Podcast: Irv Gellman on Nixon, Castro and the Cuban Revolution
Fidel Castro and Richard Nixon on April 19, 1959 (Zuma Press).
Irv Gellman is author of the “The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961.”
2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and the take over of the island country by Communist leader Fidel Castro. In April 1959, Castro traveled to Washington and met with Vice President Nixon. On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we explore this topic and the history of the American government’s Cuba policy with Dr. Irwin Gellman.
Dr. Gellman is a historian and Nixon biographer. He’s author of “The Contender: Richard Nixon, the Congress Years, 1946-1952,” and “The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to “The Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by The Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and the takeover of the island by communist revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. In April 1959, Castro traveled to Washington and met with then vice president, Nixon. To discuss this in the American government’s Cuba policy is Irwin Gellman. Dr. Gellman is a historian and Nixon biographer. He’s author of “The Contender: Richard Nixon – The Congress Years, 1946 to 1952” and “The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961.” Dr. Gellman, welcome back.
Irwin Gellman: Thank you for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: To start off, Dr. Gellman, I understand your expertise is Western Hemispheric affairs, in addition to the life and political career of Richard Nixon. Could you tell us a little about…this audience about your study in this area?
Irwin Gellman: Yes. My actual specialty was U.S.-Latin American relations of the 20th century with a specific emphasis on Cuba and the rise and rule of Fidel Castro.
Jonathan Movroydis: So, the topic today is Cuba. Could you give us a backgrounder on U.S. relations towards Cuba in the 20th century? It starts off…big event starting off with the Spanish-American War. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Irwin Gellman: Well, the United States fought the Spanish-American War, allegedly for the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. And it was a very jingoistic, militaristic position that the United States was taking as it was proceeding to create its own empire. And part of the empire that was sort of created, but not created was the occupation of Cuba. And we basically put Cuba under our control, but to stop the actual annexation of Cuba, the United States Congress passed what was called the Platt Amendment, which made Cuba pretty much a protectorate up until 1934 when we abrogated the Platt Amendment. But the idea of the U.S. control of Cuba in the 20th century from the Spanish-American War up until the fall of Fulgencio Batista at the end of 1958 is very clear the United States had a very strong political, economic, social, however you want to talk about it, relationship with Cuba because it was so symbiotic. The United States supplied Cuba with finished goods and the Cubans relied on the monoculture of sugar.
And in addition to that, Cuba was one of the most prosperous countries in Central and the Caribbean and in South America in the first half of the 20th century.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you take us a little bit through the politics of the Platt Amendment? Why didn’t the United States want to annex Cuba outright? Why this political arrangement?
Irwin Gellman: Well, again, that goes back to the 19th century, even before the Civil War, the idea of many Southerners wanted to annex Cuba to make it an additional occupancy of slavery. The North wanted to prevent any annexation of Cuba or basically through a buy from Spain, the annexation of Cuba because they were concerned that this would perpetuate slavery also. The nature of how that progressed to the Spanish-American War and the Platt Amendment were basically following that lead that you did not want to annex Cuba because it was not the card of the relationship that the Northerners wanted. And it was the kind of thing that they thought that the Southerners still had pensioned to Nixon because they were one of them, for want of a better word.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why was the Platt Amendment ultimately abrogated?
Irwin Gellman: In 1933, the Cuban dictator, Gerardo Machado was falling for power and he was overthrown by what was euphemistically called the Revolt of the Sergeants. And leading that revolt was Fulgencio Batista, who became basically the power behind the throne and the president of Cuba from 1933, ’34, all the way up until he fled the country at the beginning of 1959. But Machado was thrown out of office and created an enormous amount of political upheaval, where ultimately, Batista becomes the chief cardio, the chief power in Cuba for the next…what? 1934 to 1959.
Jonathan Movroydis: And this period marked what was called by the United States, the Good Neighbor policy. Through the Great Depression into the World War II, could you give us a snapshot of what U.S.-Cuba relations looked like during this period of time?
Irwin Gellman: The nature of U.S.-Cuba relations from ’33 to the end of World War II, ’45 were very close. The Cubans needed the symbiotic relationship with the United States economically. You know, huge sales of sugar to the United States. The United States provided manufacturing and other agricultural products. And during World War II became a very firm supporter of the United States entrance into the war and sided with the United States through World War II.
