STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It was on New Year's Day 50 years ago that Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. The dictator Fulgencio Batista was reviled as corrupt, a tyrant, and he fled the island in the early morning hours of January 1, 1959. People poured into the streets to celebrate. The American reaction to Castro's victory was mixed. And given everything that's happened since, it may be surprising to some to learn that Fidel Castro had supporters inside the United States government. Many were in the CIA, the same agency that would soon try to overthrow Castro. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: For Americans, the story of Fidel Castro and his ragtag guerrillas triumphing over Batista's army sure sounded dramatic.
(Soundbite of vintage U.S. newsreel)
Unidentified Commentator: The forces of Castro's 26th of July Movement, named for the anniversary of his first attack on the regime in 1953, have grown vastly. Nearly two years of hit-and-run warfare culminated in victory as 1958 ended.
GJELTEN: U.S. newsreels featured scenes of Castro's men arriving in Havana to a wild reception.
(Soundbite of vintage U.S. newsreel)
Unidentified Commentator: Now Batista has fled. A new leader is on the scene, Fidel Castro, in many ways an unknown quantity in his politics and policies, but certain to be dominant in Cuba's new era just begun.
GJELTEN: The uncertainty surrounding Fidel Castro stemmed in part from the scenes that accompanied his triumph. On New Year's Day his supporters stormed the casinos in Havana hotels tearing them apart as symbols of the Mafia-controlled gambling world that Batista had nurtured on the island. Wayne Smith was then a young U.S. diplomat based at the embassy in Havana.
Mr. WAYNE SMITH (Former Vice Consul, U.S. Embassy, Cuba): I slept the next two nights in the lobby of the Hotel Nacional because we started evacuating American citizens. Not that there was really any danger, but a lot of people - a lot of American citizens who were there as tourists - wanted to go. They wanted to get out of there. So we organized an evacuation from the lobby of the Hotel Nacional.
GJELTEN: In Washington, U.S. officials were shocked. The U.S. government had stopped sending arms and ammunition to Batista a few months earlier, but the speed with which his regime collapsed caught President Eisenhower and his administration by surprise. Historian Thomas Paterson, the author of "Contesting Castro," points to a meeting of Eisenhower's national security team on December 18, 1958, just two weeks before Castro's triumph.
Mr. THOMAS PATERSON (Historian; Author, "Contesting Castro"): Eisenhower was told by Allen Dulles, the CIA director, and others that the rebels are moving very fast from the eastern part of the island to the central part. And Eisenhower said, well, why wasn't I told this before?
GJELTEN: We now know that there were many U.S. reports about Fidel Castro's popularity in Cuba and about Batista's loss of support, but apparently they weren't all passed on to higher levels. The U.S. Ambassador in Cuba, Earl E.T. Smith, was a strong Batista supporter. And those who knew him say he was in denial about the strength of Fidel Castro's movement right to the end. Jay Mallin was the Havana correspondent for Time magazine in 1958 and had many meetings with Earl Smith.
Mr. JAY MALLIN (Former Correspondent, Time Magazine): Earl Smith did not trust Castro at all. He thought he was a Communist even back then, and he did everything he could to prevent him coming in.
GJELTEN: Smith was a political appointee, not a professional diplomat, and he didn't always pay close attention to his political officers or to the CIA agents assigned to Cuba at the time. Wayne Smith, no relation, was a vice consul at the embassy, and he remembers the CIA officers he knew as predicting Batista's overthrow.
Mr. WAYNE SMITH: I mean, from talking to them in the snack bar and at parties, I had the impression that most of the guys in the station didn't think Batista could win. They probably would have preferred to see some negotiated solution so that someone other than Castro would come in. But if that was not possible, then Castro was going to win. They were realistic enough to understand that.
GJELTEN: It's the job of intelligence officers to know what's happening in their countries. And in Havana in 1958, CIA agents were keeping close track of the rapidly growing revolutionary movement. But Jay Mallin, the Time magazine correspondent, remembers that CIA agents who got too close to Fidel Castro's followers could find themselves in trouble with Earl Smith, the pro-Batista ambassador.
Mr. MALLIN: Put it this way, they were certainly in touch with the underground, but they'd have to be careful because the ambassador was against it. So I can see there would be friction.
GJELTEN: The best CIA reporting on Fidel Castro and his movement came from Santiago, the city at the eastern end of Cuba where the movement was strongest. Robert Chapman was the chief CIA officer in Santiago, under the cover of being the U.S. vice consul. It was Chapman's first field assignment. And when he arrived there in 1957, he found himself in the center of a revolution.
Mr. ROBERT CHAPMAN (Former Chief CIA officer, Santiago, Cuba): I knew everybody in town, more or less. The press was coming through. I would brief them on security. And I later found out that my name was posted in the New York Press Club. If you're going to see Castro, see Bob, you know?
GJELTEN: Fidel Castro was originally from eastern Cuba, and Santiago in 1958 was a hotbed of revolutionary activity. Chapman couldn't have asked for a better assignment.
Mr. CHAPMAN: I had most contact with what was the civil resistance movement. They formed a group to support the revolutionaries. And I had very good contact with them. And I occasionally had contact with the underground itself, the 26th of July Movement. It was just great because there was action taking place at all times.
GJELTEN: Some writers have alleged that Chapman covertly aided Fidel Castro and his movement, even that he personally directed $50,000 in CIA funds to Castro and his followers. Chapman vigorously denies that charge, saying he was actually suspicious of Castro and dutifully reported that he had Communist connections. But Chapman says the CIA officer who immediately preceded him in Santiago, Bill Patterson, was indeed sympathetic to the revolutionary movement. And he doesn't rule out the possibility that Patterson may have given Castro and his followers some material support.
Mr. CHAPMAN: When he introduced me to these people that he knew in the civic resistance movement, I mean, he was wildly embraced. I mean, he was actually almost loved. And I thought that very unusual at the time, that an intelligence officer would have such relationships with the people in the civic resistance.
GJELTEN: Patterson, who died a few years ago, soon turned against Fidel Castro, as did many of Castro's U.S. supporters. But Earl Smith, the ambassador, never got over what he saw as the excessive sympathy for the Cuban revolution among CIA officers. In his 1962 memoir, he wrote, quote, "There's no advantage to the United States in sending an ambassador to a country if the CIA representatives there act on their own and take an opposite position," unquote.
Smith may have been exaggerating the extent of CIA support for Fidel Castro. In any case, it did not last long. Within 15 months of his triumph, CIA officers in Cuba were seeking out Castro's opponents and attempting to organize a new counter-revolution. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.