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RFK Papers Unveil Original Draft Cable Showing Kennedy’s Secret Approach to Castro

October 25, 2012

Robert Kennedy at an Executive Committee meeting during the missile crisis.

By Erin Maskell

Fifty years ago today, as the tensions escalated during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy authorized a furtive approach to Fidel Castro—an initiative that became one of the most enduring secrets in the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis. More than 40 years passed before George Washington University historian James Hershberg discovered the details of these efforts. Even today new information is coming to light as to how these efforts evolved.

On October 11, 2012, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK library released new documents from the Robert Kennedy papers showing previously unknown details of these secret efforts of the Kennedy administration to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba and establish relations with a “Cuba clearly committed to a peaceful course.”

These papers yield the original draft of a top secret cable sent to Brazil, dated October 26, 1962, suggesting the Brazilian ambassador in Havana approach Castro to discuss with him the predicament in which Soviet actions had placed him. While the final version of this cable was previously published by the Department of State in the Foreign Relations of the United States Volume XI on the Cuban Missile Crisis, this marks the first time the original draft has been seen.

Original text of the Top Secret cable.

The final version of this cable as it appeared in the Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States Volume XI.

The cable begins by stating that the action of the Soviet Union in using Cuban soil as a site for offensive nuclear missiles has placed both the “future of the Castro regime and the well-being of the Cuban people in great jeopardy.” However, not included in the original draft is the statement that the Brazilian approach to Castro “should be handled in such way as make absolutely clear to Castro it is solely Brazilian initiative.” The Department of State so felt the need to hide how strong the US hand was, in fact, that they suggested “instructions should be taken to Havana by special courier in special airplane as soon as possible….should not be any Brazilian cables referring to this subject.”

The cable goes on to say that it is well known steps are proceeding to make operational the nuclear missile installations and to assemble IL-28 bombers, and that further steps will have to be taken against Cuba very soon. However, cut from the final version is a description of what these steps would be. In the draft cable, the Department of State says, “The first and most modest measures will probably be an extension of the quarantine to all petroleum products. Since Cuba imports all her needs, this would quite quickly force the Cuban economy to a complete stop and the people of Cuba to a desperate hand-to-mouth existence.”

Further small changes are scattered throughout the document: one of the only two issues that are nonnegotiable between Castro and the US become the “military-political ties to the USSR” rather than simply the “military ties”, the description of US blockage of Soviet cargo ships into Cuba is switched from a “blockade” to a “quarantine,” and “Time is short and perhaps not more than 24 hours remain for Castro” becomes simply “Time is short.” In the concluding sentence, the US ultimately says it would “not risk upsetting hemispheric solidarity by invading a Cuba clearly committed to a peaceful course,” while in the draft cable they would not risk upsetting hemispheric solidarity “by invading without OAS blessing.”

“The RFK papers have advanced our understanding of this unique Kennedy effort at back channel diplomacy with Cuba at a time of maximum crisis,” said Peter Kornbluh, Senior Analyst and director of the Cuban Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, who was the first researcher to review the documents when they were opened. The National Security Archive posted this cable and other new documents from the RFK papers on October 12 in the electronic briefing book “Cuban Missile Crisis Revelations: Kennedy’s Secret Approach to Castro.”  Check out the posting for more information.

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