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.



  1. Mayra Solloa says:

    On April 10, CIA Director John McCone memoed JFK on the statement by Castro’s aide Dr. Vallejo to James Donovan, who was negotiating the release of the prisoners of the Brigade 2506, that Castro had realized he must find a rapprochement with the US. In a meeting with JFK in Palm Beach, McCone alluded to the “possibility of working on Castro with the objective of disenchanting him with his Soviet relations [and] establish[ing] in Cuba government satisfactory to the rest of the Hemisphere.” McCone offered two ways: either the rapprochement suggested by Castro or a consistent pressure on Khrushchev for withdrawing from Cuba and the subsequent downfall of Castro. JFK suggested following both courses at the same time.

  2. Larry Schnapf says:

    Lisa Howard did not stop with this interview. She played critical role facilitating the backchannel communications with William Atwood and Castro’s government in September/October 1963. French Journalist Jean Daniel met with JFK before he went to Cuba to interview Castro. Daniel was having lunch with Castro sharing JFK’s thoughts on 11/22/63. The exile community got wind of these backchannel talks. Motive, means and opportunity…..

  3. Charles Beyer says:

    If one were to replace Castro, The US & Soviet governments with the metaphors of debutant & potential beaus & looks at the situation from each perspective motive, means & opportunity to kill JFK practically slaps one in the face. Castro (debutant) is wearing furs & jewelry beau Soviet Union provided. Beau USA is pressuring the debutant to give back the gifts in order to receive better (USA) gifts. Beau USA has already made a move to eliminate the debutant from the social scene. The easiest way to eliminate the pressure from the USA beau for the debutante is to assassinate him, if the debutant fears the retaliation sure to follow from beau Soviet Union (once the gifts have been returned). The debutant really has no choice but to opt for murder (to prevent being murdered herself).
    On the sidelines, watching this pulling match is the Cuban exile community, the CIA, FBI, big business & a number of foreign governments. Within all of these lies the potential to stop the dancing between the debutant & her 2 beaus by killing one beau & making it appear it was done by the one remaining beau (Soviet Union)& the debutant (Castro). There is no way on Earth the Soviets would allow JFK to sweet talk their bitch away from them.

  4. There are several reasons why JFK was killed, but I believe this was the biggest issue why. Cuba. Rapprochement. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the National Security Establishment, and specifically, the CIA and their sponsored Cuban exile militants.
    I think the second, biggest reason why is, again, Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Doug Horne goes over this well at the end of his 6 hour video presentation, “Altered History”. James Douglass also writes about the Kennedys belief during the missile crisis that the Joint Chiefs were on the verge of a coup.
    The outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis was private letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev, which turned out not to be so private, and this correspondence culminated into the Peace Speech at American University, which would be reason 3 why JFK was killed. Ending the cold war? That was a no-no. Doug Horne touched on this as well.
    Other major, contributing factors that led to JFK’s demise: Lyndon Johnson’s ambition and self-preservation (which cannot be understated), the Mafia’s intolerance of RFK’s war on it, and the CIA had some other, very serious reasons for wanting JFK dead, going back to the Bay of Pigs. Finally, all this was supported by the hatred Hoover had for the Kennedys, the hatred TX oil had for JFK, and the hatred that Secret Service agents had for Kennedy.

  5. Jordan says:

    One thing is undeniable, the CIA and the Mafia in particular, along with other entities with the same or related interests, didn’t simply want to maintain anti-communist vigilance towards Cuba, they wanted Cuba back under their control.

    They wanted back what Castro had seized in the name of the Cuban people, and to re-open the casinos, brothels, gun and drug running routes, plantations, mines, etc…

    Strange what occurred very shortly after it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen.

    • Ronnie Wayne says:

      Quite to the point sir. Peace with Castro was not what the Power Elite (controller of the CIA) or the Mafia wanted. Control of the Island off our coast is the issue. JMO.

      • Ronnie Wayne says:

        With his other transgressions of the protocol of the Power Elite in particular this attempted “rapprochement” by JFK with Castro is interpreted by some to infer his signing of his own death warrant.

  6. Castro is certainly a rational thinker and well spoken. He makes a lot of sense. This point of view is important to understand, both philosophically and as a practical politic.

    I think it an important truth that “revolution cannot be exported”. Certainly propaganda can influence the potential revolutionary. But the conditions for rebellion must exist in a society for revolution to occur.
    . . .

    As a contrast to a revolutionary philosophy to one of status quo oligarchy and the primacy of the central state, I offer you these words of one of the oligarchy’s most influential propagandist:

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”― Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda

  7. “…the enemies of Kennedy want to force him into a corner, an abyss, and that abyss is the case of war with Cuba.”~Fidel Castro

    The spin of the commentary following the Castro interview was pure Cold War PR … essentially anti-historical BS.

    All of these jokers were lying and they knew it. They are trying to say that there was no reason for Cuba to fear an invasion by the US, when in fact just one year before this interview Bay of Pigs invasion took place.
    Only a liar or a fool would claim that there was no reasonable fear of an invasion perpetrated by the US. Everything these official representatives of the so-called “US Government” was nonsense.


    • Bill Clarke says:

      Willy Whitten
      March 18, 2016 at 4:56 pm

      “All of these jokers were lying and they knew it. They are trying to say that there was no reason for Cuba to fear an invasion by the US, when in fact just one year before this interview Bay of Pigs invasion took place.”

      So you don’t think Khrushchev told Castro about the secret deal with JFK in which JFK promised not to invade Cuba?

      • Jordan says:

        If I recall correctly, Cuba had to agree to inspection of their weaponry in order to receive a promise that the U.S. would not invade. I believe that Castro refused to agree to that clause in protest of the “secret deal” between JFK and Khrushchev…

      • “So you don’t think Khrushchev told Castro about the secret deal with JFK in which JFK promised not to invade Cuba?”Bill Clarke

        Neither Mr Clarke nor I can definitively answer that question.

        However we can definitively say that none of the pundits speaking on the show at that time knew about the secret deal between Khrushchev and Kennedy. And whether Castro was as thoroughly convinced he could trust Kennedy as the Soviet leader is not known.

        Although I would posit that Castro trusted Kennedy but not his warmonger military advisers. I think that is stated quite clearly in Castro’s remark about “Kennedy’s enemies”. Castro seemed to recognize this was Kennedy’s own military chiefs.

        It doesn’t seem that Mr Clarke has come to grasp that fact.

        • Bill Clarke says:

          Willy Whitten
          March 18, 2016 at 9:32 pm

          “Although I would posit that Castro trusted Kennedy but not his warmonger military advisers. I think that is stated quite clearly in Castro’s remark about “Kennedy’s enemies”. Castro seemed to recognize this was Kennedy’s own military chiefs.”

          “Two days later (September 1963), Mr. Castro chose the Brazilian embassy in Havana as the site for an impromptu news conference at which he publicly warned that “U.S. leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders they themselves will not be safe.”


          I don’t see a lot of trust here. I’m not surprised that you do.

          “It doesn’t seem that Mr Clarke has come to grasp that fact.”

          You confuse your speculations as facts. Prove it is a fact and I’ll “grasp” it as fact. Until then…

  8. J.D. says:

    While looking up articles about JFK and Castro on Twitter, I stumbled on a story, from a few years back, that I hadn’t read before. In 1997, JFK Jr. visited Cuba and had dinner with Fidel Castro, and Castro talked to him about the assassination.

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