This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
On May 9, 1961, just a few weeks after the CIA-led debacle at the Bay of Pigs, John F. Kennedy met with a group of newspaper editors at the White House to chastise them for exposing government secrets. A New York Times article headlined “U.S. Helps Train an Anti-Castro Force at Secret Guatemalan Air-Ground Base,” published three months before the invasion, was a case in point, the president argued.
“I noted that the information had previously appeared in The Nation,” Times managing editor Turner Catledge recalled saying to the president in protest.
“But it wasn’t news until it appeared in the Times,” Kennedy replied.
Of course, The Nation’s November 19, 1960, report on covert preparations to invade Cuba was news. More important, it was an act of responsible political journalism. Not only did The Nation scoop the rest of the American press; it issued a direct challenge to “all U.S. news media with correspondents in Guatemala” to further expose the CIA’s counterrevolutionary operations— a challenge that the Times couldn’t ignore. “Public pressure,” as The Nation’s editors declared with prescient clarity five months before the failed paramilitary assault, “should be brought to bear upon the Administration to abandon this dangerous and hare-brained project.”
The Nation’s pre-emptive effort to inform and mobilize public opinion before the Bay of Pigs is illustrative of its long history of coverage and editorial positions on Cuba. Again and again, the magazine has run groundbreaking stories and potent editorials to influence the public discourse over Cuba and US foreign policy. At the height of the Cold War, when the Cuban Revolution became a central concern, The Nation even played a key role in back-channel diplomacy to improve US-Cuba relations. Looking back over the course of a century and a half of reports, analysis and editorials on Cuba, it is clear that The Nation’s brand of responsible, progressive journalism not only helped to shape history; it has helped to make it as well.
Just two weeks after its inaugural issue, on July 20, 1865, The Nation published its first Cuba story. “Emancipation in Cuba” promoted a plan for “the important matter of the extinction of slavery in this island”—a moral, social and political issue that culminated with Spain decreeing the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886.
As the Cuban insurrection against Spanish colonial rule escalated at the end of the nineteenth century, The Nation opposed the rush to intervention, condemning the propaganda of the “yellow journals” calling for the dispatch of US troops to the island. But the magazine recognized the inevitability of US involvement to end the civil strife and bloodshed in Cuba’s war for independence. “Our declared purpose is to pacify the island, to make it free and independent, to establish a stable government and then to take hands off,” the editors wrote in “The War and After,” a commentary published on April 28, 1898. Three years later, the imperial-minded McKinley administration imposed the Platt Amendment on the Cubans as the price of their “independence”—a law bestowing extraordinary US power over the island’s future, including the eternal right to intervene. The Nation insisted that the amendment and its incorporation into the Cuban Constitution “do not bind anybody” to future incursions of US force or military occupation.
Over the next six decades, as Cuba evolved from a US protectorate into a playground for corporate America, the Mafia, and the rich and famous, The Nation followed events on the Caribbean island closely. Its coverage drew heavily on the work of its veteran Latin America correspondent, Carleton Beals, who filed his first Cuba story, “American Diplomacy in Cuba,” in January 1934. His last dispatch, on US efforts to expel Cuba from the Organization of American States, came twenty-eight years later, in January 1962. In between, Beals’s coverage of the Cuban Revolution kept Nation readers apprised of the history-changing events on the island and the larger-than-life leadership of Fidel Castro.
“These are days of great promises and great hopes,” Beals reported from Cuba following Castro’s triumphant march into Havana in January 1959. Fidel’s “messianic resistance” to the US-supported regime of Fulgencio Batista, according to The Nation’s first postrevolution story, had “inflamed the hearts not only of his own people, but of people all around the globe.” Beals, who had covered the revolt of Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua in the late 1920s for The Nation, understood the implications of the Cuban Revolution for US hegemony in the region. Castro’s success was “likely to alter our relations with the countries to the south,” he noted, “and to usher in a new phase of fuller Latin American independence.”
THE BAY OF PIGS SCOOP
An independent Cuba establishing a model for the rest of Latin America to follow was clearly not what the US government had in mind. By the end of the revolution’s first year, according to declassified CIA records, US officials had issued recommendations to “neutralize” Fidel Castro and begun the initial planning for an invasion.
