Anti-Americanism, and the Break in U.S.-Cuban Relations

william m. leogrande
Anger, Anti-Americanism, and the Break in
U.S.-Cuban Relations
Q: Mr. President, do you want to comment on the behavior of Fidel Castro?
What do you suppose, sir, is eating him?
The President: I have no idea of discussing possible motivation of a man,
what he is really doing, and certainly I am not qualified to go into such abstruse
and difficult subjects as that. I do feel this: here is a country that you would
believe, on the basis of our history, would be one of our real friends. The whole
history—first of our intervention in 1898, our making and helping set up Cuban
independence, the second time we had to go in and did the same thing to make
sure that they were on a sound basis, the trade concessions we have made and
the very close relationships that have existed most of the time with them—
would seem to make it a puzzling matter to figure out just exactly why the
Cubans and the Cuban Government would be so unhappy when, after all, their
principal market is right here, their best market. You would think they would
want good relationships. I don’t know exactly what the difficulty is.
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Press Conference, October 28, 1959
In the breakdown of relations between the United States and Cuba in the months
following Fidel Castro’s revolutionary triumph, anger was a critically important
factor in the decisions taken in both Washington and Havana. Castro’s anger
manifested itself in speeches caustically critical of the United States (though
some were calculated attempts to mobilize popular support by appealing to
Cuban nationalism). U.S. policymakers found Castro’s “anti-Americanism”
deeply insulting and infuriating.
A growing literature in international relations recognizes that emotions
are a long-neglected yet important factor in foreign policy decision-making.1
1. Two widely recognized foundational works are Neta Crawford, “The Passion of World
Politics,” International Security 24, no. 4 (Spring 2000):116–56; and Jonathan Mercer,
“Approaching Emotion in International Politics,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the
International Studies Association, San Diego, California, April 25, 1996. For reviews of the literature, see Roland Bleiker and Emma Hutchison, “Fear No More: Emotions and World
Politics,” Review of International Studies 34 (2008): 115–35; and Emma Hutchison and Roland
Bleiker, “Theorizing Emotions in World Politics,” International Theory 6 (2014): 491–514.
Diplomatic History, Vol. 41, No. 1 (2017). ! The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University
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For permissions, please e-mail: [email protected]. doi:10.1093/dh/dhw040
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As Barbara Keys notes, emotion and cognition are inextricably linked, so “even the
most Herculean efforts to insulate policy choices from sentiment are doomed to
failure.”2 Yet the fact that all decisions have an emotional dimension does not
acquit emotions from responsibility for sometimes contributing to bad ones.
Emotions may cloud the connection between means and ends, distort the importance of some causal connections over others, and skew cost-benefit analysis in ways
that lead decision-makers to choices that are unlikely to succeed and entail disproportionate costs.
Frank Costigliola makes this point implicitly when he argues that U.S. diplomats W. Averell Harriman and John R. Deane had justifiable grievances against
the Soviet Union based on their experiences during World War II, yet those
grievances, magnified by emotion, led them to advocate a “get tough” policy
that contributed decisively to the onset of the Cold War—an outcome that was
not inevitable. As Costigliola notes, “Despite the egregiousness of Soviet actions,
these actions—and the jabs and counter jabs that followed—did not justify the
Cold War. The costs of that conflict proved far higher.”3
This article makes an argument analogous to Costigliola’s: that the intense
emotional response of U.S. policymakers to Fidel Castro’s anti-American rhetoric
led them to conclude that coexistence with Castro’s revolutionary government was
impossible, even before Castro took policy decisions that seriously threatened U.S.
interests. The result was a half century of hostility between Cuba and the United
States, of which neither the duration nor intensity was inevitable.
As Max Paul Friedman has shown, U.S. elites have been hyper-sensitive to
criticism from abroad, branding even well-intentioned foreign policy advice
from allies as anti-American. The idea of anti-Americanism, Friedman argues, is
intimately bound up with the idea of American Exceptionalism and the right, if not
the duty, of the United States to carry its civilizing mission abroad. To criticize any
aspect of that mission is to question the virtue and good intentions of the United
States itself. Policymakers instinctively dismiss such criticism out of hand, ignoring
its substance and branding critics as irrational adversaries—as “anti-American.”4
On the emotion of anger specifically, see Andrew Linklater, “Anger and World Politics,”
International Theory 6 (2014): 574–78; and Todd H. Hall, “We Will Not Swallow This Bitter
Fruit: Theorizing a Diplomacy of Anger,” Security Studies 20, no. 4 (2011): 521–55.
2. Barbara Keys, “Henry Kissinger: The Emotional Statesman,” Diplomatic History 35, no. 4
(September 2011): 587–609.
3. Frank Costigliola, “After Roosevelt’s Death: Dangerous Emotions, Divisive Discourses,
and the Abandoned Alliance,” Diplomatic History 34, no. 1 (January 2010): 1–23. See also his
elaboration on this argument in Costigliola, Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped
Start the Cold War (Princeton, NJ, 2012).
4. Max Paul Friedman, Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in
American Foreign Relations (New York, 2012), 2. Friedman notes that during the U.S. occupation of
Cuba after the Spanish-American War, Cuban nationalists were branded as anti-American in the
United States (56–58). Lars Schoultz is especially good on the history of Washington’s civilizing
mission as played out in Latin America, which he argues was a cloak for more traditional economic
and national security interests: Lars Schoultz, Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy
toward Latin America (Cambridge, MA, 1998). On the centrality of Washington’s civilizing mission
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In 1959 and early 1960, Fidel Castro did not spare U.S. feelings in his criticism of
U.S. policy in Cuba, not merely toward his government but since the SpanishAmerican War.
To be sure, a number of issues contributed to the break in U.S.-Cuban relations: the nationalization of U.S. property; Castro’s tolerance for communists in
his government; his “neutralist” (and later pro-Soviet) foreign policy. But none of
these had yet reached critical mass by June 1959, when senior officials in the
Eisenhower administration decided that the continued existence of Cuba’s revolutionary government was incompatible with U.S. interests. The issue dominating
the bilateral discourse during the six months following the triumph of the revolution in January was Washington’s irritation at the anti-Americanism expressed
by Castro and other revolutionary leaders. It remained a central concern throughout the ensuing year as U.S. policy evolved from trying to coexist with Castro to
plotting his overthrow. U.S. diplomats raised the issue of anti-Americanism in
almost every meeting with their Cuban counterparts. Not only did they take
Castro’s harsh criticism of the historical role of the United States in Cuba as an
indication of his hostility and defiance, they reacted viscerally to Castro’s “insults”
and “insolence.”5 By castigating the United States for a history that U.S. officials
(including President Eisenhower as quoted above) saw as benign, Castro made
them angry.
Historians have long debated the causes of the diplomatic conflict between the
United States and Cuba that unfolded in the first two years of Fidel Castro’s
revolutionary government. In January 1959, Washington was wary of Castro’s
radicalism but nevertheless hoped to establish a modus vivendi with him. By the
fall of 1960, the United States had cut off Cuba’s sugar quota, Castro had nationalized most U.S. property on the island, and planning for the Bay of Pigs was well
underway. Cuba and the Soviet Union had developed a strategic partnership
symbolized by Castro’s famous embrace of Nikita Khrushchev at the United
Nations in September.
But in which direction did the causal arrow point? Did the United States push
Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union or did he jump? In one camp are those
who interpret U.S. policy as largely benign until Castro himself demonstrated his
hostility by aligning Cuba with the Soviet Union. In the other camp are those who
in its relations with Cuba in particular, see Schoultz, “Blessings of Liberty: The United States and
the Promotion of Democracy in Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34 (2002): 397–425; and
Schoultz, “Benevolent Domination: The Ideology of U.S. Policy toward Cuba,” Cuban Studies 41
(2010): 1–19.
5. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, January 19, 1960, Foreign
Relations of the United States (hereafter FRUS), 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, ed. Ronald D. Landa
(Washington, DC, 1991), doc. 424, pp. 747–48; and Telegram From the Department of State to
the Embassy in Cuba, February 2, 1960, FRUS, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 448, pp. 780–81.
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interpret hostile U.S. actions as leaving Castro little alternative but to seek safety
under the Soviet umbrella.6
One reason this debate has endured is that U.S. policy toward Castro’s Cuba,
like most foreign policies, developed gradually and emerged from an internal
debate in the Eisenhower administration about whether or not it was possible
for the United States to coexist with Castro—a debate whose origins actually
preceded the triumph of the revolution.7 In addition, as the policy of hostility
coalesced, it was cloaked in secrecy to avoid damaging relations with Latin
America—relations President Dwight D. Eisenhower was trying to repair in the
wake of Vice-President Richard M. Nixon’s disastrous and nearly fatal visit to the
region in 1958.
Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union also developed slowly and, during its
earliest stages, in secret. As early as April 1959, Rau´l Castro sought the help of
Spanish Civil War veterans living in the Soviet Union to train the new Cuban
army. But the first Soviet citizen, KGB officer Aleksandr Alekseyev working undercover as a TASS news agency correspondent, did not arrive in Cuba until
October.9 His mission was to keep a low profile, get to know Cuba’s new leaders,
and gather intelligence since the Kremlin still knew so little about Cuba’s revolutionary government. “We knew almost nothing,” Alekseyev conceded. “I was sent
especially to find out what had happened in Cuba, what kind of revolution was it,
who had come to power, what do they want.”10
Castro showed no special affinity for the Soviet Union during his first year in
power despite these behind-the-scenes contacts, and the Soviet reaction to the
Cuban revolution was diffident as well.11 The first public indication of a budding
Cuban-Soviet friendship did not come until February 1960, when Soviet VicePresident Anastas I. Mikoyan arrived in Cuba with a Soviet trade mission and
signed a $100 million trade deal.
In the debate over what caused the break in U.S.-Cuban relations, most scholars
have neglected the influence of anger on U.S. decision-making. This neglect stems
6. David Bernell provides a thorough review of this debate. Bernell, “The Curious Case of
Cuba in American Foreign Policy,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36, no. 2
(Summer 1994): 65–103.
7. The best account of U.S. attitudes toward Castro before 1959 is Thomas Paterson,
Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution (New York, 1994).
8. On May 13, 1958, an angry mob in Venezuela attacked Nixon’s limousine, pelting it with
stones and rocking it from side to side. Lester Tanzerstaff, “Nixon Unhurt as Red-Led Mob
Attacks Car in Caracas,” Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1958.
9. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and
Kennedy, 1958–1964: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1998), 25–29.
10. Interview with Alexander Alekseyev, in Mikoyan’s “Mission Impossible” in Cuba: New Soviet
Evidence on the Cuban Missile Crisis, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 400,
eds. Svetlana Savranskaya, Anna Melyakova, and Amanda Conrad, October 27, 2012, accessed
January 6, 2016,
11. Jacques Le´vesque, The USSR and The Cuban Revolution: Soviet Ideological and Strategical
Perspectives, 1959–77 (New York, 1978).
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in part from the short shrift emotions have generally received in the study of
international relations, but also from the conventional wisdom about the timing
of the key U.S. decision to abandon the policy of coexistence adopted in January
1959, replacing it with a policy of hostility designed to overthrow the Castro
Most scholars date the key decision to either the fall of 1959, when President
Eisenhower signed the formal statement of the new policy, or early 1960, when the
last effort at negotiating a modus vivendi with Cuba failed and Eisenhower
approved preparations for the Bay of Pigs invasion.12 This timing leads them to
focus on the aspects of Cuban behavior that U.S. policymakers believed threatened
U.S. interests—the growing influence of communists in Castro’s government,
Cuba’s failure to compensate U.S. investors for nationalized property, and the
February 1960 trade deal with the Soviet Union. Thomas Paterson dates the decisive policy shift to November 1959, citing the reasons above, plus the concern
that Castro’s bad behavior might spread elsewhere in Latin America. He mentions
Castro’s “vituperative anti-American rhetoric” only in passing as an aggravating
Mark Falcoff dates the change in policy to early 1960, when Eisenhower
authorized planning for the Bay of Pigs, arguing it was only then that the
United States had “given up hope” of coexisting with Castro and began “exploring
other avenues.” He, too, mentions Castro’s anti-American rhetoric in passing, but
lays the blame for the breakup squarely on Castro’s attraction to communism—
nationalizing property, allowing communists in his government, and aligning
Cuba with the Soviet Union.14
Richard Welch, like Falcoff, dates the change in U.S. policy to early 1960, albeit
for different reasons. He regards October 1959 as a key moment because the arrest
of Huber Matos signaled the growing influence of communists in Castro’s government, but he regards Eisenhower’s January 1960 offer of negotiations as an
indication that Washington had not given up entirely on the policy of
12. The formal policy statement Eisenhower approved in November is Paper Prepared by the
Department of State, “Current Basic United States Policy,” October 23, 1959, FRUS, 1958–1960,
vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 376, attachment, pp. 638–39. The covert action program approved in March is
in Paper Prepared by the 5412 Committee, “A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro
Regime,” March 16, 1959, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 481, pp. 850–51; and
Memorandum of a Conference with the President, March 17, 1960, doc. 486, pp. 861–63. For
a discussion of the failed attempt at negotiations in early 1960, see William M. LeoGrande and
Peter Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and
Havana (Chapel Hill, NC, 2014), 29–34.
13. Paterson,Contesting Castro, 255–58. Rabe also dates the change to November 1959, though
he does not go into detail on the precipitating factors. Stephan G. Rabe, Eisenhower and Latin
America: The Foreign Policy of Anti-Communism (Chapel Hill, NC, 1988), 125–27.
14. Mark Falcoff, ed., The Cuban Revolution and the United States (Washington, DC, 2001),
xviii, 205–6.
15. Richard E. Welch, Jr., Response to Revolution: The United States and the Cuban Revolution,
1959–1961 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1985), 36–37.
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Schoultz notes the division of opinion between administration officials who
thought Castro a communist from the beginning and those who supported an
attempt at coexistence. He focuses on U.S. concerns about the rising influence
of communists in the government, brought to a head by the October arrest of
Matos, which Schoultz calls “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for U.S. policymakers. He is, however, one of the few scholars who gives weight to Castro’s
incessant anti-Americanism as an important factor in U.S. decision-making.16
The issue of timing is important because by the fall of 1959, Cuban actions had,
in fact, begun to harm U.S. interests as Washington defined them, and this was
even more true after Cuba hosted a Soviet trade delegation in February 1960. But
senior U.S. policymakers reached a consensus on the need to remove Fidel Castro
from power not in late 1959 or early 1960, but in June 1959—well before Cuban
actions had begun to pose a serious threat to U.S. interests. It would take nearly
five months for this conclusion to be formalized in a policy framework approved by
the president, and another six after that before the last hope of a negotiated modus
vivendi with Cuba was extinguished.17 But the die was cast much earlier than
scholars have generally believed.
The reason the key meetings in June and July 1959 that changed U.S. policy are
so often overlooked is that they remain shrouded in secrecy even now. The editor
of Foreign Relations of the United States could find no extant records of them.18 We
know of the meetings only through occasional and oblique references by Assistant
Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs R. Richard Rubottom in later meetings and in his oral history interviews. Until now, we did not even know their exact
The initiative for shifting to a tougher policy came from Rubottom, who despite his own skepticism about the Castro regime, had originally backed a policy of
“patience and forbearance” advocated most insistently by U.S. Ambassador Philip
Bonsal.19 Rubottom gave up on constructive engagement after Castro’s May 1959
agrarian reform. “It didn’t make any difference whether Castro was a Communist
or not,” Rubottom explained. “He was so obsessed in his hatred for the United
16. Schoultz, Beneath the United States, 104.
17. Tad Szulc mistakenly dates the critical U.S. decision to March 10, 1959, quoting the notes
of an NSC meeting that actually took place a year later on March 10, 1960. Szulc, Fidel: A Critical
Portrait (New York, 1986), 480. The NSC document is Memorandum of Discussion at the 436th
Meeting of the National Security Council, March 10, 1960, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc.
474, pp. 832–37.
18. An editor’s footnote to one of Rubottom’s references to these meetings reads, “Not further
identified.” FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 419, p. 732, fn. 3.
19. Rubottom recounts his skepticism in Interview with Roy Richard Rubottom Jr., John
Foster Dulles Oral History Collection, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton
University, 81. Bonsal’s unflagging effort to find a modus vivendi with Cuba is described in
LeoGrande and Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba, chp. 1.
