Bobby Kennedy’s Obsession with Combatting Communist Cuba  

A new biography of Bobby Kennedy documents his obsession with Communist Cuba while he served as U.S. Attorney General in the administration of his brother, President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963).[1]

Background

Bobby’s obsession was fueled by the anti-communism of his father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, a successful Boston businessman, Ambassador to Great Britain for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and later financial contributor to the campaign war chests of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy., the noted anti-communist. This in turn led to Bobby’s working for seven and a half months in 1953 as an aide to McCarthy and to a personal connection between the two men that lasted until McCarthy’s funeral in 1957. According to the biographer, “the early Bobby Kennedy embraced the overheated anticommunism of the 1950s and openly disdained liberals.” (Ch. 1.) [2]

The Bay of Pigs Invasion

Although Bobby “had played little part in planning or executing the [unsuccessful] Bay of Pigs raid” in April 1961, immediately thereafter he sought to do “whatever was needed to protect his brother’s [political] flank.” The President put him second-in-charge of the Cuba Study Group to determine what had gone wrong, and over six weeks Bobby and the three others on the committee focused on flawed tactics and slack bureaucracy, not the goals and ethics, of the invasion. Afterwards the President redoubled his engagement in the Cold War while not fully trusting his generals and spies. (Pp. 240-46.)

“Operation Mongoose”

As a result of that review, Bobby concluded that “that son of a bitch [Fidel] has to go” and became the de facto man in charge of the CIA’s “Operation Mongoose” to conduct a clandestine war against Fidel and Cuba. This Operation had 600 CIA agents and nearly 5,000 contract workers and a Miami station with its own polygraph teams, gas station and warehouse stocked with machine guns, caskets and other things plus a secret flotilla of yachts, fishing craft, speedboats and other vessels. It conducted paramilitary missions on the island, including the demolition of a Cuban railroad bridge. This Operation was based, says the biographer, on the flawed premises that the “Cuban problem [was] the top priority of the [U.S.] Government—all else is secondary—no time, money, effort or manpower is to be spared,” that “the Cuban population would rally to the anti-Castro cause” and that the U.S. secret army of Cuban exiles could “vanquish anybody.” (Pp. 247-52.)

The Operation planned and tried to execute plans to kill Fidel. Afterwards Richard Helms, then the CIA’s director of clandestine operations, observed that Bobby had stated, “Castro’s removal from office and a change in government in Cuba were then the primary foreign policy objectives” of the administration. (Id.)

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Fidel and the Soviet Union were aware of this supposed secret U.S. operation and convinced “Khrushchev he was doing the right thing by installing [Soviet] missiles” in Cuba in the summer of 1962. (P. 251.)

During the start of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, Bobby doubted whether an air strike on the missiles on the island would be enough and pondered whether it should be followed by an all-out invasion. He also suggested staging an incident at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay by sinking a U.S. ship akin to the sinking of the Maine that was the excuse for the U.S. entry into the Cuban war of independence in the late 19th century. (Pp. 263-66.)

After the President had decided on a blockade of the island, Bobby rallied support for that effort, but 10 days later he wondered whether it would be better to knock out the missiles with a U.S. air attack. (Pp. 264-66.)

Later the President and Bobby decided to accept Khrushchev’s demand for the U.S. to remove its missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviets’ removal of its missiles in Cuba while the U.S. part of this deal was kept secret. (Pp. 267-69.)

Aftermath

After the crisis was over, the U.S. eventually discovered that the threat from Cuba was greater than perceived at the time. The Soviets had more missiles with greater capability to take out short-range targets like Guantanamo Bay plus long-range ones like New York City. The Soviets also had 43,000 troops on the island, not the 10,000 the U.S. had thought. The Soviets also had on the island lightweight rocket launchers to repel any attacks with nuclear weapons. And the Soviet submarines in the region had nuclear-tipped torpedoes with authorizations to be used if war broke out. Moreover, Fidel at the time had encouraged Khrushchev to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S. in the event of an U.S. invasion of the island. (Pp. 272-73.)[3]

