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That whole "canceled" air strikes thing...


Dennis Berube
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Having just read Jim Rasenberger's "The Brilliant Disaster", I am diving (again) into the air strike mythology. The March 15 1961 "Revised Cuban Operation" document states clearly that air strikes will only be launched from an established beachhead, this supports the notion that there never was any approved d day air strikes. However, I noticed the April 12 1961 "Cuban Operation" memo (both docs from Kornbluh btw) states under section b, "The plans for air operations have been modified to provide for operations on a limited scale on D-2 and again on D-Day itself instead of placing reliance on a larger strike coordinated with the landings on D-Day." P129 Under the "Time Table" section of the document under the entry "D-Day" it lists " Main landings (night D-1 to D) - limited air strikes. Two B-26s and liaison plane land at seized air strip." Unless I'm not interpreting that correctly, it seems to imply two different air operations, the limited air strikes presumably not from a seized beachhead.  Any other opinions on that?

 

The last formal meeting JFK had with his BOP team was April 12. I assume the document was a result of that meeting but don't know. Does anyone know if JFK formally approved that D-Day air strike modification on April 12? Was the "only from the beachhead" language modified? The D-2 strikes could not have fit that language by definition but I can't seem to find that distinction made anywhere. 
 

In Jim D's Destiny Betrayed page 46, he details some of this and cites Schlesinger saying that JFK specifically said on April 16 that  Nicaraguan air strike was not something he was "signed onto". This leads me to believe the April 12 modifications were not for a Nicaragua strike but for strikes within the beachhead as stated several times before, ie the March 15 memo that Jim cites. The 4/12 CIA memo makes no distinction between the D-2 and D-Day strikes in terms of where they will be conducted from.  If the plan was to only use strikes from the beachhead, how do we explain the D-2 strikes from Nicaragua? Obviously, JFK knew that at least those air strikes would not be from a beachhead. It seems that in the rushed nature of the revised planning, this vital point was somehow never made clear and CIA expected JFK would fold to the requirements of what they thought they needed as Dulles and Bissell later admitted. Or, the CIA believed JFK knew the D-Day strikes were to be launched from Nicaragua and was then "surprised" when MacBundy told them no.

 

Anyone have thoughts on this?
 

 

 

 

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Dennis, if those 4/12 ideas had been cleared with JFK in advance, then why did Cabell refuse to launch them when everyone at CIA HQ was urging him to do so?  This is in Hunt's book Give Us this Day.

From my understanding, JFK did not want any air strikes except those pre invasion ones.  And he made this clear to the CIA in those plans he signed off on in mid March. This is one reason they moved the landing site. Because it provided for a natural air strip.

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JFK did approve a pre-landing D Day strike, however after the flap at the UN over the earlier air strikes and press exposure that those had indeed been launched from outside Cuba and were not defecting pilots, JFK asked that the air strikes be minimized. Bissell chose not to go into the tactical concerns of air cover over the beachhead and turned JFK's remark into a cancellation order. 

Bissell did not tell JFK or Bundy that the conservative post attack damage estimate was that up to half of the Cuban air force might be still operational - he simply ordered the strikes canceled.  Given that the operation's military commanders had been screened from the high level briefings that meant that JFK was not getting the full details on how exposed the landing ships were to attack.  Bissell had also made sure JFK and Bundy were not told that those operational commanders had actually submitted their resignations over the air cover issue or that they had only stayed on because Bissell assured them he would obtain expanded air strikes from JFK - instead he seriously reduced them.

Although there would have been time to call off the landings, neither Bissell nor Cabell chose to talk to JFK about the issue of the last minute strike cancellation - Bissell later said that he didn't feel it was a big issue because the ships were supposed to be well at sea by dawn (which either reflects that Bissell had no clue about the complexity of the landing operation or that he lied though his teeth).

In reality, given how close the Cuban airfields were and given that the landing had been detected early on, its also arguable that the originally planned air strikes would not have taken out the Cuban aircraft even if they had been launched (the volunteer group's night time mission record was all that good). We do know that the Cuban aircraft were over the beach and attack at first daylight.

