In the last days of his life, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who had already established a mutually respectful and constructive dialogue with Nikita Khrushchev, wondered whether the same might be possible with Fidel Castro, such that the world might move away from the knife edge of nuclear Armageddon and toward peace and co-existence.
The following indirect exchange between the two Western Hemisphere leaders demonstrates both the extraordinary openness of JFK to revolutionary ideas and the depth of political insight of Fidel Castro into the inner machinations of the American military-industrial empire.
Jean Daniel (Jean Daniel Bensaid) was born in Blida, Algeria on July 21, 1920 and died on January 12, 2010. As a young man he moved to France and became a freelance journalist, eventually finding work with L’ Express. He was a Jewish humanist and internationalist in the tradition of the French Left. He was founder and executive editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, “a cultural and political weekly whose orientation belongs within the general social-democratic movement – a tradition concerned with respect for freedom and the quest for social justice”.
On 24th October, 1963, Ben Bradlee of Newsweek arranged for Daniel to meet President John F. Kennedy. The two had a short private meeting in the White House because of Daniel’s pending trip to Cuba. Kennedy hoped to use Daniel as an informal envoy to carry a message to Fidel Castro and return with a response that would test the waters for a rapprochement.
Kennedy confided in Daniel: “I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it. I believe that the accumulation of these mistakes has jeopardized all of Latin America. The great aim of the Alliance for Progress is to reverse this unfortunate policy. This is one of the most, if not the most, important problems in America foreign policy. I can assure you that I have understood the Cubans. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will go even further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.”
After a silence, Kennedy continued: “But it is also clear that the problem has ceased to be a Cuban one, and has become international – that is, it has become a Soviet problem… I know that Castro betrayed the promises made in the Sierra Maestra, and that he has agreed to be a Soviet agent in Latin America. I know that through his fault… the world was on the verge of nuclear war in October, 1962. The Russians understood this very well, at least after our reaction; but so far as Fidel Castro is concerned, I must say that I don’t know whether he realizes this, or even if he cares about it.” A smile, then: “You can tell me whether he does when you come back. In any case, the nations of Latin America are not going to attain justice and progress that way, I mean through Communist subversion… The United States now has the possibility of doing as much good in Latin America as it has done wrong in the past; I would even say that we alone have this power – on the essential condition that Communism does not take over there.”
Kennedy seemed to suggest that the United States could tolerate economic collectivism that was not coupled with a Marxist dictatorship, and that he had doubts about the strategic value of the economic blockade against Cuba.
On November 19, 1963, what was to be the last day of Jean Daniel’s three week intensive immersion among the Cuban people, Fidel Castro came to Daniel’s hotel and spent the entire night, from 10 in the evening to 4 in the morning with the French journalist whom he regarded with both suspicion and interest.
Three times Castro asked Daniel to repeat certain remarks of Kennedy’s, particularly those in which he expressed his criticism of the Batista regime… and those in which Kennedy accused Fidel of having almost caused a war fatal to all humanity. Fidel listened “with devouring and passionate interest”.
After a lengthy silence, a calm and composed Castro said “I believe Kennedy is sincere. I also believe that today the expression of this sincerity could have political significance. I’ll explain what I mean. I haven’t forgotten that Kennedy centered his electoral campaign against Nixon on the theme of firmness toward Cuba. I have not forgotten the Machiavellian tactics and the equivocation, the attempts at invasion, the pressures, the blackmail, the organization of a counter-revolution, the blockade and, above everything, all the retaliatory measures which were imposed before, long before there was the pretext and alibi of Communism. But I feel that he inherited a difficult situation; I don’t think that a President of the United States is ever really free, and I believe Kennedy is at present feeling the impact of this lack of freedom. I also believe he now understands the extent to which he has been misled, especially, for example, on Cuban reaction at the time of the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion. I also think he is a realist: he is now registering that it is impossible to simply wave a wand and cause us, and the explosive situation throughout Latin America, to disappear.”
In regard to the idea that Castro had recklessly risked nuclear war: “There is one point on which I want to give you new information right away. I have refrained from doing this until now; but today an attempt is being made to frighten all mankind by propagating the idea that Cuba, and in particular I, might provoke a nuclear war, so I feel the world should know the true story of the missile emplacement.”
