“Red’s Dream” and the Cuban Missile Crisis | October 1962
In 1962, blues guitarist Louisiana Red recorded a 45-rpm single for Roulette Records. The A side of the record featured the song “Red’s Dream,” a humorous political commentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis of that October. In the song, Red describes a dream in which he visits the United Nations and threatens Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro over the placement of missiles in Cuba. In his dream, Red succeeds in confronting the communist leaders and U.S. President John F. Kennedy invites him to the White House in gratitude. The song provides a comical yet pointed spin on one of the most dangerous moments in the Cold War.
When Marxist revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator of Cuba Fulgencio Batista in 1959, his actions sparked considerable anxiety in the United States. U.S. leaders feared that Castro might invite Soviet influence and inspire communist revolutions throughout Latin America. In response, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations authorized the CIA to draft plans for removing Castro from power. Even though one of these plans, an invasion of the Bay of Pigs, ended in disastrous defeat, the Kennedy administration continued to fly spy planes over the island and plot against the Cuban leader.
On October 14, 1962, one of these surveillance flights captured photographs of a Soviet nuclear missile site under construction in Cuba . The positioning of intermediate-range ballistic missiles ninety miles off the coast of the United States posed a grave security risk, and Kennedy met with his advisors to discuss potential responses to the unfolding crisis. While some advisors recommended destroying the missile sites with immediate air strikes and then an invasion, others suggested an opening salvo of warnings to Cuba and the Soviet Union.
On October 22, Kennedy announced his decision to impose a naval “quarantine” to prevent Soviet ships from delivering offensive weapons to Cuba and sent Khrushchev a letter demanding the removal of all missile sites and missiles. Khrushchev ordered his ships to proceed though, and as the missile sites neared completion an escalation of the crisis seemed imminent. On October 26, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter indicating his willingness to remove the missiles provided the United States agreed not to invade Cuba. Before Kennedy could respond, he received a second letter demanding the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. Kennedy responded only to the first letter, pledging not to invade Cuba if the Soviets removed their missiles. In private talks, he agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey, though not as an official concession. The crisis ended on October 28, when Khrushchev accepted the agreement.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of war—a potentially nuclear war. Although American leaders did not know it at the time, the Soviet Union already had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba during the crisis, ready for use in the event of a U.S. invasion. As Kennedy’s secretary of defense Robert McNamara later recounted, “no one should believe that a U.S. force could have been attacked by tactical nuclear warheads without responding with nuclear warheads.” Citizens of the United States, Cuba, and elsewhere feared for the worst during those dark weeks in October 1962. In contrast, “Red’s Dream” strikes a bombastic chord, one which reflected the fervently anti-communist posture of the Cold Warriors in the Kennedy administration.
In the song, Louisiana Red first targets Fidel Castro. He sings about staring Castro down and telling him “‘Boy, you got to go/I’m tired of your foolishness/and if you don’t behave/I’m gonna grab you by your beard/give you a Georgia shave.” The use of the diminutive term “boy” and the implication that Castro was “misbehaving” infantilized the Cuban leader, playing on old tropes that questioned the Cuban capacity for self-government. Red’s threat to give Castro a “Georgia shave”—to slit his throat—took the CIA’s desire to remove the communist leader from power to its most extreme conclusion. Red also sings about his imagined exchange with Khrushchev, whom he orders to “get that junk out of Cuba/before you make me mad/Dig up them missile bases/take them planes and all” or else Red would “grab me a bat/use your head for the ball.”
The final stanza of the song implies that this aggressive approach to foreign relations has succeeded: in the dream, President Kennedy invites Red to the White House and praises him for helping to “run the Russians from the Western Hemisphere.” This underscores the perception that the Caribbean and Latin American belonged to the U.S. sphere of influence and that the Soviet Union was actively seeking to expand into the region as part of its efforts to wage the Cold War. Red seems to take the position that the United States must respond to such threats with force, a perspective that many members of Kennedy’s cabinet also embraced.
Red hopes to leverage this most dangerous moment in Cold War relations to effect domestic political change.
The final part of the song touches on American race relations, with Red informing President Kennedy that while he could continue to “run the country,” the African-American singer planned to “run the Senate” and “put a few soul brothers in it.” Here, Red hopes to leverage this most dangerous moment in Cold War relations to effect domestic political change, including civil rights progress and representation in Congress for African Americans. The connection that Red drew between civil rights and the conflict with the Soviet Union would not have been lost on Kennedy, who recognized that communist propaganda often highlighted American racism. Given that the United States sought to prevent countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America from going communist like Cuba, Red’s aim to place African Americans in positions of power might have served to counterbalance Soviet claims about American imperialism, racism, and foreign interventionism.
In linking advancement for African Americans with victory against communism, the song casts both objectives in a patriotic light. It also evokes the broad goals of Cold War liberalism, with its emphasis on achieving equality at home and democracy through the containment of communism abroad. These messages resonated with many listeners. “Red’s Dream” enjoyed commercial success, one of many songs released in the 1960s that expressed pointed political commentary through the medium of popular music.
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