The Florida Keys War
by Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: Through the previous three instalments of this series we explored the circumstances that led to the Florida Keys War; the course of the war itself; and the beginning of the U.S.-led coalition assault on Havana that would bring the war to an end. In our latest segment we’ll see how Havana fell, recall the Fidel Castro war crimes trial, and relive the nightmare of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
Fallen Citadel: July 7th-July 13th, 1961
Around 10:30 AM on the morning of July 7th, the last remaining Soviet citizens in Cuba, a group of less than two dozen employees of the official news agency TASS, boarded a freighter in Havana Harbor to make the journey home. They left behind the wreckage of what had been Latin America’s first Marxist state and a sense of regret that Moscow’s efforts to establish a bridgehead in the United States’ own backyard had come to nothing. One sight that would particularly haunt them in years to come was the deserted shell of their country’s former embassy, which they passed on the journey to Havana Harbor.
Once the ship had cleared the harbor and was safely out on the open sea, US and British marine units began coming ashore to help relieve some of the pressure on the US-Mexican forces pushing towards Havana from the west. Most of Mariel was under coalition control, but there were still a few pockets of Cuban Communist resistance in that port city.
To clear those pockets out, General Harkins ordered a squadron of F-105 Thunderchiefs to bomb Mariel’s southern districts. The bombing began just after noon Eastern Daylight Time and lasted until 1:15 PM, by which time the Cuban Communist forces’ armored vehicles in that area had been either destroyed or seized by the anti-Castro insurgents.
By 2:30 PM the Havana suburbs of Mariano, Guanabacoa, and Reglia were all in U.S. coalition hands; a CIA covert team was flown to Bauta ready to enter Havana on a moment’s notice and place Fidel Castro under arrest. The socialist paradise he had spent almost six years working to build was coming apart at the seams, and he could do nothing to stop it.
Just before dusk that evening, U.S. and allied forces in and near Havana were ordered to temporarily halt all operations. The White House had learned from Pentagon intelligence sources that Raul Castro was on the verge of being overthrown as president of the Republic of Cuba by a group of dissident generals who wanted to establish a new provisional government that would negotiate a peace treaty with the United States and its allies. The Choque y Temor disaster had all but killed the last shreds of support for Fidel’s war within the top echelons of his armed forces, and the dissidents were also convinced that Raul Castro was totally incapable of resolving that the dangerous state of unrest within those parts of Havana still under Communist rule.
At 9:22 AM Eastern Daylight Time on the morning of July 8th, President Kennedy received confirmation that Raul Castro had in fact been toppled and a new provisional government headed by former Camaguey provincial governor Huber Matos was in power in Havana. Matos himself sent a cable to the U.S. embassy in Mexico City indicating that he was ready to talk peace terms with the U.S. coalition; at 1:15 PM the embassy sent back a reply stating that Washington was willing to listen to any cease-fire offers the new government made.
For the next 48 hours the world watched anxiously as the two sides tried to work out a mutually satisfactory peace treaty. Finally, late on the afternoon of July 11th, President Kennedy went on television to report that a cease-fire accord had been reached and would take effect at 7:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time that evening; as part of the agreement, US and Mexican troops would occupy the rest of Havana immediately.
Just 54 days after it had started, the Florida Keys War was over.
Within an hour after the cease-fire had gone into effect,the CIA arrest team out of Bauta had taken Fidel Castro into custody and made arrangements to transfer him to the hospital wing of a military prison in the southern United States. The Matos government and the anti-Castro shadow administration in Cabo san Antonio were in talks to form a so-called "unity administration" that would work with U.S. coalition occupation authorities to run Cuba until national elections could be held to choose a permanent head of state.
News of the war’s end was greeted with relief and euphoria in the West, but nowhere was the joy at the U.S. victory more apparent or enthusiastic than within Florida’s Cuban exile community. For them, Castro’s downfall meant they could finally go home to the country they’d been forced to abandon when the Communist warlord had seized power in 1959.
For the Kremlin, the collapse of the Castro regime meant an end to the dream of securing a Soviet foothold in America’s backyard. It nearly also ended Andrei Gromyko’s tenure as Soviet foreign minister; two days after the cease-fire went into effect in Cuba, he went to Brezhnev’s private office and offered his resignation, blaming himself for the Cuban Communists’ downfall. Had he instructed his people in Havana to be more forceful about discouraging Operation July 26th, he said, the war could have been averted— or at the very least, delayed until the Castro regime was in better shape to prosecute it. But Brezhnev, mindful of Gromkyo’s diplomatic skills and dedication to the Soviet state, eventually convinced him to stay on.
