January 1, 2009

Nervous U.S. officials called hasty 1958 meeting to discuss Cuban turmoil

The Pentagon began ''getting nervous about Cuba,'' in the words of a State Department official, and a snap national security meeting was called for the afternoon of New Year's Eve 1958 -- a fateful date as it turned out.

The Pentagon began ''getting nervous about Cuba,'' in the words of a State Department official, and a snap national security meeting was called for the afternoon of New Year's Eve 1958 -- a fateful date as it turned out.

At the meeting, Defense Department officials discussed the possibility of sending U.S. Marines to Cuba to ''protect American lives and property'' as Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship crumbled. As the meeting ended, pressing information arrived from Havana.

Batista was now willing to ''step down'' and had a ''plane ready to leave the country,'' Ambassador Earl Smith reported. At 6 a.m., Smith sent an urgent telegram to Washington: ''General Batista departed for Santo Domingo with his family approximately 4 a.m. this morning.'' Other Batista officials, Smith said, were escaping aboard planes to New Orleans and Daytona Beach.

A lengthy memo that recorded the military proposal and Batista's departure plan is among documents at the National Archives and Records Administration that chronicle the last day of Batista's regime and the first of Fidel Castro's reign 50 years ago.

The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald reviewed the documents to piece together an account, from the perspective of nervous U.S. officials in Havana and Washington, of the historic 48 hours that radically transformed Cuba.

Among the most striking communications is a seven-page memo apparently written by U.S. Navy Rear Adm. A.S. Hayward Jr. summarizing highlights of the hastily called 4 p.m. meeting on Dec. 31, 1958.

The meeting, at the office of then Undersecretary of State Christian Herter, had been called the day before when Herter telephoned Robert Murphy, undersecretary for political affairs, to report that ''Defense is getting nervous about Cuba'' in light of the Batista regime's deteriorating situation.

Murphy then telephoned John Irwin, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and set up the emergency meeting.

The evening before the meeting, at 8:04 p.m. Dec. 30, Herter had sent a six-paragraph telegram to the U.S. Embassy in Havana alerting Ambassador Smith about a warning Herter had just received from Col. John Kieffer, Batista's registered agent in Washington.

Kieffer claimed that advancing Castro's rebels were ''ostensibly under direction of Fidel Castro, [but] actually taking orders directly'' from communist leaders. Herter said Kieffer also warned that though Batista's government can hold major Cuban cities, 'US will `find Communist Cuba on its doorstep' unless it quickly lifts arms embargo'' imposed earlier in 1958.

Herter asked Smith to check the claim of communist command and control of Castro forces and whether it was true the embassy had sent officials to the area to check.

Herter led the State Department delegation to the meeting, which included Irwin, Hayward and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Arleigh Burke. Also in attendance: assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs Roy Rubottom and Deputy CIA Director Gen. Charles Cabell.

Burke noted that a message had been drafted for dispatch to the commander of U.S. forces in the Atlantic region known as CINCLANT instructing him to be ``prepared to intervene to protect U.S. nationals and U.S. property.''

On Jan. 1, 1959, there were about 7,800 U.S. citizens living in Cuba and about 1,300 American tourists, according to U.S. files at the time.

Burke mentioned the draft message after noting that a U.S. warship, Boxer, was to sail to the Caribbean area with a contingent of U.S. Marines aboard for ''routine training'' in early January.

''[Burke] stated that the Marines will be embarked in the Boxer somewhat earlier than anticipated, just to have them ready in case they are required,'' Hayward, the note taker, quoted Burke as saying.

Herter objected and asked that the message to the Atlantic commander be rewritten to take out any reference to troops -- apparently an effort to avoid inflaming the crisis.

''All agreed that the message as modified was satisfactory to send to CINCLANT,'' wrote Hayward, who prepared the summary of the conversation now on file at the National Archives. The message was changed.

As dawn broke over Havana, Smith reported the Cuban capital ``quiet.''

That would change later in the day as crowds ran through Havana celebrating the dictator's downfall.

''Undisciplined groups engaging in destruction, sacking and looting, principally in downtown Habana and in town of Marianao,'' Smith wrote in a cable describing conditions as night fell on New Year's Day 1959. ``Buildings of two Ministries reported looted. Several casinos wrecked with consequent damage to some hotels. Several stores and bars wrecked and looted.''

The embassy asked the State Department to send a commercial or naval vessel to evacuate hundreds of Americans, mostly tourists, stranded in downtown hotels.

Thousands of Americans grew nervous as insecurity spread through the Cuban capital soon after Batista fled. Records show that in the first four days in January 1959, about 12,000 calls flooded the U.S. Embassy's telephone switchboard seeking advice on how to leave the island.

Late on Jan. 1, the State Department advised the embassy that a ship called ''City of Habana'' was to arrive in Havana about noon Jan. 2 to pick up Americans.

Though Cuban rebel representatives initially would not allow the vessel to dock, they later relented and the ship picked up 508 Americans and returned to Key West.

U.S. military forces, meanwhile, were pushing for some type of action. Late Jan. 1, the Defense Department moved two submarine tenders and three destroyer escorts from Key West to near Havana, according to a Burke memo dated Jan. 3. The warships were ordered to remain out of sight, but by Jan. 5 were withdrawn and ordered to return to Key West.

''The possibility was discussed of having U.S. Marines aboard these ships in case the evacuees had to be protected,'' read a note summarizing Burke's memo found among the cables, memos and telegrams on file. ``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 press speculation.''

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