When the president of the United States moved to normalize relations with the communist nation, many on the right cried foul. One critic charged that the president was a terrible negotiator who acted "as though [c]ommunist intransigence could be overcome through concessions." Another said that the president had "undermined our national security."

These criticisms refer not to President Obama's new Cuba policy, but to President Nixon's opening to China in 1971. Nixon's critics were on the wrong side of history then, just as Obama's critics are now.

Few if any Americans today think that Nixon made the wrong move on China in 1971. His opening up of China drove a wedge between China and the Soviet Union. It impelled the Soviets to pursue arms control agreements with the United States. It helped the U.S. deal with China on the world stage and it opened up trade and commercial relations.


Our China policy had been in disarray for nearly 30 years prior to Nixon's initiatives in 1971. Our Cuban policy has been a mess for more than 50 years. In 1961, American policymakers misread the Cuban revolution. They believed that landing a ragtag army of 1,500 exiles on Cuban shores would spark a popular uprising to overturn Fidel Castro's regime. Instead, Castro's army killed or captured the rebels landing on the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. The episode fueled anti-Americanism in Cuba and strengthened Castro's hold on the island.

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, American leaders engaged in comic opera efforts to assassinate Castro. Outlandish plots, which implicated American officials with mafia figures, included poisoned and exploding cigars. These attempts at taking Castro's life discredited the United States and made him a more sympathetic figure across the world.

Most notably, the United States has sought to isolate Cuba and weaken the Castro regime by breaking diplomatic relations with Cuba and imposing a trade embargo and other economic sanctions. Yet the United States succeeded only in strengthening Castro's ties to the Soviet Union and isolating itself. We are now the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba.

When asked on CNN why we should continue a policy that has failed for half a century, Florida Republican Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Rubio signals opposition to Biden Cabinet picks MORE, the fiercest critic of Obama's Cuban policy, deflected the question. He did not defend the success of the policy, but said that we should continue to punish Cuba for its violations of human rights. By that standard, we should be breaking relations with, and imposing sanctions on, dozens of nations across the globe, among them China and Saudi Arabia.

Like Nixon's new China policy, Obama's new Cuba policy is not simply a concession to Cuba. It does help the Cuban people, but it also benefits the United States through trade and commercial relations, cultural exchanges and enhanced ties between families in the U.S. and Cuba. It improves our standing in Latin America and gives the Cuban people a chance to learn about American democracy more directly than before. Besides, we really could use some good Cuban cigars in the U.S.

Obama's new Cuban policy also enhances America's national security. Under its self-styled emperor Vladimir Putin, Russia has moved into the vacuum created by the absence of an American presence in Cuba. He has strengthened Russia's military ties with Cuba, potentially posing the gravest military threat to the United States in the hemisphere since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Only by reestablishing normal diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with Cuba can the U.S. hope to blunt Russian influence there.

Cuban-Americans are by no means opposed to normalizing relations with the nation of their heritage. According to a 2014 poll by Florida International University, 62 percent of young Cuban-Americans aged 19 to 29 — the future of the community — opposed the trade embargo with Cuba.

Among all Americans, a new nationwide poll by Zogby Analytics taken Dec. 17 to 18 found that 56 percent supported Obama's new direction in policy towards Cuba. Only 17 percent were opposed, with 17 percent undecided.

Conservatives again must choose to be on the right or the wrong side of history. They can follow Rubio's death march of defending on outmoded, unworkable and self-defeating policy. Or they can support Obama's opening to Cuba by funding an embassy, approving an ambassador and ending the trade embargo.

Some conservatives have already seen the light. Republican Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeProfiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers McSally concedes Arizona Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare front and center; transition standoff continues MORE of Arizona called the president's initiative a "positive change," and Republican Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Overnight Defense: Formal negotiations inch forward on defense bill with Confederate base name language | Senators look to block B UAE arms sales | Trump administration imposes Iran sanctions over human rights abuses MORE of Kentucky said, "The 50-year embargo just hasn't worked. If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn't seem to be working and probably it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship."

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.