Category Archives: Cuba

Gen. Maxwell Taylor’s Rise

From Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by H. R. McMaster (HarperCollins, 2011), Kindle Loc. 227-39, 369-89:

Because the front line against Communism had not been drawn in Laos, South Vietnam would become the principal focus of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Under those circumstances Kennedy brought into his administration a man who would exert great influence over two presidents’ decisions to escalate American involvement in Vietnam.

Reeling from the wave of public criticism following the Bay of Pigs and aware of his increasingly troubled relationship with the JCS, Kennedy told his staff that he needed someone to be “my advisor to see that I am not making a dumb mistake as Commander in Chief.” To provide him with military advice and to coordinate the efforts of the White House staff, Defense Department, and intelligence agencies, the besieged president looked to former Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Davenport Taylor.

Max Taylor seemed the model of the soldier-statesman. Inspired by his Confederate grandfather’s Civil War tales, Taylor pursued a military career with great enthusiasm from an early age. When his sixth-grade teacher asked him to name his professional ambition, the young Taylor wrote “major general.” Twelve years later he graduated fourth in the West Point class of 1922. A talented linguist, Taylor later returned to the Military Academy to teach Spanish and French. During assignments in China and Japan, he became proficient in Japanese. It was, in part, his reputation as both a warrior and a scholar that made the general attractive to Kennedy.

The president privately acknowledged that Taylor’s responsibilities could easily have been performed by the Pentagon’s senior military men. He was not only dissatisfied with the Joint Chiefs’ advice but also frustrated by his inability to establish with them the kind of friendly rapport that he enjoyed with the rest of his staff and with many of his cabinet officials. To Kennedy generals and admirals were too formal, traditional, and unimaginative. Bundy confided to Taylor’s principal assistant that Kennedy “would never feel really secure” about the military until “young generals of his own generation in whom he has confidence” filled the top uniformed positions in the defense establishment. Bundy knew that it was important to Kennedy that the top military men be able to “conduct a conversation” with the president to give him a “feeling of confidence and reassurance.” Taylor would strive to satisfy the president’s need. Kennedy’s new personal adviser found the president “an amazingly attractive man—intelligent with a ready wit, personal charm, an ability to inspire loyalty in the people around him.” He soon cultivated a warm friendship with the president and his family.

Taylor knew that the Chiefs and the secretary of defense viewed him as a competing voice in national security issues. The retired general moved to head off potential animosities and assured his old friend Lemnitzer that he would be more of an ally than a source of competition. He told Lemnitzer that his “close personal relations with the President and his entourage” would help to ensure that the Chiefs’ advice reached the president.

When he arrived in Washington on April 22, Taylor’s first responsibility was to conduct an investigation of the decision to mount the Bay of Pigs invasion. Although he concluded that the Chiefs were “not directly responsible” for the misadventure, he criticized them for not warning the president more urgently of the dangers. When the administration sought military advice on narrow questions about the operation, the Chiefs gave competent answers but offered no overall assessment because “they hadn’t been asked.” Taylor concluded that relations between the commander in chief and the JCS had reached “crisis” level.

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Taylor & McNamara vs. Joint Chiefs

From Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by H. R. McMaster (HarperCollins, 2011), Kindle Loc. 523-45:

On October 1, 1962, Taylor took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He found the Chiefs, still embittered over what they regarded as Kennedy’s unfair criticism in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, engaged in ongoing battles with civilian officials in the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. The Chiefs saw Taylor’s selection as the imposition of a Kennedy man on an organization designed by law to give impartial military advice to the commander in chief.

Taylor quickly cultivated a warm relationship with the man whom many of the military officers in the Pentagon deeply resented. Taylor and McNamara found common ground in their belief in the need for administrative reform in the Pentagon, faith in the “flexible response” strategy, and utter devotion to their commander in chief. Like McNamara, Taylor concluded that the answer to problems of service rivalry and administrative inefficiency was increased centralization of power in the chairmanship and the OSD. Taylor had once lamented the indecisiveness of Eisenhower’s defense secretaries, and he lauded McNamara for tackling the tough problems of the department. The bond of respect between the two men was mutual. McNamara considered Taylor “one of the wisest, most intelligent military men ever to serve.” Much to the chagrin of the other Chiefs, Taylor and McNamara formed a partnership. Taylor’s overwhelming influence with the secretary of defense and the president made opposition to his views futile.

