The Cold War will always be remembered by the American public as the nearly 50-year long conflict between powerful global hegemons, fueled by fear and mistrust, but lacking in physical violence and warfare. While the United States and Russia clambered to mass-produce nuclear weapons that were never used against each other, Latin America served as a pivotal point of confrontation between the two, as evidenced by the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Sources from the early 60s help us to understand the social and political tensions between the United States, Latin America, and the Soviet Union during that time. These tensions were not necessarily always handled with military force, but by alleged activities by secret service agencies. Nearly 30 years after the Cold War began, the Select Senate Committee, or Church Committee, was established to investigate alleged misconduct of United States’ secret service agencies, including the CIA and the FBI. The most notable investigation looked into the alleged failed murder attempt by the CIA, targeting Fidel Castro. I will be looking at how the Church Committee affected the relationships between the United States and Latin America in the midst of the Cold War, and what implications the investigations had in the current relations between the two. Gaining an understanding of the social and political climate during the Cold War, both before and after the creation and investigations of the Church Committee, is essential when analyzing the more broad and global engagements between the United States and Latin America, both past and present.
THE 1960S COLD WAR RELATIONS
The early 1960s are vital to studying United States – Cuban relations and Russia – Cuban relations. The Cuban Revolution drew to an end in 1959 with the ousting of Batista and the confirmation of Cuba’s new leader, Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado. Two years later, Torrado was still in power, and the United States President John F. Kennedy had just begun his first term. A Cuban Intelligence Report details and analyzes Kennedy’s first notable decisions as president, mainly as they related to Cuba and efforts to overthrow its government. The report shows that the Cuban government was aware of Kennedy’s efforts to infiltrate nearby countries, such as Guatemala and Nicaragua, and that he aimed to accomplish this by training mercenaries within these countries. By doing this, he would essentially create the delusion that the Cuban government fell apart from the inside. This report provides us with information about the tense relationship between the United States and Cuba nearly 15 years before the establishment of the Church Committee and the investigations into the failed assassination attempts toward Cuba’s leader. This information is crucial to understanding the tense relationship between the United States and Cuba during this time, as leadership in the US was clearly attempting to take out foreign leaders through assassination.
In a similar text, a military report sent word to Torrado about the presence of mystery training camps in Guatemala. After inspecting these camps, Torrado was informed that they were mercenary training camps, as evidenced within the previous intelligence report. The tone of the report is quite clear, calling the Americans “Yankis” (Yankees), and alluding to their mercenary trainees as “riffraff” and “war criminals.” This report speaks heavily of the anti-imperialist movements sweeping Latin America at that time, and how the mercenaries, in Guatemala especially, were betraying the anti-imperialist efforts that Latin America was using to combat American imperialism. The use of mercenaries reinforces the bitterness between Latin America and the United States, which is an important pretense to the formation of the Church Committee.
The 1960s was also a time of close collaboration between China and Cuba. In a cable recording of a meeting between the Chinese ambassador to Cuba, Shen Jian, and then-Prime minister Fidel Castro, the two have a lighthearted discussion of their mutual agreements and partnership, while slipping in information about the United States and its relationship with Cuba. They discuss trivial things such as art delegations, magazines, and agricultural experts. They go on, however, to discuss the downfall of “American imperialism” and the rise and success of socialism. This meeting, however, was meant to be kept secret and the evidence destroyed. Seeing as how it survived, this cable serves as an important source through which we can analyze the Cold War and the resultant investigations of the Church Committee within a broader global context.
On top of a strong diplomatic relationship with China, Cuba also had strong ties to the Soviet Union during the 1960s as well. Soviet statesman and Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev wrote a journal entry about a visit from Fidel Castro, who was the Prime Minister of Cuba at that time. This source is separate from the aforementioned sources, which all contain information of ill will between the United States and Cuba. Khrushchev wrote, however, about Castro and his confession that he believed the relationship between Cuba and the United States to be headed in a positive direction. He did not say exactly why, but this source provides insight into the momentary shift in the tension between Cuba and the United States that preceded the obvious dip in favorability that was investigated by the Church Committee. This can then be translated into modern relations between the two, which are admittedly better, but not necessarily mended, and can offer insight into do’s and don’ts of foreign relations.
