In an important article published by the Inter Press Service news agency Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, highlights an important point about U.S.-Cuba relations that President Obama normalized last week: The CIA opposed President Kennedy’s efforts to do the same 51 years ago.
“JFK was involved in secret negotiations with Fidel Castro designed to outflank Foggy Bottom [Washington] and the agents at Langley [CIA], but the CIA knew of JFK’s back-channel contacts with Castro and endeavored to sabotage the peace efforts with cloak and dagger mischief,” Kennedy writes.
RFK Jr., an environmental attorney, is right that the CIA knew about JFK’s interest in normalizing relations, and opposed it.
Here’s a May 1, 1963, memo, written by deputy director RIchard Helms, about the agency’s debrief of ABC news reporter Lisa Howard who had just interviewed Castro and found “possible interest in rapprochement with the United States.”
“It appears that Fidel Castro is looking for a way to reach a rapprochement with the United State government, probably because he is aware that Cuba is in a state of economic chaos,” Helms wrote. “… Castro indicated that if a rapprochement was wanted, President John F. Kennedy would have to make the first move. … When Howard pressed Castro for further information on how a rapprochement could be achieved, he said he considered the U.S. limitation on exile raids to be a proper step toward accommodation.”
One month before, JFK had overruled CIA director John McCone and ordered a crackdown on CIA-funded anti-Castro exiles using south Florida to stage attacks on Cuba and Cuban civilians.
Kennedy’s action made Castro more amenable to having a normal relationship with United States — which is what the CIA and the exiles feared the most.
That is what Howard, a frank liberal in her politics, hoped to achieve. She told her CIA interlocutors she was willing to serve as messenger. As Helms wrote, she “definitely wants to impress the U.S. government with two facts: Castro is ready to discuss rapprochement, and she herself is ready to discuss it with him,”
Helms sent his memo to McCone who was alarmed. The CIA director sent a copy to Attorney General Robert Kennedy with whom he had a close personal relationship. McCone urged RFK not to make public or even discuss Howard’s initiative.
“I cannot overemphasize the importance of secrecy in this matter,” McCone wrote. He recommended that “no active steps be taken” in response to Howard’s overture. If RFK did discuss it with anyone, McCone added, he should emphasize “the rapprochement track is being explored as a remote possibility and one of several alternatives involving various levels of dynamic and positive action.”
RFK agreed and the Kennedy White House did not respond to Howard’s overture at that time. But four months later in September, JFK and RFK authorized a U.S. diplomat, WIlliam Attwood, to explore the idea of talks with Castro. On November 5, 1963, Kennedy and his advisers discussed “Cuba’s peace feelers.”
This White House tape recording captures JFK approved the idea of continuing talks — as long he could deny it.
Seventeen days later, he was dead.
Attwood later told author Anthony Summers “If the CIA did find out what we were doing [talks toward normalizing relations with Cuba], this would have trickled down to the lower echelon of activists, and Cuban exiles, and the more gung-ho CIA people who had been involved since the Bay of Pigs. I can understand why they would have reacted so violently. This was the end of their dreams of returning to Cuba, and they might have been impelled to take violent action. Such as assassinating the President.”
RFK Jr. also suggests that his uncle’s interest in normalizing relations may have led to his assassination six months later
“Many exile leaders openly expressed their disgust with the White House ‘treachery,’ accusing JFK of engaging in ‘co-existence’ with Fidel Castro,” RFK Jr. writes. “Some Cubans remained loyal to my father, but a small number of hard, bitter homicidal Castro haters now directed their fury toward JFK and there is credible evidence that these men and their CIA handlers may have been involved in plots to assassinate him.”