Fifty years later, the method they settled on plays even more like farce than it did at the time. As Rasenberger tells it, the mission was fatally flawed by JFK’s insistence that the U.S. make it look as if it was not directly involved: “The attack was meant to appear as an entirely Cuban-on-Cuban affair.” This meant not only entrusting a major mission to Cuban exiles with little combat experience, but nobody seemed to know exactly what the plan was, culminating in the moment when JFK proclaimed, “I’m not signed on to this,” about an air strike everyone thought he was signed on to. Richard Bissell, the CIA operative whose “slick sales job” helped convince JFK to go ahead, got most of the blame for the failure, but he comes off in the book as a scapegoat for widespread ineptitude.
Rasenberger wants us to see this story as a trial run for Vietnam and Iraq. As in those later wars, the government was filled with people who wanted to show they had the “balls” to carry it off: “Nobody in the Kennedy administration wanted to look like a guy unwilling to fight.” One or two people in the book do make the moral case against intervention, like the dovish senator William Fulbright. But most seem to agree with Eisenhower that “when you go into this kind of thing, it must be a success.” As with Vietnam and Iraq, the only thing anybody seemed to learn was that it would have been better if they hadn’t failed.