“Six months before these missiles were installed in Cuba, we had received an accumulation of information that a new invasion of the island was being prepared under sponsorship of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose administrators were humiliated by the Bay of Pigs disaster and by the spectacle of being ridiculed in the eyes of the world and berated in US government circles. We also knew that the Pentagon was vesting the CIA preparations with the mantle of its authority, but we had doubts as to the attitude of the President…”
Then one day Khrushchev’s son-in-law, Adzhubei, came to pay us a visit before going on to Washington at the invitation of Kennedy’s associates. Immediately upon arriving in Washington, Adzhubei had been received by the American Chief Executive, and their talk centered particularly on Cuba. A week after this interview, we received in Havana a copy of Adzhubei’s report to Khrushchev. It was this report which triggered the whole situation.”
“Adzhubei… had said that the new situation in Cuba was intolerable for the United States, that the American government had decided it would not tolerate it any longer; he had said that peaceful coexistence was seriously compromised by the fact that ‘Soviet influences’ in Cuba altered the balance of strength, was destroying the equilibrium agreed upon and [at this point Castro emphasized his statement by pronouncing each syllable separately] Kennedy reminded the Russians that the United States had not intervened in Hungary, which was obviously a way of demanding Russian non-intervention in the event of a possible invasion… By the end of a month, the Russian and Cuban governments had reached the definite conviction that an invasion might take place from one moment to the next.”
“What was to be done? How could we prevent the invasion? We found that Khrushchev was concerned about the same things that were worrying us. He asked us what we wanted. We replied: do whatever is needed to convince the United States that any attack on Cuba is the same as an attack on the Soviet Union. And how to realize this objective? All our thinking and discussions revolved around this point. We thought of a proclamation, an alliance, conventional military aid. The Russians explained to us that their concern was twofold: first, they wanted to save the Cuban revolution (in other words, their socialist honor in the eyes of the world), and at the same time they wished to avoid a world conflict. They reasoned that if conventional military aid was the extent of their assistance, the United States might not hesitate to institute an invasion, in which case Russia would retaliate and this would inevitably touch off a world war.”
I am here to tell you that the Russians didn’t want and do not today want war…they are far, very far, from any idea of provocation or domination. However, Soviet Russia was confronted by two alternatives: an absolutely inevitable war (because of their commitments and their position in the socialist world), if the Cuban revolution was attacked; or the risk of a war if the United States, refusing to retreat before the missiles, would not give up the attempt to destroy Cuba. They chose socialist solidarity and the risk of war.”
“Under these circumstances, how could we Cubans have refused to share the risks taken to save us? It was, in the final analysis, a question of honor, don’t you agree? …And I might add here that for us Cubans it didn’t really make so much difference whether we died by conventional bombing or by a hydrogen bomb. Nevertheless, we were not gambling with the peace of the world. The United States was the one to jeopardize the peace of mankind by using the threat of a war to stifle revolutions… we were seeking intimidation, not aggression.”
The conversation then turned to Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, an economic development and reform program initiated by Kennedy in 1991, meant to mitigate against additional socialist revolutions and “complete the revolution of the Americas, to build a hemisphere where all men can hope for a suitable standard of living and all can live out their lives in dignity and in freedom.”
“In a way, it was a good idea, it marked progress of a sort. Even if it can be said that it was overdue, timid, conceived on the spur of the moment, under constraint… There is talk of nationalization of industries [in Argentina] there, of agrarian reform [in Argentina]… well and good! If the Alliance for Progress provokes these developments, then it’s not doing so badly; all these things are consonant with the aspirations of the people… In the other Latin American countries, because the Communist banner is used as a bogeyman, the reaction of the American trusts is shrewder. They are going to choose strawmen, so as to rule indirectly.”
“This is why Kennedy’s good ideas aren’t going to yield any results… For years and years American policy – not the government, but the trusts and the Pentagon – has supported the Latin American oligarchies. All the prestige, the dollars, and the power was held by a class which Kennedy himself has described in speaking of Batista. Suddenly a President arrives on the scene who tries to support the interests of another class (which has no access to any of the levers of power) to give the various Latin American countries the impression that the United States no longer stands behind the dictators, and so there is no more need to start Castro-type revolutions. What happens then? The trusts see that their interests are being a little compromised (just barely, but still compromised); the Pentagon thinks the strategic bases are in danger; the powerful oligarchies in all the Latin American countries alert their American friends; they sabotage the new policy; and in short, Kennedy has everyone against him.”