I cover all this in obnoxious detail in my new book In Denial, if you want to discuss the overall operation and what was and what was not approved, either message me or email at larryjoe@westok.net.

 

 

 

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Dennis:

I found this in the Kornbluh book. Which is an excellent resource.

It says that those strikes are to to be launched from an air strip on the island.

But further, it says that Kennedy did not give an affirmative final approval to this plan. (p. 302)

This is why Cabell did not give that order then when everyone was asking him to.

And I also recall, that when Noel Twyman asked McNamara about this point, he said the same.  The CIA was asking for this on the day of the invasion.  They were not in the last approved plans. 

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Unfortunately Kornbluh was working from some of the earliest information available; we know a great deal more based on more recently released documents and materials.  Kornbluh was also not privy to the remarks of the military operations chiefs which were made in the 90's when they had a chance to review the new materials themselves.

It would really be a good idea to catch up on all the most recent resources that I cite in my 2020 book, including Grayston Lynch whose own book contains a great deal of good information - such as his remarks in regard to hearing only on the way to the landings that the final planned D Day air strikes had been called off...

One of the great many problems with the operation was that JFK himself appears to have been given no detailed operational review of the plan at all,  nor was he operationally involved during the run up to the landing, the landings themselves or the events on the beacheads.  It was only later that he learned that a good number of his high level directives - including his order that all ships be well away from Cuba and at sea by sunrise, that no plans had been made to evacuate the Brigade if they met opposition, etc.

In regard to Bissell as a source,  his own operational commanders concluded that he  had routinely lied to them, telling JFK one thing and those under him another.  In reviewing his later comments its also obvious that he himself was one of the major problems with the project; as the CIA's own IG concluded. 

 

 

 

Edited by Larry Hancock
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I agree Jim. On p303 it says JFK gave Bissell the go ahead for the Saturday strikes on 4/14, but not anything else. It seems that JFK was so hesitant about the whole thing that he was approving it in a piecemeal fashion. 
 

Larry, when/where did JFK specifically approve the D-Day strike? If it wasn't at the 4/12 meeting and he hadn't approved them on 4/14.... Jim's point about Cabell calling Rusk seems accurate to me. Rasenberger tried to say Cabell was calling Rusk for "confirmation" of "The air strikes that have been in place for weeks". There is no way there were approved air strikes in place for weeks and he must be referring to 3/15 which were beachhead only strikes with one caveat "b. An alternative way to handle this problem would be to make a few strafing runs against the Castro Air Force some days before the landing and apparently as an opposition act unrelated to any other military moves." (P128 kornbluh) Still, this alternative option is far from "in place" as Rasenberger says, certainly not approved on 3/15 or 4/12. Plus it refers to strikes "some days before" d-day and thus can't be related to that. It makes more sense that JFK never gave approval and Cabell knew it and as Jim said McNamara agrees. 


I look forward to reading your new work Larry, I didn't know about it. I'm probably not up to speed with the absolute latest on this admittedly. 

 

Here's one of Rasenberger's critical passages. He of course (it's a modern "cia is flawed but heroic" book) neglects to mention that JFK didn't approve the plan in the final briefing.

 

p221

"In that single phrase --I'm not signed onto this-- John Kennedy distilled several essential problems with the plan to invade Cuba. First, the president's apparent belief that he had not already signed off on the April 17 air strikes betrays either a stunning failure by the CIA to have effectively communicated its plan to the president or an equally stunning failure by the president (and Rusk, among others) to comprehend the plan. The D-Day air strikes had been included in the preinvasion briefing papers for the final briefing on April 12. 
 

 

Edited by Dennis Berube
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Well to begin with, I would certainly say that this assessment is true " betrays a stunning failure by the CIA to have effectively communicated its plan to the president".  As I said in the earlier post there was never a full operational brief for the President, many of the Cuba Project review meetings involved his new senior staff but not JFK himself.  And in an effort to distance the US from the landings, he certainly did not directly oversee the operation during the final hours before the landings.  Nor was he given detailed operational assessments by the the military operations leaders, most especially not by Col. Hawkins.

