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The U.S. And Castro, 1959–1962
Was the Cuban leader always a Marxist or did the United States impel him in that direction? A distinguished historian of Cuban affairs examines the critical years when the Castro revolution became a communist dictatorship.
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
A careful study of available memoirs (those of Eisenhower, Lyman Kirkpatrick of the CIA, Ambassador Bonsai, and others), as well as testimony given to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1960–61 and to the Church Committee in 1975, provides no suggestion of any CIA or other U.S. action against Cuba during 1959. Of course, there was right-wing Cuban opposition to the Revolution, but the evidence is that the American government, the only serious enemy Castro had to face from then on, did not know how to deal with the apparently unique nationalist movement founded by Castro, and so did nothing the first year. The earliest material unearthed by the Church Committee concerning a U.S. interest in overthrowing Castro was a recommendation in December, 1959, by J. C. King, still the head of the Western Hemisphere Division of the CIA, to his chief, Allen Dulles, that, since a “far left” dictatorship existed in Cuba, “thorough consideration [should] be given to the elimination of Fidel Castro.” The committe went on to report that the first discussion in the White House (among a so-called special group of advisers) of any idea of a “covert program” to topple Castro occurred on January 13, 1960. There was some sabotage carried out in western Cuba by Cuban exiles in 1959, but the neglect in controlling such actions by Castro’s enemies does not prove that there was a concerted effort by the U.S. government to overthrow Castro.
The dictator of the Dominican Republic, General Leonidas Trujillo, did launch an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba in the summer of 1959, but again there is no proof of any American involvement in that hopeless venture. When the excommander of the Cuban air force flew over Havana to drop pamphlets in October, 1959, Castro must have known perfectly well that the Cubans killed during the episode died from fragments of shells fired from the ground at the plane. But Castro described the flight as an attempt to “bomb” Cuba into submission, speaking, as Ambassador Bonsai accurately put it, “in a manner reminiscent of Hitler at his most hysterical.…There was the same blatant disregard for truth, the same pathological extremes of expression, gesticulation and movement.” (Ambassador Bonsai’s judgment of Castro thus had changed, as had the revolution itself, during 1959.) Evidence may yet be produced to prove that the CIA, the FBI, or some other agency of the U.S. government was active against Castro in 1959. But if it was, it is inconceivable that the activity was on a scale, or of a subtlety, adequate to divert a resourceful leader, such as Castro has since shown himself to be, from a chosen democratic course—from one, say, of re-establishing the Constitution of 1940. Cuba, or rather Castro, surely chose a path deliberately in 1959, and however much that path may have been determined by memory of old historical vendettas, it was certainly not affected one way or the other by current American policy.
The stability of the system that has continued since 1961 in Cuba is a contrast to the volatile days before 1959. Yet there have been curious developments. A revolution which once had as one of its chief aims the end of complete reliance on a sugar economy has laid emphasis on that crop more than ever before. The failure of the Cuban revolution to export its example to Latin America in the 1960’s was, in the 1970’s, compensated for by the dispatch of an expeditionary force to Africa. From providing the world before 1959 with sugar, cigars, and popular dances, Cuba, since the revolution, has provided it with guerrilleros . Cuba, at one remove, also gave President Nixon the hard core of disciplined “plumbers” who made Watergate. The Cuban connection with the stories associated with the murder of President Kennedy cannot quite be shaken off. Neither the far Left nor the far Right of U.S. politics would be what they are were it not for Cuba. This is a modern expression of an old U.S. tradition. Many will have forgotten that Cuba was an obsessive question in American politics in the decade before the Civil War. The Southern states’ desire to increase the number of slave states by purchasing Cuba from Spain was indeed one of the causes of that struggle. During Cuba’s two wars of independence, in the 1870’s and 1890’s, the island was a major problem in U.S. politics. It has been so once or twice in the twentieth century, too, never more so than between 1959 and 1962. Geography, as well as history, strongly suggests that she will one day play that part again.