Murrow, Kennedy and memos on Cuba

Memo reviewed by Lauren Brodsky, HKS Lecturer in Public Policy

Kennedy Coin

Sitting slightly reclined, with a steady stream of cigarette smoke visible to the viewer, esteemed journalist Edward R. Murrow faces a television screen with a view of a Boston apartment. It is 1953. Murrow is interviewing junior Senator John F. Kennedy, and his wife, Jackie, for the show People to People. Murrow asks the newlyweds if their wedding presents are in Washington D.C. or Boston, and makes other small talk. Then Murrow turns to Jackie, noting that she was also a journalist, and asks: “Which requires the most diplomacy? To interview Senators or to be married to them?” Jackie laughs, shyly, and Kennedy answers for her: “Being married to one!”

Many interviews and broadcasting hours would pass before Edward R. Murrow would leave broadcasting, and enter government service and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential administration. In 1961, Murrow became Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA), an agency that has since folded into the State Department. As director of USIA, Murrow managed the various U.S. government-funded international broadcasters, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. He also studied foreign opinion of the U.S., with a focus on whether audiences trusted Kennedy and believed that the U.S. sought peace in the Cold War struggle.

At that time, the Cold War was on America’s doorstep. Cuba, a nearby communist neighbor, was deeply connected to the Soviet Union. Perhaps no other country unsettled the Kennedy administration more than Cuba. Only months after assuming the Presidency, on April 17, 1961, Kennedy approved of the Bay of Pigs operation to overthrow Fidel Castro of Cuba. This plan ended in disaster. Quickly, over 100 Cuban exiles were killed in clashes with Castro’s forces, and over 1000 Cubans were captured.

Kennedy’s approval of the invasion in Cuba was based on two false assumptions. First, he believed that it was possible to maintain an element of surprise, although American newspapers had printed details about Cuban exiles training in Guatemala. Second, Kennedy assumed that many Cubans would rise up and support the exiles and help overthrow of Castro.  

In preparing for the Bay of Pigs, the USIA and its Director, Murrow, were left out of decision making and planning conversations. Instead of utilizing the American broadcasters, such as Radio Marti which broadcasted to a Cuban audience, the Kennedy administration turned to the private sector to communicate with the Cuban public. This allowed for deniability, but that deniability would not last long.

Murrow was angry when he learned about the invasion, calling it “not only foolish, but immoral, wrong.”[1] A meeting at the White House soon followed, where Murrow explained to McGeorge Bundy, the President's Special Assistant, that the invasion “was wrong, unworthy of a great power, and probably wouldn’t work.”[2] USIA data from opinion polls also showed that Castro had high approval ratings, demonstrating the important advisory role USIA could have played."[3]

Murrow famously spoke in a voice of frustration about what he called “the Cuban adventure.” Most notably, he said, “If they want me in on the crash landings, I’d better damned well be in on the takeoffs!”[4]

But he was not. A year later, on October 16, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis threw the Kennedy administration into thirteen days of chaos in an effort to remove Soviet missiles from the hemisphere. Murrow was out of the country at the time and not by the President’s side managing foreign public perception.

These two events created a wedge between Ed Murrow and President Kennedy on policy related to Cuba. Murrow was concerned that by being excluded in decision making, he would struggle to communicate to the Cuban people on behalf of the United States.

With this in mind, evaluating two memos from the archives (available from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum here) , written by Murrow to Kennedy, demonstrate policy writing on a complex political topic. The memos also showcase different policy writing strategies used by Murrow.

The memos teach valuable lessons about structure and tone: When Murrow wanted his opinion and voice to be heard, he would take on a more assertive tone, placing his opinions upfront. But when Murrow opinions were softer, or safer, his tone became conversational, and his opinions sank to the bottom of the memo. The backdrop of these exchanges was Murrow's general exclusion from Cuban Policy.

In the first memo of note, Murrow calmly and diplomatically advises the President toward caution in Cuba:


December 3, 1962

Memorandum for: The President, The White House

Subject: Airborne Television Capability

            Our government now has the capability of telecasting programs into Cuba. The facility consists of two specifically equipped DC-6 aircraft. Television programs on tapes are fed into equipment aboard the aircraft and transmitted while in flight. Three channels are available – two said to be good, one of poor quality. At the maximum operating altitude of 18,000 feet this equipment has a range of approximately 65 miles. This equipment also has the capability of jamming Cuban TV transmission.

            Under present plans, the aircraft are under the flight operational control of the Department of Defense. It is the responsibility of USIA to prepare and provide the actual program material which would be telecast and we have set up the necessary producing facilities within the Agency to act when called upon. We have a limited number of programming materials at hand. As an example, we have prepared a program which could be used in a situation where a single retaliatory strike might be required. This program would give the reasons for taking the action, and a brief narrative and pictorial background of any recent events led to the necessity of the strike. We also have in the final stages of production a program which can be used under other circumstances, including that of actual invasion.

            It is the best estimate of our technical advisors that this type of transmission can be jammed and their best estimate is that we would have from 10 to 12 days in which to operate before effective jamming equipment could be mounted and put into operation. After that, only limited penetration would be possible.

            Considering the present general situation and in particular the fact that we would undoubtedly be jammed, it is my opinion that this facility and programming should be considered as a tactical weapon. I therefore believe that we should not use this equipment to place television into Cuban under other than the most grave and impelling circumstances, reserving it for a time when our national effort clearly requires its utilization. Its potential should not be compromised by premature exposure.

