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

Fidel Castro

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.

———

Jefferson Morley’s new ebook, CIA and JFK: The Secret Assassination Files, available on Amazon, provides the fullest account yet of the JFK records that the CIA is still concealing in 2016 and why they should be made public in October 2017.

CIA & JFK

26 comments

  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
    theory.

  3. Jean Davison says:

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

    QUOTE:
    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….
    <<
    UNQUOTE

    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9529

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

    http://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/wc/wcvols/wh26/html/WH_Vol26_0053a.htm

    • 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.

    • John Rowell says:

      Again Jean, you’re confusing public pronouncements with private discussions about policy. You act like the former is the final word.

    • Jean Davison says:

      I’ve been unable to find McGeorge Bundy’s memo calling for “the sweet approach…enticing Castro over to us,” although it is widely quoted. Bundy’s November 12 1963 memo giving the president’s instructions to Attwood lists the same conditions as JFK’s final speech on Cuba:

      “… we would be interested in knowing whether there was any prospect of important modification in those parts of Castro’s policy which are flatly unacceptable to us: namely, the three points in Ambassador Stevenson’s recent speech of which the central elements are (1) submission to external Communist influence, and (2) a determined campaign of subversion directed at the rest of the Hemisphere. Reversals of these policies may or may not be sufficient to produce a change in the policy of the United States, but they are certainly necessary, and without an indication of readiness to move in these directions, it is hard for us to see what could be accomplished by a visit to Cuba.”

      https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v11/d377

      These conditions were actually in Attwood’s original proposal in September. QUOTE:

      This memorandum proposes a course of action which, if successful, could remove the Cuban issue from the 1964 campaign.

      It does not propose offering Castro a “deal”—which could be more dangerous politically than doing nothing. It does propose a discreet inquiry into the possibility of neutralizing Cuba on our terms.

      It is based on the assumption that, short of a change of regime, our principal political objectives in Cuba are:

      a. The evacuation of all Soviet bloc military personnel.

      b. An end to subversive activities by Cuba in Latin America.

      c. Adoption by Cuba of a policy of non-alignment.
      UNQUOTE

      https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v11/d367

    • J.D. says:

      The text quoted from the speech does not support the Dallas Times Herald’s summary of it as a call for Castro to be ousted from power. In fact, JFK’s Miami speech was intended, according to JFK’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen, to be “a speech that would open a door to the Cuban leader.” Arthur Schlesinger interpreted the quoted remarks from the speech as being “directed against Castro’s extracontinental ties [i.e., support of Soviet policies in Latin America] and signaled that, if these were ended, normalization was possible.” It was intended to support JFK’s quiet attempts to reach out to the Cuban government without alienating his anti-Castro listeners. (Source: Douglass, 252-53)

  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.

    • Jean Davison says:

      In an April 1964 oral history for the JFK Library, Robert Kennedy said this about his brother’s Vietnam policy:

      QUOTE:
      Martin [interviewer]: There was never any consideration given to pulling out?
      Kennedy: No.
      Martin: But the same time, no disposition to go in all . . .
      Kennedy: No . . .
      Martin:. . . in an all out way as we went into Korea. We were trying to avoid a Korea, is that correct?
      Kennedy: Yes, because I, everybody including General MacArthur felt that land conflict between our troops, white troops and Asian, would only lead to, end in disaster. [….]
      Martin: [….] But the president was convinced that we had to keep, had to stay in there . . .
      Kennedy: Yes.
      Martin:. . . and couldn’t lose it.
      Kennedy: Yes.
      Martin: And if Vietnamese were about to lose it, would he propose to go in on land if he had to?
      Kennedy: Well, we’d face that when we came to it.

      http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/vietnam.htm

      This was an interview for the historical record, not a public statement.

      Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger published their first books on JFK in 1965, “Kennedy” and “A Thousand Days.” I’ve searched both using the terms “Vietnam,” “Castro,” and “Cuba,” and find nothing about a JFK plan to withdraw from Vietnam or any effort to reach an accommodation with Castro.

