John F. Kennedy photo

Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, Cincinnati, Ohio, Democratic Dinner

October 06, 1960

I want to talk with you tonight about the most glaring failure of American foreign policy today - about a disaster that threatens the security of the whole Western Hemisphere - about a Communist menace that has been permitted to arise under our very noses, only 90 miles from our shores. I am talking about the one friendly island that our own shortsighted policies helped make communism's first Caribbean base: the island of Cuba.

Two years ago in September of 1958 - bands of bearded rebels descended from Cuba's Sierra Maestra Mountains and began their long march on Havana - a march which ended in the overthrow of the brutal, bloody, and despotic dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

The slogans, the manifestos, and the broadcasts of this revolution reflected the deepest aspirations of the Cuban people. They promised individual liberty and free elections. They promised an end to harsh police-state tactics. They promised a better life for a people long oppressed by both economic and political tyranny.

But in the 2 years since that revolution swept Fidel Castro into power, those promises have all been broken. There have been no free elections - and there will be none as long as Castro rules. All political parties - with the exception of the Communist Party - have been destroyed. All political dissenters have been executed, imprisoned, or exiled. All academic freedom has been eliminated. All major newspapers and radio stations have been seized. And all of Cuba is in the iron grip of a Communist-oriented police state.

Castro and his gang have betrayed the ideals of the Cuban revolution and the hopes of the Cuban people.

But Castro is not just another Latin American dictator - a petty tyrant bent merely on personal power and gain. His ambitions extend far beyond his own shores. He has transformed the island of Cuba into a hostile and militant Communist satellite - a base from which to carry Communist infiltration and subversion throughout the Americas. With guidance, support, and arms from Moscow and Peiping, he has made anti-Americanism a sign of loyalty and anti-communism a punishable crime - confiscated over a billion dollars' worth of American property - threatened the existence of our naval base at Guantanamo - and rattled red rockets at the United States, which can hardly close its eyes to a potential enemy missile or submarine base only 90 miles from our shores.

He has transformed the island into a supply depot for Communist arms and operations throughout South America - recruiting small bands of Communist-directed revolutionaries to serve as the nucleus of future Latin revolutions. "This army," Castro has boasted, "begins in Cuba and ends in Argentina." His abusive anti-American and pro-Communist messages are carried in books and newspapers shipped to every corner of the hemisphere - often concealed in diplomatic pouches - and handed out together with Soviet propaganda by the Cuban embassies. Presna Latina - Latin America's largest news agency, controlled from Havana - carries anti-American and pro-Soviet dispatches throughout the hemisphere. And Radio Mambi - the anchor station of a network which will be beamed at the entire South American continent - broadcasts constant attacks on the United States and the leaders of every Latin American democracy.

Exploiting the twin themes of human misery and Yankee hatred, Castro's campaign has met with success in almost every country - in Brazil, where both Presidential candidates found it politically expedient to appeal to pro-Castro and anti-American elements in the electorate - in Mexico, where anti-American riots followed pressure on a pro-Castro spokesman - in Guatemala, where Castro-equipped revolutionaries are a real menace - in Uruguay, where a general strike was threatened if Castro was not supported at the San Jose Conference. And - at the same foreign ministers' conferenc - the United States suffered one of its few diplomatic defeats in the history of inter-American relations, when it was forced to withdraw its protest over Communist efforts in this hemisphere.

This is a critical situation - to find so dangerous an enemy on our very doorstep. The American people want to know how this was permitted to happen - how the Iron Curtain could have advanced almost to our front yard. They want to know the truth - and I believe that they are entitled to the truth. It is not enough to blame it on unknown State Department personnel. Major policy on issues such as Cuban security is made at the highest levels - in the National Security Council and elsewhere - and it is the party in power which must accept full responsibility for this disaster.

The story of the transformation of Cuba from a friendly ally to a Communist base is - in large measure - the story of a government in Washington which lacked the imagination and compassion to understand the needs of the Cuban people - which lacked the leadership and vigor to move forward to meet those needs - and which lacked the foresight and vision to see the inevitable results of its own failures.

And it is a tragic irony that even while these policies of failure here were being pursued our policymakers received repeated and urgent warnings that international communism was becoming a moving force behind Mr. Castro and the revolution - that our interest and the interests of freedom were in danger - that a new Soviet satellite was in the making.

Our Ambassador to Cuba in the early days of the revolution - Arthur Gardner - repeatedly warned the administration that communism was a moving force in the Castro leadership. Testifying recently before a Senate committee, he was asked if he had not reported "that Castro talked and acted like a Communist and should not be supported by the United States." "That was absolutely correct," he replied, and he went on to say: "We all knew * * * that Raul Castro was a Communist;" but his warnings, he testified, were ignored, overlooked, or circumvented as the menace of Cuban communism grew.

