From our 1963 archive, this piece explores the tension between the U.S. and Cuba after the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Wechsler writes, "Indeed, there have been moments in the last two years when one was tempted to wonder whether Castro is a larger threat to our national sanity than to our military security." Over half a century after that historic landmark, President Obama has re-opened ties with Cuba, announcing a new chapter in the tumultuous relationship between the two nations beginning with plans for building an embassy in Havana.
Now, these many weeks after the perilous Cuban confrontation in which, as someone has remarked, civilization learned that it is mortal, the specter of Castro refuses to fade away.
In part the American anxiety reflects the continuing concern of free men over the establishment of an exportable Communist tyranny in this hemisphere. But that is not the whole story. Too many American politicians have acquired a vested interest in the anti-Castro crusade; they prefer to run against him rather than to confront local adversaries. Perhaps more serious is the sense that too many ordinary citizens regard Castro's survival as an affront to their personal manhood, and his extinction as vital to an affirmation of our national virility.
Indeed, there have been moments in the last two years when one was tempted to wonder whether Castro is a larger threat to our national sanity than to our military security.
I do not mean to sound lighthearted. I have little patience for those incurable innocents whose tolerance of Castro's firing squads is so reminiscent of the apologies once recited in defense of Stalin's slave-labor camps. The true, incontestable indictment of Castro is that his revolution has so swiftly devoured so many of its own children; that so many of those who followed him in the fight for freedom have either been exterminated by his bullets or have fled to fight another day; and that, even within his own government, there are so many men who dream of a new rebellion to recapture the lost vision of the revolution betrayed.
It is, I think, highly improbable that Castro can survive; he has all the symptoms of "a loser." His personal instabilities have mounted almost in proportion to the domestic failures of his regime; he has been humiliated and downgraded by the Soviet commissars to whom he sold his soul; perhaps worst of all, having less and less to say and taking more time to say it, he threatens to become a bore. The great question is whether his end will mean a new beginning for Cuba, or restoration of the inequity and exploitation of the Batista era. And on that question it is impossible to avoid misgivings about certain aspects of the American position.
Perhaps my own view can best be put in perspective by reference to a memorandum I wrote the morning after the only occasion on which I met Fidel Castro.
The meeting occurred in New York on the evening of April 23, 1959, less than four months after Castro had seized power in Cuba. It was an improvised, last-minute affair arranged by a businessman who had Cuban connections. The interesting thing is that as of late afternoon of that day, Castro, back in New York after his visit to Washington, had no place to go. The social freeze was on; even the leaders of the AFL-CIO in our city were not talking to him; and our rendezvous was the result of his ostracism. One cannot help asking whether some things might have been different if he had not been so prematurely proscribed by our labor dignitaries, most of whom had never been so fastidious about holding hands with Batista's labor flunkies.
I had forgotten until recently that I had dictated a record of that evening; and when my secretary rescued it from our files the other day, I had somewhat mixed emotions; certainly some of my comments seem less than profound in the retrospect of history.
But let me quote some fragments because they may have some bearing on our present problem:
"Castro talked at some length about Cuba's unemployment crisis and pointed out that the percentage of unemployment there is higher than what ours was during our Hoover depression. When I asked him how long his honeymoon with the Cuban people could last if he did not solve their economic problem, he first replied whimsically: 'A honeymoon lasts for ever.' But he then said more seriously that he felt he had three years in which to do the job. What would happen if he had not succeeded by then? His answer: 'We would leave.'
"We asked him about his relationship with the Cuban press. He responded rather cockily that no one in the press would attack him now because 'that would be going against public opinion.' I suggested that might not always be a healthy condition, thinking of the McCarthy era here; it seemed to me that he quickly got the point but defended his position on the ground that the revolution is a 'special minute' when traditional democratic concepts may not be valid [I had the uneasy feeling that such words have been used by every revolutionary— good and bad—to defend autocratic acts in all history].
"On several occasions he seemed to recognize almost sadly that the revolution was far more dramatic than the business of government. At one point he said the revolution was 'our university,' implying that now they are graduates and have to face the new problems of the real world.
