrushchev may have thought that Castro had gotten completely out of hand and that he had better, as a result, find some sort of solution with President Kennedy. It was on the same date as the shootdown, 27 October, that Khrushchev accepted the public compromise proposed by his American counterpart – that is, the withdrawal of the missiles in return for a commitment by the United States not to invade Cuba).
Castro replied the next day, 28 October. The following is an extract:

Earlier isolated violations were committed without a determined military purpose or without a real danger stemming from those flights. This time, that wasn’t the case. There was the danger of a surprise attack on certain military installations. We decided not to sit back and wait for a surprise attack…6
In a following message of 30 October Khrushchev made it clear he was perfectly aware of the implications of Castro’s reckless proposal:
In your [message]…you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear attack on the territory of the enemy. Obviously you are aware of what could follow. Rather than a single strike, it would have been the beginning of a thermonuclear war.7

Castro replied on 31 October to Khrushchev’s letter of the 30th. Here is an extract:

We knew, and one must not think otherwise, that we would be annihilated, as you indicated in your letter, if there was a nuclear war. But that didn’t lead us to ask you to withdraw the missiles. That did not lead us to yield.8

James Blight and janet9 Lang in The New York Times on October 26, 2012 recounted Khrushchev’s unvarnished reaction to Castro’s letter of October 26:
According to his son and biographer, Sergei Khrushchev, the Soviet premier received that letter in the midst of a tense leadership meeting and shouted, ‘This is insane! Fidel wants to drag us into the grave with him’! Khrushchev hadn’t understood that Mr.

Castro believed that Cuba was doomed, that war was inevitable, and that the Soviets should transform Cuba from a mere victim into a martyr.
Shortly after this exchange of letters, Khrushchev sent the seasoned diplomat, Anastas Mikoyan, to Havana to continue the discussions with the Cuban leaders. The following is an extract of an exchange between Mikoyan and Che Guevara on November 5, 1962:

Guevara: Even in the context of all our respect for the Soviet Union, we believe that the decisions made by the Soviet Union were a mistake. ..Mikoyan: But we thought that you would be satisfied by our act. We did everything so that Cuba would not be destroyed. We see your readiness to die beautifully but we believe that it isn’t worth dying beautifully.10

Fidel Castro, at a later time, had a different story to tell. In a report of an interview with Castro at Havana, published in The Atlantic on October 16, 2012, Jeffrey Goldberg recalled that he had had the following exchange with Castro a couple of years earlier:

Does what you recommended [that the Soviets launch a nuclear attack against the U.S.] still seem logical now? Castro answered, ‘After what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know, it wasn’t worth it all’.

As to the knowledge Castro had of American intentions against Cuba and against Castro himself, the Cuban leader was amply informed. After he had seized power, Castro became aware of the hostility of the United States towards his regime.

Even before he became President, John Kennedy had been alerted by his advisers of the danger that the new revolutionary regime in Cuba represented, and the possibility that Fidel Castro might invite the Soviets to establish forces on the island. A Soviet base 150 kilometers from American territory could not be permitted in the midst of the Cold War.

There followed the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, an operation inherited from the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, and during which Kennedy refused coverage of the landing beach by the U.S. Air Force, thereby clinching the failure of the operation.

The humiliation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco only doubled the determination of the Kennedy brothers to remove Castro. In October 1961, a covert operation, codenamed Mongoose, was launched against the Cuban regime, with at its head Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney- General. A so-called Augmented Special Group was created in the White House and set about planning lethal attacks on Castro himself and conducting sabotage operations on the island. Virtually all of these activities either failed or did not see the light of day.

But the essential point here is that Castro was well aware of the lethal intentions of the Kennedy brothers, and this could have incited him to retaliate against the American President, using his own Cuban intelligence service, the DGI. In fact, the DGI did use a “dangle” to learn about American intentions towards Castro and the Cuban Government.11

In 1961, a DGI agent, Rolando Cubela, let it be known through an intermediary that he was against Castro and was seeking a contact with the Americans.12 Later, in July 1962, Cubela met with a CIA officer during the World Youth Festival at Helsinki. The contact was dropped shortly afterwards, when Cubela refused to take a polygraph test.

