In this conversation, I talk with presidential historian and The New York Times bestselling author Doris Kearns Goodwin about Cuba today, the lingering effects of the cold war, and a secret box of cigars from Che Guevara.
I first heard the word revolution as a child. Having grown up in Concord, MA, a town that played an early role in the American Revolutionary War, the word revolution is embedded into the town’s history and vocabulary. It was at the site of one of the first shots of the American Revolutionary War where Doris Kearns Goodwin and I met to discuss Cuba. On a warm day, we stood in the middle of the fabled Old North Bridge, the deep green water running below.
Doris is a brilliant historian… Her intimate connection to Cuba comes from her late husband Richard Goodwin, a writer and aide for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Doris Kearns Goodwin first went to Cuba in 2002 to attend the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the multi-day sessions of the historic 40th anniversary conference on the Cuban missile crisis, participants including Cuban president Fidel Castro, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Russian diplomats discussed newly declassified documents, and reflected on what were some of the most tense thirteen days on the brink of nuclear war.
Cuba was the major foreign policy in 1960. The Cuban Revolution had taken place. Cuba had established itself as a communist government, just 90 miles from the United States, and suddenly the cold war, already at its height, was closer to home. It was no longer an abstraction. There were satellite images of nuclear warheads that could reach the U.S. in minutes. In 1960, Cuba was important to US foreign policy because the Soviet Union was making inroads around the world. They were successful with Sputnik 1, the world’s first orbiting satellite, and the U.S. was especially on edge with the feeling that they were falling behind.
As a millennial Gen Zer, it’s hard for me to fully imagine how high the tensions became when the U.S., Cuba and members of the former Soviet Union were at the brink of nuclear war. It was a revolutionary moment in history, and it’s impact still lingers today.
“History shows that engagement is the better course in most cases. If you can begin to engage with people, establish relationships and create commonality, how much better must that be than having a wall between the two countries.”Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris explained to me how she would practice with drills at school in case of nuclear war. This societal anxiety is best exemplified by the now classic instructional film Duck and Cover. Bert the Turtle teaches students how to hide under their table or desks to avoid a nuclear bomb explosion. During the famous thirteen days, there was a sense that the whole world could end. The situation was further complicated by delays in communication. Whereas today it would be instantaneous, then aerial imagery and other intel was late in arrival, and it required patience, and deliberation to avoid the very real possibility of a nuclear strike.
“All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port, must be turned back. A series of offensive missile sites are now in preparation on that imprisoned island.”
-John F. Kennedy, 35th U.S. President
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This is the moment that the U.S. embargo against Cuba first began. It was a literal naval blockade of ships that created a perimeter in an attempt to seal off Soviet ships that were thought to be delivering nuclear weapons to Cuba. In this context, a blockade makes sense, and perhaps was even effective. But more than 60 years later, the same policy of an embargo against Cuba remains. While the physical line of ships stretching across the Atlantic ocean is gone, the embargo of travel and trade that remains today is part of the everyday experience for most Cubans. The essential question, assuming that its initiation made sense in the first place is, when did the U.S. embargo against Cuba stop making sense?
“Having seen the beauty of the country and the history of the country, it’s over 60 years now in 2021, it’s about time this thing begins to change.”Doris Kearns Goodwin
In her own right, Doris is a brilliant historian, known for her books that are part biography, and part political science. Most of our conversation focused on a narrow window, after the Bay of Pigs, but before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her intimate connection to Cuba comes from her late husband Richard Goodwin, a writer and aide for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. At twenty-nine years old, Richard Goodwin was on the plane with JFK throughout the entire presidential campaign.
During JFK’s presidency, Richard Goodwin was especially instrumental in Latin American policy, and was a member of the Task Force on Latin American Affairs. In August 1961, Goodwin was sent to Uraguay as part of a delegation headed by US Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon to attend a conference of Latin American finance ministers. The topic of discussion was the Alliance for Peace, a program initiated by JFK to enhance economic cooperation between the United States and Latin America. It was just months after the bay of pigs, and Che Guevara was there.
At the conference, Che noticed that Richard Goodwin was younger, and perhaps his long hair and appetite for cigars gave the impression that he was more open than some of the other delegates. While they couldn’t meet in the open, Cuban diplomats were energized by their victory at the Bay of Pigs, and were more outgoing with their American counterparts. When Che and Richard had the chance to meet in private, Richard documented the meeting in great detail:
“Delegation Estados Unidos — Como no tengo tarjeta, tengo que escribir; como escribir a un enemigo es difícil ”Me limito a tender la mano.” (Translation: Since I don’t have a card, I must write and since writing to an enemy is difficult, I am limited to extending my hand).
Even when you can’t hug it out in public, at least you can pass on a box of cigars.
Doris’ analysis of Richard’s time at the 1961 Uruguay conference reveals the nuances of the U.S.-Cuba relationship, and how revolutionary moments like the Cuban Missile Crisis have tipped the scales. Reflecting back on her time at the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Doris described it as a moment of engagement. The Russians, Cubans, and Americans were together in a big room and it was a time when all sides could talk to each other, reflect on the history, and see where they are today.
“The embargo made sense at the time. But it’s one of those things that has stayed and stayed for so long. It’s one of those things that just got stuck.” -Doris Kearns Goodwin
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In the past several years, we’ve seen the flux of the Obama Administration opening, the Trump Administration closing, and a Biden administration that faces a complicated diplomatic challenge to making meaningful policy changes that promote productive engagement with Cuba. Yet momentum is there and so is an appetite for travel, and exchange. As time goes on and the visceral feelings of anger and betrayal can hopefully heal, it opens up the possibility of more engagement between the two neighboring countries.
The embargo is not just a blockade of travel and goods, it’s a blockade of stories too.
Policy changes follow public sentiment. The wounds are deep, and for many, especially those Cuban-Americans and others in the diaspora community who were directly affected, their families were hurt by the Cuban Revolution. Through the years, the embargo has hindered the flow of human connection, but as exchange increases our shared humanity comes ever more into focus. Open engagement would make that even more possible.
Symbolism does matter, it opens a door when people see different sides coming together. Doris reflects, “History shows that engagement is the better course in most cases. If you can begin to engage with people, establish relationships and create commonality, how much better must that be than having a wall between the two countries.” The hard policy still has to change. There is a lot that can happen with executive orders, but to end the embargo, it would take an act from Congress.
(This article is part of the Re-Evolution series, a multimedia project telling human stories about the everyday moments of revolution in Cuba.)