Nixon Hatched U.S. Plot to Kill Castro

Apr 30, 2012 - by Don Fulsom

Fidel Castro and Richard Nixon

Fidel Castro and Richard Nixon

A “Top Secret” CIA report accuses then Vice President Nixon of shaping U.S. foreign policy to benefit a wealthy campaign contributor, a right-wing zealot who championed the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

by Don Fulsom

One of Richard Nixon’s vice presidential secrets surfaced only in recent years.  And it’s a doozy: a “Top Secret” CIA report accuses Nixon of shaping U.S. foreign policy to benefit a wealthy campaign contributor, a right-wing zealot who championed the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. This CIA document—completed in 1983—is known as “Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation, Volume III: Evolution of CIA’s Anti-Castro Policies, 1951- January 1961.”  (The CIA declassified only Volume III of the five-volume history in 1998.  It was discovered in the National Archives by Villanova professor David Barrett in 2005, and first posted on his university’s Web site. This volume is now posted on the Web site of the National Security Archive, which is suing the CIA for the release of the other volumes.)

Of course, it would not be the first nor the last time that Nixon—one of the stickiest fingered politicians in modern times—would be caught doling out favors to fat cats. 

Yet this declassified document exposes something even seamier than Nixon’s run-of-the-mill pay-for-play illegalities. Seamier, for example, than soliciting congressional campaign funds from L.A.’s top gangster; or keeping a secret senatorial slush fund rounded up by rich businessmen; or widespread presidential financial corruption – including the sale of ambassadorships; soliciting bribes from billionaires; or a go-easy attitude toward the ultra-generous Mafia godfathers and their thuggish Teamster allies.

These fresh revelations involve war and peace, life and death.  They lie buried among 295 pages of a CIA critique of the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained Cuban exiles.  Written by a CIA historian, this document provides rich new details on Richard Nixon’s central role in plotting the invasion of a foreign country, Cuba, and the attempted assassination of its leader, Fidel Castro. It faults Nixon for taking risky anti-Castro actions, in large part, to satisfy a well-connected Castro-loathing U.S. plutocrat, William Pawley.

Historian David Kaiser, in his book The Road to Dallas, notes that Pawley worked closely with the CIA “on building anti-Castro organizations both inside and outside of Cuba.  He was, in effect, an informal (CIA) case officer.”  As such, it is almost certain that Pawley was aware of the recommendation, in early January of 1960, by CIA heavyweight J. C. King for Castro’s “elimination.”

On January 9, 1960, Pawley and Nixon had a long discussion about the Cuba problem over lunch.  Pawley gave Nixon an expensive wristwatch, and Nixon arranged for President Eisenhower to enjoy a weekend of hunting at Pawley’s Virginia farm, according to Kaiser.  The author theorizes, “Pawley may actually have sold President Eisenhower on the assassination of Castro.”

Several days after the February 15, 1960 Ike-Pawley meeting, Pawley called one of his CIA contacts to report that the head of the Republican party in Dade County, Florida, in author Kaiser’s words, “had promised 12 Cuban exiles either $20 million or $200 million on behalf of Vice President Nixon to finance the overthrow of Castro.  The story was never confirmed.”

On March 2, 1960, the Vice President received a CIA briefing on Cuba, according to the declassified CIA history.  One item mentioned was a CIA “drug, which if placed in Castro’s food, would make him behave in such an irrational manner that a public appearance could have very damaging results to him.”

At this same briefing, according to Nixon biographer Anthony Summers, Nixon was told about getting “goon squads” into Cuba.  Summers observes that the dictionary definition of a “goon” is a man “hired to … eliminate opponents.”

William Pawley
William Pawley

On April 3, 1960, according to the CIA history, Pawley told CIA Director Allen Dulles “that if the CIA is interested in quickly removing Fidel Castro such could be arranged through (deleted).  He said that (deleted) has two men of his confidence who are with Fidel frequently, and they would be prepared to eliminate Castro for a price.”

The CIA history also recounts a July 1, 1960 telephone call from Nixon aide Gen. Robert Cushman to Jake Esterline, a top CIA official.  The general revealed Nixon had “commissioned” Cushman to “keep Mr. William Pawley happy,” and to see that he is regularly briefed by the CIA on Cuba-related events. In recounting this conversation, Esterline reported, “Cushman said he realized that this is much against our (CIA’s) desire … but the fact remains that he (Pawley) is a ‘big fat political cat’ and, as such, the Vice President cannot completely ignore him.”

Cushman knew Pawley had become a painful pebble in the CIA’s shoe.  For one thing, Pawley wanted Juan Antonio Rubio Padilla to be the leader of the Cuban “government in exile,” while the agency’s nominee was Antonio Varona.  For another, Pawley—like his hero, Nixon—thought the State Department was infiltrated with left-leaning diplomats who couldn’t be trusted with national security secrets. Nixon carried his hatred of the department into his presidency, where he once privately declared he did not want foreign policy run by those “striped-pants faggots in Foggy Bottom.” In addition, both Nixon and Pawley were suspicious about the possible leftward leanings of some Cuban exile leaders.

