Castro Offered LBJ Help in '64 Race

By George Gedda
Associated Press Writer
Friday, August 20, 1999; 9:09 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Before the 1964 presidential campaign, President Lyndon B. Johnson got an offer of help from an improbable source -- Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro.

Castro sent a verbal message to Johnson that he was eager for Johnson to prevail in the election -- and even invited him to take ``hostile action'' against Cuba if it would be to his political benefit.

He also urged Johnson to continue a U.S.-Cuban dialogue that Kennedy had initiated in the months before his assassination.

Castro's comments are contained in a series of once-secret 1960s documents on U.S.-Cuban relations obtained by Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University.

Kornbluh wrote an article based on the documents in the current edition of Cigar Aficionado.

The Castro message was dated Feb. 12, 1964, less than three months after Kennedy was assassinated. It was given verbally by Castro to Lisa Howard of ABC News in Havana for delivery to Johnson. Kornbluh said the message reached Johnson through U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.

Castro, who then held the title of prime minister, asked Howard to ``Please tell President Johnson that I earnestly desire his election to the presidency in November ... though that appears assured. .... Seriously, I have observed how Republicans use Cuba as a weapon against the Democrats. So tell President Johnson to let me know what I can do.''

He suggested that his offer remain secret lest it become useful to the Republicans. It was a time when the conservative wing of the party was poised to seize power after long years of dominance by moderates. That summer, the GOP nominated conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona to run against Johnson.

Castro continued: ``If the president feels it necessary during the campaign to make bellicose statements about Cuba or even to take hostile action, if he will inform me unofficially that a specific action is required because of domestic political considerations, I shall understand and not take any serious retaliatory action.''

How Johnson responded to Castro's message is not known. Four months after his message to Johnson, Castro proposed in an interview ``extensive discussions of the issues dividing'' Cuba and the United States. There were subsequent contacts but the initiative begun by Kennedy fizzled out by the end of 1964.

As the documents show, Kennedy placed high priority on a normal relationship with Cuba.

Rejecting a State Department recommendation that Cuba loosen its ties with the Soviet Union and China as the price for normal ties, a White House memo dated March 4, 1963, said, ``We don't want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill.

``We should start thinking along more flexible lines. The president, himself, is very interested in this one.''

The documents highlight Kennedy's previously reported interest in abandoning his policy of unremitting hostility toward Cuba in exchange for a more moderate course. For his part Castro seemed interested.

In mid-November 1963, Castro was preparing to send instructions to his U.N. ambassador on a proposed agenda for official talks between Castro and a U.S. emissary. Kennedy sent word to top aides that he was prepared to decide on next steps once the agenda was received. The date was Nov. 19, 1963, three days before Kennedy's assassination.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press