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National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 17

Edited by Peter Kornbluh
August 16, 1999


  In 1963, the Kennedy administration and the government of Fidel Castro began a series of communications designed to lead to a possible rapprochement. The U.S. objective was to move Castro out of the Soviet orbit using what NSC memoranda described as "the sweet approach;" in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro appeared more interested in a modus vivendi with Washington. In secret talks with the first U.S. intermediary, James Donovan, in the spring of 1963, Castro inquired about how, given the acrimonious conflict between the two nations, the U.S. and Cuba would actually initiate moving toward a new era of better relations. As Donovan told his CIA debriefers: "So I said to him, do you know how porcupines make love? and he said no. And I said, well, the answer is 'very carefully.' And that is how you and the United States would have to get into this."

The documents posted here a among those used in Peter Kornbluh's new article, "Kennedy and Castro: the Secret Quest for Accommodation," appearing in the new issue of Cigar Aficionado. A number of them were originally found in a file named "Cuban Contacts," declassified through a mandatory declassification review request to the John F. Kennedy Library. Using the documents, Kornbluh has been able to provide the fullest historical account to date of how Washington and Havana cautiously and carefully moved toward a dialogue on better relations. Thirty-seven years later, with current U.S. policy toward Cuba beginning to take small but significant steps toward change, this history carries an immediate relevance for U.S.-Cuban ties.


 Document 1:  NSC, "Mr. Donovan's Trip to Cuba," March 4, 1963: McGeorge Bundy's deputy, Gordon Chase, wrote this memo after a conversation with Bundy on President Kennedy's thoughts about negotiations with Castro. Kennedy is reacting to recommendations by State Department official Robert Hurwitch on U.S. "non-negotiable demands" on Cuba. Kennedy takes the position that the "breaking of Sino/Soviet ties" should not be a "non-negotiable point." He has told his NSC advisor that "We should start thinking along more flexible lines."

Document 2:  NSC, "The Cuban Problem," April 21, 1963: This Options Paper, drafted by Bundy, presents a number of contingency plans for action against Cuba. It also lists the option of moving "in the direction of gradual development of some form of accommodation with Castro."

Document 3: CIA, "Interview of U.S. Newswoman with Fidel Castro Indicating Possible Interest in Rapprochement with the United States," May 1, 1963: After her lengthy interview with Fidel Castro, Lisa Howard was debriefed by the CIA when she returned to the U.S. She emphasized his interest in better relations with Washington, and offered to play the role of diplomatic intermediary between the two countries. The notation "PSAW" in the top right-hand corner of the document signifies that the memorandum was read by President Kennedy.

Document 4: CIA, "Reported Desire of the Cuban Government for Rapprochement with the United States," June 5, 1963: In this memorandum, the CIA transmitted more than a half dozen intelligence reports indicating that Castro was interested mending the U.S.-Cuban conflict and establishing normal ties.

Document 5: CIA, Notes on Special Group Meeting on Cuba, June 6, 1963. These CIA notes briefly record a high level discussion of the merits of communicating with Castro.

Document 6: UN, Memorandum on Cuba, September 18, 1963: William Attwood, deputy U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote this memo for Adlai Stevenson and other U.S. officials, requesting authorization to make secret contact with Cuba's UN Ambassador Carlos Lechuga. The White House granted permission, and the first discussion took place at the New York apartment of ABC News Anchorwoman, Lisa Howard.

Document 7: NSC, "Some Arguments Against Accommodation--A Rebuttal," November 12, 1963: NSC official Gordon Chase drafted this memorandum in order to present arguments in favor of improved relations. The memo was drafted as the first major meeting between high level Cuban and U.S. officials to discuss better relations was being organized; that meeting was aborted by the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Document 8: White House, Talks with Cuba, November 19, 1963: Gordon Chase reported in this memo on the discussions between Attwood and Castro's aide de camp, Dr. Rene Vallejo, on a meeting in Cuba or New York.

Document 9: CIA, Alleged Contacts Between Castro and American Government, March 4, 1964: drawing on sources inside Castro's government, the CIA reported the Cuban reaction to the secret talks with the Kennedy administration.

Document 10: Cuba, Verbal Message from Fidel Castro for Lyndon Johnson, February, 1964: Lisa Howard, the key intermediary in the Kennedy-Castro dialogue, carried this message back from Castro in early 1964. Castro is clearly attempting to sustain the momentum of the Kennedy talks and seeking to establish high-level contact with the Johnson White House. Howard is unable to deliver the message directly to President Johnson; eventually she gives it to Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations.

Document 11: Senate Select Committee, William Attwood Testimony, Executive Session, July 10, 1975: This testimony, kept secret until it was declassified under the Kennedy Assassination Records Act, includes Attwood's detailed recollections of the Kennedy-Castro dialogue.

Key Figures in the Dialogue
William Attwood Gordon Chase Lisa Howard Carlos Lechuga


Secondary Sources for Further Information

William Attwood, The Twilight Struggle (1987)

Lisa Howard, "Castro's Overture," War/Peace Report,

September, 1963.

Carlos Lechuga, In the Eye of the Storm: Castro, Khrushchev, Kennedy and the Missile Crisis, (Ocean Press 1995)

Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times, (Houghton Mifflin 1978)

James Blight et al, Cuba on the Brink, (Pantheon, 1993)