Introducing: 60 Minutes All Access Learn More +
Unlimited, ad-free viewing of 60 Minutes archives, Overtime and extras
Toggle

Guantanamo Bay in 1972: "Strangely tranquil"

Mike Wallace's trip to the "strangely tranquil" U.S. naval base known as Gitmo, 30 years before it housed accused 9/11 terrorists and al Qaeda fighters

This week, Lesley Stahl showed 60 Minutes viewers the tense conditions at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base today for the detainees and guards who coexist in collective "limbo" there. In 1972, the place was vastly different.

Thirty years before Gitmo began to house accused 9/11 terrorists, correspondent Mike Wallace visited the base with 60 Minutes cameras and found it to be "strangely tranquil."

Back then, it was advertised to tourists as a "sportsman's paradise" with balmy temperatures and a gentle surf. Only a decade had passed since the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a botched attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime, and the focus of Wallace's piece was, in large part, U.S.-Cuba relations from the perspective of those serving at Gitmo. Below is one exchange with Marine Captain Ron Morgan within view of Cuban guard towers that monitored U.S. activity on the naval base.

Wallace: I don't get the sense here at Gitmo that the Marines or the Navy are particularly angry at the Cubans.
Marine captain: No, sir. It's a live-and-let-live-type situation.
Wallace: So what do you do up here all the time, you and the Cubans?
Marine captain: We look at each other. They look at us and we look at them, and as long as we can see each other, we know what we're doing.

Unlike today, being stationed at Guantanamo Bay was considered to be an ideal assignment by some service members.

"It's good duty, beautiful," said Rear Admiral Leo McCudden, the commander of Guantanamo at the time. "We have the base built up and, as you saw, we're building more houses over here and we have this big appropriation for our new Marine barracks."

Wallace reported that the U.S. Navy had poured millions into housing and recreational facilities, including $5 million for golf courses, stables, swimming pools, tennis courts, and even a men's club.

At the time, 900 Americans were living and working on the base, including more than 1200 children -- many of whom were born on the base and attended the schools there. Wallace even spoke with some of the children at a school playground, remarking that if the U.S. ever leaves Gitmo, "this playground might be filled not with American or even Cuban youngsters but with the offspring of the Russian military."

How did the U.S. wind up in Guantanamo Bay in the first place? As Wallace explains, the U.S. Marines arrived in 1898 to help the Cubans drive out Spanish imperialists. Several years later, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a treaty with the Cubans, enabling the U.S. to use a small piece of the island as a coaling station, making Gitmo the first American overseas base in 1903.

But the American presence at Gitmo hasn't always been welcomed. In 1964, Fidel Castro went so far as to cut off the U.S. water supply, but the U.S. Navy responded by bringing in a de-salinization plant. Since then, relations have remained mostly peaceful, but Castro continued to object to the American naval base calling it a "dagger pointed at the heart of Cuba." He also refused to cash the yearly check that the U.S. has paid to lease the land for the base. In 1972, the annual rent was about $3,500 and Wallace reported that the Swiss government was holding the funds in escrow for the Cubans.

To this day, the Americans are still paying rent -- now just over $4,000 -- for Gitmo, and Cuba still refuses to cash the checks.