The fact that JFK was not fully briefed on the importance of the total destruction of the Cuban Air Force nor by the initial raids failure to do so was critical. Even the JCS staff report had pointed out that risk,  stating that the total success of the landings would be at risk if even a single Cuban aircraft was able to attack the supply ships.  The JCS assessment also stressed the absolute necessity for a simultaneous, major Cuban resistance effort - the CIA chose not to inform the JFK or his staff of the fact that UNIDAD had been crushed weeks before the landings and that it had no intelligence that any such uprising would occur (a fact only discovered later by both the CIA IG and the CIA Historian).

I'm not going to say that JFK was guilty of any stunning failure of oversight, however at that early point in his administration he did trust the CIA, and for that matter the Joint Chiefs, far more than he would within only a few weeks - that became obvious during his much more critical review of the crisis in Laos.

If you actually look at JFK's limited operational directives, and at the NSAM he issued for the project, you find both largely disconnected from the actual operation - personally I blame that on the fact that the briefings being conducted by the CIA, primarily by Bissell (with Cabell setting in), can now can be seen as hugely limited and superficial. Those briefings were almost entirely disconnected from the people directly involved in the operation itself. 

That was the conclusion of both the CIA's own IG and the CIA's historian as well as in the Taylor Commission Report, Iin particular Cabell is pictured as so totally clueless that he not only contributed nothing worthwhile to the discussions but frequently passed on incorrect details or totally muddled matters.  The military leaders later assessed both Bissell and Cabell of not knowing enough to conduct briefings and certainly not experienced enough in amphibious operations to be reliable. Based on the woefully incompetent briefings JFK was indeed approving things piecemeal and all is remarks reflect that what he had directed was considerably different than what was actually being implemented.

As I said earlier, I don't think JFK was indeed aware of the operational details or the criteria for success in the pre-D Day strikes, nor was he briefed on the final damage assessments.  What he did do after those strikes and his their media exposure was ask Bissell to dial down the visibility of the air campaign.  Bissell himself translated that to a total cancellation of the D Day strikes and totally failed to argue the necessity of controlling the air space over the landing. 

What we do know for sure is that JFK had ordered all ships to be well at sea by dawn; he had also ordered the landing to be aborted and the Brigade evacuated if the landing was discovered and it met serious resistance - both of which occurred.  As it turned out there had been no plans made for any abort or evacuation at all.  JFK was also not told that mainline American Army tanks were being landed on the beach - a fact which would have overridden any concept of "deniablity" in the landings.

I'll leave any more detailed response to the book, which uses a lot of new operational documents to actually take this step by step though the four months when what Eisenhower had approved as the Cuba Project was totally changed into something quite different by Bissell. Something far different than the totally deniable operation which Eisenhower had approved and which JFK allowed to proceed.

 

 

 

 

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Larry, do you think the CIA and the military made a serious effort to force JFK to green-light D-Day air strikes?  I know Cabell made such a request around 04:30 on D-Day, and Admiral Burke urged air strikes around 02:00 D-Day +2 — but those seem like merely face-saving gestures.

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Also,  from what I read on this point, the CIA, and Dulles in particular, would not leave the overall plans with Kennedy so he could study them on his own.

Which is important I think.  Because it says that Bissell and Dulles were keeping the actual plans and planners, e.g.  Lynch, Esterline from Kennedy.

I think this is due to two points:  1.) Kennedy's pubic promise of no direct American involvement and 2.) Kennedy's experience in the Navy.  With those two factored in, I think the perps realized that if Kennedy would have had the plans at home, he would have come to the conclusion that this thing was not going to fly, unless there was direct American involvement. And that is what Burke's flotilla was doing out there.

Much of what has come out since is the CIA's response to Kirkpatrick's coruscating report.  Which they went nuts over. And  that material was so clearly designed to attack Kirkpatrick that the CIA did not want to give it up. Because Kirkpatrick asked the key question: What if the air strikes had succeeded?  His reply was the operation still would have failed. Because 1.). There were no defections 2.) There was no resistance on the island to join up with and 3.) There was a police detail at the landing site, so the surprise factor was neutralized.   And since Castro was on high alert, he had troops, mortars and artillery at the landing site within hours.  This prevented any beachhead from being established. So how could you have gotten to the natural air strip?  And if the operation did not rely on defections, then why did one ship have thousands upon thousands of rifles packed in it?

