Jump to content
The Education Forum

Student Question: Bay of Pigs

Dale Banham

Recommended Posts

My Year 10 (aged 14-15) are now starting on a piece of coursework: 'Why is JFK remembered so positively?'. I have attached the questions they came up with in groups. Answers and different views from experts would be great for when we start back in September or for pupils to look at over the Summer.

Question: Could JFK have done anything to stop the Bay of Pigs invasion?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

JFK, in my view, was trapped by his campaign rhetoric, which had been very tough on Castro's Cuba, and had openly supported Cuban freedom fighters and criticized the USG (Eisenhower and Nixon) for not doing enough to aid the Cuban exiles in the US to overthrow Castro.

He really had no choice but to support the CIA's planned invasion by 1500 old men and boys...even though he had serious doubts. (He did not know they were old men and boys at that time...only after the invasion failed.) The Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a masterpiece of weasle-wording, wrote a pre-invasion assessment of the CIA's plans that was very critical of details, but which concluded that the invasion had a "fair" chance of success. The CIA insisted that the invasion would trigger a widescale Cuban revolt and insurrection against Castro---this was the biggest problem with their plan...most of the Cubans who hated Castro had already LEFT CUBA, and gone to the United States! Just as the U.S. recently trusted Iraqi exiles too much (about weapons of mass destruction), the CIA trusted Cuban exiles (and their own wishful thinking) too much about the impending "revolt" that the invasion was supposed to trigger in Cuba.

JFK's mistake was in asking his Dad for advice, and in trusting the "experts," rather than listening to his inner voice and making up his own mind. He learned skepticism and caution, and about how bad the CIA's human intelligence really was (sound familiar?), and about the limits of military power, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco. END

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Question: Could JFK have done anything to stop the Bay of Pigs invasion?

Yes. He could have said no. It couldn't have happened without his approval. Unfortunately, he was newly elected, and the plan had been authorized (in a better form) by President Eisenhower, an experienced military man. JFK wasn't clearly told that the plan presented to him was modified from the one approved by Eisenhower, and went ahead with it, to his later regret. He accepted full responsibility, however, and moved on from there.

Martin Shackelford

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 months later...

Through 1959 and 1960, Castro could do no wrong in the eyes of the vast majority of Cubans. A sample survey conducted by Lloyd Free during the spring of 1960 found that “86 percent of the combined urban and semi-urban populations supported the regime.” The survey classified approximately one-half of these as “fervent supporters.” This popular support contradicted the legitimacy of the simultaneous initiation of planning for the military overthrow of Cuba’s government. It also calls into question how American leaders could fall for the notion, presented by the CIA and Miami Cubans, that an invasion attempt would set off a popular uprising. Perhaps a belief that Castro was unpopular was a self-validating and self-legitimating interpretation that allowed the planners to feel that their activities could be justified and even successful. On a bureaucratically mundane level, the decisionmakers could believe it because the CIA said it was so. However, more than any other single event, the Bay of Pigs would put the lie to the belief that the CIA could be trusted by leaders who relied on it.

Almost immediately, 1961 became the year for confrontation between the U.S. and Cuba. On January 3rd, the Cuban Charge de Affairs issued a directive that the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel stationed in Cuba should not exceed eleven. That same day, at a meeting involving the President and his highest foreign policy officials and advisors, it was decided that the U.S. should break off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Many books have noted that the Cuban exile force in training to seize power from Castro mysteriously grew during the presidential transition period from a small, elite guerrilla force to the 1500 it was later to become. This implies that the CIA exploited a window of opportunity between the controls of the two presidents. However, newly released State Department documents reveal that the change was overtly authorized by the Eisenhower administration at the same January 3rd meeting. Notes on the meeting record that “it was agreed that the number of Cuban exiles being trained for the invasion should be increased, possibly up to 1,500.” These changes, coming a little over two weeks before Eisenhower left office, represent a last-minute construction that would entrench the planning and force Kennedy’s hand during the beginning of his administration.