Historian Robert Divine observed that “Vietnam can only be understood in relation to the Cold War.” Indeed, Cold War crises during Kennedy’s first months as president shaped advisory relationships within his administration and influenced his foreign policy decisions until his assassination in November 1963. Already predisposed to distrust the senior military officers he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration, the Bay of Pigs incident and Laotian crisis motivated the president to seek a changing of the guard in the Pentagon. After the Bay of Pigs, an unsatisfactory diplomatic settlement in Laos, confrontation with the Kremlin over divided Berlin, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bullying rhetoric persuaded Kennedy that the United States needed to make its “power credible.” “Vietnam,” Kennedy concluded, “is the place.” Vietnam, however, loomed in the background while the New Frontiersmen confronted in the Caribbean what would become the best known of Kennedy’s Cold War crises.

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JFK vs. NSC and JSC

From Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by H. R. McMaster (HarperCollins, 2011), Kindle Loc. 140-62:

The president’s personal style influenced the way he structured the White House staff to handle national security decision making. Having no experience as an executive, Kennedy was unaccustomed to operating at the head of a large staff organization. He regarded Eisenhower’s National Security Council (NSC) structure as cumbersome and unnecessary. Immediately after taking office, he eliminated the substructure of the NSC by abolishing its two major committees: the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB). Kennedy resolved not to use the NSC except for the pro forma consultation required by the National Security Act of 1947. In place of the formal Eisenhower system, Kennedy relied on an ad hoc, collegial style of decision making in national security and foreign affairs. He formed task forces to analyze particular problems and met irregularly with an “inner club” of his most trusted advisers to discuss problems informally and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of potential courses of action.

Kennedy’s dismantling of the NSC apparatus diminished the voice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in national security matters. Under Eisenhower military officers connected with the JCS were assigned to the Planning Board and the OCB. Through these representatives, the JCS could place items important to the military on the NSC agenda. During NSC meetings Eisenhower considered differing opinions and made decisions with all the Chiefs in attendance. Kennedy’s structural changes, his practice of consulting frankly with only his closest advisers, and his use of larger forums to validate decisions already made would transcend his own administration and continue as a prominent feature of Vietnam decision making under Lyndon Johnson. Under the Kennedy-Johnson system, the Joint Chiefs lost the direct access to the president, and thus the real influence on decision making, that the Eisenhower NSC structure had provided.

Diminished JCS access to the president reflected Kennedy’s opinion of his senior military advisers. Kennedy and the young New Frontiersmen of his administration viewed the Eisenhower JCS with suspicion. Against the backdrop of Kennedy’s efforts to reform the Defense Department, and under the strain of foreign policy crises, a relationship of mutual distrust between senior military and civilian officials would develop. Two months after Kennedy assumed the presidency, tension between the New Frontiersmen and the Old Guard escalated over a foreign policy blunder in the Caribbean. The Old Guard in the Pentagon were soon relegated to a position of little influence.

The Bay of Pigs shattered the sense of euphoria and hopeful aspiration that surrounded the New Frontiersmen during their first months in Washington.

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Gen. Leonard Wood in Cuba, 1899-1902

From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 15-17:

The most capable of the military governors was probably William Ludlow, governor of Havana, an engineer, who was sufficiently incensed at the wretched condition of the city that he advocated an American occupation “for a generation.” But the departmental commander with the best political connections was Brig. Gen. Leonard Wood, a physician and career soldier, governor of Santiago, who instituted a regime of cleanliness in the city and meted out public whippings to citizens who violated sanitary regulations….

In December 1899 [President McKinley] named Wood military governor of Cuba and instructed him to prepare the Cubans for independence…. Wood had uncommonly broad authority to accomplish that task. He was, wrote his biographer, “practically a free agent.” Ecstatically optimistic about his task, he declared to the press a few weeks after his appointment that “success in Cuba is so easy that it would be a crime to fail.”…

Wood was already demonstrating the “practical approach to nation building. He arose each morning at 5:30 and began a day of furious routine, signing directives, giving orders, hearing complaints, and undertaking inspections of schools, hospitals, road construction, and public projects. He would even investigate the routine operation of a municipal court. He ran the military government like an efficient plantation owner with a show so southern charm for his Cuban wards coupled with a Yankee sense of organization and efficiency. He died with the Cuban social elite and conversed with the lowliest guajiro (rural dweller) in the countryside. For sheer intensity of commitment, Wood was unmatched by any Cuban executive until Fidel Castro. Cubans who remembered the old three-hour workdays under the Spanish now had to adjust to Wood’s bureaucratic regime of 9:00 to 11:00, 12:00 to 5:00, six days a week. Wood’s office ran on a twenty-four-hour schedule, with the day-to-day business supervised by Frank Steinhardt, who later became U.S. consul and in 1908 took over Havana Electric Railway….

