The year was 1963, and President John F. Kennedy received his counterpart from Costa Rica, Francisco J. Orlich, with fanfare and the promise of additional U.S. aid under the Alliance for Progress. The aid, Kennedy stressed, was needed more than ever "to halt the flow of agents, money, arms and propaganda from Cuba to Central America."

In some ways, Fidel Castro's 1959 takeover of Cuba was one of the best things that had happened to Latin America in a long time. Levels of U.S. aid to the region that had reached unprecedented heights during World War II had dropped sharply during the late 1940s and the 1950s as billions in American assistance poured into Europe and Asia. The establishment of a Communist government just 90 miles off the coast of Florida did a wonderful job of refocusing U.S. attention on security problems closer to home.

But for President Kennedy, and his brother the attorney general, the fight against Castro's Cuba was more than just a reason to pour money into similarly poor Latin American countries in hopes of avoiding similar revolutions. The Kennedy brothers, along with their CIA and State Department, were obsessed with their inability, despite the highest levels of attention and the use of methods that had succeeded in other Third World countries, to get rid of Havana's bearded dictator.

Their frustration, and fixation, with Fidel Castro have been shared by every administration since--although only the Reagan administration has matched the public rhetoric of the Kennedys, and launched a regional aid program with similar fanfare to head off Cuban revolutionary influence in Central America and the Caribbean islands.

It remains to be seen whether Reagan is prepared to take his professed desire to neutralize Castro as far as the Kennedys and some of their successors have. But The Fish Is Red: The Story of the Secret War Against Castro should be required reading for administration policymakers and congressmen now being asked to loosen the rules for covert and overt action designed to destabilize inconvenient governments.

That Castro's longevity has led various American leaders to undertake some of this country's most questionable, not to mention incredible, destabilization programs is well known. From the Bay of Pigs, through exploding cigars, chin depilatories and swine flu epidemics, all the way to outright assassination plans, the plots have surfaced periodically in the media and in congressional testimony.

Former Ramparts editor and CIA domestic dirty- tricks exposer Warren Hinckle and ex-FBI agent William Turner have for the first time put all the known, and some previously unknown, anti-Castro programs into a chronology, beginning with a 1960 CIA-Mafia contract on Castro's life, through the last known assassination attempt during the Cuban leader's visit to Chile in 1972.

It is not a particularly gracefully written book. Its tone is often snide and smirky, with free-flowing adjectives that assume the reader shares the writers' anti-establishment, in-crowd convictions. Few of the characters are described solely by their actions; most rarely escape even passing mention without a derogatory appositive. Thus, we have Richard Nixon, "professional hawk," "the master of the cheap shot" who speaks with "characteristic self-righteousness"; John Kennedy, "the trendy liberal," whose own speech is marked with "classic yahoo phrases"; John Foster Dulles, "the Cardinal Richelieu of the Cold War"; Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, "the Lenin of counterinsurgency."

Clare Boothe Luce is dismissed as "the anti-communist blonde," and her husband's Life magazine is described as "the sunken and lately refloated Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria of the mass-circulation slicks," whatever that means.

At the same time, Hinckle and Turner make little attempt to go behind the crazy plots and obsessions of intelligence agents, exiles and presidents to look at the whys and wherefores of what seems a chronicle of pure buffoonery, preferring instead to make repeated comparisons to Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming fantasies.

But even without the analysis, there is enough here to make one simultaneously laugh at the spy-novel exploits of our leaders and their questionable associates and shudder with fear at the license they have taken with both the law and good sense.

Who is to argue that the episode from which the book's title is drawn is not the stuff of a particularly pulpy James Bond volume? "Alert! Alert!" radioed CIA operative E. Howard Hunt into Cuba in an effort to confuse Castro with broadcasted gibberish on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion. "Look well at the rainbow. The first will rise very soon. Chico is in the house. Visit him. The sky is blue. . . . The fish is red."

Among the not so laughable aspects of the secret war were the establishment of the world's largest CIA base in Miami to develop and coordinate the anti-Castro activities of Cuban exiles, the purchase and arming of a CIA navy larger than that of most of the world's countries, and the launching of literally hundreds of invasion and sabotage missions that left the Caribbean littered with uncounted bodies.

Most of it--including plans to have exiles, disguised as Castroite Cubans, invade the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo to provide an excuse for an American invasion of Cuba; the near-engagement of U.S. and Soviet warplanes after the discovery of a CIA mother ship launching small boats of exile saboteurs onto the island; two attempts to assassinate Castro during his 1972 visit to Allende's Chile--was little investigated by the American media, if at all.

The Cuba Project, the authors argue, "is the story of a major American war, undeclared by Congress, unacknowledged by Washington and unreported in the press" which "corrupted American institutions in ways that occasioned the destruction of two presidencies."

Hinckle and Turner draw a relatively straight line from the CIA use of mobsters like Johnny Roselli, Sam Giancana and others interested in reclaiming lucrative gambling and resort interests lost with Castro's advent, and the manipulation of Cuban exiles, through the Kennedy assassination directly to Watergate. Unfortunately, like most of the assassination conspiracy theories, this one is supported by some new and some old largely circumstantial evidence that probably will not be pursued simply because it seems so fantastically unlikely.

But then, this is a book full of fantastically unlikely tales, many of which have long since been acknowledged as true. The wonder and shame of it all is not that the plots were sometimes comically, sometimes tragically inept and ill-conceived, but that they were conceived at all.