      Links to the books (Click on “look inside” to search):

      https://www.amazon.com/Kennedy-Biography-Perennial-Political-Classics-ebook/dp/B000NQ8SUK/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472268945&sr=1-1&keywords=sorensen+kennedy#reader_B000NQ8SUK

      https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0618219277/ref=s9_acsd_simh_bw_c_x_3?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=merchandised-search-3&pf_rd_r=H3GFYH6J2XCC98H2FWPR&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=2394961222&pf_rd_i=283155#reader_0618219277

      • J.D. says:

        1. RFK was still Attorney General when he made that statement to the JFK Library. If he had said “JFK was getting out of Vietnam,” it would have been taken as an implicit critique of LBJ, his then-boss. Even if the remarks weren’t intended to be published, he had no way of ensuring that they wouldn’t somehow leak.

        2. RFK may well not have known what JFK intended to do. Even if he did, he may not have felt at liberty to divulge anything JFK had told him in confidence. RFK was notoriously close-mouthed about his relationship with his brother. (William Manchester, interviewing him for his book about the assassination, said that Bobby’s replies during all his interviews were “abrupt [and] often monosyllabic” — as they are in the oral history interview.)

        3. If Sorensen and Schlesinger published their books in 1965, it stands to reason that they composed the bulk of the texts in 1964, well before LBJ decided to escalate the war. If they were aware of JFK’s plans (which, again, is not certain), it also stands to reason that they would not want to jeopardize a delicate situation by blabbing the news in their books.

        4. There is absolutely no doubt that JFK was privately trying to reach an accommodation with Castro. This was known as early as December 1963, when Jean Daniel published his piece about the secret dialogue with Castro in The New Republic. The fact that a couple of books published in 1965 don’t mention it is irrelevant. Why not address the actual evidence?

        • Bill Clarke says:

          J.D.
          September 2, 2016 at 6:31 pm

          2. RFK may well not have known what JFK intended to do.

          3. If Sorensen and Schlesinger published their books in 1965, it stands to reason that they composed the bulk of the texts in 1964, well before LBJ decided to escalate the war. If they were aware of JFK’s plans (which, again, is not certain),

          NSAM 263 was marked Top Secret but I find it hard to believe that Sorensen and Schlesinger and especially Bobby didn’t know what it said. Therefore they knew very well what JFK planned to do in Vietnam. The order plainly states what JFK intended to do there despite the dishonest reading of the order from John Newman to K. Galbraith to lesser liars.

          4. There is absolutely no doubt that JFK was privately trying to reach an accommodation with Castro.

          Nice try after Operation Mongoose failed.

        • Jean Davison says:

          Although people have varying opinions about RFK I don’t think anyone doubts his loyalty to his brother. IMO it’s simply not plausible that he would lie about Kennedy’s Vietnam policy in a an oral history for the JFK Library — this was for the historical record. Robert even affirmed JFK’s belief in the Domino Theory.

          QUOTE:
          RFK: …the president felt that the… He had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam.

          Martin: What was the overwhelming reason?

          RFK: Just the loss of all of Southeast Asia if you lost Vietnam. I think everybody was quite clear that the rest of Southeast Asia would fall.
          UNQUOTE

          I’m perfectly willing to believe that JFK had decided on a total unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam if someone can show me the evidence — and I don’t mean later self-serving statements by folks like McNamara but something in the contemporary record. (NSAM 263 says no such thing.)

          “4. There is absolutely no doubt that JFK was privately trying to reach an accommodation with Castro. This was known as early as December 1963, when Jean Daniel published his piece about the secret dialogue with Castro in The New Republic. The fact that a couple of books published in 1965 don’t mention it is irrelevant. Why not address the actual evidence?”

