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It was one of the country's most tightly held secrets, fully known only to three officials. There were secret meetings and clandestine couriers. Pseudonyms and hidden hotel entrances were used.

"We were afraid of leaks. We were dealing with dynamite," explained William D. Rogers, then a top State Department aide.The "dynamite" was an initiative by then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger two decades ago to establish normal relations with Cuba.

Details of the abortive 18-month effort were disclosed Thursday in a lengthy article based on once-secret documents and interviews with U.S. and Cuban officials. The story will appear in an upcoming edition of the New York Review of Books.

One document quotes Kissinger as telling aides: "It is better to deal straight with (Fidel) Castro. Behave chivalrously; do it like a big guy, not like a shyster. Let him know: We are moving in a new direction . . . we'd like to synchronize."

The article, "Dialogue with Castro: A Hidden History," was written by Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, a private research organization in Washington, and James Blight of Brown University.

It was the summer of 1974, 13 years after Washington and Havana had broken relations. Frank Mankiewicz, a journalist and one-time aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, took a handwritten letter from Kissinger to Castro.

Castro replied to the "serious communication" by sending a box of cigars to Kissinger along with a note of his own.

But within 18 months the initiative was dead. Cuban officials said the Ford administration was terrified that leaks could inflame anti-Castro voters in the 1976 presidential campaign. U.S. officials blamed Cuba's 1975 decision to send 36,000 troops to defend the fledgling pro-Soviet government of Angola.

"Angola was fatal," Rogers told the authors.

Only Rogers, Kissinger and Lawrence Eagleburger, then a top Kissinger aide, were fully informed of the initiative. As Kissinger recalls it, President Ford was aware of the talks but not the details.

To guarantee secure telephone communications, Eagleburger adopted the pseudonym "Henderson," while his Cuban counterpart, Ramon Sanchez Parodi, was dubbed "Jose Viera."

The use of aliases took a comical turn one night when Sanchez Parodi called Eagleburger's house three times and asked his wife if "Mr. Henderson" was there.

Eagleburger quotes her as saying: "First I told him he had the wrong number. Then I told him no such person lives here. Then I hung up on him."

The first U.S.-Cuban meeting was held in a coffee shop at New York's LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 11, 1975. A subsequent meeting was held at the Hotel Pierre in New York, where an obscure entrance was used. Another venue was Washington's National Airport.

The article suggests that Kissinger was far more open to an accommodation with Cuba than President Clinton is nowadays.

Washington and Havana have been discussing migration issues, but Clinton has ruled out broader talks until Cuba agrees to undertake fundamental reforms of its communist system.