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States and his policies toward the United States were so negative and adverse to our
interests that we had to take some steps to try to deal with him.”20
On June 19, Rubottom met with Deputy Under-Secretary of State for Political
Affairs Robert D. Murphy to discuss what should be done about Cuba. This was
followed by a second meeting on July 15, with Murphy and CIA Director Allen
Dulles.21 “I told them that I felt the time had come when the United States should
give some consideration to supporting the anti-Castro people, that this man was a
clear-cut threat to the United States,” Rubottom recalled.22 Together, they convinced Secretary of State Christian A. Herter, and the planning for a new policy
commenced.23 Rubottom later described the shift: “The period from January to
March [1959] might be characterized as the honeymoon period of the Castro
Government. In April a downward trend in U.S.-Cuban relations had been evident… . In June we had reached the decision that it was not possible to achieve our
objectives with Castro in power… . In July and August, we had been busy drawing
up a program to replace Castro.” The Central Intelligence Agency was tasked to
develop a plan to support Castro’s domestic opponents and weaken his government, culminating in regime change before the end of Eisenhower’s presidency.24
Both Fidel and Rau´l Castro have argued that the agrarian reform marked the
tipping point in U.S.-Cuban relations. “The problem was that the first Agrarian
Reform Act, whether more radical or less, was absolutely unacceptable to a country
whose corporations owned the best sugar cane land in Cuba,” Fidel told biographer Ignacio Ramonet.25 “The 1959 land reform was the Rubicon of our revolution. A death sentence for our U.S. relations,” Rau´l Castro said years later. “At
that moment, there was no discussion about socialism, or Cuba dealing with
Russia. But the die was cast.”26
20. Interview with Ambassador Roy R. Rubottom, Jr., February 13, 1990, Frontline
Diplomacy: The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic
Studies and Training, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
21. The dates of the two meetings with Murphy and Allen Dulles, which have not been
previously identified, are in Murphy’s appointment books, Papers of Robert D. Murphy, box 5,
folder 5, Archives of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
22. Interview with Roy Richard Rubottom Jr., John Foster Dulles Oral History Collection,
75–76. In the oral history, Rubottom mistakenly places this meeting in the fall, but his own
contemporary notes place it in June. See Memorandum of a Conversation Between the
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Rubottom) and the President’s Special
Assistant for National Security Affairs (Gray), December 31, 1959, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI,
Cuba, doc. 416, pp. 723–24.
23. “Secretary Herter last July agreed that we could no longer work with the Cuban
Government,” quoted in Memorandum of Discussion at the Department of State-Joint Chiefs
of Staff Meeting, Pentagon, January 8, 1960, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 419, pp.
24. Memorandum of Discussion at the 432nd Meeting of the National Security Council,
January 14, 1960, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 423, pp. 740–46.
25. Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro: My Life, A Spoken Autobiography (New
York, 2009), 245.
26. Sean Penn, “Conversations With Cha´vez and Castro,” The Nation, December 15, 2008.
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However, Cuba’s first agrarian reform was not all that radical, and the U.S.
response at the time was not all that negative. Ambassador Bonsal was instructed to
tell Castro that the United States recognized Cuba’s sovereign right to expropriate
land, was “not opposed to sound land reform,” and would even be willing to
provide aid to implement a well-designed program. In Washington, the State
Department regarded the interests of U.S. investors in Cuba as subordinate to
U.S. foreign policy interests, although the proposed law had “greatly concerned
and disturbed” investors, and Washington expected “prompt, adequate, and effective compensation.”27 Bonsal expected to be able to resolve the compensation
problem through negotiations, which he pursued diligently over the next six
If the agrarian reform by itself is not an adequate explanation for the U.S.
decision to seek Castro’s ouster, and the Soviets, in the form of Mikoyan, did
not appear publicly in Cuba for another eight months, what prompted the
Eisenhower administration to discard the policy of patience and forbearance?
Why did it run out of patience so soon, despite the fact that U.S. interests did
not yet seem to be seriously threatened? A large part of the answer is anger and
frustration over Fidel Castro’s unrelenting anti-Americanism—his public attacks
on the U.S. role in Cuba from 1898 onward and the defiance it represented.
Scholars have remarked on Castro’s anti-American diatribes, but generally have
not considered them as a central cause of the breakdown in relations.28 Only a few
have focused on the emotional dimension of U.S.-Cuban relations. Fagen in 1962
wrote about the “emotional style” of Cuban foreign policy, arguing that the resulting behavior—including Castro’s anti-American rhetoric—served Cuba’s domestic and international interests. He did not engage the issue of how Washington
reacted to Castro’s anti-Americanism, focusing instead on how it boosted the
regime’s domestic legitimacy by appealing to Cuban nationalism.29
Friedman includes a brief account of how U.S. officials reacted to Castro’s
“anti-Americanism” by labeling him an irrational madman. Friedman’s main purpose is to show that Castro’s complaints against the United States were not irrational at all, but well-grounded in the history of U.S.-Cuban relations. Logically,
one could deduce from this that U.S. policymakers, blinded to the underlying logic
of Castro’s position by their anger at his anti-Americanism, might opt for a policy
of hostility, but Friedman does not develop this line of argument.30
Louis Pe´rez argues that Castro’s insistent articulation of a Cuban view of the
history of U.S.-Cuban relations in which Washington was not a beneficent good
27. Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Cuba, June 1, 1959, FRUS,
1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 311, pp. 515–16; Schoultz, Beneath the United States, 97–98.
28. Paterson, Contesting Castro; Lars Schoultz, That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United
States and the Cuban Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011); Falcoff, ed., The Cuban Revolution and the
United States; and Rabe, Eisenhower and Latin America, 117–33.
29. Richard R. Fagen, “Calculation and Emotion in Foreign Policy: The Cuban Case,”
Journal of Conflict Resolution 6, no. 3 (1962): 214–21.
30. Friedman, Rethinking Anti-Americanism, 147–50.
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neighbor but rather a rapacious imperialist occupier, was traumatic for U.S. elites
and intolerable—a conclusion that fits neatly with Friedman’s theory on the emotional dimension of anti-Americanism. But Pe´rez then draws the logical conclusion about the impact of Castro’s rhetoric on U.S. policy formation, arguing that
the persistence of the policy of hostility for the next half century, despite its record
of failure, can only be understood as an emotional response to Castro’s effrontery.31 My analysis differs from Pe´rez in that it seeks to trace the policy process in
1959 to establish that the emotional U.S. response to Castro’s anti-Americanism
was a decisive factor in the decision to abandon attempts at coexistence, even
before most of the actions Cuba took that endangered traditional U.S. interests.
During the struggle against Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro was careful not to
antagonize Washington. His famous closing statement at his 1953 trial, History
Will Absolve Me, makes only passing reference to the United States. His manifestos
issued from the Sierra Maestra during the guerrilla war occasionally warn
Washington against intervention on behalf of Batista, but are free of the antiAmerican rhetoric that would characterize so many of his speeches after January
1, 1959.
33 Nevertheless, Castro’s nationalism was apparent, and his anger toward
Washington’s longstanding support for Batista was evidenced by a private letter he
wrote to his confidante and aide-de-camp Celia Sa´nchez after watching planes
supplied to Batista’s air force by the United States bomb the guerrillas and their
peasant supporters. “When this war is over a much wider and bigger war will
commence for me,” Castro wrote, “The war I am going to wage against them
[the United States]. I am aware that this is my true destiny.”34
Within just weeks after the triumph of the revolution, Washington’s relations
with the new Cuban government were thrown into crisis by vocal criticism in the
U.S. press and Congress over summary trials and executions of several hundred
police and military officials from the old regime.35 As the arrests and executions
mounted during January, they became a dominant theme in U.S. coverage of the
revolution, prompting congressional criticism. Senator Wayne Morse (D-Ore),
31. Louis A. Pe´rez, Jr., “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward
Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34 (2002): 227–54; Pe´rez, Cuba in the American
Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos (Chapel Hill, NC, 2008).
32. Rubottom complains of Castro’s “rantings” in a letter to Bonsal, June 13, 1960,
Geographical File, Cuba, 1960, May-June, folder 1, box 2, Philip W. Bonsal Papers,
1914–1992, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (hereafter Bonsal Papers).
33. Fidel Castro, History Will Absolve Me (Havana, 1975); Rolando E. Bonachea and Nelson P.
Valde´s, eds., Revolutionary Struggle, 1947–1958: Volume 1 of the Selected Works of Fidel Castro
(Cambridge, MA, 1972).
34. Fidel Castro, Letter to Celia Sa´nchez, June 1958, in Bonachea and Valde´s, eds.,
Revolutionary Struggle, 1947–1958, 379.
35. William L. Ryan, “Rebels Executed Batista Aides,” Washington Post, January 8, 1959;
Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (New York, 1971), 1076–77.
