Explaining the Cuban Revolution to 'John Q. American' in 1960

An old documentary offers footage of what Cuba looked like the last time American tourists could visit easily.

In 1960, just days after the American embargo against Cuba was first imposed and months before ties between the United States and Cuba were formally severed, the Metropolitan Broadcast Corporation aired Cuba: The Battle of America, an hour-long special on Channel 5 about the Cuban Revolution.

Hosted and written by Albert Burke, the program featured the Yale professor and Emmy-winning television presenter ambling the stage, talking about the roots of Castro's rise to power. Sound like a snoozer? It's absolutely not.

With Wednesday's great thaw in mind, the video documents what Cuba looked like the last time American tourists could easily visit the island, more than five decades ago. At the time, Burke noted, the typical tourist stuck to the country's "tourist alleys" and its familiar "foam-rubber mattress, tiled-bathroom type of life." But the average "John Q. American," in Burke's words, didn't know that beyond those alleys lay something much darker and pernicious: communism.

"These, by the way, are Soviet rockets."

The first irony here is how successfully the image of Cuba has been overtaken by communism. It's difficult to imagine a past in which Americans didn't picture the Castro regime rather than the hotels, department stores, and office buildings of the Old Havana Burke described.

Next, flashing footage of Lenin, Burke explained that tourists weren't seeing the revolutionaries inspired by him. The change in Cuba, Burke clarified, "is not being spread by Christian men, it is being spread by revolutionaries." The thaw that came 50 years later, though, owes much to the efforts of Pope Francis, who wrote letters to President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro urging them to mend the relationship between the two countries.

But before all that, the specter of danger in Castro's rise to power transitioned from the philosophical to the physical. Citing reports of Soviet fighter jets flying above Cuba, Burke explained that "Soviet technicians are at work building hard missile launching sites which could cover every part of the United States."

In his landmark speech on Wednesday, President Obama injected his own biography into the narrative of strained American and Cuban ties.

I was born in 1961—just over two years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and just a few months after the Bay of Pigs invasion, which tried to overthrow his regime. Over the next several decades, the relationship between our countries played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, and America’s steadfast opposition to communism.

As the president intimated, Americans' predictions of what would come of the conflict with Cuba would have a way of being both very wrong and very right.

"Cuba is not Russia," Burke explained. "With today's weapons, that country, that island, could not only be overrun, it could be wiped out in minutes. But Cuba is like Russia in the sense that bullets and counterrevolution are no better solution today for the problems of land reform, economic reform, and exploding populations than they were 43 years ago in Russia."

Cuba, of course, was not overrun in a matter of minutes. However, the basic human rights championed by those who fought to bring Fidel Castro to power also never came to pass in Cuban society.

Ultimately, Burke concluded, "It will not be communism that wins the world, it will be democracy that loses it." In Cuba, we all may have split the difference.