In RFK’s Cuba papers, a new glimpse of power and pitfalls
Notes among seven boxes released by JFK Library
Robert F. Kennedy’s handwritten notes about the missile crisis were released Thursday
ROBERT F KENNEDY
Dee Finney's blog
start date July 20, 2011
today's date october 13, 2012
TOPIC: ROBERT F. KENNEDY
DOCUMENTS MADE PUBLIC
BOSTON — Lined pages with a doodle of the Liberty Bell and a CIA document outlining a Mafia-connected plan to assassinate Fidel Castro for $150,000 are among thousands of Robert F. Kennedy documents made public Thursday.
The National Archives and Records Administration and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston released some 2,700 pages of documents Kennedy compiled as attorney general from 1961 to 1964, offering a glimpse into Cold War decision-making.
Though the documents, released just shy of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, don't rewrite Cold War history, they do provide insight into the personal thoughts of the era's key figures, historians say.
Kennedy advised John F. Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis, key moments during his brother's presidency.
His title as attorney general "disguised his real position, which was the closest adviser to the president and the president's confidant and the person the president trusted most," said journalist and historian Michael Dobbs, who blogs for Foreign Policy. "That's the interesting point of this, that he kind of reflects his brother's thinking."
The seven boxes of newly released material include telegrams, reports, meeting transcripts and handwritten notes by Kennedy, some with doodles and quotes in the margins.
"It gives you a sort of insight into what was on his mind, what he doodled," Dobbs said. "It's interesting from a human perspective."
One page, sandwiched between lined pages of notes on the Bay of Pigs invasion, includes a sketch of the Liberty Bell with a summarized quote from a Polish World War II memorial in Italy.
"We the Soldiers of Poland for your liberty and ours give our souls to god, our bodies to Italy and our hearts to Poland," Kennedy wrote in pencil.
The 1961 botched invasion sought to oust communists with the help of anti-Castro Cuban exiles and veiled U.S. support. More than 100 members of the CIA-sponsored invasion team were killed and many were captured by Cuban forces.
One CIA document offers a profile of Castro: It calls him intelligent but "not very stable" and "touchy, impatient and rash."
Another outlines plans to assassinate Castro, including a 1964 plan with connections to the Mafia. The mob and "patriotic Cuban exiles" eventually settled on a payment of $100,000 for assassinating Castro, $20,000 for his brother Raul and $20,000 for revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, plus $2,500 for expenses.
Another prominent thread throughout the documents is the 13-day crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba.
On one white page from a meeting on Oct. 16, 1962, the first day of the crisis, Kennedy wrote out two columns: proponents of a blockade against Cuba and supporters of a military strike.
"It's interesting to see in his handwriting who's on which side," Dobbs said.
The blockade won out.
The materials are available online and at the Boston library. Some are still classified and aren't available.
The documents' release is important to historians, said University of Maine history professor Nathan Godfried.
"This is the raw materials we use in order to reconstruct the past," he said. "The more documents from different perspectives give us a clearer sense of what happened."
It was Oct. 27, 1962, “the most difficult and tense time” of the Cuban missile crisis, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy scribbled on a legal pad after huddling with his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and his closest advisers.
“This was the moment we had prepared for which we hoped would never come,” he continued. “We had to either intercept [the Soviet ships] or announce we were bluffing.”
The sense of impending danger “hung like a cloud over us all. And no one more than the president.”
The attorney general’s handwritten notes from these around-the-clock meetings 50 years ago this month are part of more than 2,700 pages of his personal and confidential files made public Thursday by the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Dorchester with the approval of his family.
Although they do not appear to contain any blockbuster revelations, the documents spotlight the central role — a highly unusual one — that the attorney general played in foreign policy, including helping the United States and Soviet Union step back from the brink of nuclear holocaust.
The files contain several early drafts of his memos to the president as he served as a go-between with Soviet diplomats. The efforts ultimately defused the crisis with a public US pledge not to invade Cuba if the Soviets removed their missiles, and with a private pledge to dismantle American missiles in Europe.
The seven boxes of newly released files are among the 62 covering Kennedy’s three-year tenure as attorney general that researchers have been angling to see for decades. The Kennedy family, which was granted unusual purview over the collection by the National Archives after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, pledged in a statement Wednesday to work with the government to declassify and release the remaining 55.
Many of the newly declassified files on Cuba, which cover 1961 to 1963, are marked “top secret” or “ultrasensitive” or “eyes only.” They provide insight into how Robert Kennedy presided over a maze of US-sponsored efforts to overthrow the regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, from the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion to renewed efforts after the missile crisis.
