In my write-up today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Education of a Politician, I’ll talk about Fidel Castro, the Communist leader of Cuba.
Fidel Castro replaced Fulgencio Batista as leader of Cuba on January 1, 1959. Four months later, the United States had not recognized Castro’s government, for the State Department wanted to recognize it, but the CIA feared that Castro was either a Communist or one who was being duped by the Communists. Vice-President Richard Nixon met with Castro for three hours, and Nixon asked him why he did not hold free elections and cease the executions of Batista’s people, providing those accused of war crimes with fair trials. Castro replied that he was simply carrying out the will of the Cuban people, who distrusted free elections because they led to bad government in the past, and who desired the executions of Batista’s people. Nixon’s conclusion was that Castro was not insightful when it came to economics but still had the gift of leadership. Nixon believed that Castro was sincere, but was naive about Communism, and he proposed that the U.S. try to orient Castro in the right direction.
Ambrose says on page 516 that “Instead, Eisenhower decided to try to eliminate [Castro].” Eisenhower in 1960 approved a program by the CIA to provide training to Cuban exiles in Guatemala and to give them covertly the support that they needed to invade Cuba, in conjunction with guerrillas who were inside of the country. But the date for the invasion was being delayed, and Nixon by this point supported the CIA’s program to overthrow Castro and “replace him with a moderate Cuban leader” (Ambrose on page 549). Nixon was frustrated by the State Department’s caution. While Nixon was one of the few people outside of the White House’s innermost circle and the CIA to be aware of the program, he did not know about its nuts-and-bolts, for he wondered what the CIA was doing that took so long, and he thought that it was primarily engaging in rifle-training. Moreover, according to Ambrose, the CIA was conducting “some harebrained attempts to assassinate Castro”, and Eisenhower may not have known about these plots, whereas Nixon was in the dark about them (page 550).
Why did Nixon go from proposing that the U.S. try to orient Castro in the right direction, to supporting Castro’s overthrow? There may have been a variety of reasons, but the one that Ambrose mentions is political: If Nixon could get credit for helping to overthrow Castro, then his chances for being elected President would improve. Eisenhower was reluctant to act, however, for he did not feel that the plan was ready: that the Cubans had rallied around a leader to replace Castro, or that the exiles were “properly trained or equipped” (page 590). While Eisenhower was hesitant to impose a trade embargo on Cuba because he was afraid of a hostile reaction by the Organization of American States and Mexico, he finally agreed to the embargo after Castro had nationalized 382 American-owned businesses in Cuba, and Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was chastising the Eisenhower Administration for doing nothing.
Indeed, the issue of Cuba was prominent in the 1960 Presidential election. In the same way that Republicans in the 1940’s-1950’s castigated the Truman Administration for losing China to Communism, so likewise were Democrats saying the same sort of thing about Cuba going Communist on Eisenhower’s watch. Kennedy criticized Eisenhower’s embargo as “too little and too late” (Kennedy’s words), and he thought that it was increasing Castro’s dependence on the Soviet Union for help. Yet, Kennedy proposed “stronger sanctions” against Cuba, as well as an aid program for Latin America and strengthening non-Batista anti-Castro forces so that they could overthrow Castro (Ambrose on page 591).
Kennedy’s overt call for the U.S. to aid rebel forces to overthrow Castro angered Nixon. Kennedy was briefed by the CIA, and he may have been told that such a plan was already in the works. Nixon felt that Kennedy, by publicly calling for a program that Kennedy already knew was being implemented, was “jeopardizing the security of a United States foreign policy operation” (Nixon’s words). (Interestingly, however, on page 591, Ambrose says that Castro already had an idea that the U.S. would soon try to overthrow him.) When the subject came up in the fourth Presidential debate, Nixon essentially said that Kennedy’s support for the U.S. helping to overthrow Castro was irresponsible: it violated a treaty we signed with the Organization of American States not to interfere inthe internal affairs of republics in the region; it violated the UN charter, which also banned the U.S. from intervening in other countries’ internal affairs; that it would cost the U.S. its friends in Latin America and probably receive UN condemnation, without accomplishing its goal; and that it would invite the Soviet Union to intervene in Latin America.
What Ambrose says on page 592 is funny: “In his long political career, Nixon made any number of predictions, some of them amazingly accurate, but never was he more exactly on the mark than in this case. The trouble was, he did not believe a word of what he said.” Ambrose is probably referring to the fall-out that occurred after Kennedy as President launched a disastrous attempt to overthrow Castro.
Ambrose says that Nixon should have simply met with Kennedy privately and told him that he was jeopardizing a plan that was in the works by publicly calling on the U.S. to take an aggressive stance against Cuba. Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 persuaded (through George Marshall) his Republican opponent for the Presidential election, Thomas Dewey, not to reveal to the public that FDR had been aware of Japanese movements before Pearl Harbor, for that would inform the Japanese that the U.S. could crack Japanese codes and read Japan’s secret radio signals. Dewey stayed silent on this rather than making it a campaign issue.
Nixon did not stick with his public opposition to the U.S. helping to overthrow Castro, however. Nixon implied that he supported something more than an embargo against Cuba by referring to what happened in Guatemala: a coup from the Guatemalan people. Nixon looked like he wanted the CIA to go after Castro and assist a coup, and that drew criticism from some who actually thought that Nixon gained the upper-hand by supporting non-intervention against Cuba. Meanwhile, Kennedy himself backtracked as he denied that he supported the U.S. violating treaties. While, overall, Kennedy’s language regarding Laos and Cuba was quite bellicose during the 1960 Presidential campaign, as President Kennedy was much more cautious.