This is what Bobby Kennedy honed in on with Dulles at the Taylor Commission.  OK, all things being equal how did you think that a force of 1500 men on a beach could handle a force of 30,000 regulars with state of the art Soviet mortar, tanks and artillery?  When Dulles said, by going guerilla, RFK produced a witness who said, they were never trained or instructed in that.  Plus, as everyone knew, it was 70 miles over swamp to get to the nearest mountain range.

At about this point in the proceedings, Hunt and Dulles realized that the caper was up.  So they planted that story in Fortune about the cancellation of the alleged D Day air strikes with Charles Murphy's byline.  Kennedy was so enraged when he read it that he busted Murphy's reserve status.  Murphy said, that was OK, because his allegiance was to Dulles not Kennedy.

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Apparently Murphy also was rather close to Angleton as well, not that he was a direct player in this particular affair.

From Washington Post obit from 1987..."He was said to have had an encyclopedic mind and a love for good whiskey and good conversation. For years, Mr. Murphy and the late James Jesus Angleton, the fabled former counterintelligence chief of the Central Intelligence Agency, shared a table at the Army & Navy Club in Washington where they discussed matters such as the British debacle at Gallipoli during World War I and Gen. Douglas MacArthur's tactics during the early months of the Korean War."

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1987/12/31/author-and-journalist-charles-murphy-dies/0c630636-8b51-4715-971d-3c64a75d5b99/

It makes me curious what Murphy wrote about the JFK assassination. I'm guessing Cuba did-it slanted material.

 

Thanks for pointing that out Jim about Kirkpatrick. That's what really gets me about this whole cancelled air strike line that has become another one of those things that everyone believes without question, it never would have made any difference to the success of the operation. Considering Khrushchev's threat about not allowing entrance into Havana, it very possibly could have been much worse and a potential Missile Crisis type standoff with the Soviets if, somehow, against the odds they were able to establish a beachhead and somehow advance (presumably with overt US support at that point). This leads me to one of the worst paragraphs of Rasenberger's book.

 

"The peculiar truth may be that the result Kennedy got was the very best he could have desired, despite the obvious distress the failure caused him. If he achieved this result accidentally, then he was lucky. If he achieved it intentionally-- if, that is, he sent the brigade into Cuba expecting, even wanting, it to fail--then he deserves a place as one of the most coldly calculating presidents in history. Whichever is true--and there is really no way to know for sure--John Kennedy, in the end, managed to have his cake and eat it, too." p395

To buttress this absurdity, this paragraph is preceded by a mention of Gunnar Myrdal talking to Walt Rostow saying how jfk would have been ruined at home if he called it off and ruined abroad if he engaged American forces. So by implication he committed himself to a failure. This book is awful.

 

That is very interesting about Dulles not leaving the papers with JFK. Do you remember where you read that? It makes sense, didn't he give him a retracted report on the attempted Indonesia coup?

I'm interested to see what Larry has dug up, but there doesn't seem to be any clear point where JFK actually approved D-Day strikes.

 

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The great thing is that that we know a good deal more now about the operational details for a couple several reasons. First we now have all segments of the CIA IG report, with nothing restricted.  Second, we have the all sections of the CIA Historians report, especially the last section which is quite polemic but very educational - perhaps more importantly the CIA Historian's report quotes and reference the Taylor Commission report/transcript in great detail and that has never been released up to this point. The historian was simply allowed access for his work. 

That is extremely important because it gives a much deeper view into what the administration level participants knew and didn't know and either misunderstood (Cabell) or totally misrepresented (Dulles and Bissell) - sometimes simply by not commenting.  Kennedy Administration participants would talk about JFK's directives or issues like the uprising and there would simply be no CIA reality check on what was being assumed.

Beyond that, we have access to what the CIA military leaders (Esterline and Hawkins) were told by Bissell, on certain instructions given to the Brigade leaders and to what the two CIA officers detailed to the landing (Lynch and Robertson) were told and assumed as operational doctrine.  The disconnects become obvious and depressing. 

In point of fact both Esterline and Hawkins ultimately related that Bissell had told them the D Day air strikes were cancelled by JFK but that after seeing all the information they had to conclude that to be a lie, as with many other things Bissell had told them.

