Washington, D.C., January 22, 2009 - In March 1975, a top aide to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger drafted a secret/nodis report titled "Normalizing Relations with Cuba" that recommended moving quickly to restore diplomatic ties with Havana. "Our interest is in getting the Cuba issue behind us, not in prolonging it indefinitely," states the memorandum, which was written as the Ford administration engaged in secret diplomacy with Castro officials to lessen hostilities. "If there is a benefit to us in an end to the state of 'perpetual antagonism,'" the report to Kissinger noted, "it lies in getting Cuba off the domestic and inter-American agendas—in extracting the symbolism from an intrinsically trivial issue."
The Kissinger document is one of several declassified records posted today and cited in a new article, "Talking to Fidel," published in the February issue of Cigar Aficionado now available in newsstands. Written by Archive Cuba analyst Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, the article traces the secret, back-channel efforts by Kennedy, Kissinger, Carter and Clinton to improve and even attempt to normalize relations with the Castro regime. "The historical record," the authors write, "contains important lessons [for President Obama] on how an effective effort at direct diplomacy might end, once and for all, the perpetual hostility in U.S.-Cuban relations."
The article also quotes former President Jimmy Carter as stating that he should have followed through on his initial efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. "I think in retrospect, knowing what I know since I left the White House," Carter told the authors in an interview, "I should have gone ahead and been more flexible in dealing with Cuba and establishing full diplomatic relations."
The Kissinger documents, posted for the first time on the Web, along with other documentation from the Kennedy and Carter administrations, were obtained by the Archive's Cuba documentation project as part of a major research project on secret dialogue and negotiations between Havana and Washington over the past fifty years. The article in Cigar Aficionado is adapted from a forthcoming book by Kornbluh and LeoGrande, Talking with Fidel: The Untold History of Dialogue between the United States and Cuba.
"History shows that presidents from Kennedy to Clinton considered dialogue both possible and preferable to continued hostility and aggression in U.S. policy toward Cuba," Kornbluh noted. "This rich declassified record of the past provides a road map for the new administration to follow in the future."
Read the Dialogue Documents
Document l: White House memorandum, Secret, "Conversation with Commandante Ernesto Guevara of Cuba", August 22, 1961.
In a secret memo to President Kennedy, Richard Goodwin recounts his impromptu meeting with Ernesto "Che" Guevara that took place on August 17, 1961 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Their conversation covered several key points: First, Guevara expressed Cuba's hope to establish a "modus vivendi" with the United States. Second, although Castro was willing\ to make a number of concessions toward that goal, the nature of Cuba's political system was nonnegotiable. "He said they could discuss no formula that would mean giving up the type of society to which they were dedicated," Goodwin reported. Finally Guevara raised the issue of how the two countries would find "a practical formula" to advance toward accommodation. He made a pragmatic suggestion, according to Goodwin: "He knew it was difficult to negotiate these things but we could open up some of these issues by beginning to discuss secondary issues … as a cover for more serious conversation." The meeting marked the first high-level talks between officials from the United States and Cuba since the break in diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961.
Document 2: White House memorandum, Top Secret, "Mr. Donovan's Trip to Cuba," March 4, 1963.
This document records President Kennedy's interest in negotiations with Castro and his instructions to his staff to "start thinking along more flexible lines" about negotiations with Cuba toward better relations. At issue were talks between James Donovan, who had negotiated the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners, and Fidel Castro, who had expressed an interest in using the prisoner negotiations as a springboard to discuss more normal relations. The memo recording Kennedy's views makes clear he expressed a concrete interest in exploring and pursuing an effective dialogue with Castro.
Document 3: Central Intelligence Agency memorandum, Secret, "Interview of the U.S. Newswoman with Fidel Castro Indicating Possible Interest in Rapprochement with the United States", May 1, 1963.
After ABC News correspondent Lisa Howard returned from interviewing Castro in April 1963, she provided a debriefing to CIA deputy director Richard Helms. Helms's memorandum of conversation notes her opinion that Castro is "ready to discuss rapprochement." Howard also offered to become an intermediary between Havana and Washington. The document contains a notation, "Psaw," meaning President Kennedy read the report on Howard and Castro.
Document 4: Oval Office audio tape, Kennedy and Bundy, November 5, 1963. (.mp3 audio clip - 6 MB)
This audio document, recorded by a secret taping system in President Kennedy's office, records a discussion between the President and his National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, regarding Castro's invitation to William Attwood, a deputy to U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, to come to Cuba for secret talks. "How can Attwood get in and out of there very privately," Kennedy is heard to ask. The President suggests that Attwood should be taken off the U.S. payroll prior to such a meeting so that the White House could plausibly deny that any official talks had taken place if the meeting leaks to the press.
Document 5: National Security Council, memorandum for Secretary Kissinger, Confidential, "Cuba Policy," August 30, 1974.
This memorandum for Kissinger lays out the growing multinational pressures on the U.S. to change its sanctions policy toward Cuba. A number of Latin countries are pushing for licenses for U.S. subsidiaries to export goods to Cuba, and the OAS nations are threatening to lift the ban on trade and diplomatic ties with Havana that the U.S. imposed in 1964. Stephen Low, an NSC staffer on Latin America, recommends an options paper for changing U.S. policy and negotiating with the Cubans that "should be held very closely." Kissinger authorizes the project. Unbeknownst to all but his two top aides, he also initiates contact with the Cubans through intermediaries to begin exploring talks. (Newly posted)
Document 6: Kissinger Aide-Memoire to Cuba, January 11, 1975
In an effort to renew a dialogue between Cuba and the United States, Kissinger's aides and Cuban representatives meet for the first time in a public cafeteria in La Guardia airport in New York on January 11, 1975. During this secret meeting, the Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, William Rogers, provides an aide-mémoire, approved by Kissinger, to Castro's representative, Ramon Sanchez-Parodi. "We are meeting here to explore the possibilities for a more normal relationship between our two countries," the untitled and unsigned U.S. document reads. The message takes a very positive tone in suggesting that the "U.S. is able and willing to make progress on such issues even with socialist nations with whom we are in fundamental ideological disagreement." (Newly posted)
Document 7: Department of State, Secret, "Normalizing relations with Cuba", March 27, 1975.
As the OAS prepared to lift multilateral sanctions against Cuba, and the U.S. Congress pushed for lifting the embargo, deputy assistant secretary for Latin America Harry Shlaudeman drafted a secret/nodis memo for Kissinger on "Normalizing Relations with Cuba." His report suggests that the U.S. should move quickly to negotiate with Cuba through a scenario that will result in normal diplomatic relations. "Our interest is in getting the Cuba issue behind us, not in prolonging it indefinitely," the memo states. Shlaudeman warns that the conventional scenario of talks will become mired in disagreements over compensation for expropriated property and suggests setting that issue aside. The document lays out a series of steps that would be taken to normalize relations and finally get the "intrinsically trivial issue" of Cuba "off the domestic and inter-American agendas." (Newly posted)
Document 8: Presidential Directive / NSC-6, Secret, "Cuba", March 15, 1977.
This directive, issued shortly after Carter took office, represents the only time a President has ordered normalization of U.S. relations with Castro's Cuba. "I have concluded that we should attempt to achieve normalization of our relations with Cuba," the directive states. Carter instructed his foreign policy team to "set in motion a process which will lead to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba." Although negotiations led quickly to re-opening diplomatic ties through the establishment of interest sections in Havana and Washington, secret talks, including with Fidel Castro, broke down over the U.S. insistence that Cuba withdraw its troops from Africa before the Carter Administration would consider lifting the embargo.