"He spoke with some passion about the need for greater American emphasis on economic aid to countries like his own rather than on military preparedness. He was quite candid in acknowledging Cuban economic dependence on American cooperation and expressed the hope that he had made some progress on that level by his Washington performance.
"He was quite bitter about the Cuban labor leaders who supported Batista until the last hours and dismissed them with the simple word: 'corrupt.'
"My overall impression was that on some issues, especially on his relations with the United States, Castro has been persuaded to take a more moderate line than he originally adopted.
"More fascinating than almost anything he said, of course, was the demeanor of the man. He seemed an extraordinary combination of Messianic self-righteousness and humanity. At times he talked with almost exasperating certitude, at others he seemed to have an almost fatalistic sense about the accidents of history. I had no doubt about the intensity of his dedication, about his intelligence and his desire for information. I also had a feeling that he is a man of great warmth and wit.
"My doubts were twofold: 1) After the glory and excitement of revolution, will he ever be capable of settling down to the complicated business of running a country? 2) Is he prepared to permit any checks on his power which might save him from rash and impulsive adventures? I suppose that such questions would be provoked by any successful revolutionist at this stage in his career.
" When Castro was leaving, I said to him: 'It must be very exciting to feel that your life has just begun.' He replied, 'My life is half done.'"
It is my remembrance of this interview that has been partially responsible for my unease about the whole subsequent course of our Cuban story. Conscientious, serious scholars like Theodore Draper have offered much documentation to support the stand that, at the time of his visit to the United States, Castro was already beyond redemption; that he was aggressively determined to resist any American economic assistance; and that his deputies had been ordered to go through the motions of Washington discourse without actually soliciting help. Perhaps that is the case; perhaps he had already lost command of his own revolution, and was already play-acting on that evening.
Yet it seems hard to believe—apart from any overall appraisal of Castro and his irrationalities—that there could have been any serious point in his lying that evening about the objective of his Washington journey. What could he have gained by the pretense that he had been pleading for American emphasis on economic aid to Latin America (an Alliance for Progress program) while calculatedly spurning any plan? It serves little purpose to labor the inquiry now. We spend too much of our national life engaged in autopsies; the issue of who lost Castro is probably as futile an exercise as the debate over who lost China.
For the record, however, it may be important to underline the point that Castro himself set a three-year limit for the resolution of Cuba's deepest economic problems. By his own calendar, time has run out on him.
There may be no great gain in rehearsing Castro's past. Yet it may be well to remind ourselves that too many Americans initially condemned Castro for the wrong reasons—for his radical economic slogans rather than his destruction of the hard-won Cuban liberties. Whether he fell into the arms of the Communists, or whether he was pushed, may long be debated; it is my own feeling that the process was complicated, and that our Rightists are too often as guilty of oversimplifying history as are the Marxist dogmatists.
But, even assuming a steady deterioration in Castro's capacity to rule, what happens next? In the long months of reappraisal after the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961, there was apparently every valid reason to believe that the Administration had rejected any recourse to the invasion strategy. There would be systematic economic pressures applied; there would be a wider effort to isolate the Castro regime from Latin America; there would presumably be varied forms of covert assistance to underground operations dedicated to an ultimate internal coup in Cuba. It was widely reported, however, that we had learned the lesson that an American-based assault was fundamentally unsound because, apart from all moral issues, it could succeed only with so massive a degree of U.S. participation that the political consequences throughout the hemisphere would be fatal.
More and more there appeared a disposition in and around the White House to accept Reinhold Niebuhr's view that, to a certain extent, Castro must be permitted to "act out" the tragedy of the betrayed revolution. The Goldwater legions were clamoring for a major offensive but the opinion polls showed remarkably wide public support for the more sober course to which Mr. Kennedy had turned. While some of the exile leaders grumbled restlessly, their earlier miscalculations diminished the impact of their counsel.
Then occurred the fateful collision of last autumn that so nearly rendered academic all speculation about man's fate. But humanity survived; the President emerged from this test in a mood of humility and solemnity. He made it clear that he hoped the episode would dramatize how dangerously we were all living, and perhaps pave the way for some more serious East-West
dialogue. In the immediate aftermath the Soviet retreat from Cuba was hailed throughout the world, and President Kennedy's status at home and abroad rose precipitously.