The Nation’s ability to scoop the rest of the US media on the Bay of Pigs’ planning owed much to the political connections and sharp ear of editor Carey McWilliams. In November 1960, McWilliams received a call from Paul Baran, a close friend at Stanford University, who informed the Nation editor that a colleague named Ronald Hilton had just returned from Guatemala with considerable information about a secret CIA base where exile forces were being trained to invade Cuba. As McWilliams later recounted in an oral history: “So of course I phoned Hilton immediately, and he told me what he had observed…. So I did a piece—a long sort of unsigned editorial—about this and said that if this is true, and it does seem to be true, it ought to be investigated immediately because this [was] a piece of prime folly.”
The Nation’s editorial, “Are We Training Cuban Guerrillas?,” ran on November 19, 1960—just days after Kennedy’s narrow election win over Richard Nixon. The story reported on details, published in the Guatemalan press but ignored in the US media, of a $1 million compound that the CIA had purchased in the countryside to train Cuban exiles, as well as the televised admission of Guatemala’s president that the base existed. “We feel an obligation to bring the subject to public attention,” McWilliams wrote.
The story landed on the desk of New York Times deputy managing editor Clifton Daniel, who assigned a reporter from the Mexico bureau to check it out. When the Times published its front-page story on January 10, 1961, it prompted an emergency damage-control meeting between Dwight Eisenhower (then in the final weeks of his presidency) and top CIA, Defense and State Department officials. According to a secret memorandum of the conversation: “The President decided that we should make no statement and continue to refuse to comment.” At the State Department, a spokesman claimed to know “absolutely nothing about” a base in Guatemala training Cuban exiles.
On April 7, 1961, the Times ran another story, headlined “Anti-Castro Units Trained to Fight at Florida Bases.” In contrast to the Nation editors, who hoped to stop an act of US intervention through aggressive reporting, the Times editors censored their own story in the name of national security, eliminating all references to the CIA and the projected date of the invasion, and reducing the headline from a banner exposé to one narrow column. Ten days later, the CIA-led paramilitary brigade deployed at Playa Girón in the middle of the night; the exile force was defeated and captured by Castro’s forces within seventy-two hours. “If you had printed more about the operation,” Kennedy subsequently admitted to Catledge, “you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.”
THE NATION’S ROLE IN “METADIPLOMACY”
“If our leaders are wise,” The Nation opined in an insightful post-invasion editorial, “they will accept defeat—and not make the same mistake in some other form.” Ignoring that advice, Kennedy authorized Operation Mongoose to exact Washington’s revenge on Castro for standing up to the Colossus of the North. Continuing US aggression led directly to the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, as Castro understood that a formal alliance with the Soviet Union was critical to deter Washington’s efforts to roll back the Cuban Revolution.
In the critical aftermath of the missile crisis, The Nation distinguished itself from the mainstream media’s fawning coverage of Kennedy’s supposedly implacable courage in facing down the Soviets. On November 17, 1962, the magazine ran a comprehensive analysis by California sociologist Charles D. Bolton on the postcrisis agenda of the peace movement and the need for Kennedy to learn the lessons of near-nuclear Armageddon.
Perhaps Bolton’s call for reforming US policy toward Cuba was included in the president’s briefing papers, because in early 1963, Kennedy began to explore a new “sweet approach” toward Cuba. As the president re-evaluated the option of peaceful co-existence with the Cuban Revolution, The Nation played a key—and colorful—role in the first secret US efforts to restore normal relations with Castro.
In early spring 1963, McWilliams assigned Gertrude Samuels, a well-known writer for The New York Times Magazine, to profile James Donovan, the lawyer who had successfully negotiated the release of more than 1,000 prisoners from the Bay of Pigs in the weeks following the missile crisis. Posing as a private citizen while secretly working for the Kennedy administration, Donovan was in the midst of a new round of shuttle diplomacy with Cuba. His mission: to negotiate the release of more than two dozen US citizens (among them three CIA operatives) imprisoned on the island for various counterrevolutionary activities, and to open the door for better bilateral relations.
Given its widely respected progressive reputation, Donovan believed, The Nation could assist with these delicate negotiations. “I wish to tell you what a pleasure it has been to cooperate with Gertrude Samuels on the article concerning my Cuban mission which she is preparing,” he wrote to McWilliams on March 28, 1963, a week before he returned to Havana to meet with Castro again.
In April, Donovan traveled to Cuba carrying the page proofs of the forthcoming profile in The Nation, titled “How Metadiplomacy Works: James Donovan and Castro.” Samuels’s article highlighted the potential for a prisoner release to set the stage “for some sort of conciliation between the American and Cuban people.” It quoted Donovan as stating “that in these negotiations there does lie the greatest hope of creating some equitable solution to the problems now affecting relations between the two countries.”
