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Posts Tagged ‘President John F. Kennedy’

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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JFK at Rice University in September 1962. Image via Wiki Commons.

Rethinking the JFK Legacy

Steven M. Gillo

huffingtonpost.com October 27, 2013

As we approach the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination we are reminded of his enduring hold on the popular imagination. Once again countless magazine articles, newspaper stories, books, and television stories will focus on the man, his presidency, and his death. Politicians from both parties continue to invoke his name to sell themselves and their policies. Polls show that Kennedy is America’s favorite president, ranking above Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.

Public adulation of Kennedy baffles many historians who have spent the past twenty years assaulting the foundation of Camelot. The public sees him as a bold and gallant leader who inspired the young, helped the disadvantaged, pushed for civil rights, stood down the Russians, and added glamor and style to the White House.

In recent years, however, many historians have focused attention on Kennedy’s shortcomings: the obsession with Fidel Castro, his reluctant support of civil rights, and the escalation in Vietnam. They have also probed beneath the glossy Kennedy charm and discovered a man who was dependent on prescription medication and who possessed an insatiable sexual appetite. Kennedy, a recent critic charged, was “deficient in integrity, compassion, and temperance.” That is a harsh judgment, and certainly not one shared by most historians. Most would agree, however, that his short time in office prevented JFK from leaving a lasting legacy of accomplishment.

Why the wide gap between the way historians view Kennedy and how the public perceives him? Part of the problem is that historians have difficulty appreciating Kennedy’s emotional impact on the public. Kennedy was the first president to use television to bypass the Washington opinion-makers and communicate directly with the American public. Television made obsolete traditional models which used legislative accomplishments to determine influence.

Because of the intimate relationship Kennedy established with the American public many people felt a sense of personal loss at his death. The assassination affected America unlike any other single event in modern history — with the possible exception of 9/11. No American born prior to 1960 can forget where he or she was the moment they heard the news of the President’s death. Seventy-five hours of television coverage helped create a shared sense of national grief. Four of five Americans felt “the loss of someone very close and dear,” and more than half cried.

Inevitably, in the years that followed Americans have searched to give his death some meaning. Our refusal to accept that Kennedy’s death could have been the result of a random, inexplicable act of violence has led us to search for more satisfying explanations. We refuse to accept that a loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could single-handedly kill a man as great as JFK. That search for meaning has lead to the creation of a mythical, heroic Kennedy. The thread that runs through most conspiracy theories, and permeates the popular view of JFK, is that nefarious individuals conspired to kill the President because he offered a new direction for the country.

But the Kennedy mystique is based on more than his photogenic qualities and his tragic death. In trying to understand Kennedy’s appeal I am reminded of what our first professional biographer, James Parton, wrote about Thomas Jefferson. “If Jefferson was wrong,” he wrote, “America is wrong. If Jefferson was right. America is right.”

Since the Puritans came to America searching for deliverance from the corruption of the Old World, Americans have believed in national destiny. Thomas Jefferson declared the new nation “the last best hope of mankind.” Herman Melville compared Americans to the biblical tribes of Israel, calling them “the peculiar chosen people… the Israel of our time.” At the heart of this belief was a faith that the future would always be better than the past. America stood as the exception to the historical rules which dictated that great civilizations eventually peaked and crumbled. Devoid of the class conflict, racial tensions, and the imperial designs that characterized other civilizations, America would move inevitably toward realizing its divinely inspired mission to be “as a city upon a hill.”

More than any president since FDR, Kennedy embodied these ideals of American greatness. Kennedy, like the nation he led, seemed larger than life. Every dimension of the New Frontier projected an image of strength and vitality: the inspirational rhetoric of sacrifice and idealism; the aristocratic elegance and democratic demeanor; the brilliant but compassionate advisers. Robert Frost captured the mood of the nation when he predicted that the Kennedy years would be an “Augustan age of poetry and power.”

The tragic series of events that followed Kennedy’s death challenged our faith in national destiny. A lost war in Vietnam and a crippling oil embargo reminded us that we could not shape the world in our own image. At home, racial violence, student protests, and government corruption revealed that America remained a deeply divided nation. During our time of trouble we turned to a heroic Kennedy for comfort. He reminded us of a time when America stood strong in the world, our nation felt united, and life seemed simpler. As the American dream slips further from the grasp of most people, as our faith in government and our hope for the future diminishes, we cling more tenaciously than ever to a mythic view of Kennedy.

We have transformed Kennedy into a metaphor of American greatness and judged all of his successors by that standard. Not surprisingly, they look dull by comparison. Politicians, eager to win the hearts of American voters, have tried to mimic Kennedy’s style and to steal his message. Republicans have invoked Kennedy’s memory to sell programs — supply-side economics, for example — that were antithetical to JFK’s own policies. President Obama flexed his political and legislative muscle to push through legislation that was far more ambitious than anything JFK could have imagined, yet even he, and his accomplishments, appear diminished by the comparison to a mythical Kennedy.

Over the years, the public, which has grown cynical and angry over raised expectations and diminished results, has moved to the sidelines of American politics waiting for the “next JFK.” Powerful, well-organized and well-funded, interest groups have moved to fill the void.

It is ironic that the memory of JFK would weaken political institutions. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960 by advocating change and, at least on a rhetorical level, he challenged us to confront old ideas. “For the great enemy of truth,” he said in a famous Yale commencement address in 1963, “is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

Ultimately, our fascination with Kennedy tells us more about ourselves, our deeply rooted beliefs and our need for heroes, then it does shed light on the man or his times. Kennedy was a very mortal man, very much a product of his times. In life he offered few solutions to the pressing issues of his time. His memory, burdened by the weight of myth, limits our ability to find answers to the problems of our own time.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-m-gillon/rethinking-the-jfk-legacy_b_4167729.html

Steven M Gillon is Scholar-in-Residence at History and Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma

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