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who had been a vocal critic of Batista, now called for an end to the “bloodbath” in
Fidel Castro was incensed at U.S. criticism of the trials, which he regarded as a
cynical “campaign of lies” to defame the revolution and a harbinger of U.S. hostility. He reacted defiantly: “We have given orders to shoot every last one of those
murderers, and if we have to oppose world opinion to carry out justice, we are
ready to do so.”37 The following day, irked by a reporter’s shouted question, he
declared, “If the Americans don’t like what is happening in Cuba they can land the
Marines and then there will be 200,000 gringos dead.”38
On January 21, Castro called upon Cubans to assemble at the Presidential
Palace to demonstrate their support for the trials. Hundreds of thousands came
to hear Castro blast the United States for its aid to Batista, its refusal to extradite
his cronies and return the millions they stole from the Cuban Treasury, its bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “in the name of peace,” and the “barrage of defamation” it had unleashed against Cuba intended to “weaken the revolution” by
turning international public opinion against it.39 Castro’s anger was to some extent
calculated. That evening, he encountered U.S. Charge´ d’Affaires Daniel M.
Braddock, and said he hoped Washington “had received no hurt [from his
speech] as he had intended none,” but that it was “necessary in a public rally of
that sort to express certain points of view.”40
Intended or not, U.S. officials took offense. As early as February, they began
complaining about anti-American rhetoric emanating from Havana. In a meeting
with several Cuban cabinet ministers, Braddock explained that Washington
wanted good relations with the new government, but this was being hampered
by Cuban “misunderstanding” that the United States government and U.S. businesses had supported Batista. Another obstacle was the “mutual irritation and
recriminations over the trials and executions of war criminals.” The Cubans
replied that Castro wanted good relations, too, but that, “it was good politics to
have a whipping boy.”41 Braddock reported back to Washington that he thought
Castro’s anti-Americanism was for domestic consumption. “Castro is not as
36. R. Hart Phillips, “Military Court in Cuba Dooms Fourteen for ‘War Crimes,’” New York
Times, January 13, 1959.
37. R. Hart Phillips, “Castro Deplores His Critics Here,” New York Times, January 22, 1959;
R. Hart Phillips, “One Hundred Face Death in Trials About to Begin in Havana,” New York Times,
January 15, 1959.
38. R. Hart Phillips, “Castro Says Cuba Wants Good Ties with Washington,” New York
Times, January 16, 1959.
39. Discurso pronunciado por Fidel Castro, en el Palacio Presidencial, el 21 de enero de 1959,
Discursos e intervenciones del Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz, Presidente del Consejo de
Estado de la Repu´ blica de Cuba, accessed January 6, 2016,
40. Embtel to Sec State from US Emb Havana (Braddock) No. 869, January 22, 1959, doc.
611.37/1-22-59, folder 611.37/1-159, box 2473, 1955–1959 Central Decimal File, Record Group
59 (hereafter RG 59), National Archives (hereafter USNA).
41. Despatch to Dept of State from US Emb Havana (Braddock), February 13, 1959,
no. 897, “Conversation with Cuban Officials,” File: U.S.-Cuba 1959, box 3, Cuba, Havana
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anti-American as he sounds in his public pronouncements… . He often resorts to
this kind of nationalistic demagoguery because of its popular appeal.”42
On February 19, Castro gave a four-hour television interview in which he once
again catalogued Cuba’s historical grievances against the United States. Braddock
described it evocatively: “Castro in his standard uniform of rumpled fatigues,
radiating health and boundless energy, hunched over the table as he talks,
waving arms and hands, with the eternal cigar… Words pour from him in a
ceaseless torrent… . He is a dynamic, forceful speaker, with that rare quality of
fixing and swaying his audience regardless of the contents of his words… . He
spoke with tremendous vitality and rapidity.” But as he did so often, Fidel was
deploying his oratorical ability to flay the United States. “There can be little doubt
that his basic attitude toward the United States is one of distrust and unfriendliness. Also, the downfall of Batista has left him and his movement without a convenient whipping-boy, and consciously or not he tends to fill that void with the
United States and certain Latin American governments… . Officers of our government dealing with Cuban affairs should get used to the feeling of walking gently
around the edges of a volcano that is liable to burst forth with sulphurous fumes at
the slightest provocation.”43
In the weeks leading up to Castro’s April 1959 goodwill trip to the United
States, the State Department repeatedly warned Cuban diplomats that his reception would be colored by his repeated rhetorical attacks on the United States.44 In
one of Ambassador Bonsal’s first meetings with Foreign Minister Roberto
Agramonte, he complained that Castro “was continuing to attribute Cuba’s troubles of the last 50 years or so to actions of the United States… . It was not right that
these bonds developed over the years, should be thrown into the waste basket.”45
President Eisenhower did not want to give Castro a visa for the April trip
because of his public vilification of the United States and the appearance of communists in his government, but the president relented when CIA Director Allen
Dulles warned that barring Castro would only boost his nationalist credentials.46
At the State Department, Assistant Secretary R. Richard Rubottom was so fed up
Embassy: Classified General Records, 1959–1961, RG 84, Records of the Foreign Service Posts of
the Department of State, USNA.
42. Despatch from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, February 18, 1959,
FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 253, pp. 401–4.
43. Despatch to Dept of State from US Emb Havana, March 13, 1959, “Views of Fidel Castro
on Relations with the United States…” no. 1013, file: 737.00/3-259, box 3081, Central Decimal
File, 1955–1959, RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, USNA.
44. Memorandum to Rubottom from Wieland, March 19, 1959, “Your Appointment with
Ambassador Dihigo of Cuba Today at 4:30,” doc. 611.37/3-1959, folder 611.37/1-159, box 2473,
Central Decimal File, RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, 1955–1959, USNA.
45. Despatch to Dept State from US Emb Havana (Braddock), no. 1046, March 20, 1959,
“Discussions with Minister of State, March 18, 1959,” doc. 611.37/3-2059, folder 611.37/1-159,
box 2473, Central Decimal File, RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, 1955–1959,
46. Memorandum of Discussion at the 400th Meeting of the National Security Council,
Washington, March 26, 1959, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 266, pp. 440–43.
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with Castro’s attacks on the United States that he wanted to abandon the policy of
restraint and respond in kind to every criticism. “Mr. Rubottom said that it seemed
to him the time had come when we could no longer passively accept irresponsible
statements about the United States by Fidel Castro,” wrote his staff assistant,
passing along instructions to the bureau’s principal officers. In preparation for
Castro’s upcoming trip, Rubottom ordered the creation of a card index of all of
Castro’s anti-American claims so that U.S. officials would be ready to stand up and
refute them if he repeated them during his visit.47
Ambassador Bonsal cautioned Rubottom that engaging in a war of words with
Castro would prove counter-productive. He stated, “Condemnation of Castro for
these utterances alone will be taken as U.S. opposition to the Cuban revolution
which still has very considerable support and was justified on many counts.” He
counseled restraint: “We should give the Cubans themselves as much opportunity
as possible to straighten themselves and Castro out before unlimbering our artillery against Castro.”48
Following his trip to the United States in April, Castro curtailed his public
blasts at Washington—at least for a while. But in June 1959, Pedro Dı´az Lanz,
chief of the Cuban air force, fled to Miami after Fidel rebuked him for complaining
publicly about communist “indoctrination” in the air force.49 The real trauma,
however, came two weeks later when Dı´az Lanz testified before the Senate Internal
Security Subcommittee, claiming that Castro and virtually every senior official in
his government were communists.50 Castro was furious that the Senate Internal
Security Subcommittee would hold hearings on Cuba as if it were a colony. In a
speech on July 11, denouncing Dı´az Lanz as “Cuba’s Benedict Arnold,” Castro
attacked the United States more severely than at any time since his April trip.51
Meeting with Cuba’s ambassador, Ernesto Dihigo, on July 13, Rubottom
blamed the deterioration of bilateral relations in large part on the “frequently
expressed antagonism of the Government of Cuba toward the United States.”
The revolutionary government had come to power with “an immense reservoir
of good will and support among the American people,” Rubottom said, but Castro
had squandered it.52 “Castro is a convinced anti-American,” Rubottom told
47. Memorandum from the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs’ Staff
Assistant (Devine) to Certain Officers in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, April 8, 1969,
FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 273, pp. 452–53.
48. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, April 14, 1959, FRUS,
1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 277, p. 457.
49. Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, 1229–30.
50. U.S. Senate, Subcommittee to Investigate Administration of Internal Security Act and
Other Internal Security Laws, Committee on Judiciary, Communist Threat to the U.S. Through
the Caribbean, part 1, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., July 14, 1959.
51. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, July 13, 1959, FRUS,
1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 332, pp. 556–57; “Castro Asserts U.S. Interferes in Cuba,” New
York Times, July 13, 1959.
52. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, July 13, 1959, FRUS, 1958–1960,
vol. V, American Republics, doc. 83, enclosure 3, pp. 300–3.
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visiting U.S. businessmen two days later, “and it seems that no amount of persuasion or evidence to the contrary will make him change his poor opinion of the
United States.”53
After the Dı´az Lanz affair, Bonsal, too, began to complain more openly about
Castro’s anti-Americanism, both to journalists and to Cuban officials. On July 23,
he told Foreign Minister Rau´l Roa that relations had deteriorated, “fundamentally
due to the anti-American attitudes taken in public statements by Fidel Castro and
other Cuban Government leaders.” Reporting the conversation to Washington,
Bonsal wrote, “I said that we are also a people with pride, ‘amor propio’ … that our
pride and “amor propio” had been wounded and our sentiments outraged by these
statements.”54 From this point forward, U.S. officials raised the issue of antiAmericanism in every encounter with their Cuban counterparts, both in Havana
and in Washington.
Anticipating a meeting with Castro himself, Bonsal cabled Washington in July
with proposed talking points laying out U.S. concerns, of which anti-Americanism
was second only to the influence of communists in the government. Bonsal would
inform Castro that he had “alienated much public and official opinion in [the] US
by continued anti-American statements which have been echoed by official press
and other government officials.”55
Castro did not agree to receive Bonsal until September 3. Later he would
recall that he avoided meeting the ambassador because his expressions of concern
about anti-American rhetoric and the treatment of U.S. investors “were simply
intolerable.”56 When they did finally meet, Bonsal recounted the litany of U.S.
complaints, and expressed, “Our deep concern at [the] practically continuous barrage of anti-American statements from Cuban officials and from [the] press.”
Castro said he regretted some of his own harsh public jabs at the United States,
and was “unaware” of the anti-American tone of the press, implausible as that
53. Memorandum of Conversation between Lawrence Crosby, Chairman U.S. Sugar
Council, Rubottom, and Richard B. Owen, Asst Officer in Charge of Cuban Affairs, July 15,
1959, “U.S. Relations with Cuba; Agrarian Reform,” doc. 611.37/7-71559, folder 611.37/
4-159, box 2473, Central Decimal File, RG 59, General Records of the Department of State,
1955–1959, USNA.
54. Memorandum of a Conversation Between the Ambassador in Cuba (Bonsal) and
Minister of State Roa, Havana, July 23, 1959, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 342, pp.
55. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, July 16, 1959, FRUS,
1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 336, pp. 561–62.
56. Szulc, Fidel, 503; Lee Lockwood, Castro’s Cuba: Cuba’s Fidel (New York, 1967), 159. Bonsal
brought up these topics at his first meeting with Castro on March 5, 1959, and at virtually every
meeting thereafter. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, March 5,
1959, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 258, pp. 420–21.
57. Philip Bonsal, Cuba, Castro, and the United States (Pittsburgh, PA, 1971), 89; Telegram from
the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, September 4, 1995, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI,
Cuba, doc. 359, pp. 595–98.
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Shortly after Bonsal’s meeting with Castro, Ambassador Dihigo proposed
negotiations to repair the fraying bilateral relationship.58 Over dinner at
Washington’s Metropolitan Club, Rubottom warned the Cuban ambassador
that anti-American rhetoric by Cuban leaders was poisoning relations and that
as a result, Cuba might find itself “harvesting a crop of unfriendliness and lack of
sympathy.” Negotiations, he added, would be possible only if there was “a change
in attitude on the part of the Cuban Government.” Dihigo replied that the government’s anti-American rhetoric was “arising from the revolutionary enthusiasm
of many young and inexperienced government officials.”59
At the end of September, Bonsal returned to Washington for consultations, and
discovered that support for his policy of coexisting with Castro had evaporated.
“We have all been staunch advocates of extending the hand of friendship to Cuba
and adopting a patient, tolerant attitude,” Deputy Assistant Secretary William
Wieland told the ambassador, “but we cannot continue this policy much longer
without some positive achievement to show in its justification.”60
Upon returning to Havana, Bonsal vented his frustration to Foreign Minister
Roa. There was “increasing perplexity and concern” in Washington “due entirely
to the attitudes, public statements and actions of Cuban leaders and the Party
press,” Bonsal said. Roa replied that Bonsal was being “hypersensitive” and that
he had “misinterpreted” Cuban statements. Bonsal repeated the warning of the
“unfortunate harvest which Cuba is now gathering from attitudes, statements and
actions of her rulers since January 1.”61
In late October, just as the State Department was finalizing a formal statement
of the new policy seeking Castro’s ouster that senior officials had sketched out over
the summer, relations took a sharp turn for the worse. On October 16, a State
Department official inadvertently revealed that the United States had urged Great
Britain not to deliver to Cuba jet aircraft originally purchased by Batista. To
Castro, this was proof of Washington’s perfidy in claiming to want better relations,
and he said so. “The bombs and arms which destroyed Cuban cities and attacked
58. Memorandum of Conversation between Rubottom and Ambassador Ernesto Dihigo of
Cuba, “Desire of GOC to arrive at an understanding on various problems now troubling relations
between Cuba and the United States,” September 21, 1959, file: 350 Cuba (July-Sept) 1959, box 5
[should be in box 4], Cuba, Havana Embassy: Classified General Records, 1959–1961, RG 84,
Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, USNA.
59. Memorandum of Conversation between Bonsal, Dihigo, and Rubottom (at dinner),
September 21, 1959, doc. 611.37/9-2159, folder 611.37/4-159, box 2473, Central Decimal File,
RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, 1955-1959, USNA.
60. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, September 18, 1959,
FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 362, pp. 603–5.
61. Memorandum of Conversation between Foreign Minister Rau´l Roa and Ambassador
Bonsal, “General Attitude Toward U.S.,” October 6, 1959, file: Efforts at Negotiation with
Cuba, box 6, lot 63D91, Subject Files 1960–1963, Records of the Bureau of Inter-American
Affairs, Office of the Coordinator of Cuban Affairs, RG 59, General Records of the
Department of State, USNA.
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Cuban people came from those who are now preoccupied to see that we lack
aviation,” he declared, reminding his audience of U.S. support for Batista.62
Four days after the aircraft story broke, Comandante Huber Matos, the 26th of
July Movement governor in Camagu¨ey province, resigned over the influence of
communists in the government. Matos was immediately arrested and tried for
sedition. On October 21, the very day Matos was arrested, Pedro Dı´az Lanz
reentered the picture, “bombing” Havana with anti-Castro leaflets. Anti-aircraft
fire went astray causing several dozen casualties and creating the impression that
Lanz’s plane dropped bombs. The day after Lanz’s flight, the banner headline in
Revolucio´n, the daily newspaper of Castro’s 26th of July Movement, read, “The
Planes Came from the United States,” and 1,000 people protested outside the U.S.
To Castro, these disparate events belied a pattern. Exiles were attacking Cuba
with impunity from airfields in Florida, Washington was blocking Cuba’s ability to
acquire the aircraft it needed to defend itself, and Dı´az Lanz’s brazen attack on
Havana coincided with Matos’s abortive mutiny. In a speech on October 26 to over
300,000 people rallying in defense of the revolution, Castro compared Dı´az Lanz’s
flight to the attack on Pearl Harbor and accused the United States of “foreign
aggression” for giving the “war criminals” a safe haven from which to attack.64
Castro’s rhetoric on October 26 was “highly inflammatory and pro-revolutionary … as strongly anti-American as anything he has ever done,” Bonsal advised the
State Department—so harsh that even the stoic ambassador recommended a
public response.65 Rubottom agreed. “We cannot let Castro’s charges and antiAmerican campaign go unanswered,” he wrote back to Bonsal. “It is necessary to
bring out clearly where responsibility for current low point in relations lie.”66
Washington delivered its reply the following day in a public note decrying the
“deliberate and concerted efforts in Cuba to replace the traditional friendship
between the Cuban and American people with distrust and hostility.” Charges
that the United States was allowing exiles to operate against Cuba from its territory, the note said, were “utterly unfounded,” and Washington “reject[ed] with
indignation” any such inferences.67
62. Telegram to State from US Emb Havana, “Impromptu Appearance Before Meeting,”
October 20, 1959, Foreign Broadcast Information Service.
63. R. Hart Phillips, “Cuban Crowds Assail U.S. After Attack by Terrorists,” New York Times,
October 23, 1959.
