This is not an ordinary mystery story as the main title suggests, but a case study of the baffling if not mysterious influence of the Fourth Floor of the State Department on the workings of the United States foreign policy. The case in question is the Cuban crisis that produced the rise of Fidel Castro to power, and the analyst is the man who represented this country in Havana from 1957 to 1959 Earl E. T. Smith went to Cuba with the knowledge of its affairs which is to be expected of a generally well informed businessman, but with the determination to penetrate its problems through travel’ study, and personal contacts. He did not become an ardent admirer or supporter of Batista, as was often charged, although he maintained cordial and correct relations with the dictator. It seems that he concluded early that Fidel Castro had communist leanings, and that Batista was preferable to the bearded rebel leader. As the power of Batista deteriorated, Smith tried to work out some plan under which the dictator would step aside in favor of an acceptable provisional administration that could hold elections within a reasonable time. The present volume describes his efforts to that end, his relations with Batista, and particularly the difficulties of getting his ideas across to the top echelons of the State Department in Washington, or even to rise to the Fifth Floor.
Students of Castro’s rise to power will welcome the information and viewpoints contained in Smith’s account, controversial though his interpretation may remain. As of now, however, it would seem that Castro himself is determined to prove that Smith was one hundred per cent correct on almost every point. Historians may question Smith’s penetration of the mind of the Cuban people, as for instance his assumption that the Church offered a possible source of mediation for the establishment of a provisional government, but his evaluation of the Castro movement will probably be regarded as foresight beyond that expressed in the United States prior to mid-1960. Smith’s story will also be revealing even to Batista, who evidently did not comprehend the motives behind many of the statements of policy that Smith passed on to him from Washington (Compare with Batista, Cuba Betrayed, New York, Vantage Press, 1962). And herein lies the real importance of the volume, for he has written a near classic description of the forces of bureaucracy that often hamstring the efforts of the ablest ambassador and even prevent the formulation of policy on responsible levels in Washington. It is a story that needed to be told, but which could have been told only by someone like Smith whose financial and social standing was so secure that it could not affect his career. The people of the United States owe him an eternal debt of gratitude. The case is concisely stated in these words by Mr. Smith:
The Fourth Floor consists of desk-men, as they are called. They are career Foreign Service Officers who frequently look upon political appointees as here today and gone tomorrow.
After this book is published, some will wish to accuse me of attacking the entire Foreign Service. This is not my intent or my desire. I learned from experience to have a high regard and respect for many Foreign Service Officers.
While it is impossible to condemn an entire body of men, it is neither impossible nor incorrect to say that a structure of organization is such that men on a certain level on an organizational chart, lacking final political responsibility but having the power of day-by-day decision in political matters, can create a situation which may lead to national damage.
Many people will consider this as too sweeping an assertion. Yet this was true in the case of Cuba. The Secretary of State was preoccupied with Peking, Moscow, and Berlin. Policy decisions on Cuban affairs were determined on the Fourth Floor of the State Department, where influential persons believed in the revolution and hoped for its success. So far as I know, no definite policy governing our attitude to the friendly government of Cuba was set on the fifth floor (the top echelon of the State Department).
The Secretary of State did not, during my entire mission, discuss the Cuban problem with me. I had only two interviews, each one at my request, with the Secretary. One was before I left for Havana to assume my post as Chief of Mission. The second interview was at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1959, after I had been recalled from the Havana post. Castro was then in power. Batista had fled Cuba. At that time, the Secretary asked me if I could explain how it happened that Batista lost control to Castro, in view of all the arms and military equipment owned by the Batista government, plus the support of his Air Force. The Secretary again mentioned the friendship to the United States demonstrated by Batista’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Núñez Portuondo. I would not presume to guess the reasons for the Secretary’s remarks or his line of thinking. He apparently had not been completely informed as to the background of the Castro brothers until it was too late. This is no criticism of John Foster Dulles. No one man can carry the whole world on his shoulders.
It is a criticism of the structure of the State Department where the attitude of the United States toward a friendly government may be determined through the day-by-day actions of those in the lower echelon. I am convinced, I repeat, that the alternative to Batista need not have been Castro, the Communist. The United States could have been instrumental in forming a broadly-based government in Cuba without Batista and without Castro. In my judgment, it would have been possible to have established such a government up until the summer of 1958 (pp. 227-229).