Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs
By Jim Rasenberger
Scribner. 480 pp. $32
Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean
By Alex von Tunzelmann
Henry Holt and Company. 449 pp. $30
By Don Bohning
Both these authors reach more than a half century back into American history to produce books that are as relevant today as they would have been in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the events they describe occurred.
The books are set against the backdrop of America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, which was at its zenith at the time. The memory of the late Joe McCarthy, the far right-wing senator from Wisconsin who saw a Communist under every tree, was fresh and very raw. His witch hunt for alleged Communists and Communist sympathizers during the early 1950s still had conservatives and liberals alike trembling that they might be the next target of McCarthy-style vitriol.
Rasenberger focuses exclusively on the Bay of Pigs, the ill-fated attempt to overthrow Cuba’s Fidel Castro that originated under President Eisenhower, continued under President Kennedy, and ended in a disastrous failure. Von Tunzelmann, a British author, focuses her attention on the Caribbean and the impact the Soviet Communist threat—real or perceived—had on US policy vis-a-vis that region.
Unfortunately, von Tunzelmann’s adds little to a new understanding of events. She relies heavily on earlier research by others (she cites more than 200 works in her bibliography), but does not exploit the vast amount of new information available at the National Archives since passage of the 1992 Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act. Nor does she cite more recent articles and books drawn from these primary documents. Of the two books, Rasenberger’s is by far the more readable and well-researched, recounting events that led to the failed 1961 effort to overthrow the first Soviet satellite in the Western Hemisphere.