Fidel Castro – The Last Man Standing

Courage is knowing what not to fear. – Plato

Back when the century was young, before the horror of September 11, 2001, I had the privilege of interviewing former Ambassador Raúl Castro several times at his office in

Swearing in ceremony installing Raul Castro as U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia; Secretary of State Dean Rusk Observes (UAir Raul H. Castro Collection)

Swearing in ceremony installing Raul Castro as U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia; Secretary of State Dean Rusk Observes (UAir Raul H. Castro Collection)

Nogales, Arizona.  Raúl Castro was in the thick of the Cold War (1947-1991) in the Western Hemisphere.  Born in 1916 in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico , Raúl Castro moved to Southern Arizona when he was ten years old.  Driven to succeed, he became an American citizen and a lawyer determined to rid society of the discrimination against Hispanics that he witnessed and felt.  President Lyndon Johnson appointed him the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador (1964-68), and President Jimmy Carter used his skills as the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia (1968-69).  Raúl Castro returned from Bolivia and made a successful entrance into politics when he was elected the first Mexican-American governor of Arizona (1975-77).   His country needed him again.  Richard Nixon asked Castro to take the U.S. ambassador post in Argentina, where he served from 1977-80.  During those interviews, Raúl Castro related many humorous stories, and some not so humorous, related to the confusion of his name with the other ‘Raúl Castro’, Fidel Castro’s brother.

A born teacher, Raúl Castro, who had met Fidel Castro in Mexico, talked at length about the

The other Raúl Castro. Fidel Castro's brother. (Courtesy of bio.true story)

The other Raúl Castro. Fidel Castro’s brother. (Courtesy of bio.true story)

Castro brothers.  The stories he told were incongruous with what I thought I knew.  The Ambassador argued that Fidel Castro was a political atheist when he finally gained control of Cuba in January 1959 and that the U.S. had made a terrible mistake by shunning him.   If Ambassador Castro is correct, and there is some indication he may be, thee pieces of the Cuba/America puzzle fall smartly into place; one corner piece, one boundary piece and one interior piece.  The corner puzzle piece that fits neatly is Fidel Castro’s sudden rush into Nikita Khrushchev’s arms in 1960.  The boundary puzzle piece that falls into place is the interval of time after the revolution it took to form a ‘Communist Party’ in Cuba.   The interior puzzle piece is the CIA’s apparently excessive energy expenditure attempting to embarrass and assassinate Fidel Castro.  But wait, there’s more!

Kennedy’s Central Intelligence Agency

This is the third in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991). The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning and The Central Intelligence Agency – Eisenhower and Asia’s Back Door are the preceding posts.

Inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20, 1961 *Source: http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/american_originals_iv/images/jfk_inaugural_address/inauguration.html *Photographer/Painter: Record Group 111

Inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20, 1961 *Source: http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/american_originals_iv/images/jfk_inaugural_address/inauguration.html *Photographer/Painter: Record Group 111

A very tired John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was sworn into office on a clear, windy, brutally cold January 20, 1961.[1]  It wasn’t an easy day. Eight inches of snow had fallen the night before causing a monumental traffic jam and the streets were littered with abandoned vehicles.  Former President Herbert Hoover missed the entire inauguration event because Washington National Airport was closed due to the weather.  An inauguration is an important national symbol that characterizes the Republic and the all-night effort to clear Pennsylvania Avenue greeted the sun with space to accommodate the large crowd that would gather to witness the duly elected president assume the helm of the ship-of-state.

The snowfall of the previous night and the windy, frigid temperatures of inauguration day are also apt codes for the sea change that had already gathered momentum around the relationship between the new president and his intelligence agency, the CIA.  The CIA, as authorized by The National Security Act of 1947, was still fairly young, but Allen Dulles, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was an old hand and seemingly enjoyed the game.  By 1961, the CIA, in its short life, had tripped the light fantastic around the globe; Col. Lansdale was merrily fighting rebels in the Philippines following which he ported his obsession with asymmetric guerilla warfare to Vietnam where he spent two-years as a houseguest and confidant of President Diem, other CIA operatives overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, and raised general hell with Cuba and Chile.

