Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy changed the course of history when he challenged President Johnson's conduct of the Vietnam War in 1968. But few people know that he came close to doing the same thing in another part of the world four years earlier.
In an intriguing and little-known episode worthy of a Cold War spy novel, the late Minnesota Democrat held a secret meeting with Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara in New York in 1964, which could have paved the way for repairing the half century-old rupture of U.S.-Cuban relations that continues to this day.
Not even McCarthy's Senate colleagues or even most of his aides knew of his clandestine meeting with Guevara, then the Cuban Minister of Industry and Fidel Castro's closest confidant. The meeting took place on Dec. 16, 1964, in the Park Avenue apartment of Lisa Howard, a TV journalist with close ties to the Cuban dictator.
The only account of the meeting, which set off alarm bells in the White House, is contained in a secret memorandum in the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, which was uncovered by Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archives, a Washington-based public policy research center.
McCarthy's role in the effort to restore normal relations with Cuba drew little attention, even after Kornbluh briefly referred to it in a lengthy article in the October, 1999 issue of Cigar Aficianado magazine, in which he revealed behind-the-scenes efforts by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to restore relations with Castro's government.
The meeting was arranged by Ms. Howard, an ABC television correspondent at the United Nations, who had interviewed Castro in April, 1963, and relayed a message to President Kennedy that the Cuban dictator was anxious to talk about restoring ties to the U.S. that were cut off after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Kennedy was reportedly moving towards a rapproachment with Cuba at the time of his assassination, and Howard continued her efforts in the Johnson administration, but got nowhere because President Johnson feared it would damage his election prospects in 1964. But after Johnson won a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, his aides resumed efforts to explore closer Cuban ties.
McCarthy gave a detailed account of his encounter with the charismatic Cuban revolutionary the next day when he met at the State Department with Under Secretary of State George Ball and Thomas C. Mann, the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs.
McCarthy reported that Guevara's purpose was 'to express Cuban interest in trade with the U.S. and U.S. recognition of the Cuban regime,' a Ball aide wrote. "Mr. Ball agreed this was plausible, saying that because of the state of the Cuban economy, the Cuban Regime was interested in reviving its trade relations with the U.S. to obtain convertible currency. Further, he felt that Guevara probably recognized that any dealings with the U.S. would add respectability to the regime in the eyes of other Latin American States."
"Guevara did not attempt to conceal the subversive activities which Cuba was undertaking," McCarthy said, according to the Ball memo. "He explicitly admitted that they were training revolutionaries and would continue to do so. He felt that this was a necessary mission for the Cuban government since revolution offered the only hope of progress for Latin America."
McCarthy apparently asked Guevara about relations between the Castro government and the Catholic Church. "Guevara said they were good but that [Communist] Party members could not belong to the Church. He mentioned in passing that they had more problems with Protestants than with Catholics."
However, McCarthy's involvement never had any appreciable effect as Johnson's aides warned him that the meeting had to remain secret because it might damage relations with other countries in Latin America. Ball said there "was suspicion throughout Latin America that the U.S. might make a deal with Cuba behind the backs of the other American states. This could provide a propaganda line useful to the Communists."
"Mr. Ball asked that McCarthy get in touch with him if any further contacts with Guevara were contemplated. Meanwhile, it was essential that nothing be publicly said about the McCarthy-Guevara meeting, although there was the danger that Guevara himself might leak it."
McCarthy apparently agreed, as he never publicly discussed his meeting with Guevara, or attempted to follow up on it, as far as can be determined. The Senate Library told me it can find no mention by McCarthy of the meeting in any official Senate documents or the Congressional Record.
"With that," Kornbluh concluded, "the U.S.-Cuba contacts begun under the Kennedy administration came to an anticlimactic end."
The next day after McCarthy's meeting with Ball and Mann, Gordon Chase, an aide to Johnson's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, wrote a memo to his boss downplaying the importance of the McCarthy-Guevara meeting, which he described as generated by Ms Howard, who was later fired by ABC and reportedly committed suicide in 1965 -- although conspiracy theorists claim she was murdered by the CIA.
Chase said the State Department felt that "Che really had nothing to tell us," and advised Bundy that if the meeting did become public, "it could cause us some problems." He suggested that the official line should be that "the Senator did not ask for our recommendation before he had his talk with Guevara."
He concluded, "About the only plus from the McCarthy-Che meeting is that it was probably an eye-opener for McCarthy."