          I think I *am* “addressing the actual evidence.”
          Have you read Daniel’s New Republic article?

          https://ratical.org/ratville/JFK/UnofficialEnvoy.html

          JFK was evidently agreeable to an accommodation with Castro — but with the conditions outlined in his 11/18 speech and 11/12 instructions to Attwood (links above): non-alignment with the Soviet Union and an end to what Kennedy called Cuban subversion in Latin America. See the section beginning with “After a silence…”

          Castro told Daniel he didn’t want to talk about the Soviets and he denied there was any subversion. Toward the end of the article Daniel quotes Castro saying, “If the United States sees the problem as you have posed it, then you are right, there is no way out….”

          Did any of the JFK sources who cite Jean Daniel mention that part of it? None that I know of.

          BTW, I don’t care what JFK’s policy on Vietnam and Cuba was, I’m just saying that the historical record often doesn’t seem to support what these secondary sources claim.

          • J.D. says:

            Earlier, Jean, you said this:

            “I’ve searched both [Sorensen’s and Schlesinger’s books] using the terms ‘Vietnam,’ ‘Castro,’ and ‘Cuba,’ and find nothing about … any effort to reach an accommodation with Castro.”

            This seems to imply that you think that there was no such effort. (Otherwise, what would be the point of making such a statement?) Now you concede that “JFK was evidently agreeable to an accommodation with Castro,” but that it didn’t really matter because JFK and Castro both had conditions that would rule out such an accommodation. Well, clearly there were profound differences between Kennedy’s government and Castro’s, just as there were between Kennedy’s government and Khrushchev’s, and an accommodation would not have been easy to reach. It would have been messy. But this does not mean that Kennedy was not trying to reach out to Castro.

            You also write:

            “I don’t care what JFK’s policy on Vietnam and Cuba was, I’m just saying that the historical record often doesn’t seem to support what these secondary sources claim.”

            Well, yes, if you parse every single historical document to death in search of a pre-ordained conclusion, you can cast doubt on anything you like. But that is not how history is supposed to be written.

            I do care what JFK’s policy on Vietnam and Cuba was. That’s why I’m discussing it. I can’t understand why you’d devote your time and energy to arguing about something you claim not to care about.

          • Bill Clarke says:

            J.D.
            September 4, 2016 at 8:55 pm

            “I do care what JFK’s policy on Vietnam and Cuba was. That’s why I’m discussing it. I can’t understand why you’d devote your time and energy to arguing about something you claim not to care about.”

            I can’t speak for Jean but since I agree with her let me explain from my perspective. I don’t care what NSAM 263 said. I would be glad if it ordered a complete withdrawal from Vietnam but it doesn’t say that. What I argue about is the dishonest claims of many that it does in fact say that. Much the same with Castro.

            What I argue for, and what I care about, is the factual historic truth. Not some pie in the sky crap.

          • Jean Davison says:

            Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. I didn’t say the Attwood and Daniel incidents didn’t happen, only that I don’t see it mentioned in the Sorensen and Schlesinger books published in 1965.

            My complaint is that when later writers discussed this, the U.S. terms and conditions for an accomodation are seldom mentioned. Who mentions, e.g., the 11/15/63 Bundy memo describing JFK’s last instructions to Attwood? It listed “… those parts of Castro’s policy which are flatly unacceptable to us:…(1)submission to external Communist influence and (2)a determined campaign of subversion directed at the rest of the Hemisphere.”

            https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v11/d377

            I certainly didn’t claim that an eventual accommodation with Castro was “ruled out,” as though anyone could know that. It seems to me it’s the other way around — many people seem to assume there *would* have been an agreement with Castro had JFK only lived.

            I “devote my time and energy” because the historical record shouldn’t be distorted and IMO it has been.

          • J.D. says:

            Jean writes: “Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. I didn’t say the Attwood and Daniel incidents didn’t happen, only that I don’t see it mentioned in the Sorensen and Schlesinger books published in 1965.”

