201. Memorandum of a Conference, Under Secretary of State Herter’s Office, Department of State, Washington, December 31, 1958, 4 p.m.1


  • Cuba

The following attended:

  • State Department—Under Secretary Christian Herter, Mr. Robert Murphy, and Mr. Roy R. Rubottom
  • Assistant to the President—Mr. Gordon Gray
  • Department of Defense—Mr. John Irwin and Mr. Robert H. Knight
  • Joint Chiefs of StaffAdmiral Arleigh Burke
  • CIA—General Cabell and Mr. J.C. King
  • Navy Department—Rear Admiral A.S. Hayward, Jr.

The conference began with a briefing by Mr. Rubottom of the questioning to which he had been subjected at the meeting with Senators Mansfield, Morse, Sparkman, Humphrey, Aiken, and Smith.2

The subject of this meeting also had been Cuba and the questions had been well put (most of them from previously prepared memoranda), and the questions clearly indicted a heavy bias in favor of ousting Batista and implications that Communists were backing Batista [Castro].

In general, they wanted to know what the U.S. was doing about the Cuban situation. Mr. Rubottom, among other things, explained to them the plan by which State sent a circular3 to the U.S. ambassador to each of the member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) to determine the interest of those states in intervening in Cuba in a peaceable manner, to prevent bloodshed. All members of the OAS except Mexico indicated that they were in favor of such an approach and several prominent individuals, such as former President of Panama, Mr. Arias, are working on this OAS approach. State hopes that there may be some beneficial result from this. There are no concrete [Page 324] plans for the approach as yet, but the purpose is to get general backing from the Organization of the American States for peaceable intervention in Cuba to prevent heavy bloodshed.

The Congressional group also asked about arms which had been furnished to Cuba, and were told by Mr. Rubottom of the March 29 decision to ship no more arms to the Batista Government.

The Dominican Republic is reportedly working to send arms to Batista and a large shipment is reported as being contemplated at the present time. Senator Humphrey and Senator Mansfield questioned that such a shipment could not erase [create?] a situation in Cuba, which could not be considered as purely internal. Mr. Rubottom explained to them that he thought such would not be the case, but that at least more interest would be created in the Cuba situation by such a shipment.

Background of Raul Castro and Che Guevara were discussed. Che is an Argentine doctor who is a good fighter and is a Communist organizer. Much of this movement is dominated by Communists.

Senator Mansfield kept asking questions to show that the men around Batista [Castro] are Communist, although Rubottom explained that this was not the case. Senator Aiken said the real backers of Castro are businessmen and industrialists in Oriente Province. For an example, Mr. Busch [Bosch], who has given financial support to the 26 July movement. This concluded Mr. Rubottom’s discussion of the senatorial conference.

Mr. Rubottom does not think that it will be possible to pin a Communist label on the Castro movement.

Admiral Burke pointed out that a State Department message of today (31 Dec)4 indicated that in addition to Che Guevara, a Cuban Communist Juan Marinello also is reported as Communist and as being identified with Castro forces, and actually directing them.

Mr. Rubottom agreed that this might be true, but that he could not confirm it.

Mr. Gray stated that in the last National Security Council meeting5 the President had said that this is the first time he, the President, had heard that our government is united against Fidel Castro. He had mentioned the same thing to Mr. Murphy and Mr. Dulles of CIA last Friday morning.6 Mr. Gray inquired if this actually is our government position.

Mr. Rubottom stated that the U.S. has been trying to get Batista to recognize that he, Batista, cannot defeat Castro as such, but that a third force is needed to defeat Castro politically.

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Mr. Irwin asked that if it isn’t true that though we haven’t helped Castro as a government, we have succeeded in running Batista down.

Admiral Burke agreed that many individuals in the Cuban Army apparently think that since we are not helping Batista, we must be helping Castro. Mr. Rubottom explained that this is not quite so simple. Up to fifteen months ago, Batista had been getting support with military equipment, and had had no success in running Castro forces out. At one time, they were down to twelve individuals. State Department considered that Batista and his forces had put on a disgraceful performance with the arms given them, and in fact the rebels actually had gotten arms by buying them from the Cuban Army.

