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ROBERT F. KENNEDY URGED LIFTING TRAVEL BAN TO CUBA IN ’63

From The National Security Archive

Washington D.C. April 23, 2009 – Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sought to lift the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba in December 1963, according to declassified records re-posted today by the National Security Archive. In a December 12, 1963, memorandum to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Kennedy urged a quick decision “to withdraw the existing regulation prohibiting such trips.”

Kennedy’s memo, written less than a month after his brother’s assassination in Dallas, argues that the travel ban imposed at the end of the Eisenhower administration was a violation of American freedoms and impractical in terms of law enforcement. Among his “principal arguments” for removing the restrictions on travel to Cuba was that freedom to travel “is more consistent with our views as a free society and would contrast with such things as the Berlin Wall and Communist controls on such travel.”

This document, and others relating to the first internal debate over lifting the Cuba travel ban, are quoted in an opinion piece in the Washington Post today, written by Robert Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Her article argued that President Obama should consider her father’s position and support the Free Travel To Cuba Act that has been introduced in the U.S. Congress.

Robert Kennedy’s memo prompted what senior National Security Council officials described as “an in-house fight to permit non-subversive Americans to travel to Cuba.” Several State Department officials supported Kennedy’s position that “the present travel restrictions are inconsistent with traditional American liberties,” and that “it would be extremely difficult to enforce the present prohibitions on travel to Cuba without resorting to mass indictments.” But in a December 13, 1963 meeting at the State Department, with no representatives present from the Attorney General’s office, Undersecretary of State George Ball ruled out any relaxation of regulations on travel to Cuba.

A principal argument, as national security advisor McGeorge Bundy informed President Johnson in a subsequent memorandum on “Student Travel to Cuba” was that “a relaxation of U.S. restrictions would make it very difficult for us to urge Latin American governments to prevent their nationals from going to Cuba-where many would receive subversive training.”

The ban on travel was maintained until President Jimmy Carter lifted it in 1977; but restrictions were re-imposed during the Reagan administration and were tightened further by the Bush administration in 2004. President Obama recently announced he was lifting all restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel to the island. The vast majority of U.S. citizens, however, still face stiff penalties if they travel to Cuba.

According to Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project, the documents “shed significant light on the genesis of the travel ban to Cuba, and the first internal debate over ending it.” The original rationale for the ban “is no longer applicable,” he noted, “but RFK’s arguments remain relevant to the current debate over the wisdom of restricting the freedom to travel.”

The documents were found among the papers of State Department advisor Averill Harriman at the Library of Congress and in declassified NSC files at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. The Archive first posted them in April 2005.

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