CIA was in the loop for Castro peace feelers

Lisa Howard, ABC News
Lisa Howard, ABC News reporter

In response to Two secret memos on JFK and Cuba, John Simkin, the British historian wrote the following essay that gives valuable context to this neglected story.

Simkin writes:

“The secret negotiations that took place between the JFK administration and the Cuban government could be significant issue in the JFK assassination.

“A key figure in this was Lisa Howard.

“She was a correspondent for Mutual Radio Network. In June 1961 she covered the Vienna summit between JFK and Nikita Khrushchev. Later that year she became the anchor for ABC’s noontime news broadcast, The News Hour with Lisa Howard.

“In April 1963 McGeorge Bundy suggested to JFK that there should be a “gradual development of some form of accommodation with Castro”. In an interview given in 1995, Bundy, said Kennedy needed “a target of opportunity” to talk to Castro.

“Later that month Howard arrived in Cuba to make a documentary on the country. In an interview with Howard, Castro agreed that a rapprochement with Washington was desirable. On her return Howard met with the CIA.

Deputy Director Richard Helms reported to JFK on Howard’s view that “Fidel Castro is looking for a way to reach a rapprochement with the United States.” After detailing her observations about Castro’s political power, disagreements with his colleagues and Soviet troops in Cuba, the memo concluded that “Howard 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 if asked to do so by the US Government.”

CIA Opposition

RFK and John McCone
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy with CIA director John McCone, who opposed peace talks with Castro. (photo credit: CIA)

“CIA Director John McCone was strongly opposed to Howard being involved with these negotiations with Castro. He argued that it might “leak and compromise a number of CIA operations against Castro”. In a memorandum to McGeorge Bundy, McCone commented that the “Lisa Howard report be handled in the most limited and sensitive manner,” and “that no active steps be taken on the rapprochement matter at this time.”

Arthur Schlesinger explained to Anthony Summers in 1978 why the CIA did not want JFK to negotiate with Fidel Castro during the summer of 1963:

“The CIA was reviving the assassination plots (against Castro) at the very time President Kennedy was considering the possibility of normalization of relations with Cuba – an extraordinary action. If it was not total incompetence – which in the case of the CIA cannot be excluded – it was a studied attempt to subvert national policy.”

Howard’s Diplomacy

Howard now decided to bypass the CIA and in May, 1963, published an article in the journal, War and Peace Report, Howard wrote that in eight hours of private conversations Castro had shown that he had a strong desire for negotiations with the United States:

“In our conversations he made it quite clear that he was ready to discuss: the Soviet personnel and military hardware on Cuban soil; compensation for expropriated American lands and investments; the question of Cuba as a base for Communist subversion throughout the Hemisphere.”

Howard went on to urge the Kennedy administration to “send an American government official on a quiet mission to Havana to hear what Castro has to say.” A country as powerful as the United States, she concluded, “has nothing to lose at a bargaining table with Fidel Castro.”

The Intermediary

Bill Attwood
William Attwood, go-between

“William Attwood, an adviser to the US mission to the United Nations, read Howard’s article and on September 12, 1963, he had a long conversation with her on the phone. This apparently set in motion a plan to initiate secret talks between the United States and Cuba. Six days later Attwood sent a memorandum to Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman and U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Attwood asked for permission to establish discreet, indirect contact with Fidel Castro.

“On September 20, JFK gave permission to authorize Attwood’s direct contacts with Carlos Lechuga, the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. According to Attwood: “I then told Miss Howard to set up the contact, that is to have a small reception at her house so that it could be done very casually, not as a formal approach by us.” Howard met Lechuga at the UN on 23rd September. Howard invited Lechuga to come to a party at her Park Avenue apartment that night to meet Attwood.

“The next day Attwood met with Robert Kennedy in Washington and reported on the talks with Lechuga. According to Attwood the attorney general believed that a trip toCuba would be “rather risky.” It was “bound to leak and… might result in some kind of Congressional investigation.” Nevertheless, he thought the matter was “worth pursuing.”