When asked about the implicit threat posed to the United States by Cuba’s tie to the Soviet Union, Castro responded brusquely: “I don’t want to discuss our ties with the Soviet Union. I find this indecent. We have none but feelings of fraternity and profound, total gratitude toward the USSR. The Russians are making extraordinary efforts on our behalf, efforts which sometimes cost them dear. But we have our own policies which are perhaps not always the same (we have proved this!) as those of the USSR. I refuse to dwell on this point, because asking me to say that I am not a pawn on the Soviet chessboard is something like asking a woman to shout aloud in the public square that she is not a prostitute.”
“If the United States sees the problem as you have posed it, then you are right, there is no way out. But who is the loser in the last analysis? They have tried everything against us, everything, absolutely everything, and we are still alive and getting better day by day… Far from discouraging us, the blockade is maintaining the revolutionary atmosphere we need to stiffen the country’s backbone. Are we in danger? We have always lived with danger. To say nothing of the fact that you have no idea how many friends one discovers in the world when one is persecuted by the United States. No, truly, for all these reasons, we are not suppliants, we ask nothing. I’ll tell you something else: since the rupture and the blockade, we have forgotten the United States. We feel neither hatred nor resentment any more, we simply don’t think about the US.”
“I have just talked to you as a Cuban revolutionary. But I should also speak to you as a peace lover, and from this viewpoint I believe the United States is too important a country not to have an influence on world peace. I cannot help hoping, therefore, that a leader will come to the fore in North America (why not Kennedy, there are things in his favor!), who will be willing to brave unpopularity, fight the trusts, tell the truth and most important, let the various nations act as they see fit. I ask nothing: neither dollars, nor assistance, nor diplomats, nor bankers, nor military men – nothing but peace, and to be accepted as we are!”
“As to this matter of fearing Soviet intentions in Latin America through Cuba’s subversive activities, this is just attributing to others one’s own desire to dominate… This is why, speaking from a military viewpoint, it is better not to force nations to turn to the Russians for help. Really, it seems to me that a man like Kennedy is capable of seeing that it is not in the United States’ interest to pursue a policy which can lead only to a stalemate. So far as we are concerned, everything can be restored to normalcy on the basis of mutual respect of sovereignty.”
In conclusion, Fidel Castro said: “Since you are going to see Kennedy again, be an emissary of peace, despite everything. I want to make myself clear: I don’t want anything, I don’t expect anything, and as a revolutionary the present situation does not displease me. But as a man and as a statesman, it is my duty to indicate what the bases for understanding could be.”
“To achieve this goal, a leader would have to arise in the United States capable of understanding the explosive realities of Latin America and of meeting them halfway. Kennedy could still be this man. He still had the possibility of becoming, in the eyes of history, 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. He would then be an even greater President than Lincoln… Personally, I consider him responsible for everything, but I will say this: he has come to understand many things over the past few months; and then too, in the last analysis, I’m convinced that anyone else would be worse.”
Then Fidel had added with a broad and boyish grin: “If you see him again, you can tell him that I’m willing to declare Goldwater my friend if that will guarantee Kennedy’s re-election!”
All this was said two days before President Kennedy’s death.
Jean Daniel remained in Cuba for a few more days, and on November 22 he was having lunch in the living room of the modest summer residence which Fidel Castro owns on Varadero Beach, 75 miles from Havana, when a telephone call from Mr. Dorticós, President of the Cuban Republic, alerted Castro to the shooting of Kennedy in Dalas and that the US president was seriously wounded.
Castro sat down, and repeated three times the words: “Es una mala noticia” (“This is bad news”). He remained silent for a moment, awaiting another call with further news. It was hoped they would be able to announce that the United States President was still alive, that there was hope of saving him. Fidel Castro’s immediate reaction was: “If they can, he is already re-elected.”
After hearing the news that JFK was assassinated, Castro said: “You know, when we were hiding out in the Sierra there were some (not in my group, in another) who wanted to kill Batista. They thought they could do away with a regime by decapitating it. I have always been violently opposed to such methods. First of all from the viewpoint of political self-interest, because so far as Cuba is concerned, if Batista had been killed he would have been replaced by some military figure who would have tried to make the revolutionists pay for the martyrdom of the dictator. But I was also opposed to it on personal ground; assassination is repellent to me.”