A little known international incident had occurred after the 1960 presidential election which, according to Piero Gleijeses, “had thrown the CIA into confusion and crippled the growth of the exile force (creating more breathing space for Kennedy, had he seized it).” In Guatemala, where the Cuban exiles were being trained, a group of young officers had revolted; one of their major grievances was the presence of the Cuban Expeditionary Force in their country, which was by then an open secret. The revolt threatened to topple the government of President Ydigoras, who turned at once to the United States for help. He requested that the CIA make an airborne landing, which, fearing they might lose their base, they did. Richard Bissell has admitted, “I remember being called one night by our base commander in Guatemala. They wanted authorization to use the Brigade against the rebels. As it happened, they only had to use some of them. . . . A few brigade planes strafed the rebels.” E. Howard Hunt reports somewhat differently that “several companies of the Brigade, disobeying their Cuban and American officers, had made an effective show of force at a rebel strongpoint and helped stifle the uprising.”

As Kennedy prepared to assume the reigns of power, transition meetings between him and Eisenhower were conducted. There is a problem with such transitions in that a new administration can inherit programs from which it cannot extricate itself. Such was the case with the Cuba policy bequeathed by the old to the new. The transition problems were further exacerbated by Kennedy’s unwillingness to become involved in the planning prior to taking office. In Allen Dulles' words, “There was a period of two months before President Kennedy took office. During this time neither he nor his advisers contacted us for further information.” Thomas Mann, then the newly appointed Ambassador to Mexico who was known to have remarked that “I know my Latinos. They understand only two things—a buck in the pocket and a kick in the ass,” later mused: “This was a major mistake. . . . It was stupid - like it would go away if they didn't look at it. Kennedy tried to ignore its existence when he had all those months to think about what he wanted to do.”

These remarks ignore the predicament of an incoming administration that is constitutionally prevented from a premature assumption of power. To form an entire government in two and a half months is onerous enough a burden without having to immediately, upon election, take over the kind of shady business to which Eisenhower had lent his presidency. The impetus to assassinate foreign leaders was accelerated to the very end of his term; Patrice Lumumba was murdered on Eisenhower’s last full day in office. Similar plotting to do away with Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic would not reach fruition until a few months after Kennedy was in the Oval Office. The historical record available at this time reveals that the new administration had terminated approval for the hit, but the operation itself had acquired a life of its own among the already armed rebels in the Dominican Republic. That the outgoing president continued to make such binding decisions right up to the transfer of power is significant evidence of the true transitional circumstance that impacted the incoming administration.

So the Supreme Commander of the World War II landing at Normandy had made the decision to shift the Cuban exile operation from a guerrilla infiltration to a D-Day-type amphibious assault after he was already officially a lame duck, thereby forcing his successor’s hand and leaving him to hold the bag.

Eisenhower lobbied Kennedy by telling him that if Cuba were to become a Sino-Soviet bloc missile base, “close to our own coastline,” the threat would be more than just the danger represented by the short-range and intermediate-range missiles themselves, that the threat would also draw the United States, both “politically and diplomatically” into a “difficult bargaining position” with the Soviets. The old general had an acute understanding of the hypocrisy that was taken for granted by U.S. leaders: at the time that he was lobbied to authorize the U-2 flight that wrecked a summit meeting between himself and Khrushchev, Eisenhower had remarked that nothing would send him to Congress to declare war “more quickly than violation of our airspace by Soviet aircraft.” Yet he had gone ahead. Similarly, Eisenhower knew that his support for certain policies involving the deployment of U.S. missiles provided clear provocation for logical counter-moves that would not be politically acceptable. He knew that his policies left the U.S. with an impossible “bargaining position.” Yet he had gone ahead, leaving his successor to deal with the consequences.