When Wood stepped down in May 1902 Cuba was not militarily occupied in the same way as, say, Germany after 1945, but it had already felt the imprint of American ways and techniques, expressed through a military regime and stern-minded physician turned professional soldier. Mindful of the biblical injunctions on cleanliness, Wood had proceeded to sanitize the island’s towns by strict regulations on garbage disposal (the Habaneros had always thrown their refuse in front of the house), paving the streets, and whitewashing the public places. Wood was convinced that filth explained Cuba’s epidemics of yellow fever, though an eccentric Cuban scientist (of Scottish ancestry), Dr. Carlos Findlay, argued correctly that the culprit was the mosquito. Wood’s vigorous sanitary campaign nonetheless probably helped control another Cuban scourge, typhoid.

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Effects of the Papal Visit to Cuba in 1998

From Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage, 2001), pp. 97-99:

The issue of Granma I acquire from a vendor in front of the cathedral is eight pages thick, tabloid-size. There is such a severe paper shortage in Havana these days that toilet paper is nonexistent, and, for lack of anything to buy in bookstores or anything to buy books with, better-off Cubans, having already sold or bartered their best furniture, their cutlery, their paintings, their picture frames, the statues on their family crypt, their jewelry, and their garden ornaments, have now taken to delivering the contents of their bookshelves to the used-book dealers who operate stalls in front of the former Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. The toilet paper problem and the Granma problem are not unrelated; in poor countries, squares of newsprint are a common substitute for toilet paper, but in Cuba the skinny—and scarce—issues of Granma are not enough to fill the need, and so I wonder if the stacks of Marxist literature that are said to go for a song these days are being put to good use—I dare not ask my friends. In any event, the coverage of the papal visit in the current issue of Granma makes interesting reading, for beyond the live broadcasts, it is the only information about the visit to which most Cubans have access. In today’s Granma, for example, they learn that the world media “classifies the meeting between Fidel and Pope John Paul II as ‘historic,'” that a congressman in El Salvador “classified the visit as transcendental,” and that the Jamaican daily The Observer “writes that the visit … is an example of rejection towards the U.S. embargo policies.” The front page describes at length yesterday’s meeting between the pope and representatives of Cuban culture—among them, movie directors whose works have been censored and intellectuals who have learned to keep their opinions about Fidel Castro closely to themselves. Without quoting him directly (or any other Church hierarch by name), Granma tells us that the pope “underlined that in Cuba one can speak of a fertile cultural dialogue, which is the guarantee for more harmonic growth and an increase in the initiatives and creativity among the members of a civil society.” A further article describes with some sense of color the enthusiastic reception given to the pope by the youth of Camagüey. If memory serves, there is no significant difference between these stories and those describing earlier state visits by, say, Michael Manley or Pham Van Dong.

At the newly refurbished Hotel Ambos Mundos (the words “where Hemingway used to stay” are invariably attached to its name), we sit at the bar and watch the end of this day’s mass. It is being broadcast live from Santiago, the eastern city that prides itself on its militant nationalistic spirit, and where Fidel’s 1953 assault on the Moncada barracks kindled the armed rebellion that would bring him to power in 1959. It is easy to forget that the Cuban nation is not yet a century old, but in Santiago the long fight for independence from Spain and freedom from United States dominion, and the central importance of the Sierra Maestra in the Fidelista revolution, are never forgotten. The pope’s Cuban advisers have no doubt suggested that Santiago is the perfect place to address the question of patriotism and the nation during his homily.

The crucial words of the day, in fact, are not spoken by John Paul or even by the cardinal of Havana, Jaime Ortega, who as a young priest spent some time in the notorious work camps where in the mid-1960s Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, militant Catholics, and even unruly youths such as the now-hallowed singer Pablo Milanés were sent to have their thinking corrected. The statement that will echo the longest—and that may well be the first statement critical of the Revolution to be distributed by a state-controlled medium in the last thirty years or so—comes in the course of a salutation to the pope by the bishop of Santiago, Pedro Meurice, who now holds the same position as the lifesaving bishop Pérez Serantes of so long ago. The heart of Meurice’s impassioned declaration, much quoted since then, comes when he talks of a “growing number of Cubans who have confused the fatherland with a single party, the nation with the historical process we have lived through during the last few decades, and culture with an ideology.”

