A Kennedy Plot to Kill Castro?
Updated: Aug 18
In the late 1990s, my friend Larry Haapanen obtained a stack of documents from David Lifton that had been released by the ARRB. He recognized that one of the documents might have some incredible significance, and provide proof that the Kennedy brothers had discussed, and condoned, attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
This paragraph on page three caught Larry's attention:
The Attorney General then mentioned Mary Hemingway [Ernest Hemingway’s widow], commenting on reports that Castro was drinking heavily in disgruntlement over the way things were going, and the opportunities offered by the “shrine” to Hemingway. I commented that this was a conversation that Ed Murrow [the former news broadcaster then heading the US Information Agency] had had with Mary Hemingway, that we had similar reports from other sources, and that this was worth assessing firmly and pursuing vigorously. If there are grounds for action, CIA had some invaluable assets which might well be committed for such an effort. McCone asked if his operational people were aware of this; I told him that we had discussed this, that they agreed the subject was worth vigorous development, and that we were in agreement that the matter was so delicate and sensitive that it shouldn’t be surfaced to the Special Group [an elite interagency group that reviewed covert actions] until we were ready to go, and then not in detail. I pointed out that this all pertained to fractioning the regime. If it happened, it could develop like a brush-fire, much as in Hungary, and we must be prepared to help it win our goal of Cuba freed of a Communist government. [Emphasis added.]
Russo and Corn first mention another 1962 memo in which Robert Kennedy said that a solution to the Cuban problem carried "the top priority in the United States government -- all else is secondary." Here is that document:
In the memo, Lansdale mentioned no further details about an operation that could take advantage of the Hemingway “shrine,” a reference to the farm Hemingway had owned in Cuba, which was then being converted into a museum. He was writing in his own sort of covert-op-speak. In another memo, he used a term similar to “fractioning the regime” to refer to anti-Castro actions that included the assassination of Castro. (An August 13, 1962, Lansdale memo employed the phrase “splitting the regime” to describe activities “including liquidation of leaders.”) With Operation Mongoose ultimately aimed at prompting a popular uprising in Cuba, the Kennedy men could well have been hoping that an assassination would spark such a “brush-fire.”
Lansdale’s description of the Hemingway plan as “so delicate and sensitive” that its specifics should be hidden from the Special Group is another tip-off that the operation involved assassination. “That’s the giveaway,” says Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and a specialist on US documents regarding Cuba. “This is the closest thing to a smoking gun that has been declassified. Only assassination would be taboo for open discussion at the Special Group, which routinely planned sabotage, violence and chaos to undermine Castro.”
Loch Johnson, an intelligence expert who worked on the Senate Church Committee (which first disclosed the CIA assassination plots in 1975), says the Lansdale document is “a fascinating memo. It looks like another one of the plots against Castro.” Several CIA alumni support this interpretation. Ted Shackley, who served as Miami chief of station during Operation Mongoose, remarks, “It certainly has the earmarks of an assassination plot.” Samuel Halpern, who was the number-two to the officer who ran the CIA end of Operation Mongoose, calls the document “as close as we’re likely to get” to conclusive proof. And a former CIA director says, “The language of the memo speaks for itself. The only thing Robert Kennedy can be referring to is the assassination of Castro. This paragraph should never have been written.”
It is not clear what specific operation Robert Kennedy was referring to at the March 16 meeting. Neither Halpern nor Shackley recalls receiving orders for a mission involving the Hemingway farm. Those Mongoose records that have been declassified do not refer to an assassination attempt at the Hemingway home. And none of the meeting’s participants are alive. Kennedy’s Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, who was scheduled to attend this session but did not, says of this conversation and the Hemingway-shrine operation, “I don’t know anything about it. The whole Mongoose thing was insane.”