The day before the Inauguration, Eisenhower told Kennedy that the CIA’s Cuban project was going well and that it was the new President’s responsibility to do “whatever is necessary” to ensure its success. This demand was a bit unreasonable on the part of Eisenhower, given that on his own watch he had failed to manage the CIA’s preparations, the timetable for the operation, or even the size of the landing force. His most effective role was in poisoning the atmosphere as completely as possible before leaving office. But given his immense popularity and the public’s confidence that the Supreme Commander of World War II would always protect the nation’s military interests, Eisenhower left a legacy that would leave his successor little choice but to err on the side of being too tough rather than being perceived as too soft. Bobby Kennedy, the newly appointed Attorney General, noted his brother’s predicament: “If he hadn't gone ahead with it, everybody would have said it showed that he had no courage. Eisenhower trained these people, it was Eisenhower's plan; Eisenhower's people all said it would succeed - and we turned it down.” As McGeorge Bundy has pointed out, if the new administration turned it down, the Republicans would have said, “We were all set to beat Castro,” and that the new guys were “chicken” and an “antsy-pantsy bunch of liberals.” Bundy considered the political risk in saying no to be that it “would have brought all the hawks out of the woodwork.”

In all of the planning and preparations to take Cuba back, the missing link was the assassination of Castro. Senator George Smathers has related that President Kennedy had been “given to believe” by the CIA that by the time the invasion force landed, Castro would be dead. Smathers said, “Someone was supposed to have knocked him off and there was supposed to be absolute pandemonium.”

The Bay of Pigs planning also included manipulating the politics of the Cuban exiles in the aftermath of what was hoped to be a successful takeover. Even many of the Cuban exiles would have been shocked at how far some in the United States were willing to go in this regard. The President’s directive that the exile leadership include more people from the left-of-center orientation to counter charges that the exiles were nothing more than Batisteros in disguise caused some dissension in the CIA’s ranks. E. Howard Hunt’s resentment of the change led him to “resign” or be “fired” from his job as Political Action Officer for the invasion, depending on who’s version one believes. He thought these changes amounted to a policy of Fidelismo sin Fidel, Fidelism without Fidel. Hunt’s political orientation, which was distinctly right wing, was far more amenable to Batistism sin Batista. One of the moderate Cuban leaders, stung by Hunt’s charge, stated: “I don’t know what it means to be a leftist. If it means to be in favor of all the people and for the welfare of the masses, then I am.” Hunt retorted: “Fidel Castro could not have phrased it better.” His ideology was reflected in a quote he was fond of citing: “The liberal’s arm cannot strike with firmness against communism . . . because the liberal dimly feels that in doing so he would be somehow wounding himself.” The right wing Cubans and those in the CIA like Hunt who were most sympathetic to counter-revolutionary politics did make contingency plans for the exiles’ leadership after the landing. “Operation 40 [a high level, government-connected Cuban exile group] called for assassinating the moderates after their return to the island following an invasion.” The U.S. supported the creation of a moderate provisional government during the planning, while its own agents were plotting to install a more right-wing one later. The moderates were intended to legitimize the efforts of the exile force while at the same time becoming targets themselves for some later murderous manipulation.

During his first days in office, at the same time that he was going along with the CIA’s plan for military intervention, the new President initiated the Alliance for Progress. The appearance of the Allianza was to be as a progressive helping hand for Latin American nations, providing butter rather than guns. It was intended to portend a new era in U.S.-Latin relations. More skeptical persons, however, saw it as a public relations ploy designed to co-opt opposition to right wing dictators friendly to American interests and to bolster U.S. influence in the region. The whole notion miscalculated the strength of the Latin American middle class, and soon degenerated into counterinsurgency and the same old bolstering of authoritarian regimes. Intended to encourage democratic elections, the Allianza failed to influence dictators who knew that if Washington was given a choice between risking a Communist overthrow and backing a tyrant, the decision would always be made in favor of anti-communism. A more direct diplomatic result that emanated from the money flowing through the Alliance for Progress was a vote in the Organization of American States expelling Cuba and imposing an economic embargo. In the battle of words, Ché Guevara described the OAS’ craven approval of the Allianza as “an alliance of one millionaire and twenty beggars.”

