In preparation for my first trip to Cuba, I kept my eyes peeled for good books to boost my background knowledge. THE BRILLIANT DISASTER caught my attention, not just for its title but also for its subtitle: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. It seemed like the kind of book that would help me understand the complexities of American-Cuban relations in more detail.
Although I had of course heard of the Bay of Pigs, my high school history classes had never seemed to make it much past World War II, so I dug in with genuine curiosity.
The first thing I want to say is this: If we had read this book in school instead of sitting in rows and copying down random, disconnected facts day after day, I would have absorbed and appreciated history so much more. The story of how President Kennedy inherited this covert action program from his predecessor and allowed the CIA and his advisers to convince him that the US could overthrow Fidel Castro without appearing to be involved—even if you know the ending—is thrilling and agonizing. As a result of some poor decisions, JFK found himself trapped in a dilemma with many lives on the line. What makes this narrative even more compelling is the knowledge that it truly happened and that the consequences could have been worse.
The attempted invasion was a debacle for so many reasons, and Jim Rasenberger’s comprehensive book benefits both from the release of previously classified documents and from his relative lack of bias. Unlike the decision-makers who later wrote their own versions of events, his only connection is that his father was somewhat involved among a group of lawyers brought in to help save the captured brigade by soliciting donations from American pharmaceutical companies in a deal cut with Castro.
This book sheds light on an important sequence of events in American (and Cuban) history, but more importantly, it illuminates the challenges that political leaders face in trying to pursue their goals and protect the peace.