Our Ambassador to Cuba in the closing years of the revolution - Earl Smith - also warned us that communism threatened Cuba. He, too, was asked by the same Senate committee if he had been warning "that Castro was a Marxist." "Yes, sir," he replied; but his warnings also had been consistently ignored.

And the State Department itself, in a paper issued little more than a month ago - belatedly admitted that "Communist influence existed in the early days of the revolution."

But, if we are not to imitate the partisan irresponsibility of others, we must do more than charge that these storm signals were ignored. The real question is: What should we have done? What did we do wrong? How did we permit the Communists to establish this foothold 90 miles away?

The answer is fourfold.

First, we refused to help Cuba meet its desperate need for economic progress. In 1953 the average Cuban family had an income of $6 a week. Fifteen to twenty percent of the labor force was chronically unemployed.

Only a third of the homes in the island even had running water, and in the years which preceded the Castro revolution this abysmal standard of living was driven still lower as population expansion out-distanced economic growth.

Only 90 miles away stood the United States - their good neighbor - the richest Nation on earth - its radios and newspapers and movies spreading the story of America's material wealth and surplus crops.

But instead of holding out a helping hand of friendship to the desperate people of Cuba, nearly all our aid was in the form of weapons assistance - assistance which merely strengthened the Batista dictatorship - assistance which completely failed to advance the economic welfare of the Cuban people - assistance which enabled Castro and the Communists to encourage the growing belief that America was indifferent to Cuban aspirations for a decent life.

This year Mr. Nixon admitted that if we had formulated a program of Latin American economic development 5 years ago: "It might have produced economic progress in Cuba which might have averted the Castro takeover." But what Mr. Nixon neglects to mention is the fact that he was in Cuba 5 years ago himself - gaining experience. He saw the conditions. He talked with the leaders. He knew what our aid program consisted of. But his only conclusion as stated in a Havana press conference, was his statement that he was "very much impressed with the competence and stability" of the Batista dictatorship.

Mr. Nixon could not see then what should have been obvious - and which should have been even more obvious when he made his ill-fated Latin American trip in 1958 - that unless the Cuban people, with our help, made substantial economic progress, trouble was on its way. If this is the kind of experience Mr. Nixon claims entitles him to be President, then I would say that the American people cannot afford many more such experiences.

Secondly, in a manner certain to antagonize the Cuban people, we used the influence of our Government to advance the interests of and increase the profits of the private American companies, which dominated the island's economy. At the beginning of 1959 U.S. companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands - almost all the cattle ranches - 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions - 80 percent of the utilities - and practically all the oil industry - and supplied two-thirds of Cuba's imports.

Of course, our private investment did much to help Cuba. But our action too often gave the impression that this country was more interested in taking money from the Cuban people than in helping them build a strong and diversified economy of their own.

The symbol of this shortsighted attitude is now on display in a Havana museum. It is a solid gold telephone presented to Batista by the American-owned Cuban telephone company. It is an expression of gratitude for the excessive telephone rate increase which the Cuban dictator had granted at the urging of our Government. But visitors to the museum are reminded that America made no expression at all over the other events which occurred on the same day this burdensome rate increase was granted, when 40 Cubans lost their lives in an assault on Batista's palace.

The third, and perhaps most disastrous of our failures, was the decision to give stature and support to one of the most bloody and repressive dictatorships in the long history of Latin American repression. Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in 7 years - a greater proportion of the Cuban population than the proportion of Americans who died in both World Wars, and he turned democratic Cuba into a complete police state - destroying every individual liberty.

Yet, our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror.

Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista - hailed him as a stanch ally and a good friend - at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections.

In October 1958 just a few days before Batista held a rigged and fraudulent election - Secretary of State Dulles was the guest of honor at a reception held by the Batista Embassy in Washington. The reception made only the social pages in Washington; but it made the Havana--and it was used by Batista to show how America favored his rule.

We stepped up a constant stream of weapons and munitions to Batista - justified in the name of hemispheric defense, when, in fact, their only real use was to crush the dictator's opposition, and even when the Cuban civil war was raging - until March of 1958 - the administration continued to send arms to Batista which were turned against the rebels - increasing anti-American feeling and helping to strengthen the influence of the Communists. For example, in Santa Clara, Cuba, today there is an exhibit commemorating the devastation of that city by Batista's planes in December of 1958. The star item in that exhibit is a collection of bomb fragments inscribed with a handshake and the words: "Mutual Defense - made in U.S.A."

