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      The Assassination, JFK, and Cuba

      President Kennedy's Last Trip to Miami, November 18, 1963 (Photo: Miami Herald)[Draft: Circulation Permitted; Not for Publication. This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book on the Cuban Revolution and the New Left, by Tom Hayden]


      When the murder of President John F. Kennedy was announced, as my plane to Minneapolis was landing, a young man behind me wearing a Goldwater button leaped up and cheered. He quickly returned to his seat amidst stony silence. I deboarded long enough to make contact with some waiting student contacts, turned around as quickly as possible, flew back to Detroit, and then spent several days huddled with close friends in Ann Arbor. One year before, the Cuban missile crisis had turned life upside down. Now, the assassination became a second unthinkable catastrophe, and once again the subject of Cuba was in the air.

      Within minutes, allegations were swirling that the shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, was aligned with Fair Play for Cuba and a former defector to the Soviet Union. In the confusion, rumors spread that he was connected to SDS as well. Nightmares of sudden war and domestic roundups flashed through my mind. I was twenty-three. Ricardo Alarcon, then the youngest member of the Cuban foreign ministry staff, was twenty-six.

      I remember being stoic, even cold, trying hard to concentrate and hold onto my mind, as my assumptions all lay shattered again. (Later, when Bobby was killed, I broke down, wept and rushed to stand vigil at his coffin). In the days after JFK's killing, I braced for a knocks on the door, round ups, maybe bullets through the window. The SDS staff in New York tore through our national membership files and correspondence. No Oswald. Phone lines burned with long-distance questions, speculation, and suggestions.

      Shortly a narrative, familiar to us from the South, took shape in the national media. Oswald was "definitely" a lone crackpot, not a conspirator. Yes, he was a communist, and yes, he visited the Cuban embassy in Mexico, and yes, he had returned from Russia with his wife, Marina. This framing of Oswald rested uneasily between two rival speculations; first, that he was a Soviet and Cuban agent and, second, that he was an agent of our own, who killed the president we were coming to respect, for hidden reasons of state. Either way, Cuba was involved again at the center of a global crisis, either as suspected provocateur or as scapegoat to be wiped from the sea.

      History shows that the slightest confirmation of a Cuban hand, alone or in league with Moscow, could have triggered global war. For that reason, apparently, the Johnson administration moved quickly to unite the country around the manufactured tale of Oswald acting alone. Rumors of Mafia involvement, perhaps out of rage at Kennedy's crackdown on the mob, Kennedy's "loss" of the Cuban casinos, perhaps in dark alliance with the Cuban exiles, were pushed off the public radar too.

      No matter what the ultimate truth, the truth was covered up - for the following fifty years. Even today, millions of files at the National Archive contain redactions that won't be unsealed until 2017. Over one thousand records, each of them 1-20 pages in length, are held from release by the Assassinations Records Review Board [ARRB]. Additionally, unknown numbers of Warren Commission documents are buried in the National Archive. Perhaps most interested are the CIA's 295 "Joannides files" sought by reporters and researchers for decades without result.

      George E. Joannides was the CIA case officer who secretly organized, directed and funded, at $50,000 a month, an anti-Castro Directorio Revolucionario Estudentil (DRE), not Ricardo's revolutionary student movement. 

      He relayed, “It was another thing completely unrelated to the DR 13 de marzo. It was organized at Havana University by some right wing students who tried to take the name which has had a very strong tradition, not only during the struggle against Batista but before, against Machado.”

      Revealing a general lack of popular support inside Cuba, Joannides tried to carry out the counter-revolution in the name of one of the oldest revolutionary groups in Cuba.  According to Jefferson Morley, whom I interviewed in 2013, "They had some support in Havana in 1959 but wouldn't support the revolution, even from within, so they moved to Miami where the CIA picked them up as articulate young people."[1] The group, whose plain purpose was to overthrow Fidel, had a membership of some 2,000 who were deployed to the US, Latin America, and international student conference to battle the Cuban communists. The Greek-born Joannides was transferred from Athens to the Miami station by 1963, where he managed the DRE. Joannides was titled the Miami deputy director of psychological warfare operations, code-named JM/WAVE.  