The March 16, 1962, meeting occurred at a time when Operation Mongoose was revving up. Lansdale was busy concocting plans for infiltrating Cuba with commando and sabotage teams. The CIA’s Miami station was hurriedly recruiting agents in Cuba. At another Mongoose session five days later, Robert Kennedy, who was the de facto supervisor of the covert campaign against Castro, raised the prospect of kidnapping top-level Cuban leaders. (The previous year Robert Kennedy had been informed that the CIA had attempted to kill Castro before the Bay of Pigs invasion.) In April 1962 the CIA’s murder plots against Castro were reactivated. That month, Shackley and Bill Harvey, the CIA official in charge of operations against Cuba, delivered a U-Haul filled with arms to a mob-linked hoodlum named John Rosselli, who was supposed to transfer the weapons to Cuban exiles interested in murdering Castro. (The available historical record shows no other Mongoose meetings attended by President Kennedy.)
According to Lansdale’s memo, the discussion of this particular operation had been triggered by comments made by Mary Hemingway, who had had a brief encounter with Castro eight months earlier. On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho. Shortly after that, Mary Hemingway, his fourth wife, decided to travel to Cuba to visit Finca Vigia, the farm Hemingway owned outside Havana, and retrieve manuscripts, paintings and other belongings. Before she left Ketchum, a Cuban government official phoned and said that Cuba wanted to establish a museum at Finca Vigia. Because there was a US ban on travel to Cuba, Mary enlisted the assistance of William Walton, a journalist and artist close to President Kennedy. Walton asked the President for help, and within hours Mary was cleared for the trip. Valerie Danby-Smith, who had been Hemingway’s secretary (and who would later marry his youngest son and assume the Hemingway name), accompanied the widow.
When the two women arrived at the end of July, according to Valerie Hemingway, Castro sent them a big basket of fruit and word that if they required assistance they should contact him, for he was a Hemingway fan. And several nights later, Castro came calling. In her autobiography, Mary Hemingway, who died in 1986, noted that Castro “arrived in his jeep, accompanied only by one nondescript car.” He had brought just a few aides with him, no battalion of bodyguards. “There was not much security, and that impressed Mary,” Valerie Hemingway recalls. Mary lined up the servants to greet the Cuban chief. Castro came into the house. Mary served him coffee. They discussed the transfer of Finca Vigia to the Cuban government; Castro reminisced about having fished with Ernest. “Much of the conversation was banter,” Valerie Hemingway says. Castro inspected the mounted animal heads and asked to see where Hemingway had written his stories. Mary guided him to the three-story tower she had built as a writing studio for Ernest several yards from the main house. (“Ernest hated the tower and always wrote in his bedroom,” Valerie Hemingway notes.)
At the tower, Castro, without waiting for his aides, bounded up the stairs to the office on the top floor, and Mary followed. “Mary was also impressed with that,” Valerie Hemingway says. “She thought that any other national leader would have ordered an aide to go up ahead of him. Make sure it was safe. It was an ideal place to do in Castro. She would remark on that many times over the years.”
In the weeks afterward, Mary and Valerie sorted out the mess at Finca Vigia; Hemingway had started coming there in 1938, but he had not been back since the late 1950s. They reviewed thousands of pages of unpublished work, burned his personal papers (in accordance with his wishes), labeled the animal heads (who shot it, when and where), put the house in order for display and packed up possessions Mary wished to keep. Since they could only take hand luggage with them on the return flight to Miami, they arranged for a shrimp boat heading to Tampa for repairs to transport crates holding Hemingway’s papers, paintings by Paul Klee, Juan Gris and André Masson, and other keepsakes.