During the latter Truman and Eisenhower administration there was a trend to combine the

Cover an an Iranian newspaper showing anti-Mossadegh demonstrators riding atop a tank on August 19, 1953

Cover an an Iranian newspaper showing anti-Mossadegh demonstrators riding atop a tank on August 19, 1953

Cold War (1947-1991) objective of fighting the creep of communism with business interests. Iran, for example, nationalized the British oil interests and Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh refused to budge in spite of punishing sanctions. According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, “Eisenhower worried about Mossadegh’s willingness to cooperate with Iranian Communists; he also feared that Mossadegh would eventually undermine the power of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a staunch anti-Communist partner. In August 1953, the CIA helped overthrow Mossadegh’s government and restore the shah’s power. In the aftermath of this covert action, new arrangements gave U.S. corporations an equal share with the British in the Iranian oil industry.”[2]

In Guatemala, the Jacobo Arbenz Guzman initiated land

Arevalo passes presidency to Arbenz in 1951

Arevalo passes presidency to Arbenz in 1951

reforms that seriously impacted the holdings of the anti-communist, New Orleans-based United Fruit Company who controlled over forty percent of Guatemala’s arable land.  The Truman administration came to the support of the American business interests by arming the anti-Arbenz rebels.  Under Eisenhower, the CIA finished the job by overthrowing Arbenz regime and installing Carlos Castillo Armas.  Codenamed PBSUCCESS, the coup d’état was the first-ever clandestine military action in Latin America but it was certainly not the last.[3]

After fifty years the controversy surrounding Kennedy and the CIA obscures the landscape like the white-out conditions in a blizzard.   At one end of the opinion spectrum, Marquette University’s John McAdams’ The Kennedy Assassination site concludes that Kennedy and the CIA had some rough spots but got through them.[4]  At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Jerome R. Corsi, who maintains that Kennedy and the CIA locked horns and never retreated.[5]  Excellent research and the documented citations for both perspectives leave the reader with many questions.  One corner of this argument does not appear to be disputed; Kennedy consistently refused to use the U.S. military to support private sector interests.  In this matter, President Kennedy was a traditionalist. The military, in his opinion, was to be used only in defense of national security interests.  If we can escape the white-out conditions of the never-ending controversy, the political landscape, once again, becomes hard and navigable.   Continue reading

The Cuban Missile Crisis: An October Miracle

October can be cold in Great Falls, Montana. The thermometer boasted a mercury level near freezing this Monday morning, October 22, 1962; not cold enough, however, to explain my mother’s irritability as she came upstairs to roll three kids out of bed to get ready for school. The family ran in a split shift mode six days a week. Father rose in the middle of the night for construction work on the Minuteman Missile sites and returned late at night to fall exhausted into bed. The rest of the family functioned around school schedules. It was a routine that rarely varied. This morning, however, mother was obviously jumpy and clearly irritable but she steadfastly refused to tell us why. A quick kid huddle resulted in a pact that we would be very quiet and get off to school as quickly as possible.

That evening, President Kennedy delivered a riveting address describing the unfolding Cuban Missile Crisis. I vividly remember the fear and chill I felt at the end of his address. It was the very first time I considered my own mortality:

…”My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months in which both our patience and our will will be tested — months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing. …

Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right — not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.”…[1]—President John F. Kennedy, October 22, 1962

Had I known or understood the true state of affairs with the Minuteman Missiles, I would have understood my mother’s reluctance to take any steps to protect the family. Being the family know-it-all, I pushed vocally and hard to prepare; to lay in a variety of canned foods and water in the basement of the little two story house we called home at the time. She finally conceded to take some minimal steps to shut me up while muttering placebo under her breath. It never occurred to us to head out for western Montana, the land she and dad called home. The family was the family, we lived or died together. Mother was right, as she most often was, there was little that could have been done. The indoctrination I received in school became a joke in later years.