Mr. Rubottom said State had considered the problem of getting arms to help another rebel group in the Las Villas area.

This is a force primarily under ex-President Prio, although not solely under his control. Prio had not been a very admirable character himself when he was President and when he had left the country he had been able to take some five million dollars to the United States with him. With this money, he and his ex-Prime Minister Varona had financed the movement.

In addition to the Prio/Varona group, there is a large city group made up from the professional people such as doctors and lawyers. These have organized and sent a man to help Varona organize the movement. This man’s name is Cardona and at the present time he is operating in Miami. State had thought that it would be possible that a representative of this group could be gotten to a conference table with representatives of other groups of Cuba, some good might come of it.

There followed a general discussion of Varona, who is considered to be stout-hearted and patriotic, and who had bought a plane of his own in which to fly back to Cuba. Although he is still a Prio man, there is a general feeling that the group with which he is working includes other influences, particularly in view of the assistance which Miro Cardona is giving. Cardona is a former Justice of the Supreme Court.

A Cuban rebel radio station yesterday said that Prio is returning to Las Villas area to lead his people. He is not yet reported to have left the United States. However, Varona has and is reported to have arrived in Las Villas area today. His brother7 is conferring in Miami with Prio and Varona.

General Cabell stated that the chances are that Prio, Varona, and Cardona all have relations with the Castro or other rebel movements, but that they are not a United Force as yet.

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Admiral Burke inquired if this is not just what the Communists would like. That even though we grant that Castro is not a Communist the situation appears to be very good for a Communist take-over.

Mr. Rubottom stated that Batista is trying to hold out only until the 24th of February at the latest, when the new President is supposed to take office. What worries State Department—what happens then?

Mr. Gray inquired if it were not significant that Batista is reported to have moved his family to New York today, to which all State Department representatives answered, “Yes.”

Mr. Herter inquired if we have arms which we can get to a strong man or a strong movement if identified. There was a general discussion of the problem of first identifying a strong man who is as yet not known, and of whether it were possible indeed to get arms to him.

General Cabell stated [2 lines not declassified].

Mr. Gray inquired if it were accurate to say that the State Department would try to prevent Fidel Castro from getting to power.

Mr. Herter answered that, no, this was not the case.

Admiral Burke stated that Castro is so far along now that he has enough control and enough power to win; he will grab the power and continue pushing to the top, after which there will probably be a big blood bath. He feels that Cubans support Castro as individuals and indirectly now, because they are anti-Batista and that this is true of many groups in Cuba. But if Castro pushes to the top this support will fall away; that people will talk and they will spend money, but that they won’t fight. Castro will fight and has the organization and will be able to take over fully.

Mr. Gray felt that whether this was true or not depends on what the U.S. Government will do to prevent Castro from taking over full power.

General Cabell stressed again that the problem facing the U.S. is identifying the third force, because once identified it will serve as a rallying point, and that there must be some capability to hold Castro in check while the strength of this third force is built up.

Admiral Burke stressed that any revolution to be successful must have a small hard core of people who are dedicated and have confidence in each other.

Mr. Herter inquired about the third force in Santa Clara-Las Villas.

Mr. Rubottom stated that from what the press reports today are saying this force is not making out well and that the Cuban Army is making considerable progress against them.

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Mr. Irwin said he shared Mr. Gray’s opinion that the President thought we would not support Castro, but stated his concern that if we do put in a third force might we not alienate Castro too much. No matter how anti-Castro we might be, shouldn’t we be careful not to completely alienate him?

There followed a general discussion of Batista and why he is hated as he is. Mr. Rubottom pointed out that there were two primary reasons: first, because he took constitutional processes away from the people, and second, because of recent repression and some brutal treatment of the people. Because of these two reasons he has lost a great deal of support he formerly had in the lower classes. Admiral Burke felt that Batista’s private interests had gotten in the way of his public interests and that therefore he had lost much of his previous support. Mr. Rubottom felt that Batista could have salvaged the situation as late as November, with a relatively free (but still controlled election) rather than the thoroughly controlled one which he actually had and which resulted in the election of the Batista puppet.