From September 1961 to January 1962, Mary Hemingway, still in shock over her husband’s suicide (she considered it a gun accident), stayed in Idaho. Sometime around February, she returned to her flat in New York City. And she shared with her friends stories about her trip to Cuba, her meeting with Castro and how she had managed to spirit Hemingway’s papers and the paintings out of Cuba. In the second week of March, stories appeared in the New York Times and the New York Post about her time in Cuba, though neither mentioned Castro’s light security detail and his cavalier climb to the top of the tower. One of her friends, Clifton Daniel, the assistant managing editor at the Times and husband of Margaret Truman, contacted US Information Agency chief Edward R. Murrow and suggested that he speak with Mary Hemingway. As Murrow replied to Daniel in a March 20, 1962, letter, “Mary Hemingway did call. We had an interesting and useful conversation and I passed her remarks on to one or two interested parties down here.” (The USIA was a participant in Operation Mongoose. Daniels and Murrow are deceased.)
“The tower could be the key to it,” Valerie Hemingway says. “It was what impressed Mary Hemingway the most about Castro.” Valerie Hemingway insists that Mary Hemingway would not have consciously aided or abetted a scheme against Castro. In her autobiography, Mary recalled attending a dinner at the White House in April 1962, where she “irked” President Kennedy by calling his confrontational position toward Cuba “stupid, unrealistic and, worse, ineffective.”
Assassinating Castro at the Hemingway site does seem far-fetched. But in the secret war against Castro, the US government entertained many bizarre ideas, including dusting his shoes with a chemical that would cause his beard to fall out. One scheme called for the use of pyrotechnics to light up the Cuban sky in order to convince the Cuban people that the Second Coming was at hand; presumably, they would then rise up to overthrow Castro. (“Elimination by illumination,” as one official dubbed it.) Yet at the time of the March 16 meeting, the CIA was probably not in a position to mount a hit against Castro, despite Lansdale’s overly optimistic assessment that the agency possessed “invaluable assets which might well be committed for” the Hemingway-shrine endeavor. “We didn’t have any assets that could do anything with this information then,” says John Sherwood, a former CIA case officer who worked on the Cuba task force. “We had a few agents in Cuba who could send us secret-writing intelligence reports. That was it.” But, Sherwood adds, that did not stop US intelligence from hatching ideas: “All kinds of things bubbled up then. If Mary Hemingway goes to her cottage in Cuba and comes back and says something about a slight security detail or anything else, people would have been interested. No one knew anything. Any information about Castro was exciting. We never penetrated his entourage. We never knew where he was.”
I reached out to Larry Haapanen to see if he wanted to comment further on this story, and he kindly sent me this message:
THE LANSDALE MEMO
My experiences with the Lansdale memo began in 1998, when David Lifton furnished me with a set of copies of the over 2,000 pages of Cuba documents that had been recently released as part of a review of JFK assassination-related files. In the course of examining the release, I came across one document that caught my attention above all others. It was the memorandum, prepared by General Ed Lansdale, of a meeting on March 16, 1962, attended by members of the Special Group Augmented (which included Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy) as well as by President John F. Kennedy.
When I realized that one part of the memo referred in guarded terms to what seemed very much like a discussion of a "shrine" to Hemingway and how that location might be used in an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro, I did some research and concluded that the "shrine" was the farm called Finca Vigia, located outside of Havana, Cuba, which had been owned by the novelist Ernest Hemingway and turned into a museum by the Castro regime the year after Hemingway's July 1961 death by suicide.
Hoping to discover more about the Finca Vigia, and what was meant by the "opportunities" it presented, I turned to How It Was, a memoir written by the novelist's widow, Mary Welsh Hemingway, and found that she visited the Finca Vigia in the summer of 1961 to retrieve some of their possessions, and while there she was paid a visit by Fidel Castro. Her description of how he arrived accompanied only by a light security detail strongly suggested to me why the SGA meeting found the Finca Vigia might suit their purposes.
The importance of the memo became clear: although a number of President Kennedy's close aides had testified in the 1970s to the Senate Church Committee that President Kennedy had never countenanced U.S. government plots to assassinate Castro (William F. Buckley once compared their denials to the "Von Rundstedt Offensive" of World War II), it occurred to me that the discussion of the "opportunities" presented by the Finca Vigia would never have taken place in the presence of President Kennedy if he had "virgin ears" with respect to assassination plots against Castro. This meant that the memo was a potentially explosive piece of evidence that had escaped the attention of the Church Committee.