64. R. Hart Phillips, “300,000 Rally to Back Castro; He Condemns ‘Raids’ from U.S.” New
York Times, October 27, 1959.
65. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, October 23, 1959,
FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 377, pp. 639–41; Editorial Note, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol.
VI, Cuba, doc. 379, pp. 642–46.
66. Telegram to US Emb Havana from Rubottom, in reply to Embtel 912, October 24, 1959
[no number], doc. 611.37/10-2359, folder 611.37/10-159, box 2473, Central Decimal File, RG 59,
General Records of the Department of State, 1955–1959, USNA.
67. “Text of U. S. Statement on Envoy’s Protest Against Accusations by Premier Castro,” New
York Times, October 28, 1959.
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Bonsal himself delivered the diplomatic note to President Osvaldo Dortico´s
and Foreign Minister Roa. The statement, he told them, was “in reply to the many
public statements of Dr. Fidel Castro and other revolutionary leaders which we
consider deliberately hostile to U.S. and damaging to Cuban-U.S. relations,” and
which were responsible for the deterioration in relations. Dortico´s replied that the
United States was not doing everything it could to halt exile attacks and that,
“If the U.S. was indignant about some things, GOC [Government of Cuba] was
equally indignant at continuous charges in U.S. that [the] Government [was]
infiltrated by Communists.”68
Revolucio´n denounced the U.S. note in no uncertain terms: “The revolutionary
government has done no more than protest the aggressions received from the
United States … the outrageous press campaign against the revolution …the
threats to reduce the sugar quota … cunning attacks against our nation from
the [U.S.] territory … the bombardment of our sugar centrals and our cities by
planes coming from airfields in the North.”69 The next day, Bonsal filed a lengthy
situation report, leading with, “Publicly expressed anti-Americanism at a new high
and continuing … Campaign continues actively fomented by top governmental
figures and press and radio organs associated with government, with latter become
[sic] aggressive and violent in tone.”70
In early November, Cuba stoked the fires of animosity by publishing a fourteen-page pamphlet blaming the United States for the Dı´az Lanz “bombing,”
illustrating it with graphic images of the dead and wounded. The Foreign
Ministry mailed one directly to Secretary of State Herter. Rubottom summoned
Ambassador Dihigo to deliver what the Washington Post called “a bluntly worded”
reply.71 “Inaccurate, malicious and misleading reports have been spread throughout the world,” the note began. The “offensive” pamphlet was the latest incident in
“a campaign evidently designed to create an atmosphere of hostility in United
States-Cuban relations.”72
68. Telegram to Dept of State from Bonsal, October 27, 1959, no. 939, file: U.S.-Cuba 1959,
box 3, Cuba, Havana Embassy: Classified General Records, 1959–1961, RG 84, Records of the
Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, USNA.
69. The editorial is quoted in Telegram from Bonsal to Sec State, no. 960, October 29, 1959,
doc. 611.37/10-2959, folder 611.37/10-159, box 2473, Central Decimal File, RG 59, General
Records of the Department of State, 1955–1959, USNA.
70. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, October 30, 1959,
FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 382, pp. 648–50.
71. United Press International, “U.S. Charges Cuba Spreads False Reports,” Washington Post,
November 10, 1959.
72. “Statement by U.S. on Cuban Charges,” New York Times, November 10, 1959. The language in an earlier draft of the note was even tougher, calling the pamphlet, “a shocking compilation of half-truths, innuendos and insinuations” and “a deliberate attempt to inflame world
opinion against the USG.” Telegram to US Emb Havana from Dept of State, Herter,
November 7, 1959, no. 542, file: U.S.-Cuba 1959, box 3, Cuba, Havana Embassy: Classified
General Records, 1959–1961, RG 84, Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department
of State, USNA.
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Cuba delivered a long diplomatic note in response to the U.S. protest, and also
released it publicly. Cuban leaders were at least as thin-skinned when it came to
defamatory accusations as U.S. officials were. The note blasted “the most flagrant
falsehoods and the most humiliating insults against the Revolutionary
Government and its foremost figures” that had appeared in the U.S. press, and
demanded to know whether the U.S. government endorsed such “insidious
The events of October and early November, and the escalating rhetoric that
accompanied them, shook Bonsal’s faith in his ability to reason with Castro.
“Intrinsic damaging effect of these developments greatly inflated for present at
least by hostile hysterical manner in which Castro has treated them in his TV
appearances,” he cabled Washington on October 23. After yet another diatribe by
Castro on October 26, Bonsal wrote, “Our efforts … to remove Castro’s deepseated hostility to USA and suspicion of our motives and actions have been unsuccessful. My previous view of Castro as highly emotional individual yet generally
rational and often cold-bloodedly and cynically playing the demagogue [has been]
replaced by opinion that evident cynicism goes hand in hand with definite mental
unbalance at times. His performance of October 26 was not that of a sane man.”74
On November 4, the State Department sent a new policy statement on Cuba to
the president for approval: “The immediate objective of the United States with
respect to Cuba,” it declared, “is the development of a situation in which, not later
than the end of 1960, the Government then in control of Cuba should, in its
domestic and foreign policies, meet … the basic United States policy objectives
for Latin American countries.”75 As Rubottom explained in his cover memo to
Secretary Herter, this meant ousting Castro. “The policies and programs of the
Castro government … are inconsistent with the minimal requirements of good
Cuban-U.S. relations,” he explained. “Our restraint has generally been answered
by continued attacks on the United States by Castro and his lieutenants.”76 In a
memo for the president, Rubottom listed a number of reasons that Castro had to
go; first on the list was his “deliberate fomenting of anti-American sentiment.”77
Eisenhower approved the new policy on November 5.
73. “Text of Cuban Note Rejecting Protest and Calling for a Change in U. S. Policy,” New
York Times, November 14, 1959.
74. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, Havana, October 23,
1959, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 377, pp. 639–41; Embtel, from Bonsal to Sec State,
No. 1043, November 6, 1959, doc. 611.37/11-659, folder 611.37/10-159, box 2473, Central
Decimal File, RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, 1955–1959, USNA.
75. Current Basic United States Policy, October 23, 1959, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba,
doc. 376, attachment, pp. 638–39.
76. Memorandum from the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Rubottom)
to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Murphy), October 23, 1959, FRUS,
1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 376, pp. 635–38.
77. Memorandum to the Secretary, Herter, from John A. Calhoun, DOS Executive
Secretariat, November 4, 1959, with Rubottom Memorandum attached, Current Basic United
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Washington’s tough public replies to Cuba’s charge of complicity with Dı´az
Lanz marked a shift in its public diplomacy strategy concomitant with the shift in
overall policy from trying to coexist with Castro to trying to overthrow him.
Implementation plans summarized it as “a shift from a policy of restraint in the
face of Castro’s anti-American campaign to a policy of answering his regime’s
charges.”78 U.S. officials who had been forced to suffer Castro’s insults in silence
rejoiced at the opportunity to fire back. “I know you are as damn sick and tired as I
am of our failure to rebut adequately the massive anti-United States propaganda
being carried out by the Cuban Government,” Deputy Assistant
Secretary Wieland wrote to Rubottom in early December. “On several occasions
we have discussed these counter-attacks and decided that we would be defeating our own purposes” by answering Castro’s every charge. Now, with the
change in policy, Wieland looked forward to “an intensive campaign to counter
Cuban propaganda, take the initiative, and wage this particular ‘psychological
Rubottom agreed and won approval for a more aggressive response to counter “the vicious, unjustified attacks by the Castro government on the United
States.” It was important, he argued, for Washington to take “a more openly
critical and challenging posture vis-a-vis Cuba in order that our attitude to date
may not be considered a sign of weakness.”80 Bonsal, too, was aware of the domestic political dimension of the problem. In an election year, “The American
posture of moderation in the face of Castro’s insulting and aggressive behavior
was becoming a political liability.”81 In fact, the growing anger of administration officials was paralleled by anger among members of Congress, which
in turn reinforced executive’s sense that they needed to do something about
States Policy Toward Cuba, doc. 611.37/11-459, folder 611.37/10-159, box 2473, Central
Decimal File, RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, 1955–1959, USNA.
78. “Summary of Actions Taken or Underway in Implementation of Statement on Current
Basic United States Policy Towards Cuba,” attached to Memorandum to the Acting Secretary
from Mr. Rubottom, ARA, “Discussion Paper on Cuba for Oral Briefing of NSC on Thursday,
January 14,” January 13, 1960, file: Planning and NSC Briefings 1960, box 4, Bureau of
Inter-American Affairs, Records of the Special Assistant on Communism, 1958–1961, RG 59,
General Records of the Department of State, USNA.
