Nov. 5, 1963: JFK considers secret talks with Castro

Fidel Castro, tormenter of empire.

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.

Peter Kornblush, analyst at the non-profit National Security Archive

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.

Kornbluh writes:

“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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  1. LMB says:

    Well, now you have it. Any of the kill Castro crowd would have felt betrayed again. Their beliefs confirmed that JFK had to go because he was a treat to national security in their eyes.

  2. Chris Roberts says:

    And again the idea that Kennedy wanted to normalize relations with cuba Is no longer crazy.Motive established for the CIA,Mafia,and Cuban elements trying to assinate Castro.And hurts the Castro did It

  3. Jean Davison says:

    In his last speech on Cuba, 11/18/63, JFK said:

    It is important to restate what now divides Cuba from my country and from the other countries of this hemisphere. It is the fact that a small band of conspirators has stripped the Cuban people of their freedom and handed over the independence and sovereignty of the Cuban nation to forces beyond the hemisphere. They have made Cuba a victim of foreign imperialism, an instrument of the policy of others, a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American Republics. This, and this alone, divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible. Once this barrier is removed, we will be ready and anxious to work with the Cuban people in pursuit of those progressive goals which a few short years ago stirred their hopes and the sympathy of many people throughout the hemisphere.

    No Cuban need feel trapped between dependence on the broken promises of foreign communism and the hostility of the rest of the hemisphere. For once Cuban sovereignty has been restored we will extend the hand of friendship and assistance to a Cuba whose political and economic institutions have been shaped by the will of the Cuban people….

    The next day the Dallas Times Herald carried this front-page headline: "Kennedy Virtually Invites Cuba Coup":

    • JSA says:

      Didn’t Woodrow Wilson PROMISE not to go to war in Europe after war broke out in 1914 and then turn around and break that promise in 1917? Look at Kennedy’s record, and then compare that to his speeches. It’s an interesting comparison, his talking tough about Cuba several times, including down in Miami in 1962, but then behind the scenes, after the missile crisis, setting a new policy not to invade Cuba ever again. Don’t just watch what politicians SAY, watch what they DO.

  4. George Simmons says:

    Very interesting.
    It seems clear that there is a distinct difference between what JFK was planning in private, and what he may have felt compelled to state in his public addresses.

    An ability to read between the lines is what is required.

    • JSA says:

      Listen to what Kennedy said in Fort Worth, before the Chamber down there, on the morning of November 22, about Vietnam. Then contrast that with his back door (NSM 263) plan to withdraw US military from Vietnam, starting in December of 1963, and finishing by the end of 1965. He planned to pull us out, whether he would have done so or not. He said publicly to his last day that Vietnam was of strategic importance. He was talking politically and trying to hold Texas together for his reelection campaign in 1964. But I think the record of NSM 263 and his dovish record in general points away from Vietnam, after 1964, after the election. Bobby Kennedy followed up by opposing the Vietnam war after his brother was killed.

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