In the months after the last shots were fired in the battle for Havana, historians and political analysts constantly argued over the question of why Castro didn’t turn to guerrilla tactics when his armies were so disastrously defeated trying to carry on a conventional war with the United States and its allies. It was widely agreed, however, that three critical factors had combined to make the prospect of using such tactics slim if not nil:
Given the stomach and cardiac problems he
developed as a result of the stress brought
on by the Florida Keys War, Castro’s ability
to lead an effective guerrilla army against
U.S. and allied forces was considered to be
questionable at best. Even before the war,
his prodigious daily smoking of cigars was
taking a grim toll on his body that would
one day have come back to haunt him even if
the war had never happened.
(2)The loss of over 50% of the Cuban Communist armed
forces’ ammunition supplies to US and British air strikes
In order to conduct even the most rudimentary
defensive operations, a rebel army needs to
maintain an adequate stockpile of munitions at
all times. Constant US and RAF bombing of the
Castro forces’ supply dumps cut deeply into
their reserves; raids on the ground by anti-
Castro insurgents diminished them even further.
Thus any Cuban Communist partisan effort would
have been operating at a severe if not fatal
(3)The swiftness of the U.S. coalition forces’ advance once
they established a foothold in Cuba.
Even setting aside the other two factors, it
remained an indisputable fact that the speed
with which U.S. and allied forces in Cuba moved
inland once their beachheads were secure caused
major disruption to both the military and political
elements of the machinery of the Castro regime. The
extent of this disruption inevitably complicated
the regime’s efforts to organize an asymmetrical
war on the invaders.
In addition to these, there was the issue of lingering dissent among certain sectors of the civilian population. Fidel Castro’s harshness in dealing with critics of his government had alienated these sectors from the very ideals of socialism that he meant to instil in his people; this in turn sharply reduced the pool of manpower from which he could have drawn potential recruits for a partisan campaign against US occupation troops.
Falling Dominoes: July 15th, 1961-March 3rd, 1962
Though Gromyko was able to keep his job in the aftermath of the Florida Keys War, many other top-level Soviet officials weren’t as lucky. On July 15th, Brezhnev fired defense minister Radion Malinovsky; in the CPSU leader’s eyes, despite his status as a World War II hero Malinovsky had demonstrated by his handling— or rather mishandling –of the Turkish crisis that he was unfit for his post. Following his dismissal, Malinovsky’s health went into steady and irreversible decline, and he died on April 23rd, 1965 of heart failure at the age of 86.1
Within two months of Malinovsky’s departure, more than a dozen senior officers in the Soviet armed forces would be driven into early retirement as the political fallout from the war and the Turkish standoff continued to reverberate through the Kremlin. The KGB wasn’t left untouched either; two of Alexander Shelepin’s senior aides committed suicide in September of 1961, and by mid-October Shelepin himself had been replaced as the agency’s chief by his most vocal critic, Vladimir Semichastny.
Alexander Alekseyev, whose spirit had been drained by the turmoil of the final days of the Florida Keys War, took a brief vacation on the Black Sea to restore his psyche. Six months later he would return to Cuba to begin talks with the post-Castro government on reopening the Soviet embassy in Havana.
U.S. and allied occupation forces had a tough task ahead of them in the first months after the war ended. People had to be fed, homes had to be rebuilt, the war-ravaged Cuban economy had to be revived— and there was also the small but important matter of tracking down Fidel Castro’s brother Raul. The erstwhile Cuban defense minister and six of his fellow Communists had escaped from an American POW camp and fled into the wilds of the Sierra Maestra mountains; there, according to CIA reports, the seven escapees had set up a temporary base in an abandoned Cuban army training barracks. Raul’s precise plans were uncertain, but it was generally agreed that he and his comrades hoped to rally their fellow Cubans to rise up against the U.S coalition forces.
US and allied troops, and police of the new post-Castro Cuban government, spent more than two months searching for this crude hideaway. They found it late on the afternoon of September 23rd and hastened to surround it; Raul and his companions fought a gallant and relentless struggle to keep them at bay, but with the US-led forces enjoying a considerable numerical advantage over Castro’s tiny cell the outcome was never in doubt. By nightfall all seven men were back in US custody.