Michael Beschloss has written that despite all the pressures and the legacy of his predecessor, the new president was hesitant to authorize an operation that would show the world “an invasion force sent by the Yankees.” Kennedy said he could not approve a plan that would “put us in so openly, in view of the world situation.” Senator William Fulbright encouraged the president’s doubts with an insightful memo, which read in part:

"To give this activity even covert support is of a piece with the hypocrisy and cynicism for which the United States is constantly denouncing the Soviet Union in the United Nations and elsewhere. This point will not be lost on the rest of the world—nor on our consciences for that matter. We would have undone the work of thirty years in trying to live down earlier interventions. "

Despite the overwhelming support for the scheme, Kennedy repeatedly expressed reservations about the visibility of the operation, ordering the Joint Chiefs of Staff to examine the plan’s feasibility, asking the CIA to broaden the political representation of the exile leaders who were to comprise the provisional government, and demanding that the landing site be switched to a more obscure location. Hoping to avoid the political consequences of canceling the Eisenhower-approved project and be labeled soft on communism, Kennedy attempted to scale the invasion down sufficiently that it might “pass relatively unnoticed.” He was more disturbed by the prospect of a noisy success than he was by the possibility of a quiet failure. What he failed to see was that “failure itself is the noisiest thing of all.” Kennedy later noted having learned “from experience that failure is more destructive than an appearance of indecision.” But he was no match for the resilience of the CIA.

A new plan was quickly formulated. The president’s National Security Adviser, McGeorge (Mac) Bundy wrote Kennedy that the Agency had done “a remarkable job of reframing the landing plan so as to make it unspectacular and quiet, and plausibly Cuban in its essentials.” The CIA also pressured the president that if he didn’t approve the operation there would be a “disposal problem,” that even if the Cuban exiles didn’t resist being disarmed, they would spread the word, possibly inspiring other Latin America coups and leaving Kennedy to be vilified by the American Right. Despite all of this, it appears that the CIA’s final persuasion of the president was very effective: while on a golf course in Palm Beach during the Easter holidays, agents interrupted the President’s game in emergency fashion to inform him that pro-Castro Cubans were reported to be planning to kidnap his daughter or commit some other mayhem against his family. We don’t know whether or not this was a bureaucratic invention intended to generate a personal, emotional commitment to support the invasion, but many people close to the President did notice the change that had come over him when he returned to the White House. One aide observed that the President seemed “more militant than when he left.”

Kennedy never gave up on his prohibition of American military forces. The president was therefore strongly influenced by a telegram he received from Col. Jack Hawkins, who, after inspecting the Cuban exile force, wrote that they “do not expect help from the U.S. armed forces.” Ken O’Donnell, the president’s Chief of Staff, recalled that the colonel’s report “glowed with approval, and that Kennedy told him it was “this impressive message . . . that finally prompted him to give the go-ahead.” Interestingly, Hawkins himself now records that after 35 years of silence, with the recent declassification of his information, he has quite a different story to tell. He claims that he and the Chief of the Cuba Project went to the CIA’s Richard Bissell, “to attempt to dissuade him from continuing with the operation.” He claims their motive was that they “did not want to be parties to the disaster [they] believed lay ahead.” Hawkins’ appraisal was that “it had become obvious that the military requirements for a successful operation and the President’s insistence on plausible deniability were in irreconcilable conflict.” Nowhere in his recent article does Col. Hawkins seek to address the discrepancy between the glowing telegram to the president and his warning to the Deputy Director for Plans of the CIA. The contradictory versions of people such as Hawkins, who were responsible for the information upon which Kennedy had to rely, are indicative of the kind of reality in which decision-makers find themselves when trying to sift through the morass of constructions within constructions.

On the weekend before the commencement of the invasion, two B-26 air-planes landed in Miami and Key West carrying Cuban air force markings, purporting to be carrying defectors who had conducted the bombing of a Cuban airport earlier that day. Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. actually held up a picture of the plane before the Security Council to demonstrate that the Cuban conflict was indigenous and not of U.S. making. As the weekend progressed and the American sponsorship became increasingly apparent, there were rumblings coming out of New York that the ambassador might make a public spectacle of resigning in the face of an exposed U.S. role in the forthcoming invasion attempt. While having very little personal regard for Stevenson, his integrity, or prestige, Kennedy was leery of incurring such wrath from the twice Democratically-nominated presidential candidate. Consequently, the President decided at the last minute to cut back the planned air strikes intended to eliminate Castro’s air force before it could play a part in the Bay of Pigs landing.

