I’ve been fascinated by historic letters and correspondence for some time; and I wrote a post covering some of this a while ago.
Letters, particularly communications never meant for public consumption, provide a fascinating insight into significant historic or cultural events, times or figures. They also can help to humanise certain figures – both historic or contemporary – who might otherwise seem like remote, distant characters or one-dimensional archetypes.
There are few world figures who have acquired the stature or aura of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who surely ranks as one of the most famous, divisive and debated world figures of the twentieth century. People have analysed his speeches, his actions, his alliances, over and over again, and come to wildly differing conclusions or opinions. With someone like Castro – particularly if you don’t live in or have any connection to Cuba – the enduring, iconic image of the man is probably more powerful than the nitty-gritty details of the reality.
This is natural, of course: reality is complicated, messy, imprecise, whereas symbols and icons are neat and simple.
Sometimes, when someone becomes so powerful as a symbol of something, it can be difficult to get around the symbol and form a more down-to-earth view. Castro is the perfect example of that, because the symbol of the towering Anti-Imperialist figure who no one could kill has become so enduring and so powerful. It is also impossible to think of Castro without the signature beard and cigar: frankly, we can imagine that he came out of the womb in a cloud of cigar smoke and fully bearded.
But he wasn’t always a big, imposing figure puffing cigars and engaging in grand, anti-imperialist tirades. He was once just a poor, little boy in Cuba. And when he was 12 years old, Fidel Castro wrote a letter to then US President Franklin Roosevelt (source).
In it, the future Cuban dictator and figurehead asked Roosevelt for a $10 dollar bill, claiming he wanted one because he had never seen one before. In the handwritten letter, the young Castro also congratulated the president on his re-election. The letter, written in faltering English, is clearly in the language of a boy and, now preserved in US government archives, is a fascinating relic of the twentieth century. The letter was written in November 1940.
The most amusing part of the short letter is the young Castro offering the American President access to his country’s iron for use in constructing American ships. The child-like offer appears at the end of the letter, in a kind of ‘PS’; ‘If you want iron to make your ships,’ he wrote, ‘I will show to you the bigest (minas) of iron of the land. They are in Mayari Oriente Cuba.’
President Roosevelt apparently didn’t respond to the letter; and he may not have ever even seen it. And whoever did originally see that letter from the random Cuban boy obviously had no conception of who that boy would grow up to be and how it would, at one point, bring America to the brink of destruction in its conflict with the Soviet Union.