“On 5th November, Bundy recorded that “the President was more in favor of pushing towards an opening toward Cuba than was the State Department, the idea being – well, getting them out of the Soviet fold and perhaps wiping out the Bay of Pigs and maybe getting back into normal.” Bundy designated his assistant, Gordon Chase, to be Attwood’s direct contact at the White House.

[Editors’ note: In 2003 the non-profit National Security Archive posted an audio tape of the President and his Bundy, discussing the possibility.]

“Attwood continued to use Howard as his contact with Castro. In October 1963, Castro told Howard that he was very keen to open negotiations with Kennedy. Castro even offered to send a plane to Mexico to pick up Kennedy’s representative and fly him to a private airport near Veradero where Castro would talk to him alone.

“JFK now decided to send Attwood to meet Castro. On November 14, 1963, Lisa Howard conveyed this message to her Cuban contact. In an attempt to show his good will, JFK sent a coded message to Castro in a speech delivered on 19th November. The speech included the following passage: “Cuba had become 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.”

Fidel Castro, tormenter of empire

“JFK  also sent a message to Castro via the French journalist Jean Daniel. According to Daniel, ‘Kennedy expressed some empathy for Castro’s anti-Americanism, acknowledging that the United States had committed a number of sins in pre-revolutionary Cuba.’

“JFK told Daniel that the trade embargo against Cuba could be lifted if Castro ended his support for left-wing movements in the Americas.

“Daniel delivered this message on 19th November. Castro told Daniel that Kennedy could become “the greatest president of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas.” Daniel was with Castro when news arrived that Kennedy had been assassinated Castro turned to Daniel and said: “This is an end to your mission of peace. Everything is changed.”

What LBJ Thought

“President Lyndon Johnson was told about these negotiations in December, 1963. He refused to continue these talks and claimed that the reason for this was that he feared that Richard Nixon, the expected Republican candidate for the presidency, would accuse him of being soft on communism.

“Howard refused to give up and in 1964 she resumed talks with Castro. On February 12, 1964, she sent a message to Johnson from Castro asking for negotiations to be restarted. When Johnson did not respond to this message she contacted Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations.

“On June 26, Stevenson sent a memo to Johnson saying that he felt that “all of our crises could be avoided if there was some way to communicate; that for want of anything better, he assumed that he could call (Lisa Howard) and she call me and I would advise you.” In a memorandum marked top secret, Gordon Chase wrote that it was important “to remove Lisa from direct participation in the business of passing messages” from Cuba.

“In December, 1964, Howard met with Che Guevara to the United Nations. Details of this meeting was sent to McGeorge Bundy. When Howard got no response she arranged for Eugene McCarthy to meet with Guevara in her apartment on 16th December.

“This created panic in the White House and the following day Under Secretary George Ball told McCarthy that the meeting must remain a secret because there was “suspicion throughout Latin America that the U.S. might make a deal with Cuba behind the backs of the other American states.”

“Howard continued to try and obtain a negotiated agreement between Castro and Johnson. As a result she was fired by ABC because she had “chosen to participate publicly in partisan political activity contrary to long established ABC news policy.”

“Lisa Howard died at East Hampton, Long Island, on 4th July, 1965. It was officially reported that she had committed suicide. Apparently, she had taken one hundred phenobarbitols. It was claimed she was depressed as a result of losing her job and suffering a miscarriage. Others have claimed that her death was suspicious and was killed because of what she knew about these secret negotiations.

“Carlos Lechuga, gave information on these talks at the Cuban Officials and JFK Historians Conference on 7th December, 1995. This was followed by the official release of some of the relevant documents in November 2003.

Next: Historian David Kaiser Responds

Part 1: Two secret memos on JFK and Cuba,

(There will be no comments on these articles until the entire series has been published.)


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