Friends familiar with Catholic policy say that the Vatican probably decided from the first that the pope, in his role as head of state, should not be the one to refer specifically to the problems of the Catholic Church in Cuba, and that Cardinal Ortega should also remain above the fray, leaving Meurice to vent the feelings of the priests and other Catholics during his official salutation to the pope. Foreign journalists read into Meurice s speech the Vatican’s statement of defiance, but a complementary interpretation is possible: together with the fact that the pope chose to bring up the issue of political prisoners—there are hundreds of them—only at a meeting he knew would not be televised, it could stand as evidence of the diligence with which the Church is seeking to avoid a counterproductive confrontation with Fidel, his party, or his faithful during this trip. This is not to say that the Church ignored the impact Meurice s words were likely to have. He is known as a firebrand, and Santiago, the fiery town, is said to be the place where anti-Castro sentiment is running strongest. It is here that the first loud chants of’ “Libertad! Libertad!” will be heard during the mass.

Friends who were there will tell me later that significant numbers of Fidelista Cubans walked out during Meurice’s speech, that significant numbers of Catholics cheered wildly, and that in general in the plaza the feeling was that something enormous and irrevocable had taken place. But in the streets of downtown Havana, Meurice’s words have had no immediate impact that I can see. The hotel bar opens out onto the street, and as we sit in front of the TV set, Cubans stroll by and stop to watch the screen. A mass is an unfamiliar event for most of them. Unless it is the pope himself, they have little sense of who is at the microphone (or up at bat, or on stage, as they would probably say, since a public gathering to them would suggest the national sport or a dance concert but not the liturgy). Meurice is unknown beyond Santiago. Cardinal Ortega is not recognized when he walks down the street …

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Che’s African Farce, 1965

From Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage, 2001), pp. 81-82:

Che was unable to deal with his disapproval of the course that Fidel was taking and his simultaneous love for the man; with his disillusionment with the Soviet Union and the self-satisfaction of the burgeoning Cuban bureaucracy; with the palace intrigues of the new regime (particularly those of Fidel’s brother Raúl); and, probably, with the gnawing awareness of his own failings as a peacetime revolutionary. It seems reasonable to interpret his decision to leave Cuba as Castañeda does—as the result of his need to get away from so much internal conflict. (In the course of explaining this decision, Castañeda provides an extraordinary account of the ins and outs of Cuban state policy, Cuban-Soviet relations, and Castro’s dealings with the United States.) Che was leaving behind a second wife, six children, his comrades, his years of happiness, and the revolution he had helped give birth to; none of these were enough to convince him that he belonged.

Guevara’s original intention was to return to his homeland and start a guerrilla movement there. A 1965 expedition to the Congo, where various armed factions were still wrestling for power long after the overthrow and murder of Patrice Lumumba, and his last stand in Bolivia, Castañeda writes, followed improbably from Fidel’s anxious efforts to keep Che away from Argentina, where he was sure to be detected and murdered by Latin America’s most efficient security forces. Castro seems to have felt that the Congo would be a safer place, and the question of whether it was a more intelligent choice doesn’t seem to have been addressed either by him or by the man he was trying to protect. (In Cairo, Jon Lee Anderson notes, Gamal Abdel Nasser warned Che not to get militarily involved in Africa, because there he would be “like Tarzan, a white man among blacks, leading and protecting them.”)

As things turned out, the Congo episode was a farce, so absurd that Cuban authorities kept secret Che’s rueful draft for a book on it—until recently, that is, when one of his new biographers, Taibo, was able to study the original manuscript. Guevara was abandoned from the beginning by Congolese military leaders, such as Laurent Kabila, who had initially welcomed his offer of help. He was plagued by dysentery and was subject to fits of uncontrollable anger, and emerged from seven months in the jungle forty pounds lighter, sick, and severely depressed. If he had ever considered a decision to cut bait and return to Cuba, that option was canceled weeks before the Congo expedition’s rout: on October 5, 1965, Fidel Castro, pressed on all sides to explain Che’s disappearance from Cuba and unable to recognize that the African adventure was about to collapse, decided to make public Che’s farewell letter to him: “I will say once again that the only way that Cuba can be held responsible for my actions is in its example. If my time should come under other skies, my last thought will be for this people, and especially for you.”

Guevara was sitting in a miserable campsite on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, bored, frustrated, and in mourning for his mother, when he was told that Fidel had publicized the letter. The news hit him like an explosion. “Shit-eaters!” he said, pacing back and forth in the mud. “They are imbeciles, idiots.”

Guevara’s final trek began at this moment, because once his farewell to Fidel was made public, as Castañeda writes, “his bridges were effectively burned. Given his temperament, there was now no way he could return to Cuba, even temporarily. The idea of a public deception was unacceptable to him: once he had said he was leaving, he could not go back.” He could not bear to lose face.

A few months later, having taken full and bitter stock of his situation, he made the decision to set up a guerrilla base—intended as a training camp, really—in southern Bolivia, near the border with Argentina. From there, he convinced himself, he would ultimately be able to spark the revolutionary flame in Argentina and, from there, throughout the world.

