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Obama-Castro handshake ties up Kennedy’s loose ends at last

Normalcy restored? EPA/Panama Presidency

A handshake and four simple words – “those days are past” – signalled a new era of diplomacy between the United States of America and Latin America. The handshake between presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro at the opening of the Summit of the Americas was not the first (the two met at Nelson Mandela’s funeral), but it is certainly the most significant.

There is still a long way to go before US-Cuba relations are truly normal, with mutual suspicion and anger still running high. But the pressure to make the thaw work is greater and the diplomatic rebuilding is genuinely underway at last.

Cuba’s isolation is an anachronism, sustained more by the internal politics of the US (Florida in particular) than global politics. It is a loose end left by history – and it is rather satisfying to see a Democratic president tying up one left by another.

John F Kennedy’s presidency was defined by Cuba, first in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, then in the stand-off with Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis.

Global crisis

The extent to which the crisis had transfixed America’s western allies is perhaps best illustrated in the memoirs of a prominent British observer, the Guardian editor of the time, Alastair Hetherington, which are held in the archive of the London School of Economics.

Britain, like the rest of the world, was a bit player during the missile crisis. As Peter Thorneycroft, Harold Macmillan’s defence minister, said: “We were all bystanders.” Macmillan offered support and a shoulder to cry on, but Kennedy was circumspect; this was the United States’ game. Britain may have had a special relationship, but like the rest of the world, Kennedy let Macmillan’s government know only what he wanted it to know.

The Guardian, which had opposed Eden on Suez, was just as concerned about the United States’ intentions against Cuba and opposed direct action. Hetherington, a former major in the Intelligence Corps, had been scarred by the reaction to his newspaper’s opposition to Suez and, as US-Cuba relations deteriorated ever further, he saw history repeating itself, but with much more serious - and more global – consequences.

A Guardian editorial on October 27 1962 addressed the issue of a possible attack on Cuba:

Is the United States about to bomb or invade Cuba? This is now the question. Worse, there is even talk of a possible nuclear attack on Cuba. This is reliably reported as under consideration because the authorities in Washington are so troubled by the rapid approach to readiness of the intermediate range bases on the island. It would be madness.

An American attack on Cuba, he wrote: “would seem to most of the world to be as much a piece of aggression as the British and French attack on Suez.”

The October 27 Guardian leader told Macmillan: “The British Government should make it clear that it must vote against the United States in the United Nations just as the Americans voted against us at Suez.”

Fraught relationship: Nikita Kruschev and John F Kennedy in 1961. US Department of State, CC BY

Six weeks later, Hetherington met Kennedy in his study in the White House. The president talked for 40 minutes from his rocking chair. Hetherington’s note of their discussions, held in the archive of the London School of Economics, gives an insight into the mind of an editor whose views had been proved wrong by events, and a president who felt his allies had let him down.

On the brink

In the retained memo, Hetherington writes:

I began by saying I thought we ought to apologise for some of the things we’d said – for our misjudgements – at the time of the Cuban crisis. We’d been critical because we thought Kennedy was walking into a trap. We thought that the Russian objective was to establish the missile bases in Cuba as a bargaining counter against which they would try to trade all the American bases in western Europe and Britain. We also thought that the reaction would come with a new blockade of Berlin to balance the blockade of Cuba.

The president was magnanimous: “Kennedy laughed off the apology, and said that perhaps our analysis hadn’t been so far out. But there had been a bit of difficulty with the British press. He hadn’t had the backing he’d expected.”

As Hetherington records it, Kennedy said there were three things about Cuba. There was “deliberate bad faith” on the Russian side. Khrushchev had given “a personal assurance to Kennedy that there would be no offensive missiles in Cuba”.

Fidel Castro and Nikita Kruschev in 1961. Superdominicano via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

If the US had given in, its allies would have doubted its willingness to defend them in any future crisis. “This, the president said, was more important than the military effect of the missiles in Cuba… The Russians had brought about an open alteration in the balance of nuclear power. This had to be resisted.”

Kennedy told Hetherington: “Our intelligence had said that the Russians would never put offending missiles in Cuba. They would be too exposed… but their intelligence had obviously told Khrushchev that the Americans would not react.”

The most frightening thing about the crisis was just how far the two sides were from understanding each other. Hetherington writes: “Such misunderstanding could easily lead to nuclear war. This was what [Kennedy] found most frightening about the Cuba affair.”

In a statement Kennedy was fated never to see tested, he gave Hetherington his assessment of the likelihood of nuclear conflict: “How, he asked, can we get through the next ten years without nuclear war? He was not sure that we could do so.”

Asked whether there would be more progress on talks to ease tensions, Kennedy said he thought not. “It wasn’t possible to take their word for anything,” he said of the Russians.

The president then proceeded to lecture the editor on his editorial stance. “He thought the greatest flaw in what The Guardian had been writing was our failure to realise that the Russians were expansionist.”

He was dismissive about the need for a European nuclear deterrent. It would be too costly and the issue of political control was too complicated. “The bomb is great until you’ve got it,” Kennedy told Hetherington. National deterrents such as Britian and France’s, in his view, were unnecessary and dangerous.

Latin lessons

Kennedy told Hetherington that America would welcome economic competition with the Russians: “It was a challenge that the Americans would like to meet,” Hetherington reported.

Kennedy’s view was apparently that if the two powers competed economically rather than militarily, the world could benefit. In an exchange that resonates with the agenda for the 2015 Summit of the Americas, Kennedy talked Hetherington through the challenges facing Latin American states:

Kennedy said that yesterday he had been entertaining the president of Honduras, 60% of whose people were illiterate. The day before he had had a long talk with the ambassador of Brazil, where the country was almost bankrupt, and the day before that he had seen another Latin American ambassador, half of whose people were either undernourished or near starvation.

It would be much more profitable if the Russians and the Americans competed in trying to raise standards in these countries. But unfortunately the Soviet Union was not prepared for this kind of peaceful competition. It had the urge to expand.

We live in a different world today. Instead of gauging a president’s attitude to nuclear war, The Guardian is reporting on the beginnings of a real Cuban-American thaw.

The Castros still bear intense antipathy towards Washington and its machinations and it will be a while before an American president goes walkabout on the streets of Havana. But as relations between the two nations start to normalise, with an inevitable exchange of ambassadors, it might not be too long before some fine cigars are at last on their way to the White House in diplomatic bags.

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