Edward R. Murrow


Typically, policy writers waste no time in communicating their bottom line, by structuring their memos with the problem and solution upfront. This bottom line upfront --(BLUF) -- is common practice. In the above memo, however, Murrow’s bottom line is at the bottom of the memo (i.e. that the U.S. has access to a new tactical weapon that should be reserved only for the most-grave circumstances). Why did Murrow flip the typical structure? First off, burying the lead is less assertive in tone and could work to ingratiate Murrow into the ongoing conversation on Cuba. Second, in a related explanation, Murrow places himself into the memo with opinion (and the use of “I”) rather than analysis. This evokes Murrow’s previous opinions and perhaps prior disagreements, and for that reason, Murrow writes delicately and builds to his point. Lastly, Murrow needs to first “explain” and then “evaluate,” which often causes writers to build to opinion and solution.  

Murrow refers to himself in the memo, which is acceptable in many contexts, since the writer is part of the policy conversation. It works best, and tends to be more natural, in the introduction or conclusion, and less so during the analysis and body of the memo.  

To persuade the President, Murrow doesn’t use too much data. Instead, he walks the President through the situation, building a case and a narrative. Murrow’s tone is informative, and his writing is specific. His solution is easy for the President to act on (i.e. do nothing now), and therefore his tone can reflect the level of action required.


Just five months later, Murrow writes another policy memo to President Kennedy on Cuba, though the President’s special assistant. In this case, Murrow is more assertive in both structure and tone:


April 5, 1963

Memorandum For: Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President, The White House

Subject: Cuban Balloon/Leaflet Project


I wish to express my strong reservations concerning CIA’s proposed balloon/leaflet project.

As I understand it, the present plan is to have the balloons launched from approximately twelve miles off the Cuban coast on the morning of May first in such a way as to have some million-and-a-half leaflets falling on metropolitan Habana during the May Day observance celebrations. The text of the leaflets will feature Guevara’s declaration that the labor unions must disappear and call for “struggle, uprisings and liberty” (“lucha, levantamiento y libertad”). These leaflets, in their present form, carry no attribution to a real or fictitious anti-Castro group.

CIA has described this as an experiment but appears unclear as to the role of these leaflets within the framework of any overall U.S. policy or operational plan. The only firm explanation offered was that this should be very embarrassing to the Castro regime in the eyes of the many Latin American and Bloc delegates who are expected in Habana for May Day.

It would seem to me that we should seriously question the validity of such an operation on the basis of its contribution to the overall policy aims of the U.S. government. If we are decided to support an overall plan for “struggle, uprisings and liberty,” and this is merely one supporting device, fine. But, if this is merely a “gimmick” and its only objective is to somehow embarrass the Castro regime before its friends, I would strongly recommend against its implementation at this time.

In my opinion, the embarrassment could be just as great or greater to the U.S. Government. Official U.S. support would be difficult to mask and impossible to deny and this undignified and non-productive action could only lend aid and comfort to our country’s enemies abroad and this administration’s foes and critics in the U.S. If the call for “uprisings” is not coupled with a plan of support and actions, we could seriously compromise any possibility of future support from the Cuban people.

In addition to the obvious danger from MIG or patrol boat attack to the crew shop involved in the balloon launchings – or do we intend to provide full air and sea cover for its operation and this make it even more overtly a U.S. Government project? – there is the danger to individual Cubans who might pick up and carry such material. To what end do we wish to encourage the Cubans to risk their lives and safety to distribute this material?

In resumé, I can seem many real possibilities of negative results as far as U.S. policy and prestige go and very few positive results as far as our ultimate goal of overthrowing the Castro regime is concerned.

Edward R. Murrow


If the former memo’s tone can be described as informative, this memo is certainly sarcastic and concerned. In strong policy memo writing, tone should match purpose. Murrow isn’t informing but instead entering into a policy debate, voicing dissent. Therefore, the bottom line is the first line -- “I wish to express my strong reservations” -- and can’t be missed. This is Murrow’s opinion, and it is the entire introduction of the memo. The policy problem, instead, is buried in the body of the memo: dropping leaflets may create a problem, rather than solve one. Specifically, “the embarrassment could be just as great or greater to the U.S.” and “to what end do we wish to encourage the Cubans to risk their lives and safety?”

Murrow’s tone has changed. Perhaps he was more comfortable using an assertive tone when writing indirectly to the President and through McGeorge Bundy. Or perhaps it reflects the nature of the argument.

What solution is offered? Murrow asks for a rethink and a pause. How to do this is undefined. It is not a practical solution, but an emotional one.


Evaluating both memos provides lessons for policy writers. A first lesson: Even within a topic, and between the same parties, tone, structure, and style varies. Memos are not written as a template but instead they are situational. Memo writing is strategic and depends on the policy problem, the nature of the solution, and the audience. Tone matches the goal of the memo. A second lesson: some topics come with history between the writer and the decision maker, and that history carries into the writing. Authority and credibility are attributes that a writer often builds off the page.

While Murrow may have struggled to be included in policy conversations on Cuba, he approached these memos thoughtfully. In each example, his voice rises off the page; you can hear him. He includes his opinions and his thinking, incorporating them into a narrative meant to advise the President. His structure and tone change to serve the mission of his memo, which demonstrates his ability for strong policy writing.


[1] Jim Rasenberger, Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, Scribner, New York, 2011, p. 168.

[2] A.M. Sperber, Murrow: His Life and Times, Fordham University Press, New York, 1998, p. 623

[3] Ibid

[4] Sperber, p. 624.