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Ethiopia, 1978: One More Equal Than Others

From The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 245-248:

In September 1976 the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), drawing support from the labour unions, teachers and students, all vehemently opposed to military rule, embarked on a campaign of urban terrorism against the Derg and its civilian ally, the All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement, usually known by its Amharic acronym, Meison. An assassination attempt was made on Mengistu in the centre of Addis Ababa in September, the first of nine such attempts. Scores of officials and supporters of the Derg were murdered. The Derg in turn sent out its own murder squads…. By mid-1977 the EPRP was effectively destroyed. In the final phase of the red terror, to establish his own supremacy, Mengistu turned on his Meison allies, destroying them too. The young generation of intellectual activists, who had so avidly supported the revolution were all but wiped out.

Mengistu’s hold over other parts of Ethiopia was nevertheless precarious. By mid-1977 the Ethiopian army in Eritrea had lost most major towns and controlled little more than Asmara and the ports of Massawa and Assab. In July 1977 Somalia, deciding the time was ripe to take advantage of the Derg’s preoccupation with Eritrea and other revolts, launched a full-scale invasion of the Ogaden. By August the Somalis controlled most of the Ogaden. In September they captured Jijiga, an Ethiopian tank base, and pressed on towards the town of Harar and the rail and industrial centre of Dire Dawa, the third largest city in Ethiopia.

What rescued Mengistu from military defeat was massive intervention by Soviet and Cuban forces, determined to prop up his Marxist regime. In November 1977 the Soviets mounted a huge airlift and sealift, ferrying tanks, fighter aircraft, artillery, armoured personnel carriers and hundreds of military advisers to Ethiopia. A Cuban combat force numbering 17,000 joined them. Led by Cuban armour, the Ethiopians launched their counter-offensive in the Ogaden in February 1978, inflicting a crushing defeat on the Somalis. The full force of the Ethiopian army, supported by the Soviet Union, was then turned on Eritrea.

At the fourth anniversary celebrations marking the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1978, Mengistu sat alone in a gilded armchair covered with red velvet on a platform in Revolution Square in Addis Ababa watching a procession of army units and civilian groups pass before him. Then he returned to his headquarters at the Grand Palace. Having succeeded in holding the old empire together, he liked to portray himself as following a tradition of strong Ethiopian rulers. Indeed, Mengistu came to be compared with the Emperor Tewodros, a nineteenth-century ruler who started his career as a minor local chieftain, fought his way up to take the Crown and then strove to reunite the empire after a period of disintegration. At official functions at the Grand Palace, while members of the Derg stood respectfully to one side, Mengistu chose to preside from the same ornate chair that Haile Selassie had once favoured.

One of his ministers, Dawit Wolde Giorgis, once a fervent supporter of the revolution, recalled his growing sense of disillusionment.

At the beginning of the Revolution all of us had utterly rejected anything having to do with the past. We would no longer drive cars, or wear suits; neckties were considered criminal. Anything that made you look well-off or bourgeois, anything that smacked of affluence or sophistication, was scorned as part of the old order. Then, around 1978, all that began to change. Gradually materialism became accepted, then required. Designer clothes from the best European tailors were the uniform of all senior government officials and members of the Military Council. We had the best of everything: the best homes, the best cars, the best whisky, champagne, food. It was a compete reversal of the ideals of the Revolution.

He recalled, too, how Mengistu changed once he had gained complete control.

He grew more abrasive and arrogant. The real Mengistu emerged: vengeful, cruel and authoritarian. His conduct was not limited by any moral considerations. He began to openly mock God and religion. There was a frightening aura about him. Many of us who used to talk to him with our hands in our pockets, as if he were one of us, found ourselves standing stiffly at attention, cautiously respectful in his presence. In addressing him we had always used the familiar form of ‘you’, ante; now we found ourselves switching to the more formal ‘you’, ersiwo. He moved into a bigger, more lavish office in the Palace of Menelik. He got new, highly trained bodyguards – men who watched you nervously, ready to shoot at any time. We now were frisked whenever we entered his office. He began to use the Emperor’s cars and had new ones imported from abroad – bigger, fancier cars with special security provisions. Wherever he went he was escorted by these cars packed with guards, with more riding alongside on motorcycles.

He concluded: ‘We were supposed to have a revolution of equality; now he had become the new Emperor.’

You get the same result every single time a revolutionary thug promises equality—and begins to deliver it with the help of other revolutionary thugs. Every French Revolution yields a new Robespierre—and then a new Napoleon.

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