His handwritten notes hint at how the Bay of Pigs fiasco staggered the young administration. One dated May 11, 1961, days after the failure, contains doodles of triangles, a reference to the CIA, and the line: “If we do not get back to a position where nations have some respect, and even fear [illegible], we shall never beat these bastards.”
At one point in May 1963, after he met with a leader of the Bay of Pigs operation and other Cuban exiles, an aide warned him about the potential implications of his continued role. A CIA report had recounted that exiles were dropping his name while building support for plans to remove Castro.
“It seems to me the CIA report presents the question of whether your name should be circulated in general like this,” the aide wrote.
Historians called the newly available documents invaluable to understanding the full role of Robert Kennedy in Cuba policy and the wider Cold War.
“The anomaly of Robert Kennedy was that the attorney general of the United States was moonlighting as director of covert operations against Cuba,” said Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, a research center at George Washington University, and an expert on Cuba and the Cold War.
Kornbluh said the initial covert efforts Kennedy oversaw to remove Castro — collectively called Operation Mongoose — were halted after the missile crisis but were revived in 1963. “The Cuban exiles are in some way reporting to Robert Kennedy,” he said.
For example, the documents show that months after the United States vowed publicly it would not try to remove Castro, RFK presided over a secret meeting on May 14, 1963, in the White House Situation Room to discuss potential opportunities to take stronger action in Cuba. One possibility involved exposing US spy planes to enemy fire in an attempt to provoke an incident for political purposes.
Kennedy biographer Larry Tye said “the documents show that long after the Bay of Pigs and missile crisis Bobby continued playing CIA chief, counterinsurgency boss, and chief provocateur.”Continued...
Kennedys keep vise-grip on RFK papers
|Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. (Bettmann/CORBIS)|
Scholars and government officials believe the 62 boxes of files covering Kennedy’s three years as attorney general during his brother’s administration could provide insights into critical Cold War decisions on issues ranging from the Cuban missile crisis to Vietnam.
Yet the Kennedy family, led by Robert’s widow, Ethel, has rarely permitted even limited access to the papers. Their expansive control of the RFK archive, which extends to dozens of Pentagon, State Department, and CIA documents, stems from a controversial agreement reached with the National Archives following Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.
Numerous government archivists and historians maintain the family should never have been granted oversight of the official documents — only the files containing private information, such as correspondence with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and a collection of materials involving famous family acquaintances like Frank Sinatra.
“It was inappropriate [for the National Archives] to allow it,” said William J. Leonard, who recently retired as chief overseer of the government classification system. “Classified information by definition is information that is under the government’s control.”
Put another way, “Ethel has been given control of documents that she couldn’t even legally read because she didn’t have a security clearance,” said a former National Archives official who had the authority to handle top secret information regarding the RFK papers.
The Globe first reported in January 2011 that most scholars have been unable to get access to the documents. But the index reveals for the first time an overview of the contents of the collection and the fact that most of the documents are not personal papers.
Representatives of the Kennedy family declined requests to discuss the issue in detail. Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, who has handled the issue on behalf of his mother, said in an e-mail that the family was deferring questions to Joseph E. Hakim, a business executive who formerly oversaw some of the family’s financial holdings.
“I know he is working hard with the National Archives to figure out a way to release all of the papers,” Max Kennedy said.
Hakim did not respond to several telephone messages and e-mails.
According to a person who has been closely consulted by the family on the issue, the government’s mishandling of the papers began when Kennedy’s office was packed up in the summer of 1968 and the contents sent to the National Archives for storage.
RFK had access to classified documents and who knows what he had in his offices when he died,” said the person, who spoke to the Globe on the condition of anonymity, for fear of upsetting the family.
Several years later the National Archives and RFK’s heirs reached what Thomas J. Putnam, the director of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Columbia Point, described as a “deposit” agreement.
In the legal memorandum, he said, the family agreed to keep the papers in the JFK Library but was given the right to review any access to them. The family also agreed that it would sign a deed granting the National Archives full control of most, if not all, of the documents. But there was no deadline set for the deed, and despite the library’s efforts, negotiations to secure one have started and stalled repeatedly over the decades.
“The family should never have had ownership of the classified documents to begin with,” said the family confidant. The deal with the National Archives to house the papers, crafted in the emotional aftermath of the assassination, “had errors that led to the family feeling ownership. . . . The family holds dear the professional papers of both husband and father.”
The Kennedy family has said it granted access to the papers to a few historians, but library officials maintain no one has seen them all — out of concern for the family’s privacy or because so many files were stamped secret.
Even the author hand-picked by Ethel Kennedy to write a comprehensive biography of her husband — former Kennedy White House aide Arthur M. Schlesinger — was granted limited access, according to private correspondence recently reviewed by the Globe.