The CIA’s Esterline assured Cushman he “understood” the Pawley “problem” and would make sure Nixon had the appropriate briefing materials to show Pawley “after first clearing the paper with the appropriate agency officials and within the security regulations that applied to Mr. Pawley.”

The CIA history concludes that “some of the Vice President’s interest (in plans for the ouster of Castro)—particularly in his insistence in placating William Pawley, especially in giving undue attention to Pawley’s concerns that the agency-sponsored Cuban exile organization was being taken over by the pro-Communist groups—was politically motivated …”

Nixon acted in a politically motivated way on a critical national security issue?  That’s a pretty strong criticism for a CIA historian to make about a Vice President.  But it does seem credible.

After all, Nixon’s Sugar Daddy had a vested interest when it came to American policy toward Cuba. Bill Pawley was a CIA-and FBI-connected rabid right-winger whose sugar refineries, bus company, airline and other investments in Cuba had been seized by Castro.

Pawley was a former U.S. diplomat and a strident champion of Latin American dictators—most especially of Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista.  As the biggest Washington pol in Pawley’s hip pocket, Nixon took his cue from Pawley in ingratiating himself with Batista. 

As vice president, Nixon made a 1955 trip to Havana to exchange toasts with the Cuban strongman.  He embraced Batista at the general’s lavish palace, praised ''the competence and stability'' of his regime, awarded the despot a Medal of Honor, and compared him with Abraham Lincoln.

The deep-pocketed Pawley was also a pal of President Dwight Eisenhower, CIA boss Allen Dulles and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

So when Pawley proposed, Nixon listened.   And one of Pawley’s crucial Cuba proposals—an obsession, really—was killing Fidel Castro, according to former Senate investigator Gaeton Fonzi in The Last Investigation: (Pawley) had been involved in the CIA’s (1954) overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala and he had backed more than one Castro assassination attempt.  Pawley once told a Miami reporter:  “Find me one man, just one man who can go it alone and get Castro.  I’ll pay anything, almost anything.”

Pawley’s main sponsor, Nixon, was described by Philip Bonsal, the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, as “the father” of the anti-Castro operation.  In Live by the Sword, Gus Russo also reports that President Eisenhower’s national security advisor, Col. Philip Corso, declared:  “Nixon was a hard-liner.  He wanted (Castro) hit hard … when he was Vice President.  He was a rough customer.”

Pawley’s assistance to the agency in Guatemala brought him together with CIA agents E. Howard Hunt, David Phillips, Tracey Barnes and J.C. King.  (In 1971, President Nixon would appoint the trusted Hunt as his No. 1 White House spy.  Hunt and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy went on, of course, to supervise the ill-fated Watergate burglary.)

But, by 1960, Pawley was becoming a royal pain to certain other CIA officials. The agency, in its declassified Bay of Pigs history, concluded that the Vice President’s financial backer and special Cuba advisor was espousing “personal and rigid” views “that are inimical to the best interest of the United States.”  And the document quotes CIA Director Allen Dulles himself as calling the Cuban exiles supported by Pawley “unreconstructed reactionaries.”

In 1960, when Vice President Nixon headed top-secret Cuba operations, the CIA was given the green light to enlist the Mafia for the assassination of Castro.

The Nixon plan was eventually known as “the Bay of Pigs,” the name of the Cuban beach where the greatly outnumbered exile forces eventually landed and were overpowered by Castro’s troops. 

While dreamed up by Nixon, the invasion was not carried out until April 1961—early on President John F. Kennedy’s watch.  While taking full responsibility for the military disaster, deep inside the new President was seething that the CIA had misled him about the invasion’s chances of success.  He was also disappointed that “Track Two” of the plan—Castro’s murder—had failed.

After the Bay of Pigs debacle, JFK fired the top two men at the CIA – Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell—and privately pledged to splinter the agency “into a thousand pieces and scatter them to the wind.”  He placed his brother Robert, the attorney general, in full charge of all anti-Castro operations – including plots to murder the elusive bearded Communist.

How did the ill-conceived Bay of Pigs plan come to be?  As Ike’s go-to guy on Cuba, Nixon worked closely with the CIA.  And he was familiar with CIA agent E. Howard Hunt’s efforts on behalf of the clandestine U.S. policy to overthrow Castro.

Hunt was the agency’s political officer for the Bay of Pigs, coordinating the Cuban exile invaders.  A short, distinguished-looking spy with big ears, he was known as “Eduardro” among his Cuban exile acolytes, some of whom he recruited for the CIA.  Hunt was an early advocate of the assassination of Fidel Castro as a key part of the overall invasion plan.

