At the time of his death President Kennedy was thinking about it — and thinking hard. You can even hear JFK talking about it: just click here.
In 2003, Peter Kornbluh, an analyst at the non-profit National Security Archive in Washington, obtained a White House tape recording about JFK’s Cuba policy, made on November 5, 1963.
Kornbluh’s research runs counter to a recent claim that JFK was was a conservative. In fact, Kennedy came closer to normalizing relations with Castro’s communist government in Cuba than any American president since Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.
On the tape JFK discusses the possibility of sending a senior U.S. diplomat, William Attwood, to Havana for a secret meeting with Castro. The agenda for the meeting: 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.
(The substantive conversation starts at :25 in the recording.)
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.”
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 that “we should start thinking along more flexible lines” and 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, 1963, recording shows, JFK was 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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