      The CIA was forced to acknowledge in federal court that in August 1963 Oswald paid a friendly visit to the Directorio office in New Orleans only to be seen a few days later handing out pro-Cuba literature. Abrawl and a radio confrontation ensued between Oswald and the New Orleans DRE. Oswald appeared to be playing a double role. According to the New York Times, "speculation about who might have been behind [Oswald] has never ended, with various theories focusing on Mr. Castro, the mob, rogue government agents or myriad combinations of the above.'[2] Clearly, Morley told me, "Oswald was engaging in provocateur behavior, offering to go fight in Cuba, mentioning his Marine experience, then turning around with the pro-Cuba leaflets. That kind of political agitation is exactly what the CIA was paying the DRE to do."

      When I asked Morley if he thought Oswald was working on someone's agenda or was nuts, he answered, "Those are the choices." Morley's 2003 federal lawsuit charged that Joannnides had secretly financed Cuban exiles that gathered intelligence on Oswald three months before the Kennedy assassination. When Kennedy died, it was claimed, Joannides used CIA funds to help two anti-Castro militants to escape the US for Central America.[3]

      Then Joannides' historic role was elevated in 1978 when the CIA called him out of retirement and named him the agency's liaison to the US House Select Committee on Assassinations, all while blindsiding the legislators about Joannides' previous role of running secret operations for a violently anti-Castro organization.[4] In the same disclosure, the CIA refused to release the 295 specific documents concerning Joannides’ background. Morley believes those are only administrative personnel files, not documents disclosing his career in CIA operations. In 2013, the CIA made an "amazing concession", Morley says, when the agency for the first time acknowledged that Joannides had a residence in New Orleans in the early 1960s, when Oswald and the DRE militants were skirmishing. "For thirty years they said he wasn't ever near New Orleans. Now there's powerful evidence that he knew what was going on."  

      Joannides went back to Athens in 1964-68, where he participated in the military coup, then to Saigon in 1969-70 where he reunited with his original Miami station chief, Theodore Schackley. After his cover held in the House assassination hearings, he faded into the shadows until dying in 1990 at 68. His obituary identified him only as a "lawyer for the Defense Department" - "so he took the cover story right to the grave," Morley says. 

      This story, however incomplete, pierces one of the confusing issues about November 22, leading to one demand and one speculation based on evidence. The demand should be for full disclosure of the CIA documents still held under seal, most of which may never be released in the lifetimes of anyone in the generation for whom the assassination was a pivotal trauma. There can be no "national security" claims to those documents after fifty years. Plainly the secret-keepers intend to contain and dilute the potential reaction to those documents until later generations.  In a similar way, the 1865 killing of President Lincoln by a Confederate-based conspiracy was framed as the irrational deed of a deranged actor, not a conspiracy to defeat the Union and block Reconstruction. The purpose of the first Lincoln murder inquests, like the Warren Commission report, was to prevent a violent polarization within an already divided nation.[5]

      Second, the unreleased Joannides' file shows the CIA's intention to control the narrative of the Kennedy assassination in a way which kept secret the CIA's role - and that of the Kennedys - in official plots to assassinate Fidel and destroy the Cuban revolution, from injecting lethal poisons in his food and drink to burning of cane fields and oil refineries. Many believe the official "lone assassin" theory was designed to deflect attention away from the labyrinths of the CIA and its sketchy connections with the Cuban exile and Mafia elements who felt betrayed by Kennedy's failed invasion and investigation of organized crime.

      There was no evidence of an invisible Cuban hand, according to the White House, the Warren Commission and two congressional investigations.