And beyond all that, thanks to some deep digging in the documents, only over the last two years, and a lot of crypt cracking by my friends David Boylan and Bill Simpich, we have operational level documents that give us a whole new reality check.  Several things emerge from that, the fact that the Brigade Air control had no direct communications with the beachead, that the landing force had no direct communication with the aircraft over the beach head, that the Navy was using different radio frequencies - the screw ups are immense. 

One of the most pitiful documents describes a message from Brigade air to the Navy desperately pleading with them to make sure they provided air cover for the American pilots which had been allowed to fly a last ditch air strike - that message was sent after the Navy had totally failed at that task.  You can read the frustration in the messages at that point, especially when Brigade air refuses to send any more volunteers.

And your comment on the air strike is right on the money,  it would have made little difference.  The Joint Chiefs had already pointed out that the logistics support for any sustained supply of the beachead was very questionable, their caution was that it would ultimately collapse without an almost immediate island wide uprising. When you dig until the shortage of Brigade transport pilots you quickly see why.  When you find that given the desperate nature of the supply situation at the end of Day 1, the US Air Force was authorized to fly supply drops over the beach with American transports - and were unable to do so, you realize how poor the planning was.

But then you also get into the "Hidden Measures" that only Bissell and a handful of others knew about, very likely including what appears likely to have been a dramatic, fake provocation attack against Guantanamo that literally blew up in the face of the ONI personnel and Cuban volunteers involved.  Which would of course explain the fighter bombers on the Essex and the ground attack munitions JFK was not told about.

 

 

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My knowledge and thoughts on the air strikes are simple compared to Jim, Larry and Dennis.  It seems Dulles deceived JFK about air strikes in the first place.  Then after being fired over the BOP he produces the Fortune article.  IT influenced history for many years, may well still in some quarters.  JFK deserted the Cubans on the beach trying to bring Democracy to Cuba.  Some of them sought revenge.  Cover, disinformation by a master of the Devil's Chessboard.  An over simplification or wrong interpretation?

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Actually Dulles was only minimally involved in the operation discussions, doing little more than head nods or giving very general endorsements.  J.C. King (Western Hemisphere) was far more involved in administration meetings, as was General Cabell. The primary briefing officer was Bissell.  Col. Hawkins attended a limited number of meetings, generally to comment on the Brigade ground force which was his assignment.  The air arm of the Brigade was very under represented with Bissell often speaking for them - a major mistake since he had no relevant experience (and had stonewalled the total separation of the Air arm from the ground forces under Hawkins - something that Hawkins thought might prove fatal, and did).

The person that might have made the real difference in the meetings or with JFK was Esterline, the actual operations head, but Bissell began to screen him out of meetings because Esterline was being too hard nosed about the issue of increased air support (which caused he and Hawkins attempted resignation), Bissell promised them he would convince JFK more air was needed and immediately cut it in half without telling them (his own decision, not JFK's). 

Decades later, with access to documents, Esterline finally concluded that Bissell had made sure he was not in key meetings because his comments would likely have exposed the serious operational risks, and JFK likely would have cancelled the whole thing.  Neither of the two operational commanders were in direct contact with JFK as the operation launched, if they had been issues would have come up which would likely have aborted the landings - and ended Bissell's career then and there.

And later itwas Bissell and Admiral Burke who first fed negative information to the media, leading to the articles which directed all the blame at JFK - and it was Bissell who lied to Esterline and Hawkins, again placing all the blame on JFK. 

 Iin the highly classified Taylor Commission hearings Dulles actually accepted a good deal of blame.  Not that he did not deserve it as being the senior man in charge but his sins were largely of omission.  An example shows up in the meetings where the Joint Chiefs point out the logistics were so weak that the beachhead would collapse without a major uprising / resistance campaign. 

JFK's people heard that and accepted that it was part of the plan. What they did not hear was any specific commentary on that uprising at all from Dulles et al. In reality neither Bissell or Dulles had any intelligence or reason to believe that would happen (later confirmed by both the CIA IG and the CIA Historian) and Bissell had actually ordered contact with the resistance groups for operational security.  The CIA's own highly trained Cuban volunteer maritime paramilitary assets were not even deployed to reconnoiter the landing area, much less make contact with resistance groups in the area.

