CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS REVELATIONS: KENNEDY’S SECRET APPROACH TO CASTRO
DECLASSIFIED RFK DOCUMENTS YIELD NEW INFORMATION ON BACK-CHANNEL TO FIDEL CASTRO TO AVOID NUCLEAR WAR
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 395
Posted – October 12, 2012
Edited by Peter Kornbluh
Washington, D.C., October 12, 2012 — On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, new documents from the Robert Kennedy papers declassified yesterday and posted today by the National Security Archive reveal previously unknown details of the Kennedy administration’s secret effort to find an accord with Cuba that would remove the Soviet missiles in return for a modus vivendi between Washington and Havana.
The 2700 pages of RFK papers opened yesterday include the first proposed letter to “Mr. F.C.,” evaluated by the Executive Committee of advisors to Kennedy on October 17th–just one day after the president learned of the existence of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. The draft letter, available to historians for the first time, initiated a chain of events that led to a complicated back-channel diplomacy between Washington and Havana at the height of what Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger called “the most dangerous moment in human history.”
The Archive’s Cuba analyst, Peter Kornbluh, who was the first person to review the RFK papers at the Kennedy Library, noted that the documents “reinforce the key historical lesson of the missile crisis: the need and role for creative diplomacy to avoid the threat of nuclear Armageddon.” Kornbluh noted that the State Department’s own official historians, referring to the initial letter to Castro, had admitted that “none of these drafts have been found.” The fact that the Robert Kennedy papers have yielded new information previously undiscovered by the government’s own researchers, Kornbluh said, “underscores the historical importance of this declassification on the 50th anniversary of the crisis.”
The Archive also posted two diagrams Robert Kennedy drew on his notepad during the crisis deliberations, including his initial tally of the “hawks” and the “doves” as Kennedy’s advisors took positions on diplomacy vs. the use of force against Cuba.
The draft letter warned Castro that by deploying the ballistic missiles the Soviets had “raised grave issues for Cuba. To serve their interests they have justified the Western Hemisphere countries in making an attack on Cuba which would lead to the immediate overthrow of your regime.” Moreover, according to this proposed communication, Nikita Khrushchev was quietly hinting that he would betray Cuba by trading concessions on Berlin for “Soviet abandonment of Cuba.” Warning that failure to remove the missiles would lead to U.S. “measures of vital significance for the future of Cuba,” the message offered an oblique carrot of negotiations for better relations once the Soviets and their weapons of mass destruction were gone.
During the early deliberations of how to respond to the missiles in Cuba Kennedy’s top advisors pressed him to reject this message to Cuba because it would undermine the option of a surprise U.S. air attack on the island. After Kennedy decided on an interim option of a naval quarantine of Cuba to buy time for diplomacy to convince the Soviets to withdraw the missiles, he ordered the State Department to come up with diplomatic alternatives to attacking Cuba.
In an October 25 memorandum, titled “Political Path,” the State Department submitted a series of creative options for resolving the crisis peacefully, including allowing the United Nations to take control of both the Soviet missile bases in Cuba and the U.S. missile bases in Turkey. The document also provided an outline for an “approach to Castro” through Brazil, with a message to Castro underscoring his options: “the overthrow of his regime, if not its physical destruction,” or “assurances, regardless of whether we intended to carry them out, that we would not ourselves undertake to overthrow the regime” if he expelled both the missiles and the Russians.
During an Excomm meeting on October 26, Kennedy actually approved a version of this message to be sent to Castro, albeit disguised as a Brazilian peace initiative sent by the government of populist president Joao Goulart, rather than one from Washington. The draft cable, published here for the first time, instructed the Brazilians to secretly carry the message to Castro that his regime and the “well-being of the Cuban people” were in “great jeopardy” if he didn’t expel the Russians and their weapons. If he did, however, “many changes in the relations between Cuba and the OAS countries, including the U.S., could flow.”
By the time the Brazilian emissary arrived in Havana on October 29th, however, the urgency and relevance of Kennedy’s Brazilian back-channel message had been eclipsed by events. On October 28, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles–in return for a Kennedy’s public pledge not to invade Cuba, and the President’s secret promise to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey sometime in the near future.
For more than 40 years, the details of Kennedy’s approach to Castro remained Top Secret. In 2004, based on declassified documents found in the archives of the Brazilian foreign ministry and the Excomm tapes, George Washington University historian James Hershberg published the first comprehensive account of the furtive diplomatic initiative in the Journal of Cold War Studies. An abbreviated account of the Castro approach, written by Peter Kornbluh, appears in the November 2012 issue of Cigar Aficionado. The story is also recounted in Kornbluh’s forthcoming book (with William LeoGrande), Talking with Castro: The Untold History of Dialogue between the United States and Cuba.
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