212. Editorial Note

On January 1, 1959, the Embassy in Havana asked the Department to dispatch either a commercial or naval vessel to evacuate more than 200 Americans, mostly tourists in downtown hotels, who had appealed to the Embassy for assistance in returning to the United States. (Telegram 676 from Havana, January 1; Department of State, Central Files, 237.1122/1–159) The Department replied that it was trying to arrange for the City of Habana, which had recently visited Havana, to return there to aid in the evacuation of Americans. The Department confirmed a suggestion which it had earlier given by telephone to the Embassy that contact should be established with rebel representatives or the provisional authorities to facilitate the protection and evacuation of Americans. (Telegram 416 to Havana, January 1, 8:35 p.m.; ibid.) Later that evening, the Department informed the Embassy that the City of Habana was departing Key West at daybreak and would arrive in Havana about noon. (Telegram 419 to Havana, January 1, 11:15 p.m.; ibid.)

The Department and the Embassy remained in telephone contact through the early morning hours of January 2 regarding the evacuation. In a telephone conversation at 5:15 a.m., the Embassy indicated that 26th of July Movement representatives had given assurances that the City of Habana would be allowed to dock and that Pan American Airways could use the airport for evacuation purposes. Later that morning, the rebel representatives changed their minds, as the Embassy informed the Department in two separate conversations:

“January 2, 1959, 7:50 a.m.: Telephone conversation between Embassy and Department concerning 26th of July’s number-two-man’s difficulty in getting word through to other people in the Movement to get decisions to dock City of Habana. Number-two man stated Movement wanted to help but should be understood in Washington that it takes time to find out who does what. During conversation Braddock got word movement had denied request on airport and dock. Braddock suggested Department put heat on Betancourt in United States and have him put the heat on the Cubans to assist in the evacuation.

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“January 2, 1959 [between 7:50 and 10:05 a.m.]: In telephone conversation between Ambassador Smith and Mr. Rubottom, Ambassador informed Mr. Rubottom of Movement’s denial of request on airport and dock. Mr. Rubottom told Ambassador to keep right after it and point out to 26th of July people that it would be a black strike against them. Mr. Rubottom told Mr. Braddock there have been constant inquiries from members of Congress and Senate as to the well-being of the Americans. Mr. Rubottom had informed them that permission had been granted for evacuation, and now he would have to tell them that it had been reversed. He said that the evacuation has nothing to do with general strike. Mr. Rubottom said the Embassy could also inform them that this will be interpreted as holding tourists as hostage as the price for something they have not made known. We have no intention of trying to break the strike, but only to evacuate men, women, and children who are stranded in a foreign country and are unable to get food. It should be pointed out that it is in their interest to get action.” (Memorandum for the files by Gerald O. Jones (ARA/EX), January 13; ibid., ARA Deputy Assistant Secretary Files: Lot 61 D 411, Cuba 1959)

The Department also informed the Embassy by telegram during the afternoon of January 2 that it could not comprehend why rebel representatives would not want to facilitate the evacuation of American tourists. The Department added:

“All of United States hourly watching developments Cuba and is concerned over status Americans there. We hope Castro representatives will understand that their every action being watched closely in this country and that any misstep their part could permanently jeopardize feelings toward them on part all Americans. Department cannot stress too strongly unanimity of feeling on part U.S. public opinion, press, and congressional leaders in their concern for safety and well-being U.S. citizens who found themselves in Cuba at this critical moment.”

The Embassy was asked to “immediately point out above considerations in most forceful manner.” (Telegram 420 to Havana, January 2; ibid., Central Files, 237.1122/1–259)

The City of Habana arrived in Havana on the afternoon of January 2 and, after taking aboard 508 Americans, returned to Key West that evening. (Memorandum by Jones, January 13; ibid., ARA Deputy Assistant Secretary Files: Lot 61 D 411, Cuba 1959)

Also on the night of January 1–2, the U.S. Navy sent two submarine tenders and three destroyer escorts from Key West to waters near Havana to be in a position to help evacuate Americans if necessary. This action grew out of conversations Admiral Burke held early in the evening with Herter and Murphy, during which the possibility was also discussed of having U.S. Marines aboard these ships in case the evacuees had to be protected. In the end it was decided not to send the Marines because their movement to Key West and subsequent embarkation would have become public knowledge and the cause of undesirable [Page 340] press speculation. It was also decided that the ships would remain out of sight of land and there would be no publicity. These conversations, as well as the controversy created by the conflicting information given by the White House and the Department of Defense to the press on January 2 about the dispatch of the vessels, was described in Burke’s memorandum of January 3 to Quarles and Burke’s attached chronology of events. (Declassified Documents, 1979, 156*) Burke’s memorandum and chronology were forwarded to the President as attachments to Quarles’ memorandum of January 6, in which he outlined a modification of procedures that would be in line with the new military command structure. (ibid., 1981, 144*)

The problem of how to maintain secrecy about preliminary movement of forces in times of tension, as was pointed up by the Cuban crisis, was discussed in Burke’s letters of January 3 and February 5 to Admiral Jerauld Wright, Commander in Chief, Atlantic and U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and Wright’s letter of January 15 to Burke. (Naval Historical Center, Burke Papers, Personal File—Wright)

On January 4, all the ships, except for two destroyer escorts, returned to Key West. The Department of State requested that the two destroyer escorts remain for an additional 24 hours because of the uncertainty of what would happen in Cuba. None of the Navy ships became involved in the evacuation of Americans from Havana. The return of the Naval ships, and the conversations Admiral Burke had with the White House, the Department of State, and Quarles on January 4 about this action, were described in Burke’s memorandum for the record which he sent as an enclosure to his letter of January 4 to Admiral Wright. (ibid.)