New Book: American Mischief in the Carribean

Tom Gjelten reviews Alex von Tunzelmann’s Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean for the New York Times.

For a historian wishing to chronicle American foreign policy foolishness, there is no more promising territory than the Western Hemisphere. One could begin with the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, by which the United States reserved the right to intervene militarily in the region, and then look just about anywhere down through the years for examples of shameful behavior. In “Red Heat,” Alex von Tunzelmann concentrates on just one area, the Caribbean, and mainly on one decade, the 1960s. In those years, the United States promoted political assassinations, turned a blind eye to horrific brutality and repression by local tyrants, sponsored an invasion of Cuba and dispatched 23,000 soldiers and Marines to the Dominican Republic in order to prevent the establishment of a government there it feared would be unfriendly.

And it all came about because Washington, as von Tunzelmann explains, had been “hoodwinked” by one crafty strongman. Fidel Castro convinced successive American presidents that he had directed a Communist revolution in Cuba that could lead to Communist takeovers across the region, when all that really happened was that Fulgencio Batista, with little remaining public support, effectively abandoned the island to whoever was in position to take it. “It was now believed — absurdly, but sincerely — that a group of Communists barely numerous enough to make up a football team would be capable of taking over entire nations in the blink of an eye,” von Tunzelmann writes. “Communism, it seemed, was uncontrollably powerful.”

With single-minded determination to prevent the infection of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the United States government calibrated its treatment of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier and Rafael Trujillo and his son Ramfis almost exclusively on judgments of whether their dictatorial rule might inhibit the creation of “another Cuba.” After Haitian gunmen attacked a limousine carrying Duvalier’s children, Papa Doc ordered the execution of 65 army officers for suspected involvement. The Kennedy administration temporarily cut diplomatic ties and briefly debated whether to support efforts to remove Duvalier from power but decided against it. “We believe that Fidel Castro will be strongly tempted to find some means of stepping into such a situation,” the State Department warned. Just two weeks after suspending aid to Duvalier’s government, the United States restored full diplomatic and economic relations.

In the Dominican Republic, the Trujillo family gained similar immunity. After Rafael Trujillo’s 31-year rule ended in 1961 with his assassination, his son and successor, Ramfis, took personal charge of torturing and murdering anyone he held responsible. One general had his eyelids sewn open and was doused in acid before he was finally killed. John F. Kennedy, however, was more concerned with the threat from neighboring Cuba. He saw three possibilities for the future of the Dominican Republic: “a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first,” Kennedy said, “but we really can’t renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third.” The Trujillo regime was safe, and human rights in the Caribbean were set back for years.

This is a deplorable chapter in American history, and von Tunzelmann wants to make certain we know that. “Red Heat” is thorough in scope and quite readable. Still, this young British writer (born in 1977) is so scolding in tone that her book is harder to finish than it should be. It is good to be reminded of the awful Trujillo and Duvalier years (especially now that Jean-Claude Duvalier, the son of Papa Doc, has returned to Haiti). There may even be some people who have not yet heard that the C.I.A. tried repeatedly to assassinate Fidel Castro. But von Tunzelmann’s account of how American presidents overstated the threat from Cuba is weakened by her own exaggerations and occasionally smug style.

A good example is the story with which she opens her book, the F.B.I.’s reported discovery, in November 1962, of a plot by Cuban agents to bomb the Macy’s, Gimbels and Bloomingdale’s department stores in New York during the holiday shopping rush. Von Tunzelmann theorizes that the American government may well have been planning to stage the attacks, with the intent of blaming the resulting carnage on the Castro regime, exactly as conspiracy theorists believe the 9/11 attacks were staged by Washington to provide a pretext for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. “There is no question that they were prepared to kill civilians in the process,” she writes.

She bases her claim rather loosely on the infamous “Northwoods” memorandum written months earlier by Pentagon war planners in response to a request for actions that could be taken to justify a military attack on Cuba. The memo writers suggested a variety of actions up to and including “attempts on lives of Cuban refugees . . . even to the extent of wounding.” It was as outrageous a document as the Defense Department has ever produced, but von Tunzelmann should know that when Pentagon planners outline a possible course of action, it does not mean the government is actually prepared to carry it out. Declassified papers show that Kennedy rejected the Pentagon suggestions as soon as they were presented to him, and there is no evidence whatsoever that the government plotted the bombing of New York department stores.

Most of the references cited by von Tunzelmann consist of books by other people, but she apparently has read enough to satisfy her curiosity on questions that have confounded other historians, like when, exactly, Fidel Castro actually became a Communist. She declares flatly that when he announced in 1961 that he had long been a Marxist-Leninist in secret, “it was not accurate. It was meant to impress the Soviets.” Maybe, but we do not know that for sure. She is distracting even in her habit of consistently referring to politicians by their diminutives. Not only are the Kennedys “Jack” and “Bobby,” Richard Nixon is “Dick,” Senator J. William Fulbright is “Bill,” Robert McNamara is “Bob” and McGeorge Bundy is “Mac.”

Von Tunzelmann’s first book, “Indian Summer,” on the ending of British rule in India and Pakistan, was widely praised for its dramatic sweep and the quality of the writing, but “Red Heat,” though it has similar sweep, falls short because she overreaches in her assessment of her story’s importance. Did American policy in the Caribbean in the 1960s really “change the world,” as she says? And is it really true that interventions in Vietnam and elsewhere showed that “no lessons had been learned” from the Caribbean experience? Von Tunzelmann undermines her own argument by pointing out that a few months before his death, Kennedy told a visiting journalist that he believed “we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realizing it. . . . Now we shall have to pay for those sins.” In fact, lessons learned from the Caribbean experience soon nourished the movement against the war in Vietnam and led to serious limits on covert C.I.A. shenanigans.

But von Tunzelmann may be right in one important respect. The American experience in the Caribbean apparently did not teach us how dangerous it can be to make war on an idea. That was true with regard to Communism in our backyard in the 1960s, and it is true today, as we engage other ideologies on more distant battlefields.

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