In any event, in April 1963 Bobby commissioned three studies: (1) possible U.S. responses to the death of Fidel or the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane; (2) a program to overthrow Fidel in 18 months; and (3) ways to “cause as much trouble as we can for Communist Cuba.” (Pp. 275-76.)[4]

Bobby subsequently wrote a memoir of the crisis that was intended for publication in 1968 as part of his campaign for the presidential nomination, but that did not happen because of his assassination that year. Instead it was posthumously published in 1969.[5] The biographer, Larry Tye, concludes that this memoir was untruthful in many details and was intended, for political purposes, as “a fundamentally self-serving account that casts him as the champion dove . . . rather than the unrelenting hawk he actually was through much of [the crisis].” The “biggest deceit’ of the book, again according to Nye, was “the failure to admit that the Soviet buildup [in Cuba] was a predictable response to [the] American aggression [of the previously mentioned Bay of Pigs invasion and Operation Mongoose].” (P. 239.)

Nevertheless, the biographer concludes that during the missile crisis Bobby “drew on his skills as an interrogator and listener to recognize the best ideas” offered by others and “ensured that the president heard the full spectrum of views” of those officials. In addition, Bobby was effective as an intermediary with the Soviet Ambassador. (P. 270.) Finally, the crisis helped to mature Bobby. He slowly saw “that a leader could be tough without being bellicose, [found] . . . his [own] voice on foreign affairs . . . and [stepped] out of his brother’s long shadow.” (P. 282.)

Conclusion

In the summer of 1960, through an internship from Grinnell College, I was an assistant to the Chair of the Democratic Party of Iowa and, therefore, was thrilled with John F. Kennedy’s election as president.[6]

Cuba, however, at that time was not high on my list of priorities and I was not knowledgeable about U.S.-Cuba issues. Thus, in April 1961 I have no memory of the Bay of Pigs debacle in the last semester of my senior year at Grinnell.

In October 1962 my ignorance of U.S.-Cuba issues continued during the start of my second year at Oxford University as the Cuban missile crisis unfolded. But I do recall listening to radio reports of these events and wondering whether they would lead to my being drafted and forced to return to the U.S. for military service. That, however, never happened.[7]

My interest in Cuba only began in 2001 when I was on the Cuba Task Force at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church to explore whether and how our church could be involved with Cuba. The result was our establishment in 2002 of partnerships with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of the island and with its national denomination. Thereafter I went on three mission trips to Cuba and started to learn about the history of U.S.-Cuba relations, to follow the current news on that subject and to become an advocate for normalization and reconciliation of our two peoples.[8]

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[1] Larry Tye, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, Ch. 6 (Random House, New York, 2016).

[2] There are seven blog posts about Joseph Welch, the attorney for the U.S. Army in the McCarthy-Army hearings of 1954, that are listed in Posts to dwkcommentarires—Topical: UNITED STATES (HISTORY).

[3] The Cuban missile crisis has been the subject of the following posts to dwkcommetaries.com: Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev’s Messages During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (Sept. 5, 2016); Conflicting Opinions Regarding the Relative Strength of U.S. and Soviet Missiles, 1960-1962 (Nov. 2, 2016); Fidel Castro’s Disingenuous Criticism of President Obama Over Nuclear Weapons (Aug. 15, 2016).

[4] After Bobby’s 1964 resignation as Attorney General, there apparently also was a 1966 CIA operation to assassinate Fidel. (See Covert CIA 1966 Operation To Assassinate Fidel Castro?, dwkcommentaries.com (May 30, 2016).)

[5] Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (W.F. Norton & Co., New York, 1969).

[6] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: My Grinnell College Years (Aug. Aug. 27, 2011); Encounters with Candidates JFK and LBJ (Apr. 16, 2011).

[7] Another post to dwkcommentaries.com: My Oxford University Years (Aug. 30, 2011).

