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JFK and the Cuban Embargo


It will be fascinating to watch the unfolding debate over the lifting of the decades-old Cold War U.S. embargo against Cuba because it will enable Americans today to get a sense of what the U.S. national-security establishment — i.e., the military and the CIA – felt about President Kennedy when he was in office.

Already, we’re hearing that President Obama is a traitor, that he is surrendering America to Fidel Castro and the communists, and betraying the Cuban people and the cause of freedom and democracy for wanting to lift the 54-year-old Cold War-era U.S. embargo against Cuba.

That is precisely the way that the national-security establishment felt about Kennedy and actually much worse.

It began with the CIA’s plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, an invasion that would be carried out by Cuban exiles but secretly funded and directed by the CIA in order to provide U.S. officials with “plausible deniability” with respect to their role in the operation.

What did that mean? It meant that the CIA would lie to the American people and the world about the U.S, government’s role in the operation. And it would also mean that under the CIA’s plan, the newly elected president would immediately become the nation’s liar-in-chief, a secret that the CIA would obviously have over his head for the rest of his time in office.

Keep in mind that the CIA plan was concocted before Kennedy got into office. Once Kennedy was sworn in, the CIA presented him with the plan. Kennedy was dumb to go along with it, a point that he later acknowledged. But the fact is that he fell hook, line, and sinker for the CIA’s assurances to him that the invasion would be a smashing success, that the Cuban people would rally against Castro, and that no air U.S. support would be needed.

But the fact was that the Cuban people revered Fidel Castro and hated his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, who was the U.S. government’s brutal dictator who Castro ousted from power.

Even worse, the CIA knew that the operation could not succeed without U.S. air support.

So why did they tell Kennedy that no air support would be necessary? They set him up. They figured that once the invasion got under way and was in danger of failing, Kennedy would buckle and provide the air support in order to “save face.”

But Kennedy didn’t buckle. He refused to provide the air support and the invasion failed to achieve regime change in Cuba.

While JFK took public responsibility for the debacle, he knew what the CIA had done to him and vowed to tear into a thousand pieces. He also fired the CIA’s much-revered CIA director, Allen Dulles, who, ironically, would be later appointed to serve on the Warren Commission.

For its part, the CIA considered Kennedy to be a weakling, an appeaser, a traitor, and a betrayer.

Then from 1961 to 1963, the military establishment was doing everything it could to pressure Kennedy into launching a full-scale military invasion of Cuba. The mindset was the same old Cold War mindset that still guides today’s Cold War dead-enders: that if a communist is permitted to be president of a Latin American country, it won’t be long before communists are running the IRS, the Interstate Highway System, and the rest of the federal government.

Of course, that old Cold War mindset was as ludicrous then as it is now.

But not to the Pentagon. Consider, for example, Operation Northwoods, which was a Pentagon plan that was unanimously recommended to Kennedy by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It called for terrorist attacks on American soil and the hijacking of civilian airliners.

Guess who would do the terrorism and the hijacking under Operation Northwoods. Secret U.S. agents who would be acting as though they were Castro’s agents! Then, the president’s job would be to go on national television and falsely announce, “We’ve been attacked by Cuba! We have a right to defend ourselves and so we’re invading Cuba and effecting regime change there.”

Oh, by the way, the plan called for innocent Americans to be killed so that the American people would be less likely to ask questions and to blindly support a military invasion to remove a communist threat to U.S. “national security” that was supposedly emanating from Cuba. Yes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were actually willing to sacrifice innocent Americans to concoct a false and fraudulent excuse to go to war against  Cuba, a war that undoubtedly would have taken the lives of thousands of U.S. and Cuban soldiers and Cuban citizens.

To Kennedy’s everlasting credit, he summarily rejected Operation Northwoods and refused to invade Cuba, a country that had never attacked the United States.

And then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, which the military and the CIA believed constituted a victory for the Soviet Union and a humiliating loss for the United States. After all, as the national-security establishment pointed out, in the deal that Kennedy made with Soviet
leader Khrushchev, Kennedy promised that the United States would not invade Cuba if the Soviets withdrew their missiles. So, the Soviets actually got what they wanted out of the crisis. Moreover, the Soviets also secured a secret agreement from Kennedy to remove U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey that were aimed at the Soviet Union.

While we should be eternally grateful to Kennedy for working out a deal that prevented all-out nuclear war, that’s not the way the military and the CIA saw it. They saw it as the supreme betrayal on the part of the president toward Cuban exiles, the Cuban people, the American people, and to the entire national-security establishment whose mission, as they saw it, was to protect “national security” from the communists. By leaving a permanent communist outpost 90 miles away from American shores, military and CIA officials were firmly convinced that Kennedy had left intact a grave threat to “national security” pointed directly toward the United States.

By this time, Kennedy had achieved the same breakthrough about the grave danger that the military-industrial complex posed to our very own country, a point that President Eisenhower had made in his remarkable Farewell Address and the same breakthrough that former President Truman had reached about the CIA having become a sinister force in America’s governmental structure, as reflected in his Washington Post op-ed published a month after the Kennedy assassination. Kennedy’s breakthrough regarding the Cold War and America’s national-security state apparatus was reflected in his famous Peace Speech at American University five months before he was assassinated.

The last straw was Kennedy’s attempt to end the Cold War and the embargo against Cuba through secret negotiations with Khrushchev and Castro, negotiations in which he totally ignored and circumvented his national-security establishment.

Of course, the dramatically different direction that Kennedy was taking America came to a screeching halt on November 22, 1963. As we all know, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, immediately restored the old Cold War direction. That included a termination of the secret negotiations between Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro to end the Cold War and to dismantle the U.S. embargo against Cuba. While Johnson refused to give the national-security establishment its much-desired invasion of Cuba, he did give them their war in Vietnam.

We’ll hear much of this same sort of Cold War tripe in the months ahead, as the debate over lifting the embargo gets going. What the Cold War dead-enders will fail to tell us is why they don’t take the same position toward Vietnam and China that they do against Cuba.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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