Return to Cuba: When Castro talked peace in 1963, JFK listened

As the United States and Cuba engage in hard bargaining over how to normalize relations in 2015, it worth remembering that President Kennedy was seeking the same goal when he was assassinated in November 1963.

In this ABC News broadcast in April 1963, Cuban president Fidel Castro talked about his desire to settle differences with Washington. JFK was listening.

That had not always been the case. Until the the missile crisis of October 1962, JFK  was committed to overthrowing Castro. After he negotiated a peaceful settlement with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (over the objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of his national security advisers) he  started rethinking his Cuba policy.

 Lisa Howard
ABC New Reporter Lisa Howard

When ABC news reporter Lisa Howard interviewed Castro on April 24, 1963, JFK was willing hearing from advisers that he should consider the “sweet approach” to making peace with Cuba. Rather than seeking to overthrow Castro’s government, the United States should offer the benefits of reconciliation.

As Cuba scholar Peter Kornbluh documents in his book, “Backchannel to Cuba,” (co-authored with William LeoGrande,) JFK was much more open to the idea of normalizing relations with Castro’s government than he said publicly. As a result, the continuity between JFK’s actions in 1963 and Obama’s policy today is largely unknown.

On  November 5. 1963, JFK ordered aides to discretely explore what Castro’s terms for normalization. You can hear JFK approve of sending UN diplomat Bill Attwood to talk to Castro on this White House tape recording, obtained by the non-profit National Security Archive at George Washington University.

(Be patient, The conversation, garbled at first, becomes clearer at :25 in the recording when someone says “Bill Attwood.”)

If you listen carefully you can hear Kennedy approve on the condition that Attwood is “off the payroll”–meaning not a U.S government employee. For political reasons, JFK wanted to be able to deny he was open to negotiations with Castro.

But he was. Seventeen days later, JFK was dead, and so was the idea of peace with Cuba.

Now, fifty four years later, President Barack Obama is seeking to complete the policy change that Kennedy privately sought to advance.


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