The United States, Cuba, and Castro
by William Appleman Williams
Monthly Review Press, 179 pp., $3.25
A type of tic-tac-toe game has gone on in American intellectual circles for the last two years. It consists of trying to show whether Fidel Castro was pushed toward Russia by United States policy or marched there himself through natural desire. The stakes are greater than seem apparent at first glance. If Castro was a Communist from the start or evolved into one because he was partial to Communism—as such distinguished writers as Nathaniel Weyl, Daniel James, and Theodore Draper have stated—America is absolved of blame for the Cuban mess. On the other hand, if United States policy pushed Castro to embrace Communism as a last resort, and against his own democratic instincts, then America is directly responsible for creating a Communist state in the Western Hemisphere and the American leaders involved must be condemned in the eyes of history.
William Appleman Williams, Professor of American History at the University of Wisconsin, has put the blame directly on our country. His book, The United States, Cuba, and Castro, is a passionate appeal for a change of diplomatic direction in the United States policy, for a reversal of those trends which he believes forced Castro to Communism and which today are leading us to make the same mistakes elsewhere. Specifically, the author feels we should re-establish direct communication with Castro to negotiate “on sugar and compensation for American property owners and toward formal recognition.”
The genesis of Professor Williams’s book is an attempt to answer and refute the main arguments propounded by Theodore Draper in Castro’s Revolution: Myths and Realities.1 Mr. Draper took up what he called the three myths of the Cuban Revolution and then pointed out the reality of each. The first myth was that America forced Castro to embrace Russia. The second myth was that the Cuban revolt was proletarian and peasant in origin. The third was that Castro pushed through the kind of Revolution he had originally desired. The realities according to Draper, to the contrary, were that American policy “was not the causative, operative factor”; that the Cuban upheaval “was essentially a middle class revolution”; and that “the revolution Castro promised was unquestionably betrayed.” Professor Williams deliberately chooses to combat Draper on his own terms, as he admits, “because of the considerable reputation and influence Draper has accumulated as an interpreter of the Revolution.”
There is no question that Professor Williams is on strong ground when he points out that it is impossible to discuss Cuba apart from United States policy. No scientist can theorize about the moon without taking into account the relation of the moon to the earth. And Cuba was a satellite of America up to 1959. By putting aside these relations extending over sixty years, as well as the American machinations that occurred right through the last years of Batista and into the Castro era, Draper refuses to acknowledge the tremendous pressures pushing Castro leftward. One has only to read The Fourth Floor, American Ambassador Earl E. T. Smith’s account of this latter phase, to understand the shameful significance of our involvement. (I stayed in Havana myself during 1959 and can well remember the just indignation of the Cuban leaders at the frequent plane flights from Florida to bomb the sugar cane fields—outright attacks which the pharisees in Washington claimed they could do nothing about.)
From a factual point of view, ironically, both Williams and Draper are right as well as wrong. As we cannot ignore the evidence of American complicity, neither can we ignore the simple truths attesting to the predilections of the Cuban leaders. Not only do we know the attitudes of Raul Castro and Che Guevara, the two other members of the ruling triumvirate, but Fidel himself said enough even in the first year for us to realize his instincts were both socialist and totalitarian. In this, of course, he was no different from the vast majority of post-World-War-II revolutionary leaders—many of whom the United States has financed and continues to support.
Professor Williams is on shakier ground when he attempts to disprove the middle-class origin of the Cuban Revolution. It is impossible to do this in view of the facts, but the author is unable to detach himself either from Marx’s view that revolutions come forth from the proletariat or from Lenin’s added dictum that they may arise from the peasantry. Williams’s procedure is most clever. He revises the category of the middle class: Since Marx states that class was defined by the ownership and control of productive property, more people may seem to be middle class because they have a decent income, but in reality are not middle class since the ownership and control of productive property is in the hands of a much smaller group. Or as Williams puts it: “Their incomes have gone up but their effective leverage in the system has gone down.” Presumably the so-called middle class which engineered the Cuban Revolution fell into this displaced category, though Williams gives no statistics to support his ingenious view.
As to the last charge advanced by Draper, that Castro betrayed the original ideals of the Cuban revolution, the defense of Professor Williams is either weak or casuistic. He attempts to show that the Cuban Maximum Leader never veered from his original aims, by quoting from a book written by Castro in 1957, while still in the mountains: “The Revolution is democratic, nationalist, and socialist.” One kind of socialist, yes; nationalist, possibly; but democratic, never. To defend his thesis of Castro’s consistency, Williams advances a new proposition, one which no one (including Castro himself) has yet employed: he argues that the Batista Constitution of 1940 had an important ideological influence on Castro. Now it is true, as Williams states, that this Constitution was much influenced by “Batista’s basic and sincere desire to create a corporate state within the Catholic and Latin traditions of that kind of society and government.” But to defend Castro’s authoritarianism by suggesting that it is the legitimate heir of Batista’s corporate statism simply will not do. Anyone who reads the principal ideological writings of Castro—his famous History Will Absolve Me and his speeches in the first flush year after victory—must see that Williams is re-writing history here. (I do not mean that he is deliberately falsifying history. Given his radical philosophy, Professor Williams might well retort that where facts are isolated and events chaotic, the task of the historian is to bring forth the hidden logic which gives unity to such facts and events.)
The final argument of Professor Williams boils down to the position that everything is good, or at least excusable, if it is revolutionary and that revolutions are a process of growth and therefore should not be judged midway. As late as November, 1962 (after the Cuban confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev), the Revolution is summed up by the author: “It is like judging a child for life at the end of a particularly bad week during adolescence, and proceeding ever afterward to act upon that judgment.”
In this evaluation, Professor Williams is close to the thinking of most leftist intellectuals—and not only Communists—throughout the world, even though his conclusion is isolated from the main political current in our country. That is his virtue. As an American, he understands, sympathizes with, and supports the general trend toward totalitarian national socialism. We should listen to him, even if only as a part of self-education. His opinion is biased; all his arguments in favor of Cuban autonomy vis-à-vis the United States could be reversed and applied to the enormous satellite empire of Russia. But the comparison is not applied. For behind his thought is a certain premise. It is that socialism is superior to capitalism, that totalitarian socialism may be regretted but is a movement upward in history, and therefore superior to parliamentary capitalism. The same rules therefore do not relate to both sides. And again we should listen to Professor Williams, because many modern leaders—and again not only Communists—believe this too. If only to see ourselves as we are seen by revolutionaries, one should read The United States, Cuba, and Castro.