      After all, why would Fidel and the Cuban intelligence services, who deployed spies effectively in the Miami, Tampa and New Orleans exile communities, carry out an execution of Kennedy, when the certain response would be the destruction of Cuba amidst a wider conflagration? Not that Fidel lacked cause; he later provided Sen. George McGovern evidence of more that twenty schemes to kill him.[6] However vengeful his state of mind, his constant purpose was to repel an invasion from the superpower to his North, not take steps that would guarantee annihilation. And why would the Cuban government take seriously an isolated ex-Marine and ex-defector showing up at their heavily-surveilled Mexico City consulate with a plan to shoot a president whose last-minute Nov. 22 itinerary happened to take him by a six-story building where Oswald happened to have been employed before the president's plans were known?

      We know that Oswald's last words were, "I'm a patsy." Exactly whose "patsy" finally might be clarified if and when our government releases the remaining files.

      Two Tracks

      The administration traveled along two tracks in its Cuba policy, which were known in New Left thinking as repression and cooptation. We had seen the same dualism in the government's approach to the student civil rights movement, for example, when the administration tried to prevent the 1963 March on Washington while ultimately embracing the historic event. The White House did win a promise from civil rights leaders not to engage in civil disobedience[7]. In foreign policy there was a split between those wanting to apply military force, even nuclear weapons, to roll back Communism, and more rational minds satisfied with great power co-existence and the competition for hearts and minds. Towards Cuba, after the Bay of Pigs humiliation, plans were rolled out for sabotage, guerrilla war and an invasion to topple Castro. Yet there also was a growing realism in the elite, which doubted whether the Cuban revolution could be overthrown from within or without, forcing open a search for of other options. Some would argue that this duality is nothing more than the "forked tongue" of the powerful at work. It is more the nature of statecraft, however, which requires decision-makers to consider the effectiveness of multiple options at the same time. Social movements and revolutionaries face the same challenges in reverse, whether to expect and prepare for exclusion and coercion from the state; or seize on concessions or openings on offer from the establishment. The complexity is dizzying. 

      On April 21, 1963, JFK adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote a memo defining three "new initiatives" to be considered. The first two had been tried before: to use "all necessary means" to force a "noncommunist" government on Cuba, or a decision to insist on "major but limited ends." The third option was the serious alternative being considered: "The US could move in the direction of gradual development of some form of accommodation with Castro." That June, the administration's "standing group" on Cuba decided it would be useful to examine "various possibilities of establishing channels of communication with Castro."[8]

      In the months before he was shot, the Kennedy administration was in a strategic reversal from its failed military policies towards Cuba. Many recent histories repeat essentially the same story[9] of a split between Kennedy and the CIA in 1963.  Kennedy felt obliged to continue supporting the Cuban exiles who survived the Bay of Pigs, while also quietly concluding that another invasion would not be viable. Nor would hit-and-run attacks, though he authorized more of them. Nor would there be an anti-Castro coup from within the Cuban military. Kennedy also had a political reason to maintain the anti-Castro posture; "as a shield against a political uproar in the United States."[10] Only a secretive and unorthodox approach, organized outside conventional channels, could test the possibilities. The administration had undermined its own diplomatic capacities by refusing recognition to the Castro government.

      As far back as late 1961, Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin encountered Che Guevara at the OAS summit in Punta del Este and, after a late-night confidential conversation, told the president that Che was suggesting a "modus vivendi." The notion was neither explored nor acted on, Goodwin told me years later. But now, in April 1963, word came back from Havana through ABC news anchor, Lisa Howard, that Fidel wanted to improve relations. Howard, described variously as "sexy, stylish...blond and curvy"[11], spent hours with Fidel, including sexual intimacy, on the night of April 21. She interviewed Fidel at length, and rushed back to the US where she told the president of both her affair and Fidel's peace initiative. White House hawks considered trying to block the ABC interview, one internal memo arguing that "public airing in the United States of this interview would strengthen the arguments of 'peace' groups, 'liberal' thinkers, Commies, fellow travelers, and opportunistic opponents of the present United States policy."[12] CIA director John McCone advised, "the matter be handled in the most limited and sensitive manner," and that, "no active steps be taken on the rapprochement matter at this time."[13] At this time, McCone's phrasing acknowledged that rapprochement was being considered. The Howard interview went ahead, but there the matter seemed to stall.

