The "What If" in 1963 Could be Reality in 2009

In roughly 5 weeks Cuba will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its revolution. On January 1 1959, Cuba went from a dictatorship palatable to the United States in Fulgencio Batista to one that has been a nagging thorn in every president's side since Eisenhower in Fidel Castro.

As Cuba prepares for its golden commemoration, let us also remember that it was 45 years ago that President John Kennedy, along with Castro, who flirted with the possibility of normalizing Cuba/U.S. relations.

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 and the apparent victory of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there is enough data to support the United States' current antipathy toward Cuba, as a public policy, might look very different had Kennedy lived beyond 1963. Simply stated, rapprochement was on the table in 1963.

Having well-established bona fides in his opposition to the Communist regime less than 100 miles from America's shores, regardless if he methods were successful, Kennedy may have very well been the only president in the past 50 years who could have co-existed with Castro and not pay a big political price in the process.

A declassified audio taped conversation -- 17 days before Kennedy's assassination -- between the president and his National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, discussing the possibility of a secret meeting in Havana with Castro. This tape, in particular, represents a 180-degree turnaround from the bombastic campaign rhetoric in 1960, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Operation Mongoose, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the economic embargos.

Top Secret declassified documents indicate Castro shared a mutual interest in improving relations between Cuba and the United States. In May 1963, Castro told ABC correspondent Lisa Howard of his interest in rapprochement with Washington.

There was a constant stream of memos throughout the summer and into the fall emanating from White House representatives, clearly indicating the administration was moving to change its existing relationship with Cuba.

On November 17, five days before his assassination, Kennedy met with French journalist, Jean Daniel, who he asks to relay to Castro that he is ready to negotiate normal relations and drop the embargo.

Kennedy sent a coded message to Castro in a speech delivered on November 19, 1963. The speech included the following passage: "Cuba had become a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics. This and this alone divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible."

But on November 22, fate would deal a major blow to the prospects of normalized relations between Cuba and America. In a bitter irony, White House representatives were planning for the potential negotiations as Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas.

On February 12, 1964, using Howard as an interpreter, Castro sent a memo to President Lyndon Johnson stating:

"Please tell President Johnson that I earnestly desire his election to the Presidency in November."

Castro even resorted to lighthearted banter with the president. "If there is anything I can do to add to his majority (aside from retiring from politics), I shall be happy to cooperate," he said.

He added, "Seriously, I observe how the Republicans use Cuba as a weapon against Democrats. So tell President Johnson to let me know what I can do if anything. Naturally, I know my offer of assistance would be of immense value to the Republicans -- so this would remain our secret."

In the memo Castro praised Kennedy for his political courage and assured Johnson that if he decided to continue same approach he would guarantee absolute secrecy.

But the momentum was gone, there was presidential election on the horizon, and Johnson did not possess the type of political clout to normalize relations, as did Kennedy. As a result, Johnson maintained a course of action replicated by practically every president in the five decades of Cuban policy since Kennedy's assassination, creating one of the great "what if" in American political history.

After 50 years, President-elect Obama will be presented with an opportunity do something different in Cuba. If he chooses, the "what if " in 1963 can become the new reality in 2009.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his website byronspeaks.com