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From the Archive: In a Caribbean Storm

Alex von Tunzelmann reassesses a two-part article on the troubled relationship between the United States and Cuba, published in History Today 50 years ago in the wake of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In May and June 1961, just two years into Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, Arnold Whitridge wrote a two-part retrospective of Cuban relations with the United States for History Today. It was an apt moment. In mid-April 1961 an anti-Castro brigade landed at the Bay of Pigs, a swampy inlet near the Cuban town of Cienfuegos. The brigade was Cuban but had been trained and directed by the United States. The operation was supposed to be a secret. In fact US plans had been revealed on the front page of the New York Times on January 10th. Led into battle by CIA agents, the brigade was quickly defeated by Castro’s forces, who captured almost all the 1,200 invaders.

The Bay of Pigs had massive consequences for Cuban relations with both the US and the Soviet Union. Since Whitridge’s article patchy information from the former Soviet Union has indicated that until the invasion the Soviets were cautious about involving themselves with Castro. But the Bay of Pigs convinced them that what they saw as US imperialism was a real threat to Cuba: ‘Although the counter-revolutionaries were defeated in the landing, you would have had to be completely unrealistic to think that everything had ended with that’, said Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in his memoirs. It set into motion a series of events which would lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Whitridge was writing in the middle of a storm. For any historian coming up with judgements that will stand the test of time at such a moment is extremely difficult. The first half of his piece, published in May 1961 and therefore certainly written before the Bay of Pigs, is sharply critical of US designs on the island. As Whitridge points out, these began with the Founding Fathers. He looks at why US politicians were so keen to acquire or control Cuba and at how this was interwoven with the politics of slavery. He is unrestrained in his attack on Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent were culturally (and sometimes racially) superior to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and would therefore inevitably dominate the continent.

The second half of the article, published in June, may or may not have been amended after the Bay of Pigs invasion. Either way it has a subtly different tone – one more sympathetic to the US. Whitridge goes soft on the rule of Cuba by a US occupying force after the Spanish-American War of 1898, arguing that Cuban institutions had collapsed and therefore ‘good government imposed by an outsider’ was the only option. He skims lightly over direct interventions by the US government and military in the early 20th century: ‘If America is to blame for conditions in Cuba’, he writes, ‘it is for not having intervened more often, for having been too frightened of the stigma of imperialism.’

That is a curious argument to make, bearing in mind the long history of involvement which Whitridge himself puts forth and his own aversion to Manifest Destiny and early US involvement. In the context of June 1961, though, it is possible to see where he is coming from. US fears of Communism were at a high pitch. President John F. Kennedy’s approval ratings went through the roof after the Bay of Pigs (‘I hope I don’t have to keep doing stupid things like that to remain popular’, Kennedy said to his press secretary, Pierre Salinger). Whitridge would have been in tune with many American voters of the time when he concluded: ‘If he [Kennedy] can extricate the Cuban people from the web of Communism in which they are now enmeshed, he will have passed one of the many searching tests of statesmanship to which he will be subjected.’

Though he made change in Cuba the top priority of the CIA during his presidency, Kennedy failed that test. So did his successors, despite continued support for anti-Castro movements and half a century of trade embargoes, travel restrictions and intense diplomatic pressure. Still the 50 years since Whitridge’s piece – and the presence of a substantial community of Cuban-American exiles in Florida, who have held the balance of power in some American presidential elections – have only lent weight to one of Whitridge’s observations: ‘Few regions of the world have been more continuously a matter of concern to the government and people of the United States than the island of Cuba.’

Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean (Simon and Schuster, 2011).

Read the original articles (PDF): Part One | Part Two

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