Al Haig's Cuban Odyssey with the Kennedys

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Don Bohning is the author of The Castro Obsession: US Covert Operations Against Cuba: 1959-1965.

The death of Al Haig on Saturday, February 20, generated the usual lengthy obituary for prominent figures and their noteworthy contributions – both good and bad - to American society.

In Haig's case, much of the attention focused on his role in the administrations of two Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Important as that role was, for South Florida's Cuban exile community it wasn't nearly as important as Haig's earlier role dealing with Cuba in the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Haig first became involved in Cuba in February 1963, as an aide to Army Secretary Cyrus Vance and worked directly for Joe Califano, the Army's general counsel.  It was shortly after Operation Mongoose, a covert action program against Cuba initiated under President Kennedy and overseen by Edward Lansdale, had come to an end with the October 1962 missile crisis.

To help familiarize himself with Cuba, Haig was told to go see Landsdale.  He did, and in a April 29, 2002, interview at his Palm Beach residence, described Lansdale as "the strangest duck I ever talked to.  It was something else.  He was telling me about the Philippines.  That's all he wanted to talk about.  I didn't get anything about Cuba.  I went back to Joe [Califano] and said ‘that's a complete waste of time.  The guy's a dingbat.'  I thought so then and, to this day, I think he was."

Haig had come into the Pentagon shortly after New York Attorney James Donovan negotiated with Castro the release in December 1962, of 1,113 Cuban exile members of Brigade 2506, captured at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

In March, 1963, President Kennedy formally designated Erneido Oliva, second in command of the invasion brigade, as its official representative.  Haig was Oliva's liaison at the Pentagon.

"The job," wrote Haig in his autobiography, Inner Circles, "included the duty of acting in loco parentis to the rescued Cubans."  Califano had "let me know early on, in our first meeting on the subject, that the President himself and, even more to the point, his brother Robert, were taking a close personal interest in the rescued Cubans.  Apparently one Kennedy or the other called Califano nearly every day to inquire about their welfare.  It was their wish that every veteran be given a new start in life in the Untited States."  His job, added Haig, "was to make sure they got it."

After joining the Pentagon, Haig said in the April 2002 interview that his first job was to "get these guys settled….get them jobs if they wanted.  Or some wanted to get in the military…And of course this was all done under Cy Vance, who was the executive agent for Cuba, and his chief on that was the general counsel, Joe Califano.  And I was Joe's assistant and also military assistant to Cy Vance for Cuban affairs.  And I got bumped up there after the Cuban missile crisis…" 

Shortly after the release of the Brigade prisoners from Cuban jails, Bobby Kennedy outlined a new covert program against Cuba to Oliva and Manuel Artime, the civilian representative to the Bay of Pigs Brigade.  It called for a two-pronged effort in which Brigade members would be incorporated into the U.S. military for training and Artime would set up a covert action operation in Central America.

"The two plans were supposed to mesh," said Oliva.  "What Artime was going and what Oliva was doing were supposed to mesh…the plans were that at a given time, when Artime's operation gets stronger against Castro, and along with the people inside Cuba, then my officers will get together with the enlisted personnel at Fort Jackson [South Carolina] and organize a unit."

Haig also had a hand in Artime's covert operation run out of Central America, adding that "my nose told me that I didn't know it all.  And that sort of concerned me because I felt I shouldn't really get associated with something I really didn't know what was happening and yet bear some measure of responsibility for it.  So I was very pleased when the program was terminated…because it wasn't accomplishing the results and…if it became public it would have worked against the policies on Cuba.  I think I know the American people well enough to know that, you know, look at theese crazy bastards, what they're doing. Getting us into war.  I've written against it.  If you're serious about it, go to war.  You get into trouble by degree.  

Before the plan could fully materialize, President Kennedy was assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson became president.  In late January 1964, Oliva was in Washington when he and Bobby Kennedy were told by President Johnson that he had decided to end the special program for Bay of Pigs veterans in the U.S. military.

They then went to the Pentagon where Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Vance, Califano and Haig were waiting.  Oliva was then asked to visit the military bases where Cubans were stationed, accompanied by Califano and Haig.  The Cubans were to be told they could remain in the military if they wished, but not as part of a special program.

"At the beginning," said Oliva, "I said, no, no, I am not going anyplace. I am not helping you do anything. That's it. I was fed up with the whole thing.

"But Haig, who was like a friend at the time, persuaded me to recognize the importance of it.  If Haig and Califano go around to every base to get together with forty, fifty, Cuban officers and they didn't see me, they would say, ‘What is going on?' That is why they needed me."

Haig said his "assumption of Oliva's role was to be father-confessor of the Cuban Brigade, which was a conscious balming operation by the Kennedys."

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/5/2010

and a murderous one too.