      Shortly after, Howard sought out William Attwood, a veteran UN diplomat and former JFK classmate at Choate. Then an assistant to UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson, Attwood seized the initiative. Encouraged by an African diplomat at the UN, Attwood succeeded in gaining Cuban support for ultra-secret exploratory talks. Fidel even offered to meet Attwood at a secret Cuban airfield, a plan the president endorsed.[14] As late as November 18, four days before JFK's assassination, Fidel approved a preliminary meeting between Attwood and Cuba's UN representative, Carlos Lechuga. On the same day, Nov. 18, Kennedy gave a major speech in Miami-Dade County on Cuba before the Inter-American Press Association aimed at pushing the secret process along. The two sides, while far apart, clearly were moving towards formal dialogue about co-existence. Interestingly, later interviews showed that both leaders were exploring the idea of accepting Fidel as "a Tito of the Caribbean."[15] On Oct. 17, Kennedy welcomed Yugoslavia's leader, Josef Broz Tito, to the White House, in a signal that the US government could be on friendly terms with a Communist and nationalist war hero who was independent of Moscow. If Tito, why not Fidel? The anger rose at Kennedy from the Cuban right who wanted no coexistence with Fidel. They objected sharply to the line inserted in Kennedy's Oct. 18 speech, which pledged to prevent "another Cuba" in the hemisphere. That language hid a de facto acceptance of the existing Cuban government in militant language against any further revolutions to come. 

      In the last weeks of his life, JFK saw Jean Daniel, the French journalist at L'Express, who was on his way to Havana to interview Fidel. Kennedy was eager to send a message that "US policy...had created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth without realizing it...Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States [and] now we shall have to pay for those sins."[16] Kennedy invited Daniel to visit the White House on his return because "Castro's reactions interest me."[17] Daniel talked with Fidel for more than four hours late one night in Havana. Fidel indicated strongly that Kennedy was someone he could have a dialogue with, because he was an "intimate enemy."[18] He also hoped that Kennedy might learn from experience to be a great president, "the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and communists."[19] 

      While the "track" of third-party diplomacy was in use, covertly, so too was the conventional one of subversion and destruction. On the very day when Daniel was conveying his message to Fidel and JFK was to die in Dallas, in Paris the CIA delivered a lethal device, disguised as a fountain pen, to a Cuban named Rolando Cubela for the assassination of Fidel. The CIA emissary, Desmond Fitzgerald, posed as a Senate friend of Bobby Kennedy, thus conveying the impression that the Kennedys wanted Fidel finished off. Cubela, whose CIA code name was AM/LASH, was a former military leader of the Cuban revolution who had turned against communism. He rejected the poison pen offer and, ultimately, nothing came of the plot.[20]

      While the evidence is clear that the Kennedy administration was engaged in such dark side adventures, the Nov. 22 meeting with AM/LASH in Paris left the Kennedy's in the dark. Years later, CIA director Richard Helms, who had been appointed under President Johnson, told Senate investigators that the Paris mission proceeded without authorization because "I [Helms] just thought this is exactly the kind of thing...he's been asking us to do, let's get on with doing it."[21] It appears in history's hindsight that the Kennedys were unleashing demons they could not control when they chose to pursue the track of realism.  