In 1963, when the tempo of plots against Castro intensified, and as a result of a decision at CIA, a Spanish-speaking American operations officer, Nestor Sanchez, met with Cubela at Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Thirty years later the fact that from the outset Cubela had been a double agent was confirmed by a Cuban agent of the CIA.13 Thus it was that very early on Castro became aware that the Kennedy brothers were trying to have him killed.

The venue suggested for meetings between Sanchez and Cubela was Paris. Presumably this was at Cuban instigation, as Cuba had an embassy there and thus had agents available for counter-surveillance. By an irony of fate, a meeting was scheduled for 22 November 1963. By that point the CIA was preparing to have delivered to Cubela in Cuba a rifle with telescopic sights – ironically the same type of weapon that Oswald used against Kennedy. The assassination of the American President the same day cut off further attempts to assassinate Castro, although the CIA contact with Cubela was maintained until December 1964.

In sum, because of Castro’s temperament – his apocalyptic wish for the nuclear obliteration of Cuba followed by the communization of the world, plus the fact of the information from Cubela of the Kennedy brothers’ plans to assassinate him, Castro may well have decided to strike at Kennedy before he himself was attacked. It is worth noting in this regard that on September 7, 1963 at Havana, Castro gave an interview to an American journalist, Daniel Harker, in which he warned the Americans not to try to assassinate Cuban leaders, as otherwise “they themselves will not be safe.”14

The Castro regime, whether or not it was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, had every pretext to do so. In this regard, it is well to keep in mind the role of the CIA in the early

days of the Cold War and its interventions overseas, which today can appear excessive. Moreover, the ease with which the CIA overthrew the regime of Jacobo Guzman in Guatemala and that of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran created an atmosphere of invincibility around the CIA and gave rise to the idea that covert action was an effective tool of its own, between war and diplomacy. This led to the botched operation of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. But this failure only redoubled the efforts of the Kennedy brothers to do away with Castro.

During the entire period of the Cold War the CIA seems to have underestimated the capabilities of Cuban Intelligence. In this regard, it is interesting to recall that, during the 1980’s, several dozen Cubans, supposedly agents of the CIA, had been in reality double agents run by the Cuban DGI.15 They had even been trained by the DGI in how to overcome the polygraph. One could speculate that, because of the high degree of professionalism of the DGI, that organization has been able to conceal all these years an involvement with Oswald. The mystery remains.

1 A slightly different version of this essay appeared in French on October 9, 2013 in Questions internationales (No. 64, November-December 2013, 110-114), a publication of “La Docmentation française.”

2 Sheldon Stern, The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2005), p. 186.

3 James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang, The Armageddon Letters, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham MD, 2012.

4 BlightandLang,117.

5 Blight and Lang, 122.

6 Blight and Lang, 151-52.

7 Blight and Lang, 156.

8. Blight and Lang,162.

9 This lack of capitalization of Janet Lang’s first name accords with her preference.

Dr. Charles G. Cogan is an Affiliate vice Associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. A graduate of Harvard, then a journalist, and then a military officer, he spent thirty-seven years in the Central Intelligence Agency, twenty-three of them on assignments overseas. From August 1979-August 1984 he was chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations. From September 1984-September 1989 he was CIA Chief in Paris. After leaving the CIA, he earned a doctorate in public administration at Harvard, in June 1992. He lectures and writes in English and French.

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By ROBERT DALLEK

New York Times  November 21, 2013

O.O.P.S., Photograph by George Tames/The New York Times

O.O.P.S., Photograph by George Tames/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he remains an object of almost universal admiration. And yet, particularly this year, his legacy has aroused the ire of debunkers who complain that Kennedy is unworthy of all this adulation.

“John F. Kennedy probably was the worst American president of the previous century,” wrote the journalist Thomas E. Ricks. “He spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco.”

He was, they say, all image and no substance, a shallow playboy whose foreign policy mistakes and paltry legislative record undermine any claim to greatness. His assassination, personal attributes of good looks and charm, joined to Jacqueline Kennedy’s promotion of a Camelot myth, have gone far to explain his popularity.

Such criticism not only gives short shrift to Kennedy’s real achievements as a domestic and foreign policy leader, but it also fails to appreciate the presidency’s central role: to inspire and encourage the country to move forward, a role that Kennedy performed better than any president in modern memory.