Mr. Gray inquired about the possibility of stopping the flow of arms from the United States to the rebels.

Mr. Herter stated that our own revenue agents and the Coast Guard have done the most in the way of slowing down this flow of arms.

Mr. Gray stated that maybe we don’t want now to stop such shipment to Prio and his force.

Mr. Rubottom discussed the support for Castro within South America which was seen during Mr. Milton Eisenhower’s trip and Vice President Nixon’s trip. There is an evident and growing opposition to support of dictators throughout South America. On both of these trips, students repeatedly asked why the United States supports dictators. Mr. Rubottom feels that it is because of the growth of this anti-dictator feeling that Latin America supports Castro.

Admiral Burke stated that if Castro gets into power, if he is cautious he may want to slow down, but may then be a prisoner, so to speak, and the Communists then might be able to get in.

Mr. Rubottom said that although he respected Admiral Burke’s views there were several officers in State who say that Castro cannot stick it out if he tries to take over, and that the Communist threat can be whipped. Cuba is only one of many where State is having a tough time with the Communists and Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, and Uruguay are others.

There followed a discussion of steps which might be taken by the Navy in so far as the Department of Defense is concerned. Admiral Burke mentioned the forces, such as the Boxer with the embarked Marines, which will be moving to the Caribbean area in early January [Page 328] for routine training. He stated that the Marines will be embarked in the Boxer somewhat earlier than anticipated, just to have them ready in case they are required.

Mr. Herter inquired as to the situation in Havana in anticipation of the evacuation requirements. In Havana the “warning stage” of evacuation is in effect (which is simply required advice to U.S. citizens of the situation). There is no emergency in this area at the present time. In Santiago, “Phase One” of the evacuation is in effect (which requires that dependents should be advised to return to the United States at their own expense).

Admiral Burke then tabled a draft message to be sent to CINCLANT8 advising him of the situation in Cuba, which might require evacuation of U.S. nationals and directing him to consider what he should do, but that there is no requirement at the present time for any immediate movement of forces. The original draft of the message indicated that CINCLANT should be prepared to intervene to protect U.S. nationals and U.S. property if this should be required. Mr. Herter asked that all mention of intervening be removed from the message. All agreed that the message as modified was satisfactory to send to CINCLANT.

Mr. Herter then summed up the purpose of the meeting which had been to discuss the Cuban situation in general; to exchange ideas; and to insure that everyone was working along the same lines and knew what every other Department was doing. He stressed that we should all keep in close touch with each other to insure that this exchange of information will continue. He also stressed that the problem in discussing these things is to keep leaks from occurring and that all members present should be careful that this did not happen.

As the meeting was breaking up, further information was received from Ambassador Smith in Cuba9 to the effect that Batista stated that he would be willing to step down and let the President of the Senate take over and call a junta to govern Cuba until an election can be held.

Ambassador Smith inquired as to what individuals State Department would want on the junta.

Admiral Burke’s feeling is that the U.S. Government should not try to designate who these individuals should be, since this would probably cause them to be killed.

There was some discussion as to whether Castro should be a member of the junta and the general conclusion was that, because of his power, he must be a member of it.

Batista is said to have a plane ready to leave the country and that he will probably go to the Dominican Republic.

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Admiral Burke estimated that Batista would leave the country within 48 hours, with which General Cabell agreed.

  1. Source: Naval Historical Center, Burke Papers, Originator’s File. Top Secret. The drafting officer is not indicated on the source text, but it was apparently Rear Admiral Hayward. The source text is attached to a summary of the conference prepared by Hayward which was forwarded to the Joint Chiefs under cover of a brief memorandum from Admiral Dennison, January 8.
  2. Rubottom, along with Little and Macomber, had appeared in executive session before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 10 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. that day. For a transcript of the testimony, see Executive Sessions of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Historical Series) (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), vol. X, pp. 767–800.
  3. Document 172.
  4. Apparently a reference to telegram 399, supra.
  5. See Document 188.
  6. December 26. This may be a reference to the meeting described in Document 191.
  7. Reference is unclear.
  8. Neither the draft nor the final message has been found.
  9. The manner by which this information was received has not been determined.