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Consolidating Castro

Thanks to the Kennedy brothers, it's always been personal between the U.S. and Fidel.

By 12.15.05

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The Castro Obsession:
U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1965

By Don Bohning
(Potomac Books, 307 pages, $29.95)

Don Bohning is an old-fashioned reporter. That doesn't mean he is without opinions or biases, and maybe even a prejudice or two. But it does mean that in his long years as a successful reporter -- mainly for the Miami Herald -- Don felt duty-bound to keep his opinions to himself and to tell the truth as fully, factually, and responsibly as he could.

He has done just that in this, his first book.

That reporting leads (on page 255) to this chilling, and on the evidence so impressively amassed by Bohning, incontrovertible conclusion:

"The legacy of the unsuccessful six-year secret war against Fidel Castro -- a legacy that belongs mostly to the Kennedy brothers -- is not an admirable one. Among the war's main negative consequences were the consolidation of Castro's hold on Cuba, contributing to the Soviet decision to install offensive missiles on the island and spawning a cadre of Cuban exile terrorists perpetrating murder and mayhem far in excess of their relatively small numbers."

One might quibble with the tail-end of that assertion -- for many of us, waging a high-risk war against a totalitarian dictator is pure patriotism, and not terrorism.

But it is the essence of Bohning's finding that matters: (1) Castro very likely remains in power today because the Kennedy brothers became the real-life "foreign devils" he needed to consolidate his iron grip on power; (2) The most dangerous moment in Cold War history -- the missile crisis of 1962, when the world tottered at the edge of a nuclear holocaust -- was, to a considerable extent, triggered by the Kremlin's response to Kennedy's "secret war."

Other authors have made similar assertions, but to the best of my knowledge, none with such rich and convincing documentation. Alas, whatever or whose ever the documentation, the American public remains largely unaware of the U.S. role in either of these outcomes: Castro's 46-year reign as the longest-surviving dictator in hemisphere history (and the only totalitarian in hemisphere history), and the escalation of events culminating in the near-apocalypse of October 1962.

Planning to topple Castro began in 1960, the last months of the Eisenhower Administration. By the time John F. Kennedy took office on January 20, 1961, those initiatives included payment of $200,000 to the Mafia to assassinate Castro with a lethal pill (two such attempts were aborted) and plans for an invasion of Cuba by a small force (1,500 men) of Cuban exiles, then undergoing CIA-led training in Guatemala.

The story of the Bay of Pigs debacle, in April of 1961, is told here in dazzling detail. Essentially, it failed because of the Kennedy Administration's obsession with "plausible deniability," meaning that no matter how transparently an action might be American, it had to be done in such as way as to enable the White House to deny American involvement. That proposition, in place the length of the six-year war, repeatedly ended in politics trumping strategic thinking. (For example, the highly experienced CIA men nominally in charge of the Bay of Pigs operation wanted B-25 bombers rather than B-26's, because they were more flexible and reliable. The political operatives around Kennedy insisted on B-26's. Why? "Because the 26's were more deniable. They were more readily available on the open arms market.")

The death blow was struck when Kennedy -- influenced mainly by the very-dovish Secretary of State Dean Rusk -- first reduced the number of planes from 16 to 6, and then halved the number of planes in the first, softening-up air strike three days before the invasion, and then calling off altogether the second strike scheduled to coincide with the invasion itself. ("Deniability?" I was among reporters at the Opa-Locka private airport outside Miami awaiting two of the "clandestine" planes when they returned from that first raid.)

The day after the ill-stared invasion collapsed -- April 20, 1961 -- "Bobby Kennedy," Bohning reports, "was angry." The young Attorney General, his Brother's closest confidante, then took charge of an all-out campaign to oust Castro from power -- dead or alive. In the aftermath, the CIA put together south of Miami the largest base in the world outside of its Langley, Virginia headquarters -- a bit odd, considering that the United States was then, as leader of the Western alliance, locked in a life-and-death struggle with the Soviet Union.

As mad as Bobby was -- and he stayed mad, after his brother's assassination and right on into the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration -- the President was at least as mad. Richard Bissell, the intensively ambitious, brilliant, and very political head of the CIA's clandestine branch, would write later, Castro "had defeated the Kennedy team. They were bitter and would not tolerate his getting away with it. The president and his brother were ready to avenge their personal embarrassment by overthrowing their enemy at any cost." (Bissell, it should be noted, was probably the person most responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco.)

Over the next four years, "nutty schemes" -- the description was that of later CIA Director Richard Helms -- littered the landscape of Washington and JMWAVE, the CIA's Miami frontline command post. All are richly chronicled in this high-impact book.

Bohning writes not only responsibly, but well. The prose is clean, crisp, and -- not infrequently -- phrased to read as a spy novel. But, he also writes as an honest reporter would.

Don Bohning, you see, is a life-long Democrat, and indeed a former student and then cohort of one of the great icons of the liberal left of the Democratic Party, fellow South Dakotan George McGovern. Not a trace of that partisanship appears in the pages of this book.

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About the Author

James R. Whelan's books include Out of the Ashes: Life, Death and Transfiguration of Democracy in Chile, 1833-1988. He has reported on the country since 1958, and served 1992-1995 as visiting professor at the University of Chile. He presently lives in Santiago.