Even when our Government had finally stopped sending arms, our military missions stayed to train Batista's soldiers for the fight against the revolution - refusing to leave until Castro's forces were actually in the streets of Havana.

Finally, while we were allowing Batista to place us on the side of tyranny, we did nothing to persuade the people of Cuba and Latin America that we wanted to be on the side of freedom. In 1953 we eliminated all regular Spanish language broadcasts of the Voice of America. Except for the 6 months of the Hungarian crisis we did not beam a single continuous program to South America at any time in the critical years between 1953 and 1960. And less than 500 students a year were brought here from all Latin America during these years when our prestige was so sharply dropping.

It is no wonder, in short, that during these years of American indifference the Cuban people began to doubt the sincerity of our dedication to democracy. They began to feel that we were more interested in maintaining Batista than we were in maintaining freedom - that we were more interested in protecting our investments than we were in protecting their liberty - that we wanted to lead a crusade against communism abroad but not against tyranny at home. Thus, it was our own policies - not Castro's - that first began to turn our former good neighbors against us. And Fidel Castro seized on this rising anti-American feeling, and exploited it, to persuade the Cuban people that America was the enemy of democracy - until the slogan of the revolution became "Cuba, Si, Yanqui, No" - and Soviet imperialism had captured a movement which had originally sprung from the ideals of our own American Revolution.

The great tragedy today is that we are repeating many of the same mistakes throughout Latin America. The same grievances - the same poverty and discontent and distrust of America which Castro rode to power are smoldering in almost every Latin Nation.

For we have not only supported a dictatorship in Cuba - we have propped up dictators in Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic. We not only ignored poverty and distress in Cuba - we have failed in the past 8 years to relieve poverty and distress throughout the hemisphere. For despite the bleak poverty that grips nearly all of Latin America - with an average income of less than $285 a year - with an exploding population that threatens even this meager standard of living - yet our aid programs have continued to concentrate on wasteful military assistance until we made a sudden recognition of their needs for development capital practically at the point of Mr. Castro's gun.

Today time is running out in Latin America. Our once firm friends are drifting away. Our historic ties are straining under our failure to understand their aspirations. And although the cold war will not be won in Latin America, it could very well be lost there.

If we continue to repeat our past errors - if we continue to care more for the support of regimes than the friendship of people - if we continue to devote greater effort to the support of dictators than to the fight against poverty and hunger - then rising discontent will provide fertile ground for Castro and his Communist friends.

What can a new administration do to reverse these trends? For the present Cuba is gone. Our policies of neglect and indifference have let it slip behind the Iron Curtain - and for the present no magic formula will bring it back. I have no basic disagreement with the President's policies of recent months - for the time to save Cuba was some time ago.

Hopefully, events may once again bring us an opportunity to bring our influence strongly to bear on behalf of the cause of freedom in Cuba. But in the meantime we can constantly express our friendship for the Cuban people - our sympathy with their economic problems - our determination that they will again be free. At the same time we must firmly resist further Communist encroachment in this hemisphere - working through a strengthened organization of the American States - and encouraging those liberty-loving Cubans who are leading the resistance to Castro. And we must make it clear to Mr. Castro once and for all that we will defend our naval base at Guantanamo under all circumstances - and continue to seek reparation for his seizures of American property.

But whatever we do in Cuba itself, ultimately the road to freedom in Havana runs through Rio and Buenos Aires and Mexico City. For if we are to halt the advance of Latin communism, we must create a Latin America where freedom can flourish - where long enduring people know, at last, that they are moving toward a better life for themselves and their children - where steady economic advance is a framework for stable, democratic Government - and where tyranny, isolated and despised, eventually withers on the vine.

These are difficult problems - problems requiring a program which I will soon discuss in a major address on Latin American policy. But only if we extend the hand of American friendship in a common effort to wipe out the poverty and discontent and hopelessness on which communism feeds - only then will we drive back tyranny until it ultimately perishes in the streets of Havana.

And, so tonight, I address myself not only to the people of Ohio and the people of America, but also to the people of Cuba. And to our friends - the Cuban people - I recall the scriptural injunction: "Be of stout heart. Be not dismayed." The road ahead will not be easy.

The perils and hardships will be many. But here in America we pledge ourselves to raise high the light of freedom - until it burns brightly from the Arctic to Cape Horn - and one day that light will shine again.

John F. Kennedy, Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, Cincinnati, Ohio, Democratic Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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