.....for those interested, I will be on Chuck Ochelli's show this Thursday evening, 7 PM central time, talking about the Cuba project, these issues and many others.  It also gets archived if you can't listen live.

 

Edited by Larry Hancock
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Dennis, although I distinctly recall reading that about JFK not being able to take the plans home, I cannot locate it right now.  

But see Kirkpatrick zeroed in on the real issue: Ok, say if Castro's air force had been neutralized.  You still had 30,000 Cuban regulars with very good Soviet equipment--mortars, artillery, rifles, machine guns--blasting away at 1500 poorly supplied and poorly maintained soldiers who had no way to overcome those numbers.  Since there were no defectors and no resistance.  Even the Pentagon witnesses said they were relying on that.  I think it was Shoup who said, why would you put thousands of rilfes in a ship if you did not think you were going to get hundreds of defectors?

This is what convinced RFK that his brother had been suckered.  And this is when he brought in Lovett and the Bruce Lovett report.  And it was Lovett who convinced RFK that his brother had to get rid of all three of them: Bissell, Cabell and Dulles.

What Larry offers here about the Essex and Guantanamo, that is something I had not heard about.  Was this going to be a last ditch bailout of the operation which Burke was in on?  

Edited by James DiEugenio
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Jim, it appears that Bissell had a handful of wild cards that were in play right up to the days before the landings - for those interested in this I've been discussing it in my recent blog posts.  

Actually there were a couple of options including a squadron of fighter bombers on the Essex with the right weapons load for ground strikes- not just air cover. And beyond the Essex there was a supercarrier group built around the Independence that Burke deployed off Florida, towards Cuba, and never mentioned in any of the post landing dialogs and inquiries.

More new information involves an explosives cache that ONI and Cuban volunteers were building "outside" the Guantanamo base - and Eisenhower's recommendation to Bissell to stage a provocation so the American military could intervene.  

As far as the record goes JFK was never briefed on any of those things, and as with the poison attempts and planned sniper attacks, they all went bad only in the last days and weeks.

But to your larger point, without those wild cards, the whole darn thing was insane, especially as Bissell admittedly had no intelligence that an uprising was going to happen and had largely backed off contact with the on island resistance groups. There was no covert reconnaissance done with the CIA's Cuban paramiliaries, in fact Hawkins was forced to admit that they had no idea that there was a large body of Cuban troops literally close enough to engage in massive counter attacks within hours.

To make one more point, there were concrete plans for D Day air strikes, we have the documents on that including the number of aircraft, targets etc.  However there is no sign that JFK was getting operational briefings at that level; the high level meetings that he was brought into only dealt with strategic decisions, not operations.  He did give some specific directions - like all boats well at sea by dawn - and if the operations officers had been present they most likely clear that you can't land a heavy combat brigade with tanks and armored trunks across reefs at night in only a few hours.  Bissell, Barnes and Cabell simply made no comment to such directives.

Finally there is every indication that Bissell made the calls about reducing air strikes and cancelling the last dawn strike at his own initiative...and later lied about it being all JFK.  All that was a total surprise to the Air element of the Cuban Brigade and to Lynch and Robertson, all of whom had been told that there would be no landing if a single Cuban aircraft was still operational - and they were depending final strikes to ensure that.  The thing is that if Bissell and Cabell had gone on the phone to JFK he surely would have started asking questions which would have raised many uncomfortable questions - like, I told you to have all the ships at sea by dawn and everything landed and  under cover, so how many Cuban planes are left and why are they such a risk?   My bet is that JFK would have called it off then and there - he had already directed that if the landing were detected and opposed the Brigade should be extracted and saved to be inserted elsewhere.  There should have been contingency plans for that; we now know those were never made. 

Oh, on the plans thing...not only was JFK not given anything in writing, neither were the Joint Chiefs given detailed plans for their study; one of their specific complaints was that they had virtually nothing in writing and their analysis had to be made almost entirely from limited verbal briefings by CIA staff.

Edited by Larry Hancock
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