Part 3 in a series chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
In 1957, the exiled lawyer Fidel Castro and some 80 supporters returned to Cuba to overthrow Presidente Fulgencio Batista, an American client. Castro and his surviving rebels, his brother, Raul and Che Guevarra among them, were supported by much of Cuba’s population. This time, the rebels succeeded. Batista fled Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959.
What Were Castro’s Intentions?
In January 1959, Washington wondered whether the victorious Castro would lead Cuba toward U.S. democracy or toward Soviet communism. That question was soon answered.
Soon after seizing power, Castro’s new government began to jail or execute Batista supporters and Castro opponents. Elections were suspended. The revolutionary government seized Cuban farms and businesses. A new police force supported by neighborhood informers made dissent or opposition impossible. These were not the actions of a leader who favored democracy or capitalism.
U.S. Policy: Get Rid of Castro
Barely three months after Castro took power, an inner circle of Eisenhower’s National Security Council began to discuss how to oust him. By March 17, 1959, Ike had approved creation of a rival government-in-exile, propaganda and intelligence operations inside Cuba, and a program to train exiles as guerrillas. By January 1961, the CIA had trained hundreds of Cuban exiles ready for action against Castro’s regime.
The CIA’s Assassination Plots
In January 1960 Central Intelligence Agency also began plotting to assassinate Castro using “high-powered rifles…poison pills, poison pens, deadly bacteria powder, and other devices which strain the imagination.”
Cuba Reaches out to the Kremlin
Any diplomatic outreach toward Castro in 1959 would probably have been wasted effort. Almost immediately after taking power, Raul Castro, a communist, and other regime aides began secret talks with Soviet officials. These talks resulted in trade agreements, military aid, and diplomatic relations (established in May 1960). In June 1960, Castro’s government seized all oil refineries owned by American companies. In October 1960, Castro seized all other American-owned property and businesses—needless to say, without paying for them. In November 1960, Castro proclaimed that he had been a Marxist since his student days and that Moscow “is [Cuba’s] brain and great leader.”
When John Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961, Cuba and the United States had just severed diplomatic relations.
After the April 1961 failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion (planned under Eisenhower but fatally weakened by Kennedy), the two nations were permanently alienated. Neither would turn back.
The Devil Loose in the Western Hemisphere!
By the end of 1961, then, Moscow had a new (and voluntary) ally strategically placed athwart the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea barely a stone’s throw from the United States. That alliance, bolstered by the steady influx of Soviet military equipment and trainers, had become a powerful deterrent to a U.S. invasion.
It does not get much better than that for a supreme leader of the Soviet Union—or worse for a president of the United States.
As 1962 began, therefore, three huge questions hung in the air:
- How would Nikita Khrushchev use this new strategic windfall? Could Cuba help him with his Berlin and missile gap problems?
- How would Castro use his new ally? and
- How could the Kennedy administration neutralize this new menace on its doorstep?
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Szulc, Tad. Fidel: A Critical Portrait. New York: William Morrow and Co. 1986
The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 is described in Peter Wyden’s Bay of Pigs:” The Untold Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
For an analysis of why the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, see Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba. New York: the New Press, 1998. The report , which was kept secret for 35 years, was written by Lyman Kirkpatrick, the CIA’s Inspector General. The National Security Archive gained its release through requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
For the Eisenhower administration’s almost immediate decision to overthrow the castro government, see Lawrence Chang and Peter Kornbluh eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Document Reader. New York: The New Press, 1998, 4.
For Cuba’s 1959 outreach to the USSR, see Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble.” Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, 11-16.
The attempts on Castro’s life are documented in Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders: An Interim Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities. Washington: United States Senate, 20 November 1975. The quotation about assassination weapons appears in “B. Cuba,” at 71. (This report is more commonly known as The Church Committee Report. In the author’s possession.)