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Kennedy Library gets OK to release RFK’s Cuba papers

Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general, played a crucial role in resolving the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

John F. Kennedy Library photo

Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general, played a crucial role in resolving the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

WASHINGTON — After years of difficult negotiations with Robert F. Kennedy’s heirs — and growing pressure from researchers — the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum has been granted approval to declassify and release seven boxes of the former attorney general’s papers on Cuba.

The papers, amounting to more than 2,700 pages, will be made available to researchers at the Kennedy Library in Dorchester on Thursday and will be posted online.

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The decision coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, from Oct. 16 to 28 in 1962. The president’s younger brother helped defuse this most dangerous flashpoint of the Cold War, when Russia deployed medium-range nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island, just 90 miles from American shores, and the United States responded with a military blockade of the island.

“Robert Kennedy was the president’s chief confidant, top adviser, and secret intermediary with the Soviets during the missile crisis,” said Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, a public interest research institute that advocated for the declassification of the RFK papers. The papers “are imperative to a comprehensive historical understanding of how the doomsday scenario of atomic Armageddon was confronted, and ultimately avoided,” he said.

The papers, part of a larger collection of RFK’s personal and government papers that remain hidden more than four decades after his assassination, could also shed light on covert government efforts to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro — activities overseen for a time by RFK.

In a statement, the National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees the library, described the forthcoming files as “documents accumulated by Robert F. Kennedy in his capacity as both attorney general and adviser to President Kennedy.”

“The files relate chiefly to matters that ordinarily do not come under the jurisdiction of the attorney general or the Justice Department, and include memos, correspondence, reports, notes from Executive Committee meetings, as well as CIA and State Department telegrams and cables chiefly related to the United States relationship with Cuba during the years 1961 to 1963 — a time which included the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion.”

It added: “While the majority of these materials will be opened in full, some will remain restricted because of classified material: No documents are closed due to restrictions related to personal privacy concerns.”

The Boston Globe, in a series of articles in the past few years, has reported on the growing frustration of historians and researchers eager to study what they contend is a key missing chapter of the Kennedy administration and the Cold War. But until now RFK’s widow, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, and their children have been reluctant to grant permission to declassify the documents — totaling as many as 62 boxes — and make them public.

At issue has been an unusual agreement reached decades ago between the National Archives and the Kennedys, granting the family authority to release the files. But as the Globe reported earlier this year, an index of the remaining RFK papers shows that many of the unreleased files are government documents, as opposed to personal materials, that the family should never have been given control over.

In a statement Wednesday, the Kennedy family said it is committed to making additional papers available, insisting that it is the declassification process that has been responsible for the delay.

“The Robert F. Kennedy Family is committed to ensuring the public’s continued access to the RFK Collection,” the statement said.

But library officials and internal correspondence with the family over the years highlight the library’s difficulty in getting the family’s go-ahead to process the papers for release.

One stumbling block, according to library e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and reported by the Globe in August, was the family’s delay in approving a “deed of gift” so the library could process the papers for release.

A major sticking point was the family’s desire to have the documents appraised for tax purposes, but the negotiations continued for years longer. Tom Putnam, director of the JFK Library, expressed hope in a 2008 e-mail to a family representative that the family was close to making a decision.

In the family’s statement, they acknowledged that of the remaining 55 boxes, some information could still be withheld. “At the conclusion of the process of federal review of the remaining 55 boxes, those 55 boxes will also be made available to the public, subject only to national security and personal privacy considerations.”

Reached by phone, Putnam declined to comment on the family’s statement, saying he is pleased that the library is making progress after years of seeking to make the RFK collection fully available.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@globebender
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