Was JFK going to make peace with Cuba?
On November 5, 1963, President Kennedy was exploring the idea. You can hear JFK talking about it with aides on this White House tape recording. (The substantive conversation starts at :25 in the recording.)
The tape, first made public by the non-profit National Security Archive in 2003, was found by Peter Kornbluh, a Cuba scholar whose research makes clear that JFK came closer to normalizing relations with Cuba than any American president since the 1970s.
On the tape JFK discusses the possibility of sending a senior U.S. diplomat, William Attwood, to Havana for a secret meeting with Cuban president Fidel Castro to talk “about terms and conditions for a change in relations with the United States.”
The tape captures JFK’s approval of the Attwood initiative — if official U.S. involvement could be plausibly denied.
That was Nov. 5, 1963. Seventeen days later, JFK was shot dead.
In Kornbluh’s words, JFK’s assassination killed “the escalating efforts toward negotiations in 1963 that, if successful, might have changed the ensuing decades of perpetual hostility between Washington and Havana.”
Castro and Kennedy
JFK, he notes,would seem the most unlikely of presidents to seek an accommodation with Fidel Castro. His tragically abbreviated administration bore responsibility for some of the most infamous U.S. efforts to roll back the Cuban revolution: the Bay of Pigs invasion, the trade embargo, Operation Mongoose (a U.S. plan to destabilize the Castro government) and a series of CIA-Mafia assassination attempts against the Cuban leader.
Kornbluh quotes Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who told a high-level group of CIA and Pentagon officials in early 1962 that, “The top priority in the United States government — all else is secondary — no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared” is to find a “solution” to the Cuba problem. The president’s opinion, according to CIA minutes of the meeting, was that “the final chapter [on Cuba] has not been written.”
Yet JFK policy on Cuba turned dovish by the end of 1962. During the missile crisis of October 1962, he rejected the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to invade.
Top Secret White House memos obtained by Kornbluh document Kennedy’s evolving position. In March 1963 he said that “we should start thinking along more flexible lines.” One memo notes an adviser’s observation that “the president, himself, is very interested in [the prospect for negotiations].”
Castro also appeared interested. In a May 1963 ABC News special on Cuba, Castro told correspondent Lisa Howard that he considered a rapprochement with Washington “possible if the United States government wishes it. In that case,” he said, “we would be agreed to seek and find a basis” for improved relations.
As the Nov. 5 recording shows, JFK was actively exploring the idea of normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.
“The possibility of a meeting in Havana evolved from a shift in the President’s thinking on the possibility of what declassified White House records called “an accommodation with Castro” in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Proposals from [National Security Council adviser McGeorge] Bundy’s office in the spring of 1963 called for pursuing “the sweet approach … enticing Castro over to us,” as a potentially more successful policy than CIA covert efforts to overthrow his regime.”
Then came Dallas. When Fidel Castro heard the news in Havana, he was meeting with French journalist Jean Daniel. “Es mala noticias,” he said. This is bad news.
JFK was dead and so was the Attwood initiative. It would be more than a decade before an American president returned to the idea of normalizing relations with Cuba.
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