WASHINGTON – Declassified Kennedy Library documents reveal further details of a secret U.S. effort to reach an accord with communist Cuba and avoid a nuclear war during the 1962 missile crisis.
The National Security Archive, a Washington-based, non-governmental research center, on Friday posted documents from the newly declassified papers of Robert F. Kennedy, who at that time was serving as attorney general in the administration of his brother, then-President John F. Kennedy.
RFK played a key role in negotiations to find a peaceful solution to the two-week crisis, which was one of the most serious of the Cold War and had the United States and the Soviet Union on the brink of a nuclear conflict.
The crisis erupted after an American U-2 spy plane detected the presence of Soviet ballistic missiles on the communist-ruled island on Oct. 14, 1962.
Among the documents from the Kennedy Library is the rough draft of a proposed letter to Fidel Castro, identified as “señor F.C.,” and evaluated by a team of advisers to President Kennedy on Oct. 17, a day after the head of state learned about the existence of the missiles.
That letter, available to historians for the first time, “initiated a chain of events that led to a complicated back-channel diplomacy between Washington and Havana at the height of what Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger called ‘the most dangerous moment in human history,’” the NSA said in a statement.
The missive warns Castro that by deploying the missiles on the Caribbean island, the Soviets “raised grave issues for Cuba.”
“To serve their interests, they have justified the Western Hemisphere countries in making an attack on Cuba which would lead to the immediate overthrow of your regime,” it read.
But the letter also offered a “carrot” in the form of negotiations to improve relations “once the Soviets and their weapons of mass destruction were gone,” the NSA said.
In the initial deliberations on how to respond to the crisis, however, the president’s top advisers urged him to reject that message to Cuba because it would “undermine the option of a surprise U.S. air attack on the island.”
Kennedy eventually opted for a “naval quarantine of Cuba” to buy time while pursuing diplomatic efforts to convince the Soviets to withdraw their missiles, and he also instructed the State Department to come up with diplomatic alternatives to an attack on Cuba.
On Oct. 25, 1962, the State Department recommended an “approach to Castro” through the mediation of Brazil that laid out his options: “the overthrow of his regime, if not its physical destruction,” or “assurances, regardless of whether we intended to carry them out, that we would not ourselves undertake to overthrow the regime” if he expelled both the Russians and their missiles from the island.
Kennedy approved the delivery of that message to Castro the following day, albeit “disguised as a Brazilian peace initiative sent by the government of populist president Joao Goulart, rather than one from Washington,” the NSA said.
A Brazilian envoy arrived in Havana on Oct. 29, although “the ur
gency and relevance of Kennedy’s Brazilian back-channel message had been eclipsed by events.”
The day before, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev “agreed to withdraw the missiles in return for Kennedy’s public pledge not to invade Cuba, and the president’s secret promise to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey sometime in the near future,” it added.
The declassified documents also include notes by Robert Kennedy on the so-called “black Saturday” of Oct. 27, when fears of a nuclear war between the two superpowers reached their peak.
The details of the Kennedy administration’s “approach” to Castro remained a state secret for more than 40 years until 2004, when historian James Hershberg published an account of the diplomatic effort based on documents found in the archives of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry and White House National Security Council tapes.
According to Peter Kornbluh, the NSA’s Cuba analyst, the RFK papers, declassified on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “reinforce the key historical lesson of the missile crisis: the need and role for creative diplomacy to avoid the threat of nuclear Armageddon.”