79. Memorandum to Rubottom from Wieland, December 4, 1959, “Countering the Cuban
Propaganda Offensive,” folder: Cuba, General 1959, 1 of 2, box 1, lot 63D67, Subject Files
1957–1962, Records of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, Office of Caribbean and Mexican
Affairs (CMA), RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, USNA.
80. Memorandum from the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Rubottom)
to the Under Secretary of State (Dillon), December 28, 1959, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba,
doc. 414, pp. 716–20.
81. Bonsal, Cuba, Castro, and the United States, 134.
82. Asa McKercher, “Steamed Up: Domestic Politics, Congress, and Cuba, 1959–1963,”
Diplomatic History 38, no. 3 (June 2014): 599–627.
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The last serious effort to negotiate a modus vivendi with the Cuban revolution
began, ironically, as the unintended consequence of a diplomatic shouting match.
As part of Washington’s new get-tough approach, the State Department delivered
another diplomatic note to Cuba on January 11, 1960, protesting the treatment of
U.S. investors.83 A few days later, Vice-President Nixon, on a campaign swing
through Miami, warned that Cuba’s hostility toward U.S. investors risked deterring future investment and perhaps provoking Congress to cut Cuba’s sugar
quota.84 Castro responded angrily to the implied threat, calling it “insolent.” He
denounced the United States for waging “an insidious hostile campaign” against
Cuba, and accused the U.S. embassy of plotting with traitors to subvert the
Castro’s “tone and attitude,” Bonsal wrote to Washington, were “arrogant,
insolent and provocative.” The conspiracy charges against Bonsal led the
Department of State to recall him, over his objections. “In view of the steppedup campaign of calumny against the United States Government by the
Government of Cuba which has descended to the point of insulting and derogatory
public statements by Prime Minister Castro … I feel that a vigorous action is
required in order to maintain the dignity and prestige of the United States
Government,” Rubottom wrote to Bonsal.86
The recall proved fortuitous. Back in Washington, Bonsal was able to convince
Secretary Herter and President Eisenhower to offer the Cubans one last olive
branch.87 On January 26, Eisenhower released a statement to the press expressing
concern about the poor state of relations, but acknowledging Cuba’s right to
undertake social, economic, and political reforms. Most importantly, it called
for negotiations to settle bilateral differences.88
Cuba accepted the offer, and during the preparations to begin talks, Castro
toned down his anti-American rhetoric noticeably. Before the January initiative,
Rubottom reported to Under-Secretary of State C. Douglas Dillon, Cuba had
been “conducting an intense campaign of vilification against the United States
which has included insulting and calumnious public statements by Prime Minister
83. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, January 11, 1960, FRUS,
1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 422, pp. 739–40.
84. “Nixon Warns Cuba on Alienating U.S.,” New York Times, January 17, 1960.
85. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, January 19, 1960, FRUS,
1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 424, pp. 747–48.
86. Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, January 21, 1960, FRUS,
1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 429, pp. 752–53; Draft Memorandum from the Assistant Secretary
of State for Inter-American Affairs (Rubottom) to the Secretary of State, January 21, 1960, FRUS,
1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 427, pp. 750–51.
87. Memorandum of a Conference with the President, White House, Washington, January
25, 1960, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 436, pp. 763–65.
88. Editorial Note, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 438, pp. 767–68.
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Fidel Castro as well as other Cuban officials.” But since the initiative, Castro and
other Cuban leaders “have taken a somewhat softer line and have refrained from
directly attacking the United States.”89
Nevertheless, the State Department was hard at work drawing up an “action
plan” entitled, “Countering Anti-United States Attitudes Generated by the
Government of Cuba.” The eleven-page single-spaced document attributed
Castro’s “program of virulent attack on the United States Government” to communist influence, his attempt to appeal to Cuban nationalism, and “Castro’s paranoiac mentality; he may sincerely believe the United States is guilty of actions and
designs on Cuba.” The memo then outlined a “counter-propaganda” campaign
consisting of both overt and covert operations to mold Cuban and Latin American
opinion against Castro who, the paper remarked, “is violently sensitive to criticism.” It was not clear whether this last comment was meant as a cautionary note or
intended to point out a weakness to exploit.90 In any event, it was proof that even
paranoiacs sometimes have real enemies.
The “ceasefire” in the war of words, as Bonsal called it, did not last long. When
diplomats could not agree on the terms to begin negotiations, Rau´l Castro gave a
blistering speech at the University of Havana, calling the U.S. intervention in Cuba
in 1898 an “act of international piracy” by “imperialistic hordes” intent to “establish the right of new conquerors.” And that was just for starters. “The coarse
horsemen, the apocalyptic horsemen of the dollar came to frustrate the second
great revolutionary phase,” Castro continued. “This shameless intervention of the
United States served to enable its aggressive monopolies to seize our best lands,
our mineral resources, our foreign trade, our whole life.”91
It was “the most violent anti-United States attack since Fidel Castro’s speech of
January 20,” Bonsal reported to Washington. “The significance of Rau´l Castro’s
remarks lies in the fact that they represent the first violent attack on the United
States by a principal figure of the Government since the campaign of invective by
top Revolutionary officials stopped following the public statements by President
Eisenhower and President Dortico´s on January 26 and 27, 1960.”92
89. Memorandum to the Under Secretary from Mr. Rubottom, ARA, “Recent Development
and the Present Situation in Cuba,” February 1, 1960, file: Briefing Papers, Cuba 1960, lot 63D91,
box 2, Records of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, Office of the Coordinator of Cuban
Affairs, Subject Files 1960–1963, RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, USNA.
90. Memorandum to Wieland from R. G. Cushing (ARA/P), February 4, 1960, “Action Paper
on Cuba: Countering Anti-U.S. Attitudes,” folder: Cuba, General 1960, 2 of 2, box 3, lot 63D67,
Subject Files 1957–1962, Records of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, Office of Caribbean
and Mexican Affairs (CMA), RG 59, General Records of the Department of State, USNA.
91. Rau´l Castro, “Reclamamos el derecho a seguir el modo de vida que nos plazca,” Revolucio´n,
February 25, 1960, attached to Despatch from US Emb Havana to Dept State, March 8, 1960, no.
1256, “Raul Castro Speaking at the University of Havana Violently Attacks U.S.,” file: 350 Cuba
(March) 1960, box 4, Cuba, Havana Embassy: Classified General Records, 1959–1961, RG 84,
Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, USNA.
92. Despatch from US Emb Havana to Dept State, March 8, 1960, no. 1256, “Raul Castro
Speaking at the University of Havana Violently Attacks U.S.,” file: 350 Cuba (March) 1960, box 4,
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On March 4, the French freighter La Coubre, unloading an arms shipment from
Belgium, exploded in Havana harbor killing 75 dock workers and wounding over
93 Forty years later, Castro’s recollection of the carnage was still vivid. “All of a
sudden, we heard a very strong explosion and the building itself was shaken …
Minutes after, there was a second explosion… . When we arrived at the docks,
there was a crowd of people, wounded wandering around, people trying to help.
We could hear the sirens of the police and ambulances coming to pick up the
wounded and the dead. I can still see the scene as if I were looking at it now.”94
Castro was convinced the CIA was responsible.95 He knew that Washington
had tried unsuccessfully to talk the Belgians out of delivering the munitions on La
Coubre. “We must look for the guilty ones among those who did not want us to
have these weapons,” he said at the funeral for those killed in the explosion. “We
have the right to think that those who through diplomacy tried to prevent us
from getting this equipment, could certainly have tried to achieve the same objective by other methods.” Comparing the destruction of La Coubre to the sinking
of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 that precipitated the
Spanish-American War, Castro warned Washington not to make the mistake of
thinking that it could once again send troops to abort Cuba’s struggle for true
Washington, expressing “shock and outrage,” officially protested Castro’s accusation of sabotage, calling it “unfounded and irresponsible.”97 The Cubans rejected the U.S. protest as “insulting.”98 Bonsal, who had tried so hard to find
common ground with the revolutionary government, gave up trying to secure
meetings with Castro. “Fidel has insulted and offended our government on numerous occasions. If he wants to see me … he can let me know,” Bonsal wrote
privately to Rubottom, adding, “I do not believe there is the slightest chance of
influencing Castro in any constructive way.”99 The negotiating track, which had
Cuba, Havana Embassy: Classified General Records, 1959–1961, RG 84, Records of the Foreign
Service Posts of the Department of State, USNA.