Jonathan Movroydis: And at the end of the war, how did U.S.-Cuba relations take shape at the dawn of the Cold War with the Soviet Union?
Irwin Gellman: It continued on the nature of the Cuban government, was allegedly very anticommunist and it was, again, still controlled by Batista. Batista left the country after his term of the presidency was gone kind of back in 1952 to run again when he found that he wasn’t going to win or thought he wasn’t going to win, staged a coup, became again, president of Cuba. And the United States very quickly recognized him. And it led to a series of political opponents that wanted to overthrow them, among which was Fidel Castro.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there a feeling at all that Cuba was an intelligence on the part of the U.S. that Cuba might go communist?
Irwin Gellman: Before Batista is thrown out and during the immediate rise of Castro some did, some didn’t. The hope was that Castro would side with the United States and also the United States minimize the chances of the Soviets and Nikita Khrushchev gaining a foothold in the Western Hemisphere.
Jonathan Movroydis: There are some people that say that Fidel Castro wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool communist, that he had harbored other ideologies throughout his political career, and that it was mainly the United States’ position towards him that drove him into the Soviet’s arms. Would you say that is true? Or do you believe that, you know, he was originally or developed his ideology early on as a communist?
Irwin Gellman: I think that Fidel Castro at the beginning was pretty much a political opportunist, but followed a very much of an anti-American, anti-Yankee position because of what he considered and many Cubans in his position considered favoritism towards dictators like Machado and Batista. The nature of him becoming a dyed-in-the-wool communist before the revolution of 1959, I think has been a work to death and it’s overgeneralized. I don’t think that Castro had any real deep political, philosophical background.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did he take power ultimately in Havana in around New Year’s Eve of 1959 or 1958 going into 1959?
Irwin Gellman: Basically, for whatever reason, Batista felt that he was losing and he would be overthrown sooner rather than later and decided to get out of the country rather than to be somehow caught and executed by the rebels.
Jonathan Movroydis: And Fidel takes power in April of that year, how was he able to consolidate power?
Irwin Gellman: Well, first of all, he took power…he actually took power when he marched into Havana. There were a whole series of possibilities, but very quickly, Castro is taking power. By April of 1959, he’s pretty much in control. He’s a charismatic leader, who has a wide following and even at that particular time, he’s not looked upon as “a real dictator.”
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the Eisenhower administration’s reaction to it, particularly the president to Fidel’s takeover?
Irwin Gellman: Eisenhower was very circumspect. Additionally, he wanted to get more data. He wanted to find out what was going on internally in Cuba. But his general position was that the Cuban people had the right to overthrow the dictator because he was regularly apprised of Batista, and how unpopular Batista was in Cuba, and the nature of corruption of the Cuban government, and other problems that the Cubans were having. He didn’t really take a hard line either for or against Castro. Waited just to see how the revolution played out.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did Nixon react early on to…Vice President Nixon react on…react to the takeover?
Irwin Gellman: Pretty much the same way, he followed the administration. He was hearing far more from people that viewed Castro as a lefty and possibly a communist, but he too was followed the president’s lead of not acting precipitously.
Jonathan Movroydis: Tell us a little bit about Castro’s visit to the United States. Why did he decide to make a trip and why did Eisenhower not choose to meet with him and Vice President Nixon meet with him?
Irwin Gellman: The idea behind Castro coming to the United States, I think was to seek some kind of approval and to give some kind of indication that he was interested in maintaining relations. I think in addition to that, that Castro viewed his invitation by the editors to speak there, to give him an additional forum for him to present his position on the nature of what was going on in Cuba. The problem that he faced was that the American press, not only some, was reacting positively to him, but some of the press was also reacting negatively to his assassination of opposition leaders, especially what were labeled Batistiatos, those people that supported Batista. Castro didn’t understand how the American media functioned.
Jonathan Movroydis: What did he tell Nixon in his meetings? What did he hope to get from Nixon?
Irwin Gellman: Well, after he gave his speech and even before that, since this was not a State visit, Eisenhower saw no need to meet with Castro and allowed other people in the administration, the Secretary of State, and Nixon had a long meeting with Castro. It was one-on-one Castro spoken off English that he could communicate with Nixon. What the real meeting was supposed to…designed to do, probably very little as Nixon said at the end of the meeting that he had with Castro. “Did I do any good?” And the response was, “We don’t think so.” And Nixon slapped his knees and said, “That’s what I thought too.” But he basically was trying to form some kind of an opinion of Castro or he thought that Castro was naive, but very charismatic. And that Castro was looking at Nixon to see where Nixon was trying to present the U.S. view.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there any policy that was developed out of the meeting? You know, from Nixon’s impressions of Castro, did the Eisenhower administration set any sort of policy position?