David Lifton and I brought the memo to the attention of Gus Russo, who in turn got David Corn interested in it. This led to their writing the article "The Old Man and the CIA: A Kennedy Plot to Kill Castro?" in the March 26, 2001 issue of The Nation magazine, an article that examined the conclusion that it reflected an actual discussion of a potential assassination plot against Castro.
Although the story in The Nation received attention in the press of several foreign countries, it seems to have garnered only slight attention in the United States, and I know of no biographer of John F. Kennedy who has taken notice of it. Jonathan Nashel, in a book about Lansdale entitled Edward Lansdale's Cold War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), called the memo "[t]he most convincing evidence yet involving assassination ..." (p. 740), Robert Robarge, in his official biography John McCone As Director of Central Intelligence 1961 - 1965 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2015) wrote that "McCone's possible knowledge of an anti-Castro assassination plot is suggested in a memorandum by Lansdale about an SGA meeting on 16 March 1962, attended by President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and ... the DCI." (p. 98), and Gus Russo and Stephen Moulton wrote in Brothers in Arms: The Kennedys, The Castros and the Politics of Murder, that "the March 16 SGA confab provides convincing evidence that the Kennedys were directing the assassination probes." (p. 170)
At least two books about the JFK assassination have also mentioned the memo, the first being Conspiracy in Camelot: The Complete History of the Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Algora Pub., 2003); author Jerry Kroth notes the discovery of the memo and the implications of its contents, and stated that "if true, this event shows Bobby was involved in assassination plots against Castro." (p. 257) The second book takes a more skeptical view; in Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (W. W. Norton, 2007), Vincent Bugliosi wrote that "[t]o my knowledge, only one document has ever surfaced that, arguably, goes in the direction of RFK (and hence, JFK) having knowledge of, and perhaps even urging, the assassination of Castro." Referring to the Lansdale memo, he went on to write that "[t]hose who believe that the Kennedy brothers were behind the attempts on Castro's life view it as a "smoking gun," but when we look closely at the document we see that, by itself, it could never carry the day for that proposition." (Endnotes and Source notes, on CD)
As I have said before, it's not the documents you find that make all the difference, it's what you make of the documents you find that makes all the difference. The Lansdale memo is a case in point.
Larry also sent me a letter from Edward R. Murrow to a friend of Mary Welsh Hemingway, dated March 20, 1962, saying that he [Murrow] had talked to Mary. Larry received this letter from Mark Allen, who found it amongst Murrow's papers in Washington, D.C. The letter corroborates the indication in the memo that RFK said in the meeting that Murrow had talked to Mary Hemingway: (see page 3 in the memo above)
Gus Russo writes in his book, Brothers in Arms: The Kennedys, the Castros, and the Politics of Murder: (page 143)
In order for Mary [Hemingway] to go to Cuba legally, she had to gain permission from the United States government. The embargo prevented travel there, but through an intermediary, William Walton, who went straight to the President, she was able to start planning her trip.
As a result of Jack Kennedy's helping gesture, the finca would become one of the most unlikely settings for a plot to assassinate Fidel. It would also provide the only written evidence of what has been denied by the Kennedy family to this day -- that Jack and Bobby knew of the murder plots, and condoned them.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy seemed to have some remorse about JFK's Cuba policies noting that "I have ... wondered at times if we did not pay a very great price for being more energetic than wise about a lot of things, especially Cuba." (Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, page 426)
A big thank you to Larry Haapanen for his additional comments on this story, and to Gus Russo for his help.
Previous Relevant Blog Posts about the Kennedys and Cuba:
Morley responded to my article "The Truth about Operation Northwoods." Here is my reply.
Operation Northwoods can only understood as being part of the Kennedys' war against Cuba and Operation Mongoose.