Foreign Leaders and Post-WWII Diplomacy
During the decade after World War II, Mount Vernon became an important space for visiting political leaders whose countries had received aid from the United States.
Few visits to Mount Vernon by foreign dignitaries were so intrinsically linked to Cold War politics or so carefully orchestrated to sway public opinion as Fidel Castro’s on April 19, 1959. As part of Castro’s “Good Will” tour of the United States, this visit came just four months after Castro’s Revolutionary Army had ousted President Fulgencio Batista, a dictator and U.S. ally.
Fidel Castro had intended to enter politics as a reform candidate, but changed course from politician to revolutionary when Batista returned to power in a 1952 military coup. Castro’s guerilla movement was closely followed by the U.S. foreign press whose stories made him into an international revolutionary hero. Within days of the January 1, 1959 collapse of the Batista regime, the Eisenhower administration reluctantly recognized the new government while remaining suspicious of Castro’s anti-American rhetoric and ties to local communist forces. More importantly, the U.S. administration saw Cuba as one of many “client” states while Castro equated the successful Revolution with an end to colonialism. After an unproductive first meeting with U. S. Ambassador Philip Bonsal, Castro concluded that working through standard political channels would be ineffective. One day later, Castro accepted an invitation from the American Society of Newspaper editors (ASNE) to speak at its annual conference.
Castro had seen how the steady stream of press accolades for his Revolutionary Army had eroded support for the Batista regime, and he believed he could repeat this success by speaking directly to the American people. In his ASNE speech, he characterized himself as “a man of popular opinion” who “never needs to use any other form of government….”1 Hiring a U.S. public relations firm, Castro took advantage of the romantic myths the press had crafted around him as a man of the people and as a freedom fighter in the tradition of the American Revolution. Throughout his tour, Castro emphasized his ties to the U.S. revolutionary past through his much photographed visits to symbols of American democracy: the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and, of course, Mount Vernon.
According to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA) Council minutes, Regent Rosamond Beirne felt she “could not gracefully decline to be hospitable to a successful revolutionist,” especially when requested by the U.S. State Department. At the same time, she compared Castro’s visit to storm-related “heavenly visitations” that produced anxiety as well as excitement. Regent Beirne was also well aware that, due to threats of violence directed against Castro throughout his tour, the price of entertaining and protecting Castro was the financial loss incurred by closing Mount Vernon to the general public during the visit.2
From the start, it was not a typical visit. While the majority of his eighty man entourage looked like the types of businessmen, military officers and reporters who typically escorted foreign dignitaries, Castro was accompanied by his own armed security force: nineteen young guards drawn from his guerilla army. Castro was dressed in rumpled army fatigues with long hair and a shaggy beard as reminders of his revolutionary past. His guards wore the same shabby army fatigues, but they were fully armed, carrying rifles at all times. According to Regent Beirne, fifty three Fairfax County police were also present and “hiding in the bushes” to prevent pro-Batista forces from following through on their threats.3 Still, the visit went smoothly and the only “military” action was limited to distributing dolls dressed in rebel uniforms.
Castro was at his most charming during the visit to Mount Vernon where he signed the guest registry, and toured the mansion. He also showed his interest in the history of Mount Vernon, and was photographed reading Mount Vernon: The Story of A Shrine by Gerald W. Johnson and MVLA Superintendent Charles Cecil Wall. He spent more than an hour walking around Mount Vernon, laid a wreath on Washington’s tomb, and claimed Mount Vernon was “the most interesting thing I have visited.”4
Castro’s visit to Mount Vernon was undoubtedly a success in terms of press coverage and pictures. Crowds cheered, but didn’t pressure the Eisenhower administration to accept Cuba as an independent ally or to offer the new Cuban government desperately needed economic aid. For Castro, the end of colonialism was a matter of both national and personal pride, and the failure to achieve any tangible results led to increased anti-American pressures at home. Instead of improving relationships, the primary result of the “Good Will” tour was a heightened level of distrust that soured U.S.-Cuban relationships for more than 50 years.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County