[8] My many posts about Cuba are collected in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

 

Langston Hughes’ Poem Sung at Minneapolis Westminster Church

On Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday (January 15) Cantus, a male vocal ensemble, sang ‘America Will Be!” as the Offertory Anthem at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The text of the anthem was Langston Hughes’ powerful poem, “Let America Be America Again” with music by Paul J. Ridoi, composer and a tenor vocalist with Cantus.[1]

Afterwards I discovered the actual title of the poem, retrieved and read and re-read the words of the poem and conducted Internet research about the poem and Hughes and after reflection came to powerful conclusions about the poem.

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes

First, Hughes (1902-1967), an African-American, was a poet, novelist and author and an important participant in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. He flirted with communism, but never became a member of the Party, and as a result in the 1950’s was subpoenaed by a Senate committee led by Joseph McCarthy, which was portrayed in a play at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.[2]

Second, the poem was written in 1935 in the midst of The Great Depression and originally published in the July 1936 issue of Esquire Magazine.

As another commentator said, the poem speaks of the American dream that never existed for blacks and lower-class Americans and the freedom and equality that they and every immigrant hoped for but never achieved. The poem besides criticizing their unfair life in America conveys a sense of hope or call to action to make the American Dream soon come.[3]

Third, the actual text of the poem is the following:

“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!”

Fourth, the poem’s first three stanzas (minus the first three parenthetical statements) open with a common statement of the American Dream. But it soon becomes apparent the poet speaks for those who are left out of that Dream.

That certainly includes all members of his own race—blacks– who have been repressed and disadvantaged by the Great Depression: “American never was America to me . . . It never was America for me . . . There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free,’ . . . I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars, . . . I am the Negro, servant to you all . . . And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came . . . The land that’s mine–… Negro’s, ME.”

But the poet also speaks for others who are similarly repressed and disadvantaged—(a) “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart;” (b) “I am the red man driven from the land;” (c) “I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek;” (d) “I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that endless chain Of profit, power, pain, of grab the Land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!” (e) I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil;” (f) “I am the worker sold to the machine.” (g) “I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today;” (h) “I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years;” (i) “I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea;” (j) one of “the millions on relief today, the millions shot down when we strike, the millions who have nothing for our pay;” and (k) “the land That’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s.”

Yet all of these now repressed and disadvantaged people are the ones “who dreamt our basic dream . . . to build a ‘homeland of the free. . . who “made America.”

The poem’s opening lines by using the passive verb “let” suggests that the desired changes in America will just happen by some outside forces. The concluding lines of the poem, however, reject that interpretation and instead become a call to action by the repressed and disadvantaged: who “Must bring back our mighty dream again . . . We must take back our land again, America! . . . And yet I swear this oath—America will be! . . . We the people must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain—All, all the stretch of those great green states—And make America great again!”

I especially invite comments from those who have studied Hughes’ life and works more extensively than I have.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and a video recording of the service are online.

[2] Langston Hughes BiographyLangston Hughes, Wikipedia; U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Encounters Langston Hughes at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2012).

[3] Poem, Let America Be America Again, PoemHunter.com; Let America be America Again, Wikipedia. The title of this poem was used in a 2004 presidential campaign song by John Kerry, then a U.S. Senator. I will resist the temptation to wonder whether Donald Trump’s incessant campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was drawn from this poem. I doubt it, and Hughes, I am confident, would be appalled at any such use of his words.

 

 

Adventures of a History Detective

Ever since my high school days in the 1950’s, U.S. politics, law and history have fascinated me. From the start, I was passionate about civil liberties, especially freedom of speech.

Joe Welch & Joe McCarthy

This interest was sparked by watching the Army-McCarthy hearings on my parents’ new TV set in the spring of 1954. The hearings were high drama, and the lawyer for the Army, Joe Welch, was a charming Bostonian, so I thought. I was appalled by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attacks on civil liberties and free speech and thrilled by Welch’s courageous defense against McCarthyism.