Malmstrom Air Force Base is the home base of the 341st Missile Wing[2]. Today it is one of three U.S. Air Force Bases that maintains and operates the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Back in October 1962, Malmstrom Air Force Base had the first and only solid fueled rocket. The

Running giant extension cords. (Photographer Unknown)

Running giant extension cords. (Photographer Unknown)

341st became alert-ready on Oct. 26, 1962—rock ‘n roll time. On the down side, the missile wing lacked the ability to launch. Missileers[3] are a can-do, proud bunch and they did not let a little thing like lack of electricity get in the way of the mission. Minuteman missiles were in farm fields and on ranches so they just trenched the shortest distance, a straight line through the fields, and ran really big extension cords.  I love these guys! Of course in a real shooting war we, in Great Falls, were dead, irrespective of preparations.

President Kennedy knew there was going to be trouble in July, 1962, when Raul Castro, Fidel’s, brother visited Moscow. In August, Senator Kenneth B. Keating claimed that he had evidence that there were Russian troops in Cuba as well as “concave metal structures supported by tubing” that appeared to be the future site of a “rocket installation”. He called on President Kennedy to ask the Organization of American States, OAS, to send an investigating team to Cuba[4]. Politics got crazy when, on September 4th, a secret message went back and forth between the Soviet leader and the President of the United States. This message basically stated that the Soviet Union would not attack before the upcoming November elections in America. On September 4, Pierre Salinger, White House Press Secretary, read the following statement by the President to the media[5]:

There is no evidence of any organized combat force in Cuba from any Soviet bloc country; of military bases provided to Russia; of a violation of the 1934 treaty relating to Guantanamo; of the presence of offensive ground-to-ground missiles; or of other significant offensive capability either in Cuban hands or under Soviet direction and guidance. Were it to be otherwise, the gravest issues would arise.

The Cuban question must be considered as a part of the worldwide challenge posed by Communist threats to the peace. It must be dealt with as a part of that larger issue as well as in the context of the special relationships which have long characterized the inter-American System.

It continues to be the policy of the United States that the Castro regime will not be allowed to export its aggressive purposes by force or the threat of force. It will be prevented by whatever means may be necessary from taking action against any part of the Western Hemisphere. The United States, in conjunction with other Hemisphere countries, will make sure that while increased Cuban armaments will be a heavy burden to the unhappy people of Cuba themselves, they will be nothing more.”

And so it went until, on October 15, 1962, Richard Heyser flew his U-2 over Cuba and snapped photos of SS-4 Nuclear missiles that were clearly offensive in nature. President Kennedy was

An EXCOMM meeting (Courtesy of the Kennedy Library)

An EXCOMM meeting (Courtesy of the Kennedy Library)

notified the next day that the rumblings were, in fact, reality. The President gathered the fourteen members of his Executive Committee, EXCOMM, to look at alternatives including: 1) No Action; 2) Diplomacy; 3) Warning; 4) Blockade; 5) Air Strike; and 6) Invasion. During this period President Kennedy kept up his regular appearances.[6]

On October 17th, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter pledging that “under no circumstances would surface-to-surface missiles be sent to Cuba.” EXCOMM had narrowed the options to a blockade or an air strike and on October 18th, troops were moved south under the cover of training exercises. Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister, met the President and reassured him that the Soviet aid to Cuba was “solely [for] the purpose of contributing to the defense capabilities of Cuba, and to the development of its peaceful democracy. Don’t forget, the President had the photos of the missiles on his desk. Kennedy responded by reading the part of the September 4th statement advising the Soviet Union that the “gravest of consequences would follow” if offensive missiles were placed in Cuba. Still, the President kept his schedule until October 20th, when he returned to Washington under the pretext of an upper respiratory infection.

