War Stories

When Castro Met Nixon

Fidel charmed Americans in a 1959 visit, but U.S.­–Cuba relations were always doomed.

Fidel Castro 1959.
Fidel Castro during a visit to Washington in April 1959.

U.S. Department of State

As President Obama tours Havana, seeking ways to expand trade, diplomacy, and freedom in the newly reopened avenues between the United States and Cuba, it’s worth recalling how those paths were closed off more than a half-century ago.

It was New Year’s Day 1959 when Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army marched into the Cuban capital, just hours after dictator Fulgencio Batista fled under siege—and in the beginning, relations with Washington were good. At the urgings of the U.S. ambassador and the CIA station chief, who’d both loathed Batista, President Dwight Eisenhower formally recognized Castro’s revolutionary government—making America the second nation, after Venezuela, to do so.

Three months later, in April, an energetic Castro—31, decked in a scruffy beard and green army fatigues—flew to the States and made a wildly good impression. In Washington, he strolled along the National Mall, eating ice cream cones, kissing babies, signing autographs, waving to students on buses, and chatting in heavily accented but fluent English with anyone who approached.

In New York, he lunched with Wall Street bankers, fed a Bengal tiger at the Bronx Zoo, and spoke before 30,000 people at a nighttime rally in Central Park. In Houston, he accepted a blue-blooded quarter horse as a gift and granted oilman Frank Water the rights to make a movie about the revolution. (Water wanted to cast Marlon Brando as Castro and Frank Sinatra as his brother, Raul. The movie never got made.)

In a meeting at the Capitol, with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Castro said, “We have no interest in expropriating U.S. property.” He waved away questions about the Communists in his government, saying, “Their influence is nothing.” Pressed about his Cabinet’s firing squads, which had executed 521 people so far, he insisted that the men shot were “war criminals” and promised that Cuba would soon have a free press and, within four years, free elections.

A New York Times editorial proclaimed, “This young man is larger than life.” The Times reporter who covered his visit wrote that even skeptics were “dazed.” Castro, he rhapsodized, had swept into the country “not only out of another world, the world of fierce Latin passion, but also out of another century—the century of Sam Adams and Patrick Henry and Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps,” he went on, “because he stirred memories, long dimmed, of a revolutionary past and recalled a new order once deeply felt. (‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven’) Fidel Castro succeeded in achieving a suspension of disbelief—at least partial and temporary.”

The suspension did not last long. Even while Castro was drawing huge crowds in the United States, the Times’ Havana correspondent was reporting that Communists were organizing in every Cuban town and infiltrating every trade union. The report reflected a dispatch that the U.S. Embassy had sent the day before Castro’s trip. Even so, the ambassador, Philip Bonsal, concluded in the dispatch that “many opportunities” remained for “discreetly influencing Castro” and suggested giving him more time to straighten out Cuba’s problems “before unlimbering our artillery.”

President Eisenhower made a point of being away, playing golf in Augusta, Georgia, for all five days that Castro was in Washington. But Vice President Richard Nixon met with the Cuban leader for 2½ hours on a Sunday afternoon at his office inside the Capitol. In a summary of his conversation, Nixon noted Castro’s impressive charms but added that he was “either incredibly naïve about Communism or under Communist discipline—my guess is the former”—and that his ideas about government and economics were “less developed than those of almost any world figure I have met in 50 countries.” Still, Nixon wrote, “he has the power to lead,” so “we have no choice but to try to orient him in the right direction.”

Nixon’s notion of “the right direction”—which coincided with that of every other U.S. official—meant aligning with the West in the Cold War struggle against Communism, keeping doors wide open to foreign investors, and taking loans from the International Monetary Fund in exchange for maintaining a free-market economy and strict fiscal discipline.

This was a direction that Castro had no intention of going. Batista had been a puppet of American interests, and a central tenet of Castro’s revolution involved cutting those strings. The very hope that Castro inspired, even among many people in the West—that a country in the Caribbean might stay unaligned to either superpower—was a source of deep worry to American officials. In one memo, Ambassador Bonsal wrung his hands over Castro’s “benevolent tolerance” toward Communism. The State Department’s top regional specialist warned of Castro’s tendency toward “nationalistic neutralism, which the Communist will exploit to the fullest.”

Back in March, a month before his visit to the States, Castro had seized the U.S.-owned Cuba Telephone Company. In May, two weeks after his return, he signed the Agrarian Reform Law, which expropriated foreign-owned property and barred foreign businesses unless they turned over shares to Cubans.