But slowly the counterattack of the American Right began. What had he won, after all? Castro still reigned; the Communist island "ninety miles from our shores" was intact. Just as the Chinese Communists and their mouthpieces were denouncing Premier Khrushchev for his Cuban withdrawal as an act of craven "appeasement," so too the cry of "appeasement" was being raised against Mr. Kennedy in his own land. To the firebrands in Peking and along the Potomac, it appeared that each Mr. K was palpably guilty of pursuing a "no-win" policy.
There was audible dissatisfaction among many of the Cuban exile chieftains, most of whom still clung to the to Miami at the end of December to view that their salvation lay in an American-backed invasion, and their sentiments were still shared by too many characters in CIA and the Pentagon with whom they had planned the disaster of 1961.
Of the Cuban exile leaders, Manuel Ray, Minister of Public Works in the early Castro era, seemed almost alone in challenging the war cries—just as he had opposed the simplistic adventurism of the Bay of Pigs attempt. Ray represents an authentic alternative to Castro; what makes him persona non grata to the established pillars of exile society is that he remains faithful to the principles proclaimed by the Castro revolution. He believes that the battle for Cuba is primarily a political war, and that it can be fought effectively only by a movement which refuses to do business with Batistaism or any of its remnants, and which enlists the aid of disenchanted Castroites who still retain strategic government posts. Ray's Revolutionary Movement of the People bases itself in Puerto Rico rather than Miami; it is heavily populated with men who fought in the anti-Batista underground; its program, as he puts it, is "the program of the revolution Castro betrayed" when he abdicated to the Communists.
In short, Ray believes in the essential validity of the anti-Batista revolution, with its banners of egalitarianism and social justice; he is addressing himself to the multitudes of Cubans who share those dreams.
Obviously Ray's outlook is uncongenial to those wealthy Cuban refugees who hope to return to business as usual. It is also viewed with suspicion and hostility by the kind of Goldwater mentality which pervades too much of CIA. Yet it probably represents a more serious challenge to Castro than all the fiery rhetoric of the conservative exile spokesmen. For all the loose talk of a U.S.-sponsored war is liable to cement rather than divide the Castro regime and to discourage anti-Castroism in other Latin American countries.
It was against the background of this split that President Kennedy journeyed to Miami at the end of December to salute the returning Cuban prisoners. The President's special concern for these men is both understandable and impressive; clearly they have been "on his conscience" for a long time. They had suffered much as a result of what the President has freely called "my mistake;" they were certainly deserving of his tribute. But the form which the tribute took was another matter.
As Alistair Cooke reported a few days later, "on the way to Palm Beach even the President's own staff was privately divided about the purpose and good sense of the expedition to Miami." Certainly he might have avoided what was bound to be construed as an other invasion pep rally, despite the guarded nature of his words.
Cries of "Guerra! Guerra!" (War! War!) echoed through the stadium as Mr. Kennedy spoke. "Cuba shall one day be free again," he proclaimed, "and when it is, this brigade will deserve to march at the head of the free column." To the embattled survivors of the lost mission, these words could only sound like the promise of another, more successful American invasion plan, despite Mr. Kennedy's intention to avoid such a commitment.
Equally troublesome was the President's lack of emphasis on great economic and social goals, and the apathy of his audience when he mentioned them. If such a trip and such a speech were warranted, it might well have been the occasion for affirming, as the primary enterprise of our day, the advance of the Alliance for Progress and a rejection of any partnership with the agents of the old status quo.
There were, it is reported, strong pleas from some men who have closely followed Latin American events in favor of such a proclamation; but—whether for domestic political reasons or out of an excessive desire to gratify the valorous prisoners—the President chose to ignore such counsel.
The President appealed for unity among Cuba's exile factions, insisting that all matters of controversy be postponed until the day of liberation. But Manuel Ray and his associates might have appropriately replied that there may be no such day, in our time, if we do not face the issues that divide the exiles now.
It was not too long ago that one of the leaders of a hit-and-run raid on the Cuban coast named Borja appeared on the "Meet the Press" program. He was asked what his "Cuban Student Directorate" hoped to achieve when it had proved impossible in other places to overthrow Communist satellites. Borja's answer was:
"First, I would like to answer the question that there hasn't been any satellite freed. I think there was one, Spain, and it was overthrown by force and it had to be done and it was carried out."
