The Old Man and the CIA: A Kennedy Plot to Kill Castro? | The Nation


The Old Man and the CIA: A Kennedy Plot to Kill Castro?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

In the weeks afterward, Mary and Valerie sorted out the mess at Finca Vigia; Hemingway had started coming there in 1938, but he had not been back since the late 1950s. They reviewed thousands of pages of unpublished work, burned his personal papers (in accordance with his wishes), labeled the animal heads (who shot it, when and where), put the house in order for display and packed up possessions Mary wished to keep. Since they could only take hand luggage with them on the return flight to Miami, they arranged for a shrimp boat heading to Tampa for repairs to transport crates holding Hemingway's papers, paintings by Paul Klee, Juan Gris and André Masson, and other keepsakes.

About the Author

Gus Russo
Gus Russo is the author of Live by the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK (Bancroft). He has...
David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

Also by the Author

How the deal at the Copenhagen climate change summit came about--and why it may not be a real deal.

Four and a half years ago, after reading the Robert Novak column that outed Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA operative specializing in counter-proliferation wo...

From September 1961 to January 1962, Mary Hemingway, still in shock over her husband's suicide (she considered it a gun accident), stayed in Idaho. Sometime around February, she returned to her flat in New York City. And she shared with her friends stories about her trip to Cuba, her meeting with Castro and how she had managed to spirit Hemingway's papers and the paintings out of Cuba. In the second week of March, stories appeared in the New York Times and the New York Post about her time in Cuba, though neither mentioned Castro's light security detail and his cavalier climb to the top of the tower. One of her friends, Clifton Daniel, the assistant managing editor at the Times and husband of Margaret Truman, contacted US Information Agency chief Edward R. Murrow and suggested that he speak with Mary Hemingway. As Murrow replied to Daniel in a March 20, 1962, letter, "Mary Hemingway did call. We had an interesting and useful conversation and I passed her remarks on to one or two interested parties down here." (The USIA was a participant in Operation Mongoose. Daniels and Murrow are deceased.)

"The tower could be the key to it," Valerie Hemingway says. "It was what impressed Mary Hemingway the most about Castro." Valerie Hemingway insists that Mary Hemingway would not have consciously aided or abetted a scheme against Castro. In her autobiography, Mary recalled attending a dinner at the White House in April 1962, where she "irked" President Kennedy by calling his confrontational position toward Cuba "stupid, unrealistic and, worse, ineffective."

Assassinating Castro at the Hemingway site does seem far-fetched. But in the secret war against Castro, the US government entertained many bizarre ideas, including dusting his shoes with a chemical that would cause his beard to fall out. One scheme called for the use of pyrotechnics to light up the Cuban sky in order to convince the Cuban people that the Second Coming was at hand; presumably, they would then rise up to overthrow Castro. ("Elimination by illumination," as one official dubbed it.) Yet at the time of the March 16 meeting, the CIA was probably not in a position to mount a hit against Castro, despite Lansdale's overly optimistic assessment that the agency possessed "invaluable assets which might well be committed for" the Hemingway-shrine endeavor. "We didn't have any assets that could do anything with this information then," says John Sherwood, a former CIA case officer who worked on the Cuba task force. "We had a few agents in Cuba who could send us secret-writing intelligence reports. That was it." But, Sherwood adds, that did not stop US intelligence from hatching ideas: "All kinds of things bubbled up then. If Mary Hemingway goes to her cottage in Cuba and comes back and says something about a slight security detail or anything else, people would have been interested. No one knew anything. Any information about Castro was exciting. We never penetrated his entourage. We never knew where he was."

The March 16 memo may not persuade Kennedy believers. In a letter to Professor Haapanen, written on April 17, 1998, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. notes, "That is an interesting document you have unearthed.... I don't think, however, that it establishes that JFK and RFK authorized or were aware of the CIA assassination plots. [Director of Central Intelligence] John McCone, who participated in the discussion, has always denied any knowledge of the plots, so unless he is lying, he did not interpret the reference to the Hemingway shrine as part of an assassination project." Schlesinger assumes McCone told the truth, but McCone's denial has not stood up well over the years. At a CIA seminar in 1991, Walt Elder, McCone's executive assistant, said that McCone had instructed Richard Helms, then the agency's chief of covert operations, to keep him uninformed about the murder schemes. Moreover, Schlesinger suggests no other reasonable reading of the discussion regarding the Hemingway farm. In a recent letter to the authors, Schlesinger wrote, "Heaven knows what Lansdale was talking about, but he was much given to crackpot ideas." Yet this Who-knows? response does not acknowledge that, according to the memo, it was Robert Kennedy, not Lansdale, who first mentioned the Hemingway-shrine "opportunities." (As Samuel Halpern recalls, "Lansdale took solid notes--very accurate.") Schlesinger does comment: "I understand how others might place a different interpretation on the document" from his.

There may be a definitive answer to the question, Did the Kennedys dabble in murder? Fifteen hundred linear feet and fifty boxes of Robert F. Kennedy's classified and confidential papers are stored at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and most of the material is closed to the public. No other Attorney General walked off the job with such a trove of government paperwork. A partial guide to these records lists scores of intriguing files, including documents pertaining to Operation Mongoose, the CIA and Cuba, Edward Lansdale and Edward Murrow. (The guide also refers to Frank Sinatra files that contain "references to various gangsters, including [Sam] Giancana and others...including Judith Campbell," a JFK mistress.) But the Kennedy family considers these papers--many of which Robert Kennedy obtained from the CIA, the FBI or the State Department--the private property of his heirs. It strictly limits access to the records, which are being stored at government expense. Several eminent historians who have requested permission to examine this historical treasure--including Richard Reeves, Robert Dallek, Nigel Hamilton, Laurence Leamer and Seymour Hersh--have been turned away by the Kennedys. Evan Thomas was allowed to see only portions of the material. And Max Kennedy, a son of Robert and the person who oversees these records, did not respond to our request to look at the files for this story. Official papers RFK generated in the course of public business should be open to public inspection, and the release of classified government records that he took when he left office ought to be controlled not by the Kennedy family but by government declassifiers subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Forty years after the Kennedy glory days, it is well known that John Kennedy's Camelot had its dark side. Debate remains over how dark. The March 16 memo offers evidence that John and Robert participated in one of the ugliest exercises of those turbulent days. Blowing away Castro at the onetime home of Ernest Hemingway, an author admired by John Kennedy as well as Fidel Castro, sounds more like derring-do conjured up by a novelist than a plan contemplated by an Attorney General in the presence of a President. Yet that's the most logical reading of this piece of the incomplete historical record--a record which will remain incomplete as long as the Kennedy family keeps sitting on thousands of the RFK documents.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.