This was the moment President John F. Kennedy was angling for 52 years ago: reconciliation between the United States and Cuba.
President Obama met yesterday with Cuban president Raul Castro, the first face to face meeting of the country’s leaders since the mid-20th century. Obama said “Cuba is not a threat to the United States.” His appearance was condemned by Obama’s Republican critics just as JFK’s Cuba policy was condemned by his opponents.
Ideological polemics notwithstanding, Kennedy was no hawk on Cuba.
JFK was, according to his conservative critics, passive, if not weak, on Cuba. As commander in chief, Kennedy had not one but two opportunities to wipe out the Castro government — during the CIA-organized invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 and during the missile crisis of October 1962. Despite overwhelming military superiority and intense pressure from the Pentagon and most of his national security advisers, he refused both times. JFK was reviled for his willingness to co-exist with the communist government in Havana, just as Obama is reviled today.
Obama has taken the step that Kennedy was contemplating but unwilling to make going into the 1964 election year. In his last year in office, JFK turned on the Miami-based opposition to the Castro regime by aggressively shutting down freelance attacks on the island launched from South Florida. He authorized his prep school pal William Attwood, an aide to U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, to explore President Fidel Castro’s terms for normalizing relations.
To be sure, Kennedy publicly rejected Castro’s peace feelers. He continued to countenance U.S. attacks on the island, organized by the CIA and Defense Department. He continued to use harsh rhetoric in his speeches. He wouldn’t have been unhappy if Castro had been overthrown or killed by his rivals. But he was open to reconciliation.
As Peter Kornbluh writes in his fascinating new book Back Channel to Cuba:
“Throughout the fall of 1963, a small group with in the Kennedy administration explored this new back-channel dialogue with Cuba. ‘This whole operation was very closely held,’ Attwood recalled. Besides Attwood only JFK, his brother, NSC Adviser McGeorge Bundy, NSC staffer Gordon Chase, U.N Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, and ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman knew about it.
JFK had signaled his willingness to co-exist with Castro as early as March 1963, according to Kornbluh. That’s when the State Department recommended Kennedy make a non-negotiable demand of the Cuban government: Castro had to break ties with his allies in Moscow and Beijing before the U.S. would recognize his government. To the surprise of his aides, JFK rejected the demand.
“The president does not agree that we should make the breaking of Sino-Soviet ties a non-negotiable point,” Bundy wrote in a memo on March 4, 1963, after meeting with Kennedy. Bundy summarized JFK’s thinking. “We don’t want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill. We should start thinking along more flexible lines.”
The ambush in Dallas killed JFK’s incipient policy. Only a half century later would another American president complete JFK’s thought.
In March 1963