Surely those exile spokesmen who view General Franco's destruction of Spanish democracy as their model offer little inspiration to the fight for freedom. How many others share Borja's view?
As Edward P. Morgan, ABC radio news commentator, noted, Mr. Kennedy did appeal "by implication" to dissidents inside Castro's house to prepare for rebellion. "This line," said Mr. Morgan, "may be welcomed by responsible liberal elements of the Cuban exile community who have long been urging it on two grounds—-first, that there are anti-Castro people in the government, and second, that encouragement should be delicately given them instead of the implied warning of past U.S. policy that virtually everybody in the Castro regime is, in effect, a Communist war criminal."
But Mr. Morgan added:
"... to the ordinary Jose in the streets of Havana or in the rest of Latin America, the ceremony may not have been identified strongly enough with the social revolution we are supposed to be trying to sell in the hemisphere.
"We must remember that we are held suspect not only for actual or imagined sins of imperialism far past but for seeming inconsistencies much more recent. After all, the man who courageously defied the instigators of the military coup in Peru, American Ambassador James Loeb, is now out of a job, in part because a combination of American business interests and conservative Peruvians convinced Washington that we could 'live with' the military junta.
"And although the President was eloquent Saturday in his castigation of Castro for selling out the Cuban revolution, he uttered no word of denunciation for the deposed Batista or of the Batista-minded men who are prominent and influential among the Cuban refugee colony in the United States."
Just a few days after the President's Miami performance, a spokesman for one exile group—the Second National Front of Escambray—proclaimed that plans were afoot for a series of new hit-and-run-attacks on Cuba. He said the missions would be conducted from secret Caribbean bases. But there was the unmistakable overtone that Mr. Kennedy's recital had spurred the program.
In part the surface appearance of things may be too easily subjected to distortion. Yet the symbolisms are important. Ambassador Loeb, for example, may well turn up in another post, according to Washington reports, and he has not depicted himself as a forlorn diplomatic exile. Yet there can be no question that the delay in reassigning him has been widely interpreted as a sign of Administration retreat in the large political battles of Latin America.
In this, as in other matters, the Kennedy Administration exhibits intermittent wisdom, restraint, and perspective— but simultaneously seems to feel obliged to make gestures to the Right that dilute the meaning of its position. It resists the pressure for all-out anti-Castro military exercises; but it appears unwilling to break the news, in final, clear-cut fashion, that there will be no U.S. expeditionary force. At many moments it seems deeply sensitive to the political realities of Latin America; yet it cannot quite bear to tell the Goldwater brigades that there will be no big excursion. The result is to confuse the country, to stir new delusions among the Right-wing exiles, and to render more difficult the role of the non-Communist Left in Cuba and neighboring areas.
Meanwhile, the obsession with Castroism too often diverts attention from the larger business of the Alliance for Progress. For as long as Americans, in any substantial numbers, remain beguiled by the idiocy that all our problems can be solved by Castro's extinction, we will be too little and too late again in dealing with the underlying tensions and frustrations of the hemisphere. That is part, I think, of what Adlai Stevenson has been trying to say for many months; the ferocity of the "get Stevenson" battalions is a measure of the know-nothingism we must confront at home if we are to function in the world.
Yet perhaps the most important thing the Miami episode revealed was that Mr. Kennedy cannot placate the Goldwater faction. In the Right-wing newsletter Human Events and other house organs of the Right, the fire of the President's speech stirred no warm response; it was carefully pointed out that he had not pledged to support an invasion. Nothing else that he said offered them an adequate emotional equivalent for war.
These pressures will continue; that is why it is more urgent than ever that rational voices be heard, reminding the country that there are no "cheap and easy solutions" in Cuba, that the battle for democracy in Latin America is a long, complex enterprise which can be won neither by material maneuvers nor by the economic gospel of the National Association of Manufacturers.
James A. Wechsler, editor of the editorial page of The New York Post, is the author of five books: Revolt on the Campus, War Propaganda and the United States, Labor Baron, The Age of Suspicion, and Reflections of an Angry Middle-Aged Editor.