      The failure to officially recognize Cuba in any way may have caused serious obstacles for any Kennedy initiative towards normalization. The only direct contacts were essentially indirect; a casual meeting between Che and Goodwin, the encounter between Lisa Howard and Fidel, the drafting of Attwood to become involved, the suggestions of an African diplomat, the comments passed through Daniel, and so forth. Few if any in the administration had any experience with Cuba or its revolution. Their thinking was influenced heavily by the Cuban exiles and military chieftains who wanted Fidel overthrown. The Congress and the headlines at the time followed Cold War ideology in lockstep. By contrast, during the 1962 missile crisis, the Kennedys found it possible to negotiate directly, if confidentially, with the long-serving Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobryin. Though the US and Soviet Union were Cold War enemies, they exchanged ambassadors and, after the missile crisis, even a direct hot line. Through urgent discussions, they drew conclusions over what signals from Washington or Moscow to believe. They resolved the missile crisis behind the backs of the Joint Chiefs and Soviet generals. In the case of Cuba, by contrast, there was no Dobry in for Robert Kennedy to talk to. There was Lechuga, Fidel's ambassador in New York, and operatives on the phone in Havana, who were limited to arranging secret contacts about a projected discussion in the future, one not involving any US officials directly. That was the vacuum which made Lisa Howard's role so essential, so ambiguous and, frankly, so weird. In the subsequent fifty years, there repeatedly have been similar awkward efforts at indirect diplomacy but never a policy of direct diplomacy to manage the US-Cuba relationship.

      Perhaps the youthful Ricardo Alarcon might have made a modest contribution to conflict management through direct diplomacy during the turbulent two years between the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Instead Ricardo was assigned to be Cuba's liaison to a new generation of revolutionaries in Central and Latin America.

      [1] Interview with Jefferson Morley, Nov. 12, 2013

      [2] Scott Shane, "CIA Is Still Cagey About Oswald Mystery", New York Times, Oct. 17, 2009

      [3] Jefferson Morley, "Celebrated Authors Demand that the CIA Come Clean on JFK Assassination", Salon, Dec. 17, 2003

      [4] Joannides exercised an "important degree of control" over the Directorio, according to one CIA report. New York Times, Oct. 17, 2009

      [5] Lincoln

      [6] McGovern

      [7] "They're going to come down here and shit all over the [Washington] Monument", he muttered to an aide. Clarke, p. 107

      [8] in Fabian Escalante, JFK: The Cuba Files, p. 42

      [9] Thurston Clarke, the Last Hundred Days; Robert Dallek, Camelot's Court; David Talbot, Brothers; JamesDouglass, JFK and the Unspeakable

      [10] Dallek, p. 384

      [11] Talbot, pp. 222-23

      [12] Talbot, p. 224



      [15] Dallek, p. 390

      [16] Dallek, p. 387

      [17] Dallek p 387

      [18] Dallek, p. 391

      [19] Dallek, p. 391

      [20] Talbot, p. 229

      [21] Talbot, p. 229

      [Draft only. Circulation permitted, not for publication. This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book on the Cuban Revolution and the New Left, by Tom Hayden]


      Letter from a Reader:

      Hi Tom, we're the same age and once shared a jail cell (Columbia 1968).  Just read “The Assassination, JFK, and Cuba.” I was in the Army on November 22nd, in Germany, in a bar as it happens.  It was night already.  A B-girl told us Kennedy had been shot, and said it happened as he was crossing a bridge by shot that came from a boat below.  She drew a diagram on a table napkin.  Apparently that was the initial report that was broadcast in Germany.  On the other hand, most B-girls were on the KGB payroll, so you never know.

      Anyway a few minutes later the MPs came bursting in and ordered everybody back to base.  Soviet tank divisions were expected to come storming across the Fulda Gap at any moment. We put on our helmets and got our guns, waiting all night and half the next morning until they decided, oh well, nothing is going to happen and turned us loose for the weekend.

      The interesting footnote is that in Basic Training in Fort Gordon GA, in February and March of 1963, there was a battalion of mostly brownskinned Spanish-speaking soldiers training alongside us.  They wore combat fatigues but unlike us, the fatigues had no markings whatsoever.  Regular basic-training fatigues said US ARMY over the left pocket and your surname over the right (only later would you get a unit patch and rank stripes).

      At the time I assumed they were Cubans and still do.  No contact was allowed but sometimes we were close enough to hear Spanish words.  I would have to conclude that even two years after Bay of Pigs, JFK was "keeping his options open" and training people for another invasion.