Three years later, in the fall of 1957, my freshman year at Grinnell College, I discovered that Welch in fact was from an even smaller Iowa town (Primghar) than mine (Perry) and that he was a Grinnell graduate, Class of 1914. I learned this when I heard Welch speak at the College’s Convocation “American Culture at Mid-Century.” But I was too timid as a first-semester freshman to speak to Welch directly.

Burling Library Grinnell College
Edward B. Burling

In 1959, the College’s new library was being built and was named “the Burling Library.” A substantial amount of the funds for the building was donated by another Grinnell graduate and lawyer from another small Iowa town (Eldora), Edward Burling (Class of 1890). While attending American University that Fall on the Washington Semester Program, I met Mr. Burling at his office to thank him for the new library. After an interesting conversation, he invited me to a Sunday afternoon at his cabin on the Potomac River. Little did I know at the time that such a Sunday afternoon had become a famous Washington institution. I do not recall our conversation that day, but I do remember how Burling, then 89 years old in a wool plaid shirt, vigorously chopped wood on a beautiful fall afternoon.

As I continued my education and started my own career as a lawyer, I had no time to do anything about my interest in these two men. But in the spring of 1982 I took a sabbatical leave from my law firm to teach a course about law at the College. In my spare time I examined materials about Welch and Burling in the College Archives. (See Post: A Sabbatical Leave from Lawyering (May 26, 2011).)

Somehow I learned that the Boston Public Library had a collection of Welch papers, and while on a business trip to Boston in 1985 I had spare time to examine those papers. This was my first digging into original historical documents, and I was thrilled to be touching and reading such documents and attempting to make sense of them. (This was more fun, I thought, than my more common project of reviewing documents produced by an adversary in a civil lawsuit by “A” against “B” to recover a substantial sum of money.) Among the interesting documents in the Welch collection were letters between Welch and Burling after the conclusion of the Army-McCarthy hearings that were discussed in my paper about Burling, which was excerpted in The Grinnell Magazine (Edward Burnham Burling: Grinnell’s Quiet Benefactor (Summer 2009)).

I returned to Boston in the summer of 1986 to attend the Harvard Law School’s Summer Program for Lawyers. While there, I visited the Boston offices of Hale and Dorr, Welch’s former law firm, and interviewed Fred Fisher, the lawyer who had been attacked by Senator McCarthy, and James St. Clair, the lawyer who assisted Welch in the Army-McCarthy hearings and who later represented President Nixon in the litigation over the White House tapes. I also searched the Harvard Law School Library and found references to Welch in some of its collections of papers regarding the Sacco-Vanzetti case, which was discussed in my paper about Welch, which also was excerpted in The Grinnell Magazine (Good Night, and Good Luck: The Movie’s Offstage Hero, Joseph Welch (Summer 2006)).

I also discovered in Harvard’s collection of the papers of Learned Hand, an eminent federal judge and one of my legal heroes, that he and Burling had been law school contemporaries and life-long friends. This spurred my interest in Burling as I read the extensive correspondence between them, another topic of my paper about Burling.

While in the Boston-area that summer I also visited the Kennedy Presidential Library, but failed to find any documents about Welch in the papers of Robert Kennedy, who had been a lawyer for the McCarthy committee in 1954. The time at the Library, however, was not wasted when I found oral history interview transcripts of two men that I knew.

  • Donald “Duke” Norberg had been the Chairman of Iowa’s Democratic Central Committee, for whom I had worked in the summer of 1960 on a Grinnell Program in Practical Politics grant. I fondly recall seeing then Senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in Des Moines to woo the Iowa delegates before the Los Angeles Democratic Party’s presidential nominating convention.
  • Frank Coffin had been a Democratic Congressman from Maine who was defeated in his run for Governor of Maine in 1960 because of the anti-Catholic vote prompted by JFK’s being the presidential candidate. Coffin recalled President Kennedy’s introducing him to Jackie Kennedy at an inaugural ball as the man whom Kennedy had pulled down to defeat. In the Kennedy Administration Coffin was in charge of the U.S. Agency for International Development and later was appointed as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. (I had met Coffin in the early 1980’s when we both were on the University of Chicago Law School’s Visiting Committee, and in 1984 Judge Coffin participated in a liberal arts seminar for lawyers that I organized at the College.)