Like the Army-McCarthy hearings that had preceded it, and the Watergate investigation that would follow it, the war crimes trial of Fidel and Raul Castro was a riveting television event for the American public. More than 60%2 of all TV sets in the continental US were tuned in to the October 2nd, 1961 indictment of the deposed Cuban dictator and his brother; even greater numbers of viewers would watch when the actual trial began four months later.
"History will absolve me." Fidel had boasted in 1953 during his trial for the Moncada barracks raid, but this boast would soon be proven dead wrong— if anything, history would serve as the prosecution’s most effective weapon in making its case against the Castros. Indeed, when the prosecution delivered its opening statement on February 5th, 1962, the chief prosecutor made it a point to show the jury photographs of two political prisoners who’d been executed on Fidel’s orders during his first months as ruler of Cuba. Those photos, the prosecutor said, were a clear illustration of the brutal depths to which Fidel had been willing to sink in order to hold on to power in Cuba.3
For almost a month, dozens of witnesses were paraded through the Pentagon conference room where the trial was held. Ex-POWs, Cuban civilians who’d been jailed by Castro’s secret police during his rule, diplomats and intelligence officers who’d charted his slide towards tyranny— all them painted a damning picture of a modern- day Richard III who had ruled Cuba with an iron fist and almost no regard whatever for basic human rights or international law. Raul Castro fared no better: members of the combined US-UK-Cuban task force assigned to hunt him down gave macabre accounts of how pro-US Cuban civilians unfortunate enough to run across him had been shot or knifed in cold blood.
On March 3rd, 1962 the war crimes tribunal rendered its verdict: of the 79 criminal counts Fidel and Raul had been charged with, the tribunal found them guilty on all but one.4 The brothers’ reaction to the verdict was one of shock mixed with despair as the MPs led them back to their cells to await sentencing. Their last faint hope of reviving socialist rule in Cuba had once and for all been crushed.
By contrast, most Americans rejoiced when news of the verdicts broke; this was particularly true in southern Florida, whose residents— whether or not they were of Cuban heritage –saw Fidel Castro as the devil incarnate and felt he deserved the harshest possible punishment the tribunal could inflict on him. One Miami Beach citizen even personally offered to lend the US government rope with which to hang the Castro brothers.
Gone Too Soon: March 4th, 1962-October 22nd, 1963
The day after the tribunal found the Castro brothers guiltyon 78 of the 79 counts against them, it reconvened to begin deliberations on their sentence; on March 8th it unanimously recommended execution for both of them. President Kennedy, however, chose instead to commute their sentences to life imprisonment— some of Kennedy’s harsher critics had charged that his decision to go to war with the Castro regime was motivated largely or even solely by a vengeful desire to get even for the Bay of Pigs, and the President was understandably concerned that letting the executions go forward might lend weight to his critics’ charges.
With the remnants of Castro’s tyranny being swept up into what presidential advisor Theodore Sorenson had dubbed "the dustbin of history"5, the White House could now turn its attention to implementing a practical policy for relations with post-Communist Cuba. Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon made several visits to Havana in late March and early April of 1962 for discussions with the Matos provisional government on laying the groundwork for a plan to revive the Cuban economy; FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent advisors to the island that summer to help Cuban police deal with organized crime syndicates that were attempting to reassert their former territorial privileges from the Batista era. Even the Surgeon General made a tour of Cuba to check up on efforts to repair the battered Cuban health care system.
In contrast to the wholesale housecleaning that went on among the top ranks of the Soviet armed forces after the Florida Keys War ended, only one senior American military officer left his post— and he did so entirely by his own choice. On July 11th, 1962, US Air Force chief of staff General Curtis LeMay submitted his resignation to President Kennedy, who was only too glad to accept it— he’d come to regard LeMay as a hothead at best and a would-be Napoleon at worst. LeMay would fade from the public eye for a while, only to return to it with a vengeance in 1968 when notorious segregationist and presidential candidate George Wallace picked the ex-general as his running mate.
General Paul D. Harkins, head of US and allied expeditionary forces in Cuba, continued in that capacity long after the war ended; when UN peacekeepers began arriving in January of 1963 to replace the occupation forces, Harkins worked with the peacekeeping units to ensure a smooth transition. The following year, after the last US occupation troops had left the island, Harkins was reassigned to head the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV); there he would be responsible for taking the lessons the US armed forces had learned in jungle combat during the war in Cuba and applying them to the task subduing the small but dangerous Viet Cong insurgency.