      On the other hand I also believe he was looking to put things right with "Cuber" and for that matter, with Viet Nam. You've seen "JFK and the Unspeakable", right?  My impression is that the Cuban missile situation scared the be-jeezus out of him and he decided he'd better mend some fences before somebody actually did blow up the world.  In this, as you noted, he was totally alone.  It seems almost impossible it was not why he was killed.

      Years later when Jimmy Carter became president, by the way, I lived across the street from the building where Zbigniew Brzezinski worked.  That was the only other time I saw unmarked Army trucks and uniforms; they came to pick up all his stuff and take it to his new office. And that was the moment when the seed for Al Qaeda was sown.

      Frank da Cruz
      Bronx NY
      Author email:



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      Reader Comments (5)

      This is SO complex & complicated. After all these years, I remain starving for the truth of ALL the 60s assassinations.
      Thank you for this, even if much of it is "over my head." I would prefer not to spend the remainder of my days hoping the truth will be revealed about all these murders. While I'm at it, where's the truth about "9-11"? Will we ever know?

      November 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Wong

      "This framing of Oswald"

      That could easily be misread.

      "the manufactured tale of Oswald acting alone"

      I believed the assassination to be a conspiracy for 30 years but no longer do. A good online fact resource is ... also Bugliosi's book.

      November 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarcel Kincaid

      I'm happy to see people all over this country are still as intense about the assassination of JFK as that murder warrants. With hindsight, we can see a series of assassinations, cointelpro, people being framed, hounded, imprisoned, police assaults and propaganda assault against everything that was gaining in popularity at that time: an end to racism, end to war, more individual freedoms, less military involvement, more justice and decency. It is obvious the CIA and other national police agencies were involved in the JFK killing. There is no reasonable explanation for the government's refusal to release the files other than the fact that those files would show employees of the government were guilty, and covered up their role in the murder. So much for an open society.

      But what has struck me most this past week is how JFK's attitude was so positive and uplifting. He wanted everyone to get an education and have a job and a good life. He said all Americans should learn, should appreciate culture and the arts as well as learn about science, that we should read poetry and send a man to the moon.

      I contrast those high ambitions for the nation with the national politicians we have today, who are nasty, abusive, demeaning, belittling towards most of our people. JFK (and Johnson after him) used their office to stand up for the people, saying that our people are entitled to medical care, the elimination of hunger, decent housing. Today, our politicians screech that we are moochers, that we don't deserve any handouts, and those days are gone. They won't even hold hearings about creating jobs. They simply ignore the unemployed while screaming at people to get a job.

      We started with JFK, and ended with George Zimmerman. How did that happen? Politicians today seem only interested in getting rich themselves. They have no goals for the public, no desire to help the rest of us. We've really gone downhill.

      November 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNABNYC

      "Marcel Kincaid" is an anonymous user. The link he provides as justification for his "I used to believe in conspiracy but now..." is by McAdams, who seems to be a prof at Marquette University, who publishes this blog (the link above doesn't work, but if you must see for yourself, try I read one sentence, "point number one" against one argument--and it said "how could there be death squads, clean-up CIA squads murdering witnesses, that is..."it would require recruiting and with other people involved, somebody would talk!!" That line of reasoning drives me, a none-too-intellectual plodder, nuts. How does one imagine one keeps people quiet? Taking away all their money, then their family, then grandma gets it? While you watch? There are ways, and hell, most only involve a dose of "patriotism". This was Dallas in the early 60' I right? Well....

      Ok, so if you want some reality about McAdams, check this site out. It explores the idea that he may be a CIA plant, although with reasoning like that above, that I sampled, well, I hope we don't have CIA people that stupid, but yeah, maybe, right?


      November 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGordon

      James Douglass's book, 'JFK and the Unspeakable' is an excellent treatise on why Kenndy was murdered by CIA, with support from other right-wing governmental elements. Mark Lane started it all right after the assassination with questions about Oswald being the assassin. Jim Garrision, dist. attny of New Orleans was "right-on" re what really happened.
      Oswald, a counter-agent for the government, was indeed "a patsy.".

      December 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlawrence h. geller
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