Amid these concerns, the Sugar Act was coming up for renewal in Congress. This law, passed during Batista’s reign, guaranteed that 70 percent of America’s sugar imports would come from Cuba. On June 1, an interagency group of officials met to discuss the issue. Some noted that U.S. companies had $9 billion invested in Latin America. Every country in the hemisphere was waiting to see how Washington would react to Cuba’s expropriations; tolerance might endanger corporate holdings in those other countries as well. The officials advised Eisenhower not to ask Congress for a renewal of the law.

It didn’t take long for Castro to feel the noose tightening. Cuba had few resources besides sugar and little hard currency to buy much else. He’d sent Che Guevara to Asia and Africa in search of economic aid from the “nonaligned” nations, but to no avail.

Already his government had begun to tilt toward the Soviet Union.

The same month that Fidel flew to Washington, Raul sent an aide to Moscow to ask for help in creating a Marxist-Leninist cadre within the Cuban army. The Kremlin dispatched a regiment of former officers who’d fought in the Spanish Civil War. In October 1959, a senior KGB agent visited Cuba to discuss supplying the island with money and weapons. Soon after, Fidel put Raul in charge of a new Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces, which prompted a spate of defections from Cuban officers, who, upon arriving in America, confirmed intelligence reports about Havana’s new relationship with the Soviet Union.

Finally, in November, the Eisenhower administration drew up secret plans to overthrow the Cuban government, a move that would entail assassinating Castro. CIA Director Allen Dulles argued that no successor would enjoy “the same mesmeric appeal” and that, therefore, Fidel’s demise “would greatly accelerate” the regime’s collapse. (As the Church Committee revealed in the 1970s, the CIA, sometimes using the Mafia as an intermediary, tried unsuccessfully to murder Castro several times.)

In August 1960, Castro seized $750 million worth of American-owned properties in a single day, justifying the move as retaliation for U.S. “economic aggression,” and announced that he was accepting assistance from the Soviet Union and other Communist nations “with gratitude.”

The following month, Castro visited New York again, for a session of the U.N. General Assembly. This time there were no casual strolls, no rhapsodic editorials. He and his entourage stayed not at a nice Midtown hotel but at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, where he held one-on-one sessions not with State Department officials or mainstream reporters but with Malcolm X and the neighborhood’s black newspapers. At the U.N., Castro rose and cheered vigorously when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev entered the chamber. Khrushchev in turn greeted Castro with a bear hug.

And so began the cycle that culminated, over the next few years, with some of the most dangerous crises of the 1960s, including the U.S. invasion at the Bay of Pigs and the Soviet–American standoff over nuclear missiles that nearly triggered World War III.

Much of this was probably inevitable, and in this sense it’s beside the point to speculate whether Fidel had always been a Communist or when he became one, or whether things might have gone differently if Eisenhower had met with him in the spring of 1959. Given the nature of his revolution, Castro could not have caved in to U.S. corporate interests or followed the IMF rulebook. Given the nature of midcentury American foreign policy, no president would have tolerated such a revolution so close to home. Given Cuba’s scarce resources and its inability to survive on its own, Castro would have had to align with some larger power. And given the hardening of the world into two hostile blocs, the Soviet Union was bound to be that power. Whatever Castro’s initial motives, he inescapably found himself boxed in in a global game beyond any small nation’s control.

This dynamic was already winding down when the Cold War ended in 1989 and the Soviet Union imploded two years later. The United States perpetuated the lockdown for another quarter-century only because of Florida’s potentially crucial 29 electoral votes, which often swung on the preferences of the state’s large and influential community of Cuban exiles.

Obama is the first president to recognize—and to act on—the fact that many of the original exiles have passed away; that their children and grandchildren are less hostile to the idea of rekindling relations; that possibilities abound for American investment (especially given that the Cuban economy is, in many ways, frozen in a late-1950s time capsule); and that by re-opening its gates to the world, Cuba might let in Western culture and values, regardless of whether the Castro brothers want this to happen.

There are still obstacles, not least the Castros themselves, who are often stuck in their old ways and views, even if the U.S. government, Cuban exiles, and many of their own people aren’t. There are also still many issues to resolve: over compensation for seized assets, rights of foreign investors, the status of Guantanamo, and more.

It will take years to sort this out; it may require the passing of the Castros to begin a serious discussion. But Obama and his aides are wise to calculate that, even if their hopeful scenarios are too rosy, it makes no sense to keep the door to the island shut when every other country is moving in and out and when Cuba no longer poses the slightest threat to American security.

Much of this is adapted from 1959: The Year Everything Changed © Fred Kaplan.