In August of 1963 Cuba held its first democratic elections of the post-Castro era; despite fears of ballot tampering or even civil unrest, the voting went surprisingly well, with a newly formed centrist political party called Alianza de Cuba Nueva winning a majority of the available seats in the country’s new national assembly. Party chairman Reynaldo Ochoa, who prior to the Castro regime’s collapse had been an obscure ex-university professor, was voted into office as the new Cuban president. In a congratulatory letter to Ochoa, President Kennedy said: "Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast a free man could make was ‘civis Romanus sum’…today, the proudest boast he can make is ‘Soy un Habanero’"6.
In early October the Cuban foreign ministry announced that Ochoa and Kennedy would meet in Havana on November 1st for a summit that was intended to crown the restoration of normal diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba. But tragically, this meeting would be prevented by a pair of sudden gunshots in Dallas…
To this day, no one knows for sure what drove ex-Marine and ex-Communist Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President Kennedy in Dallas on the afternoon of October 22nd, 1963. Was he, as most press accounts of Kennedy’s death insisted, a cold-blooded monster guilty of premeditated murder? Or was he, as his brother Robert later told police, a heartbroken widower whose grief over his wife Marina’s suicide in the final days of the Florida Keys War had gradually driven him insane and finally led him to shoot the President in a moment of blind fury? Oswald himself isn’t around to answer these questions; two days after he shot Kennedy to death, he was himself gunned down by a mentally disturbed local nightclub owner named Jack Ruby. To complicate things further, Oswald’s personal journals, which could have shed some light on his motives for shooting Kennedy, disappeared shortly before the President’s death and have never been recovered.7
But one fact is beyond dispute— that Oswald held Kennedy fully responsible for the soul-crushing depression that overcame his Russian-born wife Marina when the war began and ultimately drove her to hang herself in their Dallas apartment the same week that U.S. coalition forces made their final assault on Havana. In a statement made to the Texas Rangers shortly after Lee’s arrest, Robert Oswald acknowledged that his brother had thought about killing Kennedy at least once prior to the actual assassination;a photograph that the prosecution had planned to use as evidence in Oswald’s trial (and eventually made the cover of Life magazine) shows Lee holding a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle and standing beside a cardboard target with the initials "JFK" crudely scrawled in its center.
However, when Oswald committed the actual killing he ended up using a .44 handgun; as the President’s motorcade was turning up Dealey Plaza and making its way past the Texas School Book Depository just after 1:00 PM on the afternoon of October 22nd, Oswald charged across a grassy knoll and fired four shots at Kennedy’s limousine. The first shot sailed past the limousine and struck down a local TV reporter who was filming the motorcade for Dallas’ NBC affiliate; the second wounded Texas governor John Connally; the third and fourth shots hit Kennedy squarely in the heart.
The president was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, but there was nothing doctors could do for him; at 2:27 PM, less than 90 minutes after Oswald’s attack on the motorcade, a somber Walter Cronkite broke the news to a stunned America that Kennedy was dead. By that time Lyndon Johnson had been sworn in as the 36th President of the United States and flags were being lowered to half-mast at General Harkins’ command HQ in Havana.
Flags were also lowered at the newly reopened Cuban embassy in Washington, where the next day Reynaldo Ochoa would give a short but moving address eulogizing Kennedy as "the father of the new Cuba"8.
"You Killed My President, You Rat!": October 1963-November 1964
Lyndon Johnson’s first full day in the White House was a busy one indeed; in addition to leading the American people in mourning for his slain predecessor, he had to oversee the day-to-day business of running the government and reassure nervous allies— Reynaldo Ochoa in particular –that Kennedy’s death would not affect America’s commitments to its friends abroad. Even as people were filing past Kennedy’s casket in the Capitol rotunda to pay their final respects, Johnson had already requested that the Defense Department write up a contingency plan for conducting a possible ground war in Vietnam should circumstances require direct American intervention.
In Dallas, Jack Ruby had a busy day himself. Posing as a writer for a local newspaper, he infiltrated the police station where Oswald was being detained and learned the timetable for Oswald’s scheduled transfer to the county jail; he then drove to a gun shop in Fort Worth and bought a .45 automatic and two clips of ammunition. Back in Dallas, he stopped for lunch at a hamburger stand before returning to his club to attend to his customers. He went to bed around 9:00 PM with the .45 at his side.
