Max Holland unearths a JFK-related document recently found in Bobby Kennedy’s papers. The story it tells provides a granular look at the workings of President Kennedy’s Cuba policy on the eve of the disaster in Dallas.
It shows that in early November 1963, the Attorney General approved a CIA plan to send a commando team to destroy a pier and warehouse in Las Villas province on the north coast of Cuba. Two days later, the mission was approved, according to a memorandum published in the Foreign Relations of the United States. But, as Holland points out, when the plan was presented to the President for final approval, he rejected it.
I like the story because it illuminates what was so truly tragic about Bobby Kennedy’s predicament after his brother’s murder. RFK was the hawk, the advocate of regime change. JFK was more dovish on Cuba. RFK had considered himself chief of among those in his brother’s government who were most determined to get rid of Castro via violence, perhaps even assassination. He had worked with them.
When JFK was killed, RFK never believed the story that a Castro supporter was responsible. He suspected fellow foes of Castro — the Miami Cubans, organized crime and possibly CIA officers — were behind the ambush in Dealey Plaza; in other words, the very sort of men with whom he had been making common cause. Learning the price of his hubris would transform Bobby Kennedy.
What does this historical tidbit mean for us today?
David Talbot says, “This is a typically ‘encoded’ Max Holland attempt to make the Kennedy brothers responsible for the assassination of JFK.” Citing his book “Brothers,” Talbot writes, “By November 1963, the Kennedys were clearly focused on defusing Cuba as a political issue, particularly in view of the upcoming presidential election (and the near catastrophe of the Missile Crisis). They were playing a two-track game: engaging in pinprick attacks on the Castro regime, to appease the rabid anti-Castro lobby inside and outside the government, while also sending peace feelers to Havana through emissaries like French journalist Jean Daniel, NY attorney James Donovan and US diplomat William Attwood.”
On Nov. 5, 1963, McGeorge Bundy told Attwood that the president “was more in favor of pushing towards an opening toward Cuba than was the State Department, the idea being — well, getting them out of the Soviet fold, and perhaps wiping out the whole Bay of Pigs [stain] and maybe getting back to normal.”
In other words, painting Bobby as a hawk shouldn’t obscure JFK’s dovish tendencies.
David Kaiser commented on Holland’s Washington Decoded piece, by saying he thought the RFK memo was a “relatively insignificant piece of data,” but he sided with Holland on its meaning.
Whatever Bundy said on November 5, on November 12 he called Bill Attwood (who FYI was almost a second father to me) and told him, speaking for JFK, that the US would not send anyone to Cuba to pursue talks on better relations at this time, and that Castro would have to agree in advance to end “submission to external Communist influence” and abandon “a determined campaign of subversion” in the rest of the hemisphere. These would be necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, to bring about better relations. (“Road to Dallas,” p. 305.)
I found the Kennedy Administration as determined as ever in the second half of 1963 to bring about the downfall of Fidel, most likely by a coup including his assassination that would provide a pretext for intervention. Manuel Artime and Manuel Ray were still being groomed as possible successors — much to the fury of more right-wing anti-Castroites and their American supporters like William Pawley and Loran Hall and John Martino. It was those feelings on the part of those men that contributed in some measure to JFK’s death.
My own view is that Max, David, and David are all correct.
Holland is correct that RFK was personally involved in a covert campaign of regime change, which does not exactly burnish his stature as liberal icon.
Talbot is indisputably right that JFK was working slowly but inexorably towards ending the state of war between the United States and Cuba.
Kaiser is right that while JFK was not rushing to normalize relations with Cuba, the enemies of his increasingly dovish Cuba policies were complicit in his death.