When I returned those transcripts to the library desk, I noticed a transcript of an interview of Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly), and a brief glance revealed an account of her fatalistic view of history.

This research prompted a request to a law school classmate and friend at Covington & Burling, the Washington, D.C. law firm started by Mr. Burling, for additional information about him, and my friend sent me a copy of the firm’s history. I also have been assisted in my research by another Grinnellian, James Burling (Class of 1972), who is not related to “my” Burling, but who is a partner in Welch’s law firm, Hale and Dorr.When I retired from the active practice of law in the summer of 2001, one of my future projects was to review all of the information that I had gathered and write articles about the two gentlemen, and I mentioned this project in an essay about retirement that was posted on the Internet by another law school friend as part of materials for a lawyers’ seminar.

In 2005 I was inspired to finish these papers when I received a totally unexpected call from Professor Roger Newman, the biographer of Hugo Black and a member of the faculty of Columbia University. Newman said that he was the editor of the forthcoming Yale Biographic Dictionary of American Law and asked if I would be interested in writing short biographies of Welch and Burling for that book. Newman said he had discovered my interest in these men from the just mentioned essay on the Internet. I said that I would be glad to do so and retrieved my materials, did additional research and wrote the two 500-word biographies. (This Biographic Dictionary, which was published in 2009 by Yale University Press, was the first single-volume containing concise biographies of the most eminent men and women in the history of American law who have devised, replenished, expounded, and explained law. See Yale University Press, The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law (ISBN 978-0-300-11300-6), http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300113006.)

These sketches, however, barely scratched the surface of what I wanted to say about Welch and Burling. As a result, I did additional research, including examination of several collections of original papers at the Library of Congress. While I was spooling through microfilm of the papers of Felix Frankfurter, I came across his file of correspondence with Albert Einstein. I paused and saw Einstein letters auf Deutsch in small, precise handwriting.

Two other subjects of my history detective adventures are more personal. My maternal great-great grandfather, Charles Edwin Brown, was a Baptist missionary to the Iowa Territory and then the State of Iowa from 1842 until the late 1800’s. One of his sons and my great-uncle, William Carlos or “W.C.” Brown, started working on the railroad as a section hand at age 16 and worked his way up the corporate ladders to become president of the New York Central Railroad in the early 20th century. I have done some research on their lives and written essays about them.

I have not been in a position to even attempt to research all the original and secondary sources and to write complete biographies of these men, but my work on much shorter articles made me realize and appreciate the work that has to be done to produce a major biography of a historical figure such as the one of Andrew Carnegie by my Grinnell History Professor, Joe Wall.

Although I was a history major at the College, I did not do any independent historical research or paper and instead obtained a good background in European and American history. Because I did not do any independent paper, I did not learn historical research methodology at the College, a lacuna I now regret.

Instead, I learned such techniques from being a litigation lawyer. Defining the problem or issue was the first task. You then develop an ever evolving plan to gather relevant evidence or original sources. You start with the documents and interviews of your client. They suggest other possible sources. Library (and now Internet) research provides more information and leads. They are pursued with other research and interviews using publicly available information plus information available through the formal discovery process under the rules of civil procedure. The lawyer also has the right and opportunity to compel witnesses to be examined under oath for further information. (Historians do not have this advantage.) All of the resulting information has to be evaluated for admissibility into evidence and to be synthesized into a hopefully persuasive story as to why your client should win the case.

I enjoy this investigative process, whether as a lawyer or as a history detective. There is the thrill of  the hunt for original papers about my subjects and being so easily diverted by coming across things like the Frankfurter-Einstein correspondence and the Grace Kelly oral history interview. I also enjoy the challenge of putting all of the pieces of research into a good story and writing it all down on paper. Through all of this lies an interest in finding out what happened.

My work as a lawyer and as a history detective has made me somewhat nostalgic for one “road not taken:” continuing my work as a history major into graduate school and becoming a historian.