That Infernal Little Cuban Rebublic. By Lars Schoultz. UNC Press, 567 pages, $35.
Paging through endless archives in Washington, D.C., Lars Schoultz came upon a curious memo from 1962: a list that the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara suggesting ways to lure Cuba into a war.
“Sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida,” the memo read.
Or, fake an attack on the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay. “Lob mortar shells from outside the base.”
Or, “Demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner.” The Pentagon suggested, “The passengers could be a group of college students.”
“When I read this,” Schoultz says, “I broke out into such laughter that a couple people around me asked what I had found.” They all had a good chuckle. Schoultz says that the Pentagon would likely have shot down a drone airplane and then leaked misinformation about college students being on board. “But when I tell my students about this, they don’t think it’s the least bit funny.”
Schoultz found all kinds of mind-boggling memos, candid phone recordings, and wacky schemes while he was researching his latest book, That Infernal Little Cuban Republic, a history of U.S. policy toward our onetime ally. There was Operation Dirty Trick, which would “provide irrevocable proof” that if NASA’s manned Mercury mission failed, Cuban communists would be to blame. There was the written record of Fidel Castro’s curse-laden outburst when he heard that the Soviet Union had caved to the United States to end the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And then there was former CIA director Allen Dulles’s obscure, unpublished memoir, a document Schoultz found in the most unlikely fashion and which could change the way historians view the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Schoultz has been following U.S. policy toward Cuba since the early 1960s. He wrote three other books before he published Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America in 1998. The book was a huge undertaking, but one he enjoyed so thoroughly that he immediately dove into another exhaustive project: detailing every U.S. policy discussion, decision, and action regarding Cuba from the mid-1940s on. “No one’s ever done that,” Schoultz says. “Not that my book is better than anything else; there just isn’t anything else.”
In 1999, the National Humanities Center awarded him a fellowship to get started. An early riser, he’d arrive each day around dawn at the center’s Research Triangle Park headquarters, and spend the next twelve hours in the books or at the microfilm reader, making notes on three-by-five note cards.
“I just took notes from every document and read everything that had ever been written, including a lot of partial histories of U.S. policy toward revolutionary Cuba,” he says.
Each summer he visited a different presidential library, and for ten years he collected material from every archive he could find. At the Library of Congress he found a letter from 1906 that inspired his book title.
President Theodore Roosevelt, frustrated that Cuban rebels were about to sack the U.S.-backed Cuban government, confided to a friend: “I am so angry with that infernal little Cuban republic that I would like to wipe its people off the face of the earth.”
That was not the president’s official response, Schoultz says. Roosevelt instead sent Secretary of War Howard Taft and nine warships to Cuba to quell the rebellion and work out a deal.
Roosevelt was not alone in his vitriol toward Cuba. Schoultz found many similar statements, including one revealed in Nancy Reagan’s memoir.
According to the memoir, Secretary of State Alexander Haig was meeting with President Reagan about Cuba’s support for rebel guerrillas in Central America when Haig, a former general, blurted out, “You just give me the word and I’ll turn that [expletive] island into a parking lot.”
How did Nancy Reagan know of such a statement? “She went to a lot of Reagan’s meetings,” Schoultz says. “She didn’t sit at the table or say anything but she was in the room.”
President Reagan, of course, didn’t turn Cuba into a parking lot. But as Schoultz’s book shows, the U.S. policy for fifty years has been to overthrow Cuba or squeeze it into submission — most aggressively in April of 1961 when President Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a scheme that the CIA cooked up during the Eisenhower administration.
According to the common understanding of events, the CIA convinced Kennedy and his advisors that most Cubans were fed up with Castro and wouldn’t put up a fight against two thousand U.S.-trained Cuban exiles. The CIA also believed that many soldiers in Castro’s army would defect when they realized that the fight to dethrone Castro was on.
“This is what I was prepared to see in the archives,” Schoultz says. And he did find a lot to support the idea that the invasion’s success depended on help from defections in Castro’s army.
“But then I read an article by Lucien Vandenbroucke,” Schoultz says.
As a junior professor at Tufts University in the 1970s, Vandenbroucke had written an article using material that Schoultz had never seen: unpublished memoir notes from Allen Dulles, CIA director during the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Schoultz had already researched the Dulles papers at the Seeley Mudd Manuscripts Library at Princeton but never saw the notes Vandenbroucke had cited. Schoultz returned to the library, but the archivist there couldn’t find the documents.
Schoultz’s only recourse was to track down Lucien Vandenbroucke, who was no longer at Tufts. In fact, it seemed that he had dropped off the face of the earth.
“Fortunately, he had an uncommon last name, and so I called all the Vandenbrouckes I could find, searching for a relative,” Schoultz says. “And wouldn’t you know it, I found his brother.”
As it turned out, Lucien Vandenbroucke had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was spending the rest of his days on a macrobiotic diet in Sudan. Schoultz explained the Princeton mix-up to the brother, who said he’d contact Vandenbroucke, though he couldn’t promise anything. Two and a half months later, Vandenbroucke’s photocopies of the missing Dulles papers — sixty pages — arrived at Schoultz’s home, along with the original library form that Vandenbroucke had filled out so that the Seeley Mudd archivist would make photocopies. Princeton’s tag line was on each page.
Schoultz, ecstatic, dropped everything and began deciphering Dulles’s sloppy handwriting. On the fourth page, Schoultz found an extraordinary passage about how the CIA knew that there were several factors on the ground in Cuba that could cause the invasion to fail. But Dulles wrote that the CIA did not want to raise these issues with the White House for fear that the President would cancel the invasion. The agency thought it had a trump card.
“[We] felt that when the chips were down — when the crisis arose in reality, any action required for success would be authorized, rather than permit the enterprise to fail.”
In other words, if Castro’s forces had the U.S.-trained Cuban exiles on the run — which is what wound up happening — then Kennedy would send in the Marines.
But the president decided not to.
“The Marines had been issued live ammunition,” Schoultz says. “They were on a carrier just offshore. People have since wondered: if Marines were given live ammunition and were just waiting to be airlifted onto the beach, then there must have been some modest contingency planning. Someone must have thought this through.”
Until now, historians had only speculated that the CIA had a bait-and-switch plan for using U.S. troops on Cuban soil.
“Well,” Schoultz says, “these Dulles papers confirm it.”
Years after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said at an academic conference that Richard Bissell, the CIA deputy director in charge of planning the invasion, was just the kind of guy who would go out on a limb and then hope someone would catch him if it were sawed off.
“There have been comments like these over the years,” Schoultz says. “You can go to an academic conference and say anything off the top of your head. But Dulles was a principal. He was standing next to Kennedy saying, ‘This is what you should do, Mr. President.’”
The Dulles revelations changed the way Schoultz wrote his chapter on one of the most infamous incidents in U.S. foreign policy — “a perfect failure,” Kennedy admitted. Schoultz details many things that led to the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The CIA and the military had foreseen many of them. But with the Dulles papers, Schoultz gives more weight to a theory that’s been tough to stomach — that the CIA never meant for the Bay of Pigs plan to succeed.
“At some point in the plan’s evolution,” he says, “the invasion became little more than bait designed to lure Kennedy into battle and end the Cuban Revolution.”
The CIA, it turned out, did screw up. Just not the way that everyone had suspected.