James G. Hershberg: JFK's Secret Attempt to Defuse the Missile Crisis with the Help of Brazil

Roundup: Talking About History

James G. Hershberg, in the Journal of Cold War Studies (Vol. 6, No's. 2 & 3, Spring and Summer, 2004):

What options did John F. Kennedy consider after his aides informed him on 16 October 1962 that the Soviet Union was secretly deploying medium-range nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba? In most accounts, his options fell into three categories:

1. military: an attack against Cuba involving a large-scale air strike against the missile sites, a full-scale invasion, or the ªrst followed by the second;

2. political-military: a naval blockade of Cuba (euphemistically called a “quarantine”) to prevent the shipment of further “offensive” military equipment and allow time to pressure Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev into withdrawing the missiles; or

3. diplomatic: a private overture to Moscow to persuade Khrushchev to back down without a public confrontation.

Kennedy ultimately chose the second option and announced it on 22 October in his nationally televised address. That option and the ªrst (direct military action against Cuba) have been exhaustively analyzed over the years by Western scholars. Much less attention has been devoted to the third alternative, the diplomatic route. This article shows, however, that a variant of that option—a variant that has never previously received any serious scholarly treatment—was actually adopted by Kennedy at the peak of the crisis. The United States pursued a separate diplomatic track leading not to Moscow but to Havana (via Rio de Janeiro), and not to Khrushchev but to Fidel Castro, in a secret effort to convince the Cuban leader to make a deal: If Castro agreed to end his alliance with Moscow, demand the removal of the Soviet missiles, and disavow any further support for revolutionary subversion in the Western hemisphere, he could expect “many changes” in Washington’s policy toward Cuba, including an explicit non-invasion pledge and, implicitly, American aid or at least an end to the U.S.-led diplomatic and economic embargo. Castro also would be assured of U.S. support if the Soviet Union and its hardline allies within the Cuban leadership tried to resist such a dramatic swerve in policy.

The Kennedy administration chose, despite considerable misgivings, to employ the Brazilian government of President João Goulart as an intermediary in this highly sensitive and tightly concealed effort to reach Castro at the height of the missile crisis. Kennedy at one point had regarded Goulart as a potential “New Frontiersman” and a valuable partner in the Alliance for Progress (AFP), but U.S. ofªcials increasingly viewed the Brazilian president with irritation, exasperation, and even suspicion for what they saw as his ªnancial mismanagement, political demagoguery, ºirtations with neutralism (and the Sino-Soviet bloc) in foreign policy, and, most alarming, cooperation with and toleration of leftist elements. Some within the Kennedy administration even began to consider supporting a military coup in Brazil rather than risk seeing the country end up in Communist hands.

The story of this secret U.S.-Brazilian-Cuban triangular diplomacy thus sheds light not only on a previously little-known aspect of the Cuban missile crisis and the hidden efforts at dialogue between Washington and Havana, but also on the troubled U.S.-Brazilian relationship—and by implication the broader issues of alliance management and the limits of maneuver within a superpower’s sphere of influence during the ColdWar.


As discussed in Part 1 of this article, the Kennedy administration in the spring of 1962 cautiously approved a secret Brazilian proposal to approach Fidel Castro to see whether he could be enticed to sever political-military ties with Moscow. Although some key U.S. officials, notably Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John McCone, had disagreed about the merits of the Brazilian proposal, the administration had tentatively decided to endorse it in light of evident tensions in Havana between Castro and pro-Soviet old-line Communists. As it turned out, however, Castro politely deflected the Brazilian initiative, and the matter had proceeded no further as of mid-October 1962 when American U-2 reconnaissance planes suddenly discovered that the Soviet Union was secretly installing nuclear capable missiles in Cuba.

At the outset of the crisis, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers briefly considered, but then discarded, the option of sending a message directly to Castro to pressure him into seeking the removal of the Soviet missiles. On the afternoon of 16 October, shortly after photographic evidence of the still-secret missile emplacement was presented to Kennedy, the ad hoc group of senior U.S. officials that would become known as the Excomm (Executive Committee) gathered in the Cabinet Room to consider what to do.

Rusk raised the idea of telling the Cuban leader “privately” that the Kremlin missile deployment was “no longer support for Castro, that Cuba is being victimized, and that the Soviets are preparing Cuba for destruction, or betrayal.” He said that a New York Times article of the previous day quoting high Soviet officials as saying, “We’ll trade Cuba for Berlin” should be brought to Castro’s attention along with an American warning that “this kind of a base is intolerable and not acceptable. The time has now come when he must, in the interests of the Cuban people, must now break clearly with the Soviet Union and prevent this missile base from becoming operational.” In effect, Rusk was resuscitating the idea presented by the Brazilian foreign minister, San Tiago Dantas, the previous spring, albeit this time under far more urgent circumstances. Rather than going through the Brazilians, however, Rusk proposed communicating the message via the Canadian ambassador in Havana or the Cuban representative at the United Nations (UN).

[Unfortunately, diplomacy went nowhere with Brazil and the effort fizzled.]


