LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, forcing dictator Fulgencio Batista out. At that point, most of Cuba’s sugar plantations and other assets were owned by Americans and there was tremendous pressure in this country to remove Castro. In 1961, President John Kennedy tried, supporting a coup attempt that came to be known as the Bay of Pigs. It failed almost immediately. And after that, Castro’s control of Cuba grew stronger and relations with the U.S. fell apart.
Jim Rasenberger is the author of “The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, And America’s Doomed Invasion Of Cuba’s Bay Of Pigs.” He joins me from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City.
JIM RASENBERGER: Great to be here. Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: So take us back to 1961 and remind us why the United States – and specifically the Kennedy administration – felt so strongly that they had to pull Castro off this little island – that there was no way to coexist.
RASENBERGER: Yeah. I mean, the first thing anyone thinking about that time has to understand is the tremendous fear that Americans had of communism. I mean, now we look back on that and it can seem sort of ridiculous that we ever had a time when we thought the Communists were going to take over the world. But that is indeed what most Americans thought at the time.
You have to remember that in 1949, the Russians got the bomb; China became communist. So the spread of communism seen as a kind of contagion that was infecting one country and then another was a very real fear. So that’s the ground – that was what Eisenhower was dealing with and why he was starting to think of ways to get rid of Fidel Castro, even before Kennedy came along.
But then John Kennedy made the problem much worse because he realized a good way to defeat Richard Nixon was to beat the Eisenhower administration over the head with Fidel Castro. How could they allow this communist dictator to come to power a mere 90 miles away from American shores?
WERTHEIMER: And that he won and had to do something about it.
RASENBERGER: And then – he wins. And then he’s handed this plan by the CIA, which he knew a little bit about, but he didn’t know the details. And they’re telling him, Mr. President, you need to pull the trigger on this right now. And he had gotten himself into a situation that he didn’t really know how to get out of. He didn’t really want to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, but he had painted himself into a corner.
WERTHEIMER: Is that why you say in your book that the Bay of Pigs is one of the most fascinating and important stories in modern American history?
RASENBERGER: I mean it, shows so many themes in American history. One is how fear is used in politics and how that sometimes can come back to bite the person who is using it – the candidate who is using it. But also, there are so many things that happened after the Bay of Pigs. I mean, you can link so much of what happened in the 1960s – the Vietnam War, for instance – directly to the Bay of Pigs.
Something that is not known by many people is that the day after the invasion failed, John F. Kennedy ordered his national security adviser to look into ways to defeat communism in Vietnam because, of course, he’d just taken this huge defeat from the Communists. And he was looking for a way to fight back. So the Vietnam War, in many ways – at least Kennedy’s involvement – began the day after the Bay of Pigs ended.
The Situation Room came out of the Bay of Pigs because John F. Kennedy thought that one reason that he wasn’t better able to control events is that he wasn’t getting real-time information from the Pentagon and the State Department. So he ordered his national security adviser to set up a room in the White House. And that changed the way the White House works. Now the White House is very much at the center of any crisis. That wasn’t really true until the Bay of Pigs.
WERTHEIMER: Now, Fidel Castro continued to be a force not only in Cuba of course but in American politics. I mean, Castro was still there in our political minds long after you would think he would have lasted.
RASENBERGER: Yeah. And it’s extraordinary to think that even though he was talked about as if he were an existential threat in 1961, he lasted in power through 10 American presidents, 11 if you include Obama. That’s a quarter of all American presidents. So, you know, he survived us, and we survived him.
Nonetheless, after the Bay of Pigs, he was the David that beat Goliath. And he was enormously empowered in his own country and around the world.