On October 22, 1962 President Kennedy delivered the address, which I heard. In response to this speech, Castro mobilized Cuba’s military forces and Kennedy ordered Malmstrom officials to be prepared to launch the missiles at any time. What the president didn’t know was that Khrushchev had given the Soviet field commanders in Cuba permission to launch nuclear missiles if the United States invaded.

By the next day, events were unfolding at hyper-speed; fast and furious as they say. On October 23rd, a low level reconnaissance mission brought back clear pictures of missiles prepared for launch; the OAS agreed to support the quarantine of Cuba; McNamara and Kennedy reviewed and discussed options for confrontation; and, by the end of the day, U.S. ships at the quarantine line were prepared to destroy any ship that failed to stop. The game was definitely afoot.

By Wednesday, October 24th, Soviet ships approached the quarantine line and the Executive Committee fretted that Khrushchev hadn’t told them to turn back. It must have been a relief when EXCOMM was advised that the Soviet ships had stopped. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, “We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked”, but the crisis was not even close to being over.

By Thursday, October 25th the game of brinksmanship was in full-swing. The Soviets weren’t talking to the U.S.and American military forces went to DEFCON 2, the highest ever in U.S. history. Kennedy sent a letter to Khrushchev blaming the Soviets for the start of this crisis and the EXCOMM discussed a backdoor proposal in which the Soviets would withdraw their missiles from Cuba if the U.S. withdrew its missiles from Turkey.

On Friday, there were fruitless searches of the Soviet ships and Khrushchev was talking again. He said the Soviet Union would remove their missiles if President Kennedy promised he would not attack Cuba. Surprise, surprise, a later U-2 flight revealed that Soviets were camouflaging their missiles. You have to love the Bear!

On Saturday, October 26th, Khrushchev formalized the backdoor offer with a letter saying that, if the U.S. removed its missiles from Turkey, they would remove theirs in Cuba. Then, a U-2 airplane, piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down over Cuba. On Sunday, October 27th, President Kennedy agreed to give assurances that the U.S. would not invade Cuba and that he’d also eliminate the quarantine in exchange for the Soviets removing the missiles[7]. The President did not mention he’d also agreed to pull the U.S. ICBMs out of Turkey. The deals had been cut although the inking of the agreements would take some time, but tensions ramped down.

During this time and for the next seventeen years, the launch code remained the same eight digit number—00000000—it was even displayed on the launch check list. Thank goodness the missileers did not have an itchy launch finger.

The worst was over and people in Great Falls, including me, and on Malmstrom Air Force Base

Home of the 341st

Home of the 341st

were relieved to know the nuclear bullet had been dodged. I recall an impotent rage grabbing my being as the realization that there was nowhere to go and nowhere to hide dawned. I wanted to do something and could not. I don’t hate much but I hate the political brinkmanship game. I told my mother I felt as helpless as a Norwegian white rat being studied to see whether it would drown faster if it had hope or if it did not

. That rage grew me a bit toward the person I would become. I suspect that week in October grew many.



[1] President Kennedy’s Address to the Nation; http://usgovinfo.about.com/library/weekly/aa102100b.htm

[3] On the brink of war—and childbirth—in Idaho, is an excellent account by a missileer of the thirteen days in October and its aftermath. Of equal interest is the link to a Russian counterpart’s account. http://thebulletin.org/web-edition/features/the-brink-of-war-and-childbirth-idaho

[4] KENNETH BARNARD KEATING; http://www.courts.state.ny.us/history/legal-history-new-york/luminaries-court-appeals/keating-kenneth.html

[5] STATEMENT BY PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY ON CUBA, September 4, 1962; https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/jfkstate.htm

[7]  Kennedy Qualified Pledge Not to Invade Cuba; Don Oberdorfer; , January 7, 1992; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/longterm/cuba/stories/history010792.htm