On the island, Donovan deftly used the Nation story to dangle the prospect of normalized relations as the ultimate prize. During an all-night meeting that lasted from 2:15 to 6:30 am, he even read the entire article out loud to Fidel. As Donovan told Castro, the article’s impending publication, along with other articles in mainstream magazines such as Look and Life, reflected an evolution of the US position on relations with the Cuban Revolution. When Castro asked what the political impact of the Nation article would be, Donovan responded that “it would be immediately studied by intellectuals, liberals, editorial writers, and various molders of public opinion,” and “that it would also be studied in government circles.” He then paid a major compliment to the magazine: “I said that I thought that whereas the articles in Life and Look were reflecting general public opinion, the article in The Nation was one attempting to lead public opinion.”
Castro was impressed. The Cuban leader “thought that this article was excellent, that it showed wisdom,” Donovan recalled. Castro immediately ordered the article translated into Russian so he could share it with the Soviet ambassador in Havana. Most important, he agreed to a prisoner release in exchange for four Cubans imprisoned in the United States, on the assumption that it would open the door to talks on better bilateral ties. “Now that you’ve shown me the article in The Nation,” Castro said, “I’m prepared to take a chance on your analysis of the situation and your prophecies on what should happen.”
A couple of weeks later, Donovan returned to Havana to escort the released US citizens, including the CIA agents, back to Florida. Secretly, through various back channels, Kennedy and Castro pursued a dialogue toward better relations from that point on—right up to the day the president was assassinated in Dallas.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
At the time, nobody in the United States knew that Donovan had explicitly used Samuels’s Nation article as a negotiating tool with Castro. But at The Nation, there was a sense of real contribution. In a private letter to Donovan, McWilliams wrote, Samuels “told me that you had reported to her that our editorials and her article had been helpful to you in your negotiations. It goes without saying that we were very pleased to hear this.” Ever the intrepid editor, McWilliams tried to enlist Donovan to become a Nation writer. “I would like to have a chance to chat with you,” he wrote, according to a May 1, 1963, letter on Nation stationery, about “doing an article for us over your own signature some time.”
Donovan never wrote for The Nation on Cuba, but a slew of other prominent activists, advocates, analysts, strategists, academics, politicians and reporters did. Over the decades, the magazine ran major stories by authoritative writers like Saul Landau, Gore Vidal, Arthur Miller, Herbert Matthews, Harry Maurer, Penny Lernoux, David Corn, Tom Hayden, Walter LaFeber, Maurice Zeitlin, John Spicer Nichols, Peter Winn, Julia E. Sweig, William M. LeoGrande and Ned Sublette, among many others. The magazine published reports and opinions from former prime ministers like Michael Manley of Jamaica; former senators like George McGovern; and former diplomats like Wayne S. Smith, who served as chief of the US Interests Section in Havana during the Carter administration and became a leading advocate of an accommodation with Castro.
Their stories covered the Cuban economy, politics, culture, history and international relations, but the magazine kept a laser-like focus on the need for a new US policy. When Fidel Castro fell ill with diverticulitis in mid-2006 and passed the reins of power to his brother Raul, Nation publisher and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel decided to devote an entire issue to the political changes on the island and the future of US-Cuban relations. Published in May 2007, the special issue, titled “Cuba: What’s Next?,” contained seven articles—among them the first in a respected magazine to identify the Cuban Five as “counterterrorism agents”—examining the changing of the guard in Cuba and the potential for changing course on Cuba policy in the United States. “The next occupant of the White House will have an unusual opportunity to bring US policy toward Cuba into the twenty-first century,” the lead editorial stated, adding: “We agree…that this is ‘the dumbest policy on the face of the earth.’ The time has come to change it.”
As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama appeared to agree. “We’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last fifty years, and we need to change it,” he declared during the campaign. Throughout Obama’s presidency, Nation articles and editorials reminded him of this pledge. Indeed, on October 20, 2014, the magazine published an article titled “Obama’s Last Chance on Cuba,” arguing that if the president “really wants to revamp fifty years of failed policy he’d better act soon, because time is running out.”
On December 17, 2014, Obama acted; US policy is now being radically revamped. As this dramatic effort to bring peace and reconciliation to US-Cuba relations moves forward, The Nation’s reporting and analysis will continue to “lead public opinion” and, in so doing, help shape this remarkable history as it is being made—today and in the future.