The Old Man and the CIA: A Kennedy Plot to Kill Castro?
Did John and Robert Kennedy plot murder? For decades, a clear answer to that dicey question has evaded historians, while Kennedy loyalists have fought hard to prevent such a stain from befouling the memory of the brothers. But a thirty-nine-year-old Pentagon memorandum--found three years ago by a college professor and heretofore unpublicized--suggests that Jack and Bobby discussed and apparently sanctioned the development of a possible assassination attempt against Fidel Castro during a 1962 meeting in the Oval Office. And--in a weirder-than-fiction twist--the scheme they considered involved Ernest Hemingway's farm outside Havana.
It's no secret now that President Kennedy and his brother the Attorney General wanted Fidel Castro out of the way. After Castro thwarted the Kennedy-approved and CIA-orchestrated invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, the Kennedys continued to seek means of toppling the Cuban leader. In early 1962, according to a CIA memo, Bobby Kennedy told a group of CIA and Pentagon officials that a solution to the Cuban problem carried "the top priority in the United States government--all else is secondary." Soon after, the CIA, which had begun planning murder plots against Castro during the Eisenhower Administration, was again devising a variety of assassination plans--efforts that would involve an exploding seashell, poison pills, a toxin-contaminated diving suit and Mafia associates. Ever since this clandestine activity started becoming public in the 1970s, former CIA officers have maintained that John and Robert Kennedy were fully aware of and supportive of the agency's lethal intentions, that the CIA conspirators were not rogues but loyal civil servants following orders. Kennedy defenders countered that no piece of paper shows that the pair specifically endorsed or authorized hit jobs.
In his Robert Kennedy and His Times, historian and former Kennedy Administration official Arthur Schlesinger Jr. passionately declared, "The available evidence clearly leads to the conclusion that the Kennedys did not know about the Castro assassination plots before the Bay of Pigs or about the pursuit of those plots by the CIA after the Bay of Pigs. No one who knew John and Robert Kennedy well believed they would conceivably countenance a program of assassination.... I, too, find the idea incredible that these two men, so filled with love of life and so conscious of the ironies of history, could thus deny all the values and purposes that animated their existence." (In 1998, at Schlesinger's urging, the New York Times published an "editor's note" saying that while some "historians and officials with knowledge of intelligence matters...have asserted" that JFK ordered the CIA to assassinate Castro, "others, also close to the President, dispute their account.") In his recent biography of Robert Kennedy, Evan Thomas, the assistant managing editor of Newsweek, wrote, "RFK's own views on assassination in this period have remained difficult to ascertain.... Kennedy's closest aides flatly denied that he ever ordered an assassination or discussed the possibility."
The Pentagon document--once classified Top Secret--was released by the Assassination Records Review Board in late 1997, and its significance was first noticed by Larry Haapanen, a professor at Lewis and Clark State College. The memo records a meeting of senior national security officials in the Oval Office on March 16, 1962. It was written shortly after the afternoon gathering by Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale, whom President Kennedy had placed in charge of Operation Mongoose, a new interagency project cooked up in November 1961 with the ultimate goal of overthrowing Castro. Present for the conversation were McGeorge Bundy, National Security Adviser; John McCone, Director of Central Intelligence; Gen. Maxwell Taylor, military adviser to the President; Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Roswell Gilpatric, deputy secretary of the Defense Department; U. Alexis Johnson, a deputy under secretary at the State Department; and Lansdale. The subject at hand was setting presidential guidelines for Operation Mongoose. Lansdale reported on efforts to train anti-Castro Cuban agents in guerrilla warfare. President Kennedy told the group he would not yet approve any direct US military intervention in Cuba. Next, the conversation turned to another matter. This is how Lansdale captured it in his "memorandum for the record":
The Attorney General then mentioned Mary Hemingway [Ernest Hemingway's widow], commenting on reports that Castro was drinking heavily in disgruntlement over the way things were going, and the opportunities offered by the "shrine" to Hemingway. I commented that this was a conversation that Ed Murrow [the former news broadcaster then heading the US Information Agency] had had with Mary Hemingway, that we had similar reports from other sources, and that this was worth assessing firmly and pursuing vigorously. If there are grounds for action, CIA had some invaluable assets which might well be committed for such an effort. McCone asked if his operational people were aware of this; I told him that we had discussed this, that they agreed the subject was worth vigorous development, and that we were in agreement that the matter was so delicate and sensitive that it shouldn't be surfaced to the Special Group [an elite interagency group that reviewed covert actions] until we were ready to go, and then not in detail. I pointed out that this all pertained to fractioning the regime. If it happened, it could develop like a brush-fire, much as in Hungary, and we must be prepared to help it win our goal of Cuba freed of a Communist government. [Emphasis added.]
In the memo, Lansdale mentioned no further details about an operation that could take advantage of the Hemingway "shrine," a reference to the farm Hemingway had owned in Cuba, which was then being converted into a museum. He was writing in his own sort of covert-op-speak. In another memo, he used a term similar to "fractioning the regime" to refer to anti-Castro actions that included the assassination of Castro. (An August 13, 1962, Lansdale memo employed the phrase "splitting the regime" to describe activities "including liquidation of leaders.") With Operation Mongoose ultimately aimed at prompting a popular uprising in Cuba, the Kennedy men could well have been hoping that an assassination would spark such a "brush-fire."