            What in the world are you trying to argue, Jean? What is the conceivable purpose of pointing out that a couple of books “don’t mention” something unless you are trying to cast doubt on it? Making a statement with a clear, unambiguous implication and then pretending that no such implication existed is a fairly disingenuous thing to do.

            As for the “historical record,” it is clear that you accept an entirely different standard of evidence for things you wish to believe than you do for things you wish to deny. If somebody shows you a strong piece of evidence that suggests, for example, that JFK was inclined to get out of Vietnam or to make a deal with Castro, you answer with innuendo intended to make that evidence look weaker. On the other hand, if you want to make an argument yourself, you resort to some of the weakest evidence imaginable. An anonymously written Wikipedia page, editable by anybody at any time, “presents a different interpretation”? An interview with one of Allen Dulles’s biographers, filled with airy speculation, is solid evidence, against all appearances, that this very active man was actually going senile? If somebody used such evidence to argue a point you disagreed with, would you not point out how weak it was?

  5. Kennedy63 says:

    I think JFK fully understood his predicament as President: his personal initiatives towards ending the Cold War needed to be tempered by the political realities of multiple power centers within the government and electorate. Perhaps these diametrically opposed views are what caused endless infighting within Kennedy’s administration and contributed to his assassination. It is clear that JFK was transitioning (ahead of the entrenched war forces of the establishment) towards peace and ending the Cold War. He never believed (nor did RFK) that communism was America’s biggest threat – rather, first JFK, then later, RFK, came to recognize the oppressive anti-progressive global forces at work in America which were neither communist, nor democratic, but neo-Nazi capitalist using the CIA as the Nazis used the Gestapo. JFK sought alternative (backdoor) means to pursue his own peace initiatives, rather than rely on the warmongering establishment, to pursue an accommodation with USSR and CUBA.JFK clearly had gone off the war-monger’s reservation and needed to be eliminated because he could not be “controlled.” Allen Dulles made a revealing comment on JFK’s anti-war initiatives as POTUS: “Kennedy thought that he was the President” (The Devil’s Chessboard).

  6. Ronnie Wayne says:

    “that little kennedy, he thought he was a god”. Dulles.

    http://archive.larouchepac.com/node/28987

    • Jean Davison says:

      Dulles supposedly made that comment that near the end of his life when he was reportedly suffering from dementia. See the last part of this interview of a Dulles biographer, e.g.:

      http://keranews.org/post/meet-brothers-who-shaped-us-policy-inside-and-out

      • J.D. says:

        Stephen Kinzer, in the interview you’re referring to, makes it clear that he’s speculating, based on Dulles’s apparent “distractedness” during the Bay of Pigs affair. David Talbot, in his book, provides a different (and more convincing) explanation for Dulles’s behavor: He was unconcerned because he assumed Kennedy would be obligated to bail out the invasion when it inevitably failed.

        Dulles made the negative remark about Kennedy in the summer of 1965, the same year he ably defended himself at a UCLA lecture (the one where he got into an argument with David Lifton). The previous year, he’d been mentally alert enough to attend more hearings than any other member of the Warren Commission. He also published a book as late as 1968. It seems extremely unlikely that he was suffering from dementia when he made the remark about Kennedy.

    • Bill Clarke says:

      Ronnie Wayne
      August 30, 2016 at 1:43 am

      “that little kennedy, he thought he was a god”. Dulles.

      Does it matter if Dulles, demented or not, is telling the truth about Bobby? I think he is. Johnson called Bobby, “that little shit ass”. Correct again I think. One of the most common words used to describe Bobby in the literature is “abrasive”.

      “Ted Sorensen remembered him (Bobby) as “militant, aggressive, intolerant, opinionated, and somewhat shallow in his convictions…..more like his father than his brother.”
      “Camelot’s Court; Inside the Kennedy White House”, page 44.

      This coming from one of the biggest Kennedy apologist to walk down the road. One can defend JFK. I don’t see how anyone could defend old man Joe. He was rotten to the core.

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