The two original articles in which Jean Daniel first described these historic meetings can be found at:
Between Jean Daniel’s private meeting with President Kennedy and his long night with Fidel Castro, on November 5, 1963, US diplomat William Attwood briefed National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy at the White House on Premier Castro’s warm response to the process developing behind the scenes at the United Nations between Attwood, a deputy to US ambassador Adlai Stevenson, and Cuban ambassador Carlos Lechuga. Castro’s right hand man, Rene Vallejo, said in a phone call to intermediary Lisa Howard that the Cuban leader was ready to negotiate with Kennedy’s representative “anytime and appreciated the importance of discretion to all concerned”.
Castro offered to expedite the process by sending a plane to pick up Attwood in Mexico, where he would be flown to a private airport in Cuba and talk in confidence with Castro before being flown back.
After meeting with Attwood, Bundy updated Kennedy on Castro’s proposal (a conversation which Kennedy secretly recorded). Bundy told the President of Castro’s invitation to Attwood “to go down completely on the QT and talk with Fidel about the chances and conditions on which he would be interested in changing relations with the United States”.
JFK said “Can Attwood get in and get out of there privately?”
Bundy shared Castro’s logistical planning for the meeting and acknowledged the danger of Attwood’s close connection with the President. He added – to Kennedy’s approval – that Attwood as his representative would have the advantage of already knowing Castro, having met with him in Cuba in the 50s.
The two men agreed, given the risk of Attwood’s meeting being discovered by the press, that Attwood should sever his formal relation with the government and go as a journalist, which was his previous career.
As Kennedy knew, the greater risk lay not with the press but with the CIA. However, the CIA already knew and was letting others know. As Cuban intelligence would learn, the CIA not only closely monitored Kennedy’s secret turn toward Castro from the beginning, but had also divulged it to its Cuban exile network in Miami, thereby inflaming the anti-Kennedy sentiment that went back to the Bay of Pigs. From the CIA’s command center in Langley to its largest hub of activity in Miami, President Kennedy, in his developing détente with Fidel Castro, was now regarded as a total traitor to the anti-communist cause.
Having taken the momentous step of approving the secret talks with Castro, during the final week of his life President Kennedy sent a hopeful message to the Cuban premier in his November 18 address in Miami to the Inter-American Press Association. William Attwood said he was told by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who co-authored Kennedy’s speech, that “it was intended to help me by signaling to Castro that normalization was possible if Cuba simply stopped doing the Kremlin’s work in Latin America”.
In his speech, Kennedy first emphasized that the Alliance for Progress did “not dictate to any nation how to organize its economic life. Every nation is free to shape its own economic institutions in accordance with its own national needs and will.”
Kennedy then issued a challenge and a promise to Castro, saying that “a small band of conspirators” had made “Cuba a victim of foreign imperialism, an instrument of the policy of others, 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. Once this barrier is removed, we will be ready and anxious to work with the Cuban people in pursuit of those progressive goals which a few short years ago stirred their hopes and the sympathy of many people throughout the hemisphere.”
This speech and signal to Castro, came the day before Kennedy’s other secret diplomat, journalist Jean Daniel, was destined to spend six hours in private conversation in his Havana hotel room with Fidel Castro.
On the same day as this speech, Attwood took a further step toward détente by agreeing with Vellejo by phone (with Castro listening in) to set an agenda for a Kennedy-Castro dialogue. Attwood said, that when he reported on the call to the White House the next day, he was told by Bundy that “once an agenda had been agreed upon, the President would want to see me and decide what to say to Castro. [Bundy] said the President would be making a brief trip to Dallas, but otherwise planned to be in Washington.”
Kennedy was ready to work out the specific elements of his dialogue with Castro and make the next bold and courageous step toward ending the Cold War as soon as he returned from Dallas.
However, the CIA was just as dedicated to undermining the words John Kennedy had already spoken as it was to making sure he would never speak again. The Agency immediately began propagating its own version of the November 18 speech, while it expedited its efforts to kill both Kennedy and Castro.
Ironically, the US shadow government succeeded in only one of its two intended assassinations.
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced with attribution for non-commercial purposes
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