The Kennedy administration’s irritation at Brazil for its refusal to go along with measures to isolate and penalize Cuba (and its supporters within Brazil) exacerbated U.S.-Brazilian relations. Far from bridging the gap betweenWashington and Havana, the attempts by Goulart and his predecessors to mediate the U.S.-Cuban conflict were notable mainly for the adverse effect they had on ties between Washington and Rio de Janeiro. This was true in large measure because as far back as late 1959 U.S. officials had concluded that it would be impossible to live with Fidel Castro’s regime and were intent on getting rid of the Communist government in Cuba rather than reaching an accommodation. That was the case in 1960, when Eisenhower and his administration politely turned down Brazil’s repeated offers of mediation and “good offices” to help resolve the U.S.-Cuban dispute. It remained so during the first year of the Kennedy administration in 1961, when Brazil’s attempt to devise a “Finlandization” neutrality formula for Cuba, its good-offices gambit alongside Mexico and Ecuador, and then its brokering (along with Argentina) of the conversation between Che Guevara and Richard Goodwin, all led nowhere.

The same position apparently still held in the spring of 1962, when Rusk, despite having cautiously given a green light to Dantas to find out whether Castro would be willing to split with Moscow in exchange for being welcomed back into the hemisphere’s good graces, was still inclined to seek Castro’s “disposal” afterward—-an outcome that, if achieved, would have double-crossed both Castro and the Brazilian government.

Only under profound duress, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, did the Kennedy administration genuinely embrace Brazil’s readiness to serve as a channel to Castro. At that point, the administration seriously considered cutting a deal with the Cuban leader, albeit while using Rio de Janeiro as a deniable “cut-out.” The Albino mission [General Albino Silva was the new chief of the cabinet’s military department] to Havana at the height of the crisis constituted a minor mystery at the time. “The purpose of the general’s visit has never been made entirely clear,” noted the The New York Times a week later, observing that the trip had “had the effect of neutralizing criticism from the far left of Brazil’s qualified vote in favor of the United States arms blockade.” The event was further obscured by the Cuban authorities’ refusal to permit correspondents based in Havana to make any reference to Albino’s presence. Even within the U.S. government, some senior officials were puzzled. On 5 November, Hilsman wrote to Rusk that “the exact nature of Brazil’s initiative is not known,” and he speculated that Goulart’s desire to assume the role of mediator had inspired the trip.

Today, more than four decades later, confusion about the initiative persists. Over the years, Portuguese-language Brazilian works have alluded to the genesis of the Albino mission, but these sources have had little inºuence on the English-language historiography.180 A passing mention in the most authoritative scholarly study of U.S.-Brazilian relations, by W. Michael Weis, accurately states that the Brazilian “mediation . . . accomplished nothing” and provoked “a torrent of criticism from supporters of the United States,” but Weis mistakenly claims that the visit “had not been requested.” Actually, as this article shows, the mediation had been requested and indeed had been carefully planned by Washington—and was then conveyed to the Brazilian government during the late-night meeting between Lincoln Gordon and Hermes Lima. Former Assistant Secretary Martin, who played an important part in these events, erroneously declared in a 1994 study that the proposal to draft a message and give it to the Brazilians for transmittal to Castro—a proposal that he characterized as “a bold idea but without much chance of succeeding”— was “not tried” because “full Brazilian support seemed dubious.”182 The account here shows that the proposal certainly was tried—and indeed that Martin himself conveyed Rusk’s authorization for it during a telephone conversation with Gordon on the night of 27 October. Even though changes in the situation and Brazil’s handling of the mission did mean that the message was not conveyed precisely as Washington had intended, the basic proposal unquestionably was implemented.

The historiography of the Cuban missile crisis has been equally misleading in its references to Brazil. Contrary to the implications of assertions in 1997 and 2001 by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow that the U.S. plan on 27 October for Brazilian mediation was “overtaken by the events” of the following day (i.e., Khrushchev’s announcement that he would remove the missiles), the initiative did in fact produce the Albino mission and a conversation that might have led to the opening of a Brazilian-mediated dialogue between the Kennedy administration and Castro’s government.

As it turned out, Castro’s insistence on an end to the U.S. military presence in Guantánamo prevented any movement toward a deal and guaranteed a negative U.S. response. Moreover, at this critical juncture in U.S.-Brazilian relations, Goulart’s handling of the matter, especially his decision to entrust the mission to Albino rather than Bastian Pinto (the preferred U.S. intermediary), further darkened the Kennedy administration’s impression of the Brazilian president and his inconsistent behavior during the crisis as a whole. Would Kennedy’s message have had any chance of success if it had been delivered when and how Washington had desired? The answer, undoubtedly, is no. At a scholarly conference in Havana in October 2002, I gave Fidel Castro the text of the message approved by Kennedy forty years earlier for transmittal to the Cuban leader on the evening of 27 October. Castro had not previously known about the intended communication, but he recalled, “That day we were fighting,” firing at low-level U.S. reconnaissance flights and preparing to resist an American invasion. He said that if he had received such a “threatening message” as that given to the Brazilians to convey to him, he would have rejected it and “treated it with disdain.” (As Kennedy suspected, the “pretty clumsy” and “rather insulting” section claiming that Moscow threatened Castro with betrayal would hardly have impelled him to jump from the arms of an undependable ally to those of an outright enemy.)...

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