Thirty minutes after the invasion began, at 5:15 a.m., Secretary of State Rusk called the president. “Already, Rusk said, the CIA wanted to call in American planes to cover the men hitting the beach” Calls for more radical action were immediately heard within the highest circles. The Cubans were strafing the beaches and the supply ships with their remaining T-33 jet trainers which, unbeknownst to the CIA leaders, were mounted with heavy cannons. Of these ships, which “included boats from the United Fruit Company,” one containing all the communication equipment was sunk. Bissell called it a “moment of desperation” and insisted that the operation could still be saved if the U.S. Navy could send in jet planes from the aircraft carrier Essex. The President refused, reminding the group that he had warned them “over and over again” that he would not commit U.S. forces. When he again said the U.S. must not become involved in response to an admiral’s request for authorization for a destroyer to support the men on the beaches, the admiral desperately argued: “Hell, Mr. President, but we are involved!”

The invasion force that landed on the beach at the Bay of Pigs was too large to be concealed and too small to accomplish its intended mission. Castro’s remaining fighter planes destroyed the anti-Castro B-26s which were needed to clear the roads of Cuban tanks and artillery. The Brigade was under constant assault from the air, leaving it unable to resupply.

On February 21, 1998, a highly critical internal report was released by the CIA entitled, “The Inspector General’s Survey of the Cuban Operation.” The inquiry had noted that “the fundamental cause of the disaster was the CIA’s incompetence, rather than President Kennedy’s failure to follow through with the air raids in support of the commandos.” The report states that the Agency misled the President by failing to inform him “that success had become dubious and to recommend that the operation be therefore canceled.”

The real story of the Bay of Pigs is not the planning or the operation, it is the deception and construction of operational legitimacy within the U.S. government. Ken O’Donnell noted that despite the President’s “strict ruling against American military participation in the assault,” the CIA had assured the Cuban exiles that “U.S. Marines and Navy jets would be available when needed.” The deception by the CIA of both himself and the exiles led the President to a “bitter conclusion.” O’Donnell observed:

". . . the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA must have been assuming all along that the President would become so worried at the last minute about the loss of his own prestige that he would drop his restriction against the use of U.S. forces and send the Marines and the Navy jets into the action."

The President’s sense of betrayal was so great that “as the enormity of the Bay of Pigs disaster came home to him, [Kennedy] said to one of the highest officials in his Administration that he wanted to ‘splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.’”

Just two weeks after the invasion attempt, Castro addressed himself to the issue of legitimacy, expressing the meaning of the events in clearly ideological terms, with the United States characterized as the primary representative of exploitative capitalism and imperialism, and Cuba being representative of the desire of all nations to be independent and autonomous.

In his first public characterization of his movement as “socialist,” Castro claimed, “The United States sponsored the attack because it cannot forgive us for achieving a socialist revolution under their noses.” In a reference to the transparent illegitimacy of the failed invasion attempt, Castro concluded, “Even Hollywood would not try to film such a story.” Decades later, noting the irreversible momentum of such constructions, Castro stated, “. . . I do not blame Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs; actually, Kennedy inherited this from the previous administration.”

Coming during the President’s first hundred days in office, the fiasco had a huge impact on what was to follow. Kennedy’s personal friend, Chuck Spalding, recalled: “Before the Bay of Pigs, everything was a glorious adventure, onward and upward. Afterward, it was a series of ups and downs, with terrible pitfalls, suspicious [sic] everywhere, cautious of everything, questioning always.” Kennedy asked his special counsel, Ted Sorensen: “How could I have been so stupid to let them go ahead?” The President was not alone in being vulnerable to seductive constructions of legitimacy. Although the failed invasion attempt was a diplomatic and military disaster, the public relations value was not inconsiderable. A Gallup Poll taken immediately afterward showed the President with an 83 percent approval rate, with only 5 percent disapproving. Kennedy remarked, “Jesus, it’s just like Ike; the worse you do, the better they like you.”

