Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. Macy’s, for instance, usually serves a minimum of 50,000 shoppers on that one day. But as this week’s revelations of a terrorism plot targeting New York City’s subway system remind us, the holiday bustle is also an opportunity for those seeking to inflict mass casualties. That thought may well have been on the mind of Fidel Castro, when he planned a colossal terrorist attack on Manhattan on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1962.
On November 17, 1962, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI cracked a terrorist plot (though the term "terrorist" was not used at the time) by Cuban agents who were using their cover as members of the Cuban mission to the United Nations to target Macy's, Gimbel's, Bloomindales and Manhattan's Grand Central Station with a dozen bombs and 1,102 pounds of trinitrotoluene (TNT). This massive conflagration was set to go off the following week, the day after Thanksgiving.
To put the plot in perspective, consider that for the March 2004 Madrid subway blasts, in which almost 2,000 people were killed and maimed, the terrorists used a grand total of 220 pounds of TNT. Fidel Castro's agents planned to set off five times that explosive power in the world’s three biggest department stores, all packed to suffocation and pulsing with holiday cheer on the year's biggest shopping day. Thousands of New Yorkers, including women and children, were to be incinerated on Castro’s orders.
This was not Castro’s first attempt to annihilate the city. He had planned the attack on Manhattan just weeks after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had foiled his plans for an even bigger one during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But for Khrushchev’s prudence, Castro might have pulled it off. “If the missiles had remained,” Fidel’s sidekick Che Guevara confided to the London Daily Worker in November 1962, regarding the Cuban missile crisis, “we would have used them against the very heart of the U.S., including New York.” Khrushchev himself admitted that Fidel and Che's genocidal scheming was a bigger factor in his decision to withdraw the missiles from Cuba than President John F. Kennedy's bluster and his threatened “blockade.”
The Manhattan plot would likely have resulted in the deaths of countless thousands, but it had a certain maniacal logic. Given the temper of the times, Castro knew that an attack would force the United States to retaliate and that the Soviets would be dragged into the conflict. Castro would then achieve precisely what he’d dreamed about and tried to provoke a few weeks earlier: an intercontinental nuclear exchange.
Of course, Castro himself would be nowhere near harm’s way. Alexander Alexeyev, the Soviet ambassador to Cuba during the missile crisis, has revealed a fascinating – if unsurprising – fact about those days. While Castro was begging, threatening, and even trying to trick Khrushchev into launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the U.S., he was also making reservations with Alexeyev for a first-class seat in the Soviet Embassy's bomb shelter.
The Manhattan plot never came to pass, but it cannot be said that Castro has paid the price for his planned destruction. In November 1995, Castro found himself on a triumphant visit to Manhattan. He was the guest of honor and the main attraction at the United Nation's 50th anniversary bash. "The Hottest Ticket in Manhattan!" read a Newsweek story that week, referring to the social swirl that engulfed him. After his whooping, hollering, foot-stomping ovation in the General Assembly, Castro was feted by the New York's best and brightest, and hobnobbed with dozens of Manhattan's glitterati, pundits and power brokers.
First, there was dinner at the Council of Foreign Relations. After holding court there for a rapt David Rockefeller along with Robert McNamara, Dwayne Andreas and Random House's Harold Evans, Castro flashed over to Mort Zuckerman 5th Avenue pad, where a throng of Beltway glitterati, including a breathless Mike Wallace, Peter Jennings, Tina Brown, Bernard Shaw and Barbara Walters all jostled for his attention. All clamored for autographs and photo-ops. Diane Sawyer was so overcome in the mass-killer's presence that she rushed up, wrapped her arms around Castro, and smooched him warmly on the cheek.
This godfather of terrorism still lives 90 miles from our shores in tropical splendor for all to see. Yearly he makes Forbes' list of the world's wealthiest people. He is feted by visiting dignitaries ranging from Kofi Annan to Steven Spielberg, from Jimmy Carter to Charles Rangel, from Arlen Specter to Gregory Craig, from Barbara Walters to Jesse Jackson, and from Andrea Mitchell to, most recently, Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The media still adores him. Castro occasionally grants interviews to star-struck luminaries like Dan Rather and Barbara Walters. Ted Turner refers to his friend Fidel Castro, as "one helluva guy!" Andrea Mitchell, commenting on the unexpected honor of interviewing Castro, referred to him as "an absolutely fascinating figure!"
Hollywood is even more taken with the aging dictator. You won’t see him cast as a villain in a film – that role is reserved for such Hollywood hate figures as Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon or J. Edgar Hoover. Indeed, Castro reigns as a veritable icon for many of Hollywood's best and brightest. Oliver Stone refers to Castro as "a very moral, very humane man." Jack Nicholson gushes about his frequent Cuban host as "a genius!" and his island gulag as "a paradise!” Francis Ford Coppola penned a love letter to him. "Fidel I love you," it starts, "we both have the same initials and both use our power for good."
Not the least of the ironies in the enduring love fest for Fidel is that he came so close to murdering those who now sing his praises. After his much-acclaimed visit to Manhattan in November 1995, Time magazine lauded the man who twice tried to incinerate New York as "The Toast of Manhattan!" On Thanksgiving week in 1962 Fidel Castro and Che Guevara certainly planned on “toasting” Manhattan.