Irwin Gellman: I don’t think that Nixon was able at that early point in time to make any kind of definitive movement. I think what happened by that time was Nixon became more wary of what Castro’s position was and looked at him more and more leading to the far left.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did the Eisenhower administration’s position on Fidel and Cuba evolve over this, you know, a year-and-a-half period before the administration was over and the Kennedy administration came into the White House?
Irwin Gellman: The real simple thing was, as Castro got nearer and nearer to the Soviets, and brought more and more communists into his government, and brought in Soviet emissaries to Cuba, the United States looked upon this as unacceptable. When Castro started to expropriate American property, they looked upon this as unacceptable. So, as Castro acted more and more against what Eisenhower thought were American interests, the United States started to do the most stringent thing they could do. And that was to cut the Cuban sugar quota, which was the major funding for Cuba and to cut its aid to Cuba. And the nature of that was a gradual process whereas Cuba made certain actions and the United States made certain responses.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there a gauge in terms of whether the Cuban position in terms of policy, do we see this in terms of hurting our strategic interests in the Western Hemisphere, or was it more about our economic interests, or was it some combination of both?
Irwin Gellman: It was a combination of both. But the Monroe Doctrine, which said Europe should not intrude upon the Western Hemisphere, the United States took the Monroe Doctrine for granted and looked upon their own hegemony in the Western Hemisphere as not assailable. When the Cubans invited the Russians in, this was something that was an anathema to the United States and something that they looked upon as a threat. Because remember, this is the height of the Cold War, where the United States is trying its damnedest to prevent any kind of subversion in Latin America as well as, you know, subversion in the United States. This is the pinnacle of any communist’s feeling.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us what exactly the Soviets were doing in Cuba in terms of, were there any particular security arrangements between the Cuban and the Soviet governments?
Irwin Gellman: Not initially, but Castro and his government was trying to give more and more leeway to the Soviets and bringing in military management early on. But not so much as it would be an apparent threat to the United States. I don’t think that the Soviets were aware initially of how far this was going to proceed and how much of a client state Cuba would become to the Soviets as Cuba became a client state to the United States before.
Jonathan Movroydis: What became the tip of the iceberg for the Eisenhower administration, particularly the president?
Irwin Gellman: Basically, he broke relations with Cuba after a whole series of things. The removal of the U.S. ambassador, removing the personnel in the Havana embassy. We did the same thing in Washington, removing the Cubans from Washington, D.C. And it just became a crescendo of movements from the 1959 revolution through 1960 and moving into 1961. I don’t think that the Eisenhower was really that much interested in breaking relations with Cuba in early ’61, because a new government, a new U.S. government, and Kennedy were coming into the White House. And he, I don’t think, wanted to make decisions of that sort that the Kennedy government would have to live with.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did the Cuba issue figure during the 1960 campaign between Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy?
Irwin Gellman: That is a story within several stories. First of all, Kennedy started out by announcing his admiration for Castro and gradually changed his position towards Cuba and Castro because he saw the nature of how much anti-Cuban feeling was building up in the press and the population, especially in Florida. The nature of Nixon was looking from inside the administration to the gradual movement of one, the announced diplomacy, and two, the CIA involvement. Because Eisenhower looked upon any and all possibilities, and quickly in 1960, started giving the CIA money to have training of exiles to do hit-and-run aids, to have propaganda sent through radio towards the Cubans, etc. So, Nixon had an inside view of what the administration was doing and Kennedy was looking at this from outside.
The real issue of Cuba came to a head during The Great Debates, when Kennedy decided to come out and basically call for the overthrow of the Kennedy government. And Nixon looked upon this as a betrayal of confidence that Allen Dulles, the director of Central Intelligence had told Kennedy about the trading of exile forces. Nixon, in turn, had no choice, he thought, but to say this kind of advocacy of some form of intervention was a bad idea, and that the United States should not do that. The problem was that Nixon felt that Kennedy got the better end of the deal, that his idea of being aggressive was far better than Nixon’s thing of counseling, conciliation, and non-intervention.