But the Bay of Pigs had changed things for Kennedy. No longer was the anti-Castro effort an inheritance from Ike; the enemy had become truly his own.

According to Thomas G. Smith, The Kennedy administration lost a chance to hold fruitful dialogues with Cuba when it rejected Castro’s demand for 500 American-made heavy tractors in exchange for the release of 1,214 anti-Castro commandos who were imprisoned during the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt. Initially, President Kennedy asked prominent citizens such as Eleanor Roosevelt to form a committee to raise the necessary funds from private citizens for the purchase of the tractors, but criticism by the media and the opposition forced him to withdraw his support for Castro’s proposal. The ideological conflict between Kennedy and Castro, as well as political necessity, prevented the settlement of an issue that would soon bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.

As with the Contras that came later in Nicaragua, the anti-Castro guerrillas lacked the internal political legitimacy necessary to build genuine support among the Cuban people and internationally. Also, like the Contras, they were unreliable and ineffective as a fighting force. They were essentially mercenaries, the most illegitimate of soldiers. Richard Reeves notes that “many were the pampered children of the island’s old [and white] first families. ‘The Yacht Club Boys’ they were called.” It appeared that many had thought the invasion to be a game: “U.S. Marines would do the fighting and they would get the girls in Havana.”

Edited by Tim Carroll
Link to comment
Share on other sites

The previous poster's account of the military planning that went into the invasion is masterful - I've copied it to distribute to my class! - and I don't think there is anything useful to add to it.

However, I'd like to emphasize the domestic political aspect raised earlier in the thread. In the election campaign he had just won very narrowly -- and quite possibily fraudulently! -- JFK and the highly professional team of advisiors led by his brother had over and over again stressed his fierce anti-Communism. Whether or not he really was as anti-Communist as Nixon, it was felt by his team that in order to win, he had to appear to be. Remember that he was running against a sitting Vice-President who had a proven track record as a Red-baiter as a congressman, and who had the support of "war hero" Ike Eisenhower. This is why, for example, the Kennedy campaign went on and on about the "missile gap" which, they said, the Eisenhower administration had allowed the USSR to build up to the detriment of US security, even though Kennedy and his advisors knew through confidential candidate briefings that the supposed gap just didn't exist -- it was JFK's chance to prove that he was a more valiant Cold Warrior than his opponent.

The trouble is that the "Camelot Myth" which grew up around JFK after his assassination has led observers to forget that he was, above all, a consumate "machine politician" who knew exactly which buttons to press both within the corrupt Democratic party machine and with regard to a public opinion still suffering from the after-effects of McCarthyism.

Having established his anti-Communist bona fides during the campaign, it would have been difficult for JFK to abandon an anti-Communist operation planned by the previous adminstration. It would have looked as if he were the youngster chickening out on the plans of the older and wiser Ike.

All of the above sounds a little anti-JFK, but it isn't.

1. His achievement in winning the presidency was considerable since he was (i) Roman Catholic, in a country which had WASP prejudices we could hardly imagine today, and (ii) running against a sitting VP backed by one of the most consistently popular presidents in US history. He just couldn't have done it without surrendering a few hostages to fortune, like compromising with Mayor Daly and other city bosses of his ilk, or like adopting a "more Catholic than the Pope" (it's a Spanish expression. Does it work in English?) attitude towards the "communist threat".

2. Even if he did feel he had to sound tough, his actions during the invasion and, more importantly, during the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis were both intelligent and moderate. He refused to listen to the military hawks on the JCS who wanted him to commit US forces in support of the invasion, and later resisted the widely supported view of people like Curtis LeMay (another popular "war hero") that bombing and invasion of Cuba was essential.

If you can, try to get hold of "The Fog of War" video. It's not exciting viewing in that it's mostly just a long series of interviews with Robert McNamara about his years in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but I think it gives very valuable insights into the period and ought to be required viewing for all students of the period...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...