“I told her that there would be no direct quotes from the papers without her permission,” Burke Marshall, who ran the Civil Rights Division at RFK’s Justice Department, wrote to Schlesinger on Mrs. Kennedy’s behalf in February 1969.
In his private notes, Schlesinger himself expressed frustration in 1985 that the files were not fully released.
Papers from other chapters of Robert Kennedy’s public life — including when he served as his brother’s campaign manager; his efforts in the Justice Department to combat organized crime; and his three years as US senator from New York — have been released by the library with the family’s consent.
The withheld files are broken into two categories, according to the nearly 40-page index, whose authenticity the Globe verified with a former library official who worked directly with the collection. About half make up the attorney general’s so-called “classified” file and the rest are labeled the attorney general’s “confidential” file.
Both series of files document Kennedy’s broad portfolio as the president’s most trusted adviser, including in foreign policy. That was a distinct departure from previous attorneys general, who were responsible almost solely for domestic law enforcement.Continued...
For example, the confidential files included the “top secret” minutes from the Cuba Study Group in 1961, when the US government was trying to assassinate Fidel Castro — an effort in which Robert Kennedy was deeply enmeshed. Also of particular interest to historians, as the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis approaches this fall, are his top secret “notes and memos” from the Executive Committee he chaired for the president during the 1962 crisis.
Other files labeled top secret are titled Operation MONGOOSE — the secret CIA plan to kill Castro — including RFK’s notes from a meeting about the operation held in the midst of the missile crisis.
Many, if not all, of those documents can now be declassified and released to the public, historians and government archivists maintain. Putnam agreed and said most of the documents have recently been declassified. The next step is to consult the family and gain approval for their release, he said.
According to officials and family advisers, RFK’s heirs have dragged their feet in granting permission in part because the government records are interspersed with items deeply personal in nature.
While not classified, many of those files are labeled as requiring “careful screening,” according to the index, written by a National Archives official in 1975.
They include RFK’s letters to and from his wife; sister-in-law Kennedy Onassis; his father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy; as well as his sisters and eleven children. Two other files cover his brother, former Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, while a “thick folder” contains communications between RFK and JFK — though it is unclear whether those cover official or personal topics, or both.
However, contained in other boxes in the series are top secret files labeled “intelligence collection through audio surveillance” and “An assessment of the United States Intelligence Resources in Latin America.’’
Further underscoring the complicated task of separating government documents from personal files are a series of boxes that appeared to contain a combination of the two.
For example, several sequential boxes labeled “personnel reports” contained a sensitive file on Sinatra and another, labeled top secret, about journalist Joseph Alsop. Mixed in with a file of “sensational” news clippings about Marilyn Monroe were “secret” items from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA.
Meanwhile, filed away with a secret folder on Robert Komer, who ran the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program in South Vietnam — the effort to win the “hearts and minds” of villagers during the Vietnam War — were “two thick folders” from Kennedy White House press secretary Pierre Salinger “on the Blauvelt ‘genealogy’ matter,” referring to unsubstantiated claims that President Kennedy was married to another woman before Jacqueline.
“The question of ownership is very real,” said John Seigenthaler, a former RFK aide and friend of the family. “It gets a bit dicey if it’s government property.”
At least one person who has a file labeled for careful screening in the collection said the custody issue should be resolved and all public documents released. “It’s been nearly 50 years. I can’t think of a single reason why they can’t be made public,” said Mortimer M. Caplin, who served as head of the IRS in the Kennedy administration and was one of RFK’s law professors.
Library officials have expressed frustration that the process has taken so many years.
In a 2007 memorandum to the Kennedy family obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Putnam said that “one of my top priorities as director is to get the deeds for our undeeded collections.”
But another sticking point, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe, has been the family’s desire to have all of RFK’s papers appraised for their monetary value so that when they deed them to the National Archives they can receive a tax deduction.
John Reznikoff, an appraiser who runs University Archives in Westport, Conn., was consulted by the Kennedy family several years ago on how to properly assess the collection’s worth. But Reznikoff, who previously appraised some of Richard Nixon’s private papers, said that, to his knowledge, the Kennedy appraisal effort has stalled.
“I think it’s a gray area,” he said of the question of ownership of RFK’s unreleased files. “The best settlement would entail allowing the government to copy the archives and have the papers donated for a tax benefit for the family. That seems like the most logical disposition.”
In an internal e-mail in 2007 about organizing an appraisal of the archive, Putnam expressed confidence that 2007 might be “the magic year” for the RFK papers to be shaken loose.
But asked last week about status of securing a deed from the family, Putnam would only say “the negotiations are continuing.”
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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