What Nixon didn’t know and Kennedy continued to point out was that Alan Dulles never told Kennedy about the exiles. What Kennedy didn’t say was that he was parsing this and not telling the truth in the complete sense of the word. What happened was the governor of Alabama, John Patterson, a Kennedy ally, was the head of the Alabama Air National Guard. The Air National Guard was funneling supplies and exiles to Central America, where the CIA was trading exiles. So, before the debate on Cuba, Patterson had gone to see Kennedy and told him about the CIA’s exile forces. So, rather than allow Nixon maybe to claim that he was more of a cold warrior than Kennedy was, Kennedy came out with this position and Nixon never knew what really happened, that Kennedy knew what was happening in CIA training, but didn’t know it wasn’t the director of Central Intelligence. It was the governor of Alabama.
Jonathan Movroydis: When Kennedy becomes president, how does the Cuban or how does the Bay of Pigs Invasion of these exiles ultimately manifest itself?
Irwin Gellman: Kennedy took complete admission that he was responsible, and the fact was he alone was responsible. Eisenhower had planned to use these exiles in some ways, which was very amorphous. Eisenhower never had an invasion plan and never had any kind of carefully designed scheme to overthrow Castro. What happened was the CIA came to Kennedy and said, “Here’s this invasion force. If we land them in Cuba, the Cubans will immediately move to overthrow Castro, and we will have a new government.” What Kennedy didn’t realize was that the CIA had no clue what it was talking about. They did not bring the U.S. military into this. It was a total CIA operation and of course, the Bay of Pigs ended in what one author called “the perfect failure.” And it was incredibly embarrassing to Kennedy. The only thing that Kennedy really got out of this is as he said, “The worst I do, the better my poll numbers are.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Did Nixon have a particular reaction to the incident?
Irwin Gellman: Nixon…that was Kennedy, I think the day after the invasion and promises support. But privately, because of the way that Kennedy handled it, both he and Eisenhower believed that Kennedy didn’t have a clue what he was doing.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about what happened a year later with the Cuban Missile Crisis? Is there a cause and effect between the Bay of Pigs and what would happen the following year in regard to…
Irwin Gellman: Nobody’s really gotten a cause and effect, but it appears that there’s no doubt there was a cause and effect. The idea of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the CIA wanting this operation was gone. It was off the table. Kennedy brought in a group of advisors to go through the various and sundry things. The Russians also felt because maybe, I don’t have this as a fact, but speculating, maybe believe because of the Bay of Pigs that the United States would not do anything if they brought missiles into Cuba. So, what you ended up having a year later was a different Kennedy, who was not going to act precipitously, but was not going to allow the kind of embarrassment that happened at the Bay of Pigs, and maintained U.S. power, and do it by what was called the Cuban quarantine.
The problem was that we didn’t know, the United States didn’t know, Kennedy didn’t know, and I don’t know if Khrushchev knew or not, that they were going to play a game of chicken and possibly have a thermonuclear war over Cuba. Finally, the Russians decided to pull out the missiles much to Castro’s chagrin. And the closest we came, I think, to a nuclear war ended.
Jonathan Movroydis: In 1970, the Soviets began construction of a submarine base and Cienfuegos Bay on the southern coast of Cuba. This is during the Nixon presidency. So, Nixon had, in a sense, his own crisis with Cuba and the Soviet Union during that period of time. How do you think he learned…what do you think he learned from his eight years under Eisenhower and from Kennedy’s experience on how to deal with this issue, and how ultimately did he deal with this issue?
Irwin Gellman: Well, I think he dealt with the issue very well because he had seen what had happened. He had spent, while he was vice president, several missions in Latin America. He had gone to Mexico. He had gone to Central America. He had gone to the Caribbean. He had gone to South America. And the nature of where he was in 1970, ’71 as president, gave him a far better feeling of what was going on with the Soviets and the building of the base. And the outcome of how the Soviets back down, or if you want to say, went to a different level, was again, the Soviets making a miscalculation of what American interests were in the Western Hemisphere and what was acceptable under the Monroe Doctrine as revised because of Cuba and what went further.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is historian and Nixon biographer, Irv Gellman. Our topic was Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, and American policy towards Cuba in the Cold War era. Dr. Gellman, thank you so much for joining us.
Irwin Gellman: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.