93. Thomas, The Pursuit of Freedom, 1269.
94. “Bay of Pigs Forty Years After,” conference sponsored by the University of Havana and the
National Security Archive, Havana, Cuba, March 22–24, 2001, conference panel I, tape 1.
95. In 2007, writing about the explosion in one of his “reflections,” Castro reiterated his
conviction that the CIA blew up the ship. “Reflections of President Fidel Castro: World
Tyranny: The Basics of the Killing Machine,” Granma International, July 9, 2007.
96. “Palabras pronunciadas… en las Honras Funebres de las victimas de la explosio´n del barco
La Coubre, el 5 de Marzo de 1960,” Discursos e intervenciones del Comandante en Jefe Fidel
97. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, March 7, 1960,
FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 469, pp. 823–24; Telegram from Dept State to US Emb
Havana, March 12, 1960, no. 1335, “Text of US protest of Castro speech Mar 5,” file: 350 Cuba
(March) 1960, box 4, Cuba, Havana Embassy: Classified General Records, 1959–1961, RG 84,
Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, USNA.
98. “Cuba Rejects Herter’s Protest,” Washington Post, March 9, 1960.
99. Letter from Bonsal to Rubottom, April 22, 1960, Geographical File, Cuba, 1960,
Jan-April, folder 9, box 1, Bonsal Papers.
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looked promising in late January and February, was cut short by the mutual recriminations. On March 17, President Eisenhower signed the formal authorization
for the CIA to begin planning the Bay of Pigs invasion.100
The verbal assaults exchanged between Washington and Havana did not stop after
the breakdown in relations, of course; they continued on for the next half century.
Although Fidel Castro modulated his tone over the years in conjunction with the
shifting climate of relations, when tensions were high, he could be just as harsh in
his criticism of succeeding presidents as he was of the Eisenhower administration.
The long critique of U.S. depredations against Cuba from 1898 onward became a
staple of Cuban diplomatic dialogues with the United States—up to and including
the secret talks in 2013–2014 that produced the agreement to normalize
The Cuban case reinforces Friedman’s argument that fundamentally different
visions of the U.S. role in the world are the catalyst for the sort of conceptual
disjuncture that in Cuba generated such anger among key decision-makers. By
challenging the United States’ self-image of beneficence, Fidel Castro triggered a
deep emotional reaction that manifested itself in charges of anti-Americanism and
a hostile foreign policy response. If ever a case demonstrated the centrality of
emotion in foreign policy decision-making, the 15 months of U.S.-Cuban relations after January 1959 is a compelling one.
The traditional issues of national interest—protecting U.S. economic assets
and national security—were not unimportant. Washington was certainly concerned over Castro’s nationalization of U.S. property (and the example it set for
the rest of Latin America), his tolerance of communists in his government, and his
neutralist foreign policy as those policies unfolded in 1959. But the clash of interests was exacerbated by the emotions that Castro’s harsh rhetoric inflamed. As
these conflicts of interest intensified in late 1959 and 1960, U.S. policymakers
(except for Ambassador Bonsal) had already given up any real hope of reaching
an accord with Castro because his rhetoric had convinced them he was an irredeemable anti-American. In the end, the breakdown in relations turned in large
part on these real conflicts of interest, but the anger that Castro’s diatribes provoked created an emotional climate that made a diplomatic resolution impossible.
Fidel Castro’s anger with the United States was largely a product of his own
deep sense of nationalism and his belief that Washington had held Cuba in subjugation since 1898. At times his rhetoric was clearly the product of anger at events
he blamed on Washington and regarded as contemporary manifestations of U.S.
domination—the criticism of the trials of Batista officials, Pedro Dı´az Lanz’s
100. Paper Prepared by the 5412 Committee, “A Program of Covert Action Against the
Castro Regime,” March 16, 1960, FRUS, 1958–1960, vol. VI, Cuba, doc. 481, pp. 850–51, fn 1.
101. Warren Strobel, Matt Spetalnick, and David Adams, “How Obama Outmaneuvered
Hardliners and Cut a Cuba Deal,” Reuters, March 23, 2015.
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escapades, the explosion of the La Coubre. But there was also an instrumental
dimension to how and when Castro expressed his anger to mobilize domestic
support behind the revolutionary government. His nationalist appeals resonated
with the Cuban people.
Castro may have made a distinction between anti-American rhetoric for domestic consumption and the language of diplomacy, as he explained to Daniel
Braddock, but policymakers in Washington made no such distinction. Whatever
the motive, Castro’s version of U.S.-Cuban relations was not one that U.S. officials
were willing to hear because it departed so completely from their own conception
of that relationship, past and present. To them, the United States had been Cuba’s
good neighbor, and they took Castro’s criticism to be not just insulting but intentionally defamatory. No doubt they felt their anger was every bit as righteous as
Fidel Castro felt his to be; their fault was in believing that no reasonable person
could possibly agree with Castro when, in fact, most Cubans did.102
The anger of U.S. officials is palpable in the endless stream of derogatory
adjectives they used to describe Castro’s speeches: insolent, irresponsible, inflammatory, insulting, aggressive, malicious, calumnious, derisive, scurrilous, virulent,
arrogant, provocative, fraudulent, harping, malevolent, pathological, psychopathic, and hysterical. Their anger hampered negotiations over substantive disagreements. Their emotion made compromise appear hopeless and a sign of
When the passions of the day had cooled to some degree, policymakers themselves would look back on the actions and reactions of 1959–1960 and conclude
that they had acted in ways contrary to their self-interest. As Fidel Castro said to
U.S. diplomat Wayne Smith in 1978, “In retrospect, I can see a number of things
I wish I had done differently… . Even adversaries find it useful to maintain bridges
between them… . Perhaps I burned some of those bridges precipitously; there
were times when I may have been more abrupt, more aggressive, than was called
for by the situation.”103
In a post-mortem review of the break in relations conducted by the Kennedy
administration, NSC staff member Gordon Chase and State Department official
John Plank recognized how the gulf in understanding had hampered efforts to
maintain friendly relations. “There was a general reluctance on the part of the U.S.
Government … to throw itself wholeheartedly into the job of winning Castro over
to our side with the carrot,” because of “the difficulty and unpleasantness of the
task in the face of Castro’s sporadic anti-American behavior,” they wrote.
“Although we recognized that a real revolution had occurred, we either refused
102. A poll commissioned by the CIA and conducted in Cuba in 1960 by Lloyd Free found
that only 2% of respondents were critical of the government’s policy toward the United States.
Free concluded, “criticisms from American sources of the regime’s anti-U.S. policies are apt to fall
on relatively deaf ears.” Lloyd A. Free, Attitudes of the Cuban People Toward the Castro Regime
(Princeton, NJ, 1960).
103. Wayne S. Smith, The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of U.S.-Cuban
Relations Since 1957 (New York, 1987), 144–45.
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to face up, were unable to face up, or had not yet had time to face up, to the full
implications of this and what it entailed in terms of a major revision … of the
traditional relationships between the U.S. and Cuba, not only in the economic
sphere, but in the political and psychological spheres as well.” Chase and Plank saw
this psychological dimension as especially important because of how it colored
policy-makers’ responses. “Vice-President Nixon’s description of his meeting with
Castro reeks of this failure to understand, inherent in the view that Cuba was still a
Caribbean dependency, was still subject to the tutelary influence of the U.S. and
was still amenable to the patronizing devices of control and persuasion appropriate
to the pre-Castro era.”
When Fidel Castro rejected Washington’s patronizing presumption of hegemony in no uncertain terms, U.S. policy-makers were frustrated and angry at such
defiance. “The U.S. Government, in the face of Cuban ungratefulness and ungentlemanly antics, generally limited its cooperation investment to bland, oral
extensions of good will,” Chase and Plank concluded. “Concrete offers of aid
were coyly held in abeyance until the Cubans “shaped up” and/or swallowed
their nationalist pride and asked for aid.”104
Fidel Castro was not one to swallow his pride or to accept the tutelary influence
of the United States. As he said in his first speech after Batista fled the island on
January 1, 1959, “This time, the Revolution will not be frustrated … This time,
the Revolution is for real.”105
104. “U.S./Cuban Relations – January 2, 1959 to January 3, 1961,” attached to Memorandum
from Gordon Chase to McGeorge Bundy, “Plank/Chase Cuban Project,” February 3, 1964, Gale
Declassified Documents Reference System.
105. “Discurso pronunciado por el Comandante Fidel Castro Ruz, en el Parque Ce´spedes de
Santiago de Cuba, el 1ro. de enero de 1959,”
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