The veteran agent was close friends with the top three leaders of the CIA –Allen Dulles, Richard Bissell and (future director) Richard Helms.  (Hunt called Helms his “good friend and idol.”)  Hunt secretly worked on “dirty tricks” for Nixon for many years.  Researchers Robert Groden and Harrison Edward Livingstone say Hunt “helped run operations for Nixon against Aristotle Onassis in the late 1950s …” The billionaire shipping magnate held a monopoly on shipping Saudi Arabian oil—a monopoly the Eisenhower-Nixon administration wanted to break.

Robert Maheu was also part of Nixon’s anti-Onassis plots.  An ex-FBI agent and CIA go-between with the Mafia, Maheu later recalled that Nixon gave him a license to kill the Greek tycoon:  “After a meeting with Maheu about Onassis, Vice President Nixon shook Maheu’s hand and whispered, ‘And just remember, if it turns out we have to kill the bastard don’t do it on American soil,’” according to the 1986 Onassis biography Nemesis by Peter Evans.

Maheu went on to set up meetings between Mafia biggies and the CIA that resulted in numerous plots to murder Castro.  The first were hatched on Nixon’s watch.  One involved Mafia figures Sam Giancani, Santos Trafficante and Johnny Rosselli, who still had contacts in Havana from pre-Castro days.  Poison pills were to be sent to Havana and delivered to a contact inside a restaurant frequented by Castro. But no one knows if the pills ever arrived.

In a 1997 interview with journalist Anthony Summers, President John Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, said he was assured by Maheu that Nixon authorized Castro’s murder. In his book The Arrogance of Power, Summers wrote that “(Maheu) told me (in 1968) about his meetings with the Mafia.  He said he had been in contact with the CIA, and that the CIA had been in touch with Nixon, who had asked them to go forward with that project … It was Nixon who had him (Maheu) do a deal with the Mafia in Florida to kill Castro.”

The godfathers were more than happy to oblige, for Castro had expropriated their vast hotel, prostitution, narcotics and gambling empire in Havana. In fact, according to Spartacus Educational, Biography of Santos Trafficante, the Syndicate’s financial brains, Meyer Lansky, had already offered a reward of $1 million dollars for Castro’s murder.  4

Is a combo assassination plot and invasion worth that price?  There’s no evidence that the following payments are directly tied to the Castro murder plots.  But Pawley contributed $100,000 to Nixon’s losing 1960 presidential bid.  And Nixon scored an even bigger payout from the Mob.  According to Lamar Waldron in Ultimate Sacrifice, as the 1960 election approached, a reliable government informant witnessed a meeting in New Orleans between Mafia godfather Carlos Marcello and Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa: “The purpose of the meeting was a suitcase filled with $500,000 in cash destined for Nixon—only half of a promised $1,000,000 contribution organized by the two.”  Mob expert Dan Moldea, in The Hoffa Wars, confirms this payoff and the other details.

When John Kennedy moved into the White House, Nixon and Pawley were out of the government’s secret anti-Castro loop.  Several months later, they were reduced to mere distraught bystanders when their Bay of Pigs plan flopped so miserably.  Nixon declared it was “near-criminal” of President Kennedy not to have given the invaders adequate air cover.

Kennedy’s election and the Bay of Pigs debacle apparently did little to deter either Nixon or Pawley from meddling in Cuban affairs.

CIA pilot Tosh Plumlee later told the FBI that, in the in spring of 1963, Plumlee participated in an ineffective raid against Cuba that seemed to have been organized by Nixon and Pawley.  In a freshly released FBI document, Plumlee said others involved included Mafia murderers Johnny Roselli and John Martino.  Plumlee said planning for the raid took place at a meeting on Bimini Island among Pawley, Nixon, and Nixon sidekick (and major Mafia contact) Bebe Rebozo.

Pawley—who had served as President Harry Truman’s ambassador to both Peru and Brazil—was not through waging his private war on what he now viewed as the biggest menace to democracy in the hemisphere, Fidel Castro.

In June of 1963, Pawley’s sixty-five foot yacht, Flying Tiger II, set sail for Cuba from Biscayne Bay near Miami. The yacht anchored about ten miles off the coast of Oriente province.  A raiding party of some one-dozen exile commandos set out for land in a speedboat, but was never heard from again.  Pawley believed the overcrowded boat sank before reaching shore, according to David Talbot in Brothers.

The Pawley saga has an odd ending.  On January 7, 1977, as a House committee sought to question him about the JFK assassination, the still handsome 80-year-old Pawley died in the bedroom of his Miami mansion of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the chest.  Talbot says Pawley, who had been suffering from “nervous disorders,” left a note to his wife, Edna:  “The pain is worse than I can bear.”

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