The litany of complaints against Kennedy is a long one. Critics scoff at his image as a devoted family man: They complain that he was, as Timothy Noah wrote in The New Republic, “a compulsive, even pathological adulterer,” whose reckless self-indulgence threatened to destroy his presidency.

Critics also point to his hidden health problems: Would voters have elected him over Richard M. Nixon if they had full knowledge of his Addison’s disease or other potentially disabling ailments? And what does it say about his character that he concealed his condition?

As for his presidency, critics find it difficult to understand why anyone would consider him more than an average chief executive, if even that.

They are especially critical of his civil rights record. His delay in signing an executive order ending segregation in public housing, which he had promised during the 1960 campaign; his appointment of segregationist federal judges; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s complaint that Kennedy lacked the “moral passion” to fight for equal treatment of blacks — all of this has convinced some historians that Kennedy’s later decision to ask for a civil rights law was pure political expediency.

Kennedy’s critics also find fault with his foreign policies, especially on Cuba and Vietnam. The Bay of Pigs failure and Operation Mongoose, the plan to assassinate or at least depose Fidel Castro, supposedly opened the way to the missile crisis and demonstrated his inexperience and the poor judgment of an overzealous cold warrior.

And Kennedy’s decision to increase the number of military advisers in Vietnam, combined with his alleged support for the coup that killed South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, are said to be preludes to Lyndon B. Johnson’s disastrous war.

All of this has merit. But Kennedy’s thousand-day presidency is more impressive for its gains than its shortcomings.

Most notably, he saved the world from a nuclear war with his astute diplomacy during the October 1962 confrontation with the Soviet Union over Cuba. As he privately said at the time, the military leadership wanted to bomb and invade, but no one alive then would survive to tell them they were wrong.

And while critics focus on the minutiae of those 13 days, Kennedy’s real success was what came after.

Eager to avoid a replay of Soviet-American tensions over Cuba, he followed the crisis with private expressions of interest in a rapprochement with Mr. Castro. More important, he reached an agreement with the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev for a nuclear test ban treaty that eliminated radiation fallout in the atmosphere.

As for Vietnam, what matters is that Kennedy successfully resisted pressure to send anything more than military advisers, a stance that was a likely prelude to complete withdrawal from the conflict. There is solid evidence of his eagerness to end America’s military role in that country’s civil war.

And while Kennedy did not achieve as much in terms of legislation as he wanted, his record has to be seen in context.

His legislative agenda was held hostage to a conservative Congress dominated by Southern lawmakers who saw his reforms as a threat to racial segregation. In response, he established a formal system for communicating with every allied member in Congress and kept a systematic accounting of various bills and their weekly progress. His decision to put a civil rights bill before Congress in June 1963 was a shining moment of political courage; it jeopardized his hold on Southern voters who had given him a slim margin of victory in 1960.

Moreover, had he lived to run against Barry M. Goldwater in 1964, Kennedy would have undoubtedly won a large victory and been in a position to pass his major bills. It would have won him acclaim as an impressive reformer in a league with Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and even Franklin D. Roosevelt. His health problems and womanizing cannot be ignored, but they were neither unique to him nor proved to be a problem in office.

But Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends.

Kennedy saw the presidency as the vital center of government, and a president’s primary goal as galvanizing commitments to constructive change. He aimed to move the country and the world toward a more peaceful future, not just through legislation but through inspiration.

Kennedy’s presidential ambitions rested on his understanding of what Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and F.D.R. had done. Like them, he relied on the spoken word, but he had the advantage of television in reaching millions of people around the globe. And like those predecessors, he saw the need for actions that gave meaning to his rhetoric.

The requests in his Inaugural Address — for Americans to put their country ahead of their selfish concerns and to peoples everywhere to join in a new quest for peace — found substance in the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. His call in May 1961 for a manned mission to the Moon and his “peace speech” in June 1963 urging Americans to re-examine their attitude toward the Soviet Union were aimed at promoting national unity and international accord.

Compared with other recent presidents whose stumbles and failures have assaulted the national self-esteem, memories of Kennedy continue to give the country faith that its better days are ahead. That’s been reason enough to discount his limitations and remain enamored of his presidential performance.

Robert Dallek is a professor emeritus in history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author, most recently, of “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.”

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