On October 24th, around 11:00 AM, Ruby confronted Oswald just as police were leading the accused presidential assassin to the van which was supposed to take him to the Dallas County jail; before anyone realized what was happening, Ruby whipped his .45 out of his pocket and shot Oswald through the head at point-blank range, shouting: "You killed my president, you rat!"
A hero to some, a dangerous lunatic to others, and an enigma to all, Ruby was arrested on the spot and charged with manslaughter; he was found guilty on that charge in March of 1964 and sentenced to ten years in prison. Ruby served less than four years of that sentence before dying of cancer on February 3rd, 1968.
Despite personal scandal, Lyndon Johnson cruised easily to his party’s nomination for a full term as President at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City; as the Kennedy Administration’s domestic point man during the Florida Keys War, Johnson had built up a very solid power base that enabled him to rack up an almost unbroken string of primary and caucus wins. The only blemish on that record was a second-place finish in Minnesota to the man who ultimately became his running mate: Senator Hubert Humphrey.
The general election, however, would pit the President against dynamic Arizona Republican senator Barry Goldwater, who clinched his party’s nomination at their 1964 National Convention in San Francisco. Knowing that Johnson would be hard to touch on issues relating to national security, Goldwater opted instead to focus on domestic concerns such as crime and health care; as a result, he was able to cut significantly into LBJ’s lead in the polls. By the time Johnson and Goldwater met in Chicago in early September for their first presidential debate, many Republicans actually held out hope that the eloquent and forceful Arizona senator would prove to be the man who could take back the White House for the GOP.
But when the chief moderator questioned him on whether he would have used nuclear weapons to stop Castro’s attempt to invade the Florida Keys, he made a gaffe that would prove fatal not only to his own presidential aspirations but also to many of his fellow Republicans’ Congressional campaigns. "Extremism in the defense of liberty," he said, "is no vice." Johnson seized on that remark as proof that Goldwater was too belligerent to engage in any real diplomacy; the President’s campaign team then prepared a series of attack ads portraying the Republican candidate as a trigger-happy warmonger who’d push the button at the drop of a hat.
The most famous (or notorious, depending on your viewpoint) of these ads depicted an eight-year-old girl counting down from ten while picking leaves off a dais. As the count reached five, the girl abruptly gave way to a blank screen; when it hit zero the blank screen abruptly lit up with a mushroom room cloud superimposed over the New York City skyline.
Thanks in part to that 30-second spot, and to solid Democratic voter turnout in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia, LBJ crushed Goldwater in the November general elections. In one of the most lopsided results in US electoral history, Johnson took 47 of 50 states— not surprisingly, his biggest win was in his home state of Texas, where he won every county by an average margin of 6-1.
Having secured a full term as President, Johnson could now begin setting the agenda for his next four years in office. Near the top of that agenda was the guerrilla war in South Vietnam; after two US destroyers had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin in July of 1964, he had come to the conclusion that a direct US confrontation with the Viet Cong and their backers in Hanoi was inevitable. The day after his resounding defeat of Goldwater, he invited a group of top military and intelligence officials to the White House to discuss how the lessons of the Florida Keys War could be applied to Vietnam…
Footnotes1 Originally buried in an austere grave, Malinovsky’s body was later relocated to an elegant crypt just outside his native Odessa in the Ukraine. The crypt became a major tourist attraction and was elevated to the status of a national shrine after the Ukraine’s declaration of independence from Russia in 1987; as of November of 2005, according to the Ukrainian tourism ministry, the crypt received an average of 100,000 visitors per day.
2 According to official A.C. Nielsen and Co. estimates.
3 As summarized in The Official Transcripts of the War Crimes Trial of Fidel Castro Ruz and Raul Castro Ruz, copyright 1962 US Department of Defense and United Nations Human Rights Commission.
4 The eight-man tribunal deadlocked on the question of whether Fidel should be found guilty of embezzling funds from the Cuban national treasury; though there were unexplained large deposits to Castro’s personal account listed in the Banco de Cuba’s records between January of 1960 and June of 1961, no hard evidence existed to tie any of this money back to the treasury.
5 From the introduction of his book 54 Days: A Record Of The Florida Keys War.
6 Though the original letter has since been lost, a photostatic copy is available in the archives of the JFK Library in Boston.
7 The most popular theories explaining their disappearance are that either (1)Oswald inadvertantly threw them away in a burst of alcohol-induced anguish after his wife’s death or (2)he intentionally hid them to frustrate local police after he shot Kennedy.
8 As quoted in the October 24th, 1963 edition of the Washington Post.