The Spanish Pearl Part Five : Eisenhower and the Push-Pull of Intelligence

We’re spending a good deal of time in the pivotal space of Cuba’s revolution of 1959 and the early days of Castro with good reason : the shallow villainy of Castro in Americana has persisted for the many decades spanning his autocratic rule, and though we shouldn’t condone violence and immorality by anyone, let alone a dictator, it’s crucial to understanding the American role in said history, if one is to divine ethical policy decisions today with respect to Cuba, or any other foreign body.

Previously, we discussed the turmoil in Cuba generated by the corrupt Batista dictatorship and American dominance and negligent nonchalance in Cuban politics and economics.  Despite internal concerns about the red inclinations of Castro, members within the intelligence community, notably Alfred Cox, head of one of the paramilitary divisions of the State Department, suggested

A practical way to protect United
States interests in this matter would
be to make secret contact with Castro,
assure him of the United States sympathy
with some of his objectives, and
to offer him support. The individual
chosen to make the contact should be
of such background that[ ]it is clear
that he speaks with the authority of
the United States Government.
Obviously, the support must be given
covertly so as not to endanger United
States relations with Batista. The most
effective means of help to Castro would
be arms and ammunition. Air dropping of
this equipment might be dangerous from
the security aspect. Allowing a shipload
of equipment manned by a Cuban
crew to evade our Coast Guard would
probably be a better method. The most
secure means of help would be giving
the money to Castro, who could then
purchase his own arms. A combination
of arms and money would probably be

according to official historical record of the Bay of Pigs invasion released in 1998 under the Freedom of Information Act.  That same document details how the Eisenhower administration attempted in December 1958 to curry favor among Cubans opposed to both Castro and Batista, hoping to appease the growing anti-Batista sentiment while curtailing pro-Castro forces.

These same documents indicate Washington monitored Cuba carefully, expecting Castro’s government to collapse quickly.   Four months after the January 1959 overthrow of Batista, Castro visited the United States to meet with press clubs, American citizens, and any willing government officials; intelligence experts expected the trip to differentiate success from failure for Castro, though some experts refused to admit a possible thawing of Castro’s anti-Americanism boosting his popularity in Latin America :

[i]t would be unwise to assume from the
minor indications to date that Fidel has
undergone a serious change of heart as a
result of his visit to the United States.

Aside from the previously discussed misrepresentation by Nixon and snub by Eisenhower, Castro’s visit was a public relations success.  Castro returned to turmoil at home, his anti-communist statements in America (requested by Nixon) fomenting difficulties as communist and anti-communist members of the Cuban government vied for prominence.  Castro’s government instituted early reforms, included

  • mass school construction,
  • laws empowering women and providing greater equality for African Cubans,
  • land reforms providing allotments and coops for poorer Cubans,
  • programs to improve literacy and education availability,

among others.  Far from a perfect picture, Castro organized the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), agencies of local informants aimed at isolating “counter-revolutionaries,” apparently including homosexuals.

Eisenhower’s administration remained involved in Castro’s government, dispatching diplomats and carefully weighing options, as the internal documents mentioned above demonstrate.  Some elements, notably in a Related Mission Directive (RMD) dated December 1959, admonished temperance, suggesting

[f]or the moment, CIA operations should
be carried out on the assumption that the
revolutionary government is basically non-Communist,
with legitimate reform goals
that deserve US respect and support. Covert
operations should support overt efforts
to arrive at a rapprochement with the present
government and to eliminate the conditions
described above without resorting
to forceful means.

Further, the aforementioned report writes,

[a]s 1959 drew to a close, a final Special National
Intelligence Estimate, "The Situation in the Caribbean
through 1960," indicated that Castro was in to stay,
despite internal difficulties. The SNIE saw no serious
threat to Castro's continued rule, and it pointed out
that if there was direct US intervention, "Most Cubans
including the military, would react violently [emphasis mine]."

Along similar lines, General C.P. Cabell, among others, maintained Castro’s non-communist position, though he conceded that communists could overcome Castro with some effort.

Another program underway in Eisenhower’s administration was overthrow : J.C. King, chief of the western hemisphere (WH) division of the CIA, wrote in a December 11, 1959 memorandum :

[t]he overthrow of Castro within
one year, and his replacement by a junta friendly to
the United States which will call for elections 6
months after assumption of office,

an obvious reversal of course.  Determining where Washington’s passivity ended and sudden hysteria began naively can be a challenge, as public statements of the day spoke of communist containment and democratic empowerment.  Perhaps instructive is a diplomatic missive to Washington from Havana dated May 26, 1959 in which American officials bared the ugly truth :

These demonstrations obviously welcome,
but possibly most significant aspect is
demonstration once again, enormous power
Castro, who with few words made anti-Communism
popular position. By same
token he could reverse trend at any time,
and skeptics speculating that current
stand is sop intended to make it more
difficult for u.s. interests to protest
effectively against stringent agrarian
reform law [emphasis mine].

That is to say, Castro very well could intend genuine reform, not be a communist, and represent a boon for Cubans, but his charisma and capacity to shift public opinion represented a perhaps intolerable threat to American foreign policy : the unabated, free access to plunder resources at the expense of those living there.

King continues with a strategy of propaganda no doubt capable of winning even Nazi strategists over :

1. Clandestine radio attacks on Cuba,
from liberal Caribbean countries.
2. Intrusion operations against Castro's
TV and radio, to be mounted from within Cuba.
3. Formation of pro-US opposition groups
to establish by force a controlled area
within Cuba.

Finally, he suggests outright assassination, tempered by a hand-written edit by CIA director Allen Dulles :

Thorough consideration be given to the
elimination [removal from Cuba] of Fidel Castro. None of those
close to Fidel, such as his brother Raul
or his companion Che Guevarra [sic] \ have
the same mesmeric appeal to the masses.
Many informed people believe that the
disappearance of Fidel would greatly accelerate
the fall of the present government.

Most noteworthy in all of this is a clear lack of desire to work with a popular figure capable of smoothing relations : why not give peace a chance?  Batista was despised by his own people, and so unpopular globally that John F. Kennedy pegged Eisenhower’s support of him as complicity in war crimes during his 1960 bid for the presidency against Vice President Nixon :

Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years...
and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police
state—destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to
his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled
Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support
of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly
praised Batista—hailed him as a staunch ally and a good
friend—at a time when Batista was murdering thousands,
destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing
hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people,
and we failed to press for free elections.

Even suggesting a “working with” exposes the faulty framework from which we often discuss foreign policy : why should Cubans work with us to support mostly American companies?  What threat did Castro really represent in 1959? Even if one is imbecilic enough to believe Soviets represented a threat here, by our own intelligence, there was no connection.  Yet within a year, Eisenhower’s intelligence wonks were steeling for a fight.  The rub is simple : Castro represented defiance demonstrated in various other Latin American countries against American business interests, just as the memo described above suggests.  We’ll examine Kennedy’s take next time.