DURING AND AFTER THE INVESTIGATIONS
Knowledge about the events and political tensions that occurred prior to the establishment of the Senate Select Committee and its proceedings is essential to understanding what shaped the investigations. However, sources from the year that the committee studied the operations of the CIA are equally important. In 1980, Fidel Castro was the president of Cuba, and he reached out to Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, who also worked closely with the Soviet Union, who had an army stationed in East Germany. This meeting occurred five years after the establishment of the Church Committee, and four years after it released its findings about the CIA operations abroad. During their conversation they discussed the ever-relevant topics during the Cold War, United States – Cuban relations and Russia – Cuban relations. The intimate tone of the conversation highlights the amiability between Russia and Cuba, while also denoting the ever-deteriorating relationship between the United States and Cuba. These relationships, viewed from today’s perspective, have not drastically changed, but were heavily influential to US – Latin American relationships during the regime changes in the 80s and 90s, which caused foreign relation changes as well.
The establishment of the Senate Select Committee was intended to investigate alleged CIA operations abroad, and focused on misconduct, including assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. Democrat Senator Frank Church and Republican Senator John Tower headed the investigations, and Frank Church was especially appalled by the allegations against the CIA. His quote, “If a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back,” emphasizes his mistrust of dictatorships, as well as his disdain for the seeming recklessness of the CIA and the illegality of the actions they allegedly committed. This implies that Church was willing to discover what underlying causes were contributing to the enmity between the United States and Cuba, with only 11 years left in the Cold War. The Church Committee arguably amended these tensions with an aim to correct and hold accountable the secret service agencies that were not answering to the United States’ government.
A news release from 1975 highlighted public opinion surrounding the happenings within the Senate Select Committee, and also some interesting commentary on the relationship between Frank Church and John Tower, the two chairs of the committee. Author David Broder mentions fears that Church and Tower would not work efficiently during the investigation because of their partisan differences. A statement from Church and Tower, however, lays out that they planned to put aside their differences for something as important as the investigations that were about to take place. The news clipping is representative of the public opinion during the investigations, which is important to analyze to gain insight into what the public knew and did not know concerning the global tensions during the Cold War.
While the reasons for the creation of Senate Select were well-laid out by Frank Church, owing to the need to investigate secret service operations, a Congressional document that detailed the ongoing deliberations in the Senate to determine the establishment of the Church Committee. It also outlined a few reasons as to why the Senate saw the committee as necessary. One of these reasons was that the Senate had the right to know what was happening within these agencies, and another was that they should know where the citizens’ money ended up, whether that destination was the secret service or not. This document exists as the opposition to the previous source, which showed public opinion during the Church Committee. The former, however, shows inside information about why the committee was necessary, why the government felt the CIA needed to answer for their alleged misconduct during the Cold War.
The Church Committee was established in 1975, and by 1976 it had already released the six-volume conclusions of the investigations. The first volume, consisting of 642 pages of investigation findings, reports on the “Foreign and Military Intelligence” that dealt with overseas CIA operations in Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other foreign countries. This volume looked into the assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, as well. The six-volume publication brings together the hard work that went into investigating the misconduct within United States secret service agencies, which may have led to Castro expressing beliefs that Cuba’s relationship with the United States was improving. From this information the conclusion can be drawn that these “improving” relationships were not to last, but were not necessarily incorrect, despite the fact that the mass media seems to view the relations under the Trump administration to be at record lows.
Public opinion during the investigation was not only represented by newspaper clippings as the one mentioned above. In a political cartoon by Pat Oliphant, a CIA agent is depicted shooting a suction cup at Fidel Castro, with the title reading “Er…it’s supposed to suck your brains out, and then I take them back to Washington, and…” This alluded to the alleged assassination attempts on Fidel Castro by the CIA, and was obviously meant to depict the ineptness of the CIA, while also making it clear that the American public looked upon the secret service with disdain during this time.
The plethora of aforementioned sources gives evidence to the fact that sources published at the exact time of an event are not the only ones that contribute to gaining an understanding of said events. For example, sources from nearly 15 years before the establishment of the Senate Select Committee provide vital information on the relations between involved countries, and all tie in to the sources that were published during and after the years of the investigations. Identifying these sources’ place within a broader global context is equally important. In the case of the Church Committee, recognizing the global relationships and Cold War tensions, placing these in the context of the alleged misconduct of the CIA and American public policy and opinion during the investigations are all extremely vital to our understanding of the relationships between the United States and Latin America in the past. We are then able to interpret how these relationships have, in turn, shaped the current ones we see today.