Cubanálisis El Think-Tank
ARTÍCULO ORIGINAL PARA EL THINK-TANK DE CUBANÁLISIS
Diego Trinidad, PhD, Miami
THE BAY OF PIGS: IN DEFENSE OF TRUTH AND HISTORY
In this 52nd anniversary of the heroic, but failed, Bay of Pigs invasion, it is more necessary than ever to try to establish the facts and dispel the many myths that still prevail about this controversial event. It is even more important to deny the conspiracy theories that many still cling to against all historic evidence. This essay begins with an examination of the two plans elaborated by the CIA to invade Cuba with a military force made up of anti Castro Cuban patriots in April, 1961, to overthrow the Fidel Castro regime. The many myths and conspiracy theories will be examined later.
The original plan, the Trinidad Plan, was prepared by the CIA since at least March, 1960, during President Eisenhower’s administration. The agent in charge of the plan was Richard Bissell, Deputy Director for Planning (in reality, the head of clandestine operations). He was assisted by Jacob Esterline, the operation’s project manager, and retired Marine Colonel Jack Hawkins as military advisor. Basically, the Trinidad Plan was designed to land a small force of 1,200 Cuban exiles trained by the CIA (Brigade 2506) in the southern Cuban port of Casilda, close to the city of Trinidad (26,000 people in 1961 and very anti-Castro). A second group of 160 men would land in southern Oriente province (near the Sierra Maestra, where Castro had launched his revolution five years earlier) to create a distraction and to make it appear as if that was the main invading force. A third distraction was to be created with a sound and lights show off the northwest coast of Pinar del Rio province, using a number of small boats in the night to further confuse the Castro regime.
The Casilda landing was planned to establish a beach head and a defensive perimeter that would allow for the landing of a six-man Cuban Revolutionary Council headed by José Miró Cardona, a former premier under Castro in 1959. After a few days, the Council would constitute itself into a Cuban Government in Arms and request diplomatic recognition and military aid. The U.S. would immediately recognize the Council as the legal government of Cuba and provide military assistance, along with perhaps a few Organization of American States (OAS) members. With American military aid, it was hoped that the Brigade would soon defeat the Castro army and militias and overthrow the communist regime. More troops and supplies would be landed in Casilda, along with the Brigade Air Force of 16 B-26 bombers, which was to be based near the city of Trinidad. There was a short landing strip in Trinidad which had to be lengthened in the first few hours and the Brigade Navy of several ships would land enough gasoline to sustain the B-26s. There was an essential condition to guarantee success: the total destruction of Castro’s Air Force (FAR) so that the Brigade would have complete control of the air.
The Trinidad Plan evolved over one year. Originally, it was planned to infiltrate small groups of 50 exiles in different points of Cuba, but mainly close to the Escambray mountains in south central Cuba, where a number of rebels (perhaps 2,000) were already operating against the Castro regime since mid 1960. The idea was to eventually provoke an internal uprising to topple the revolutionary government. But CIA planners soon decided that conditions in Cuba were not ready for such an internal revolt. It would take too long and time was becoming of the essence. The regime was growing stronger and by April-May of 1961, a contingent of 80 pilots being trained in Czechoslovakia, plus many Russian MiGs would arrive. This would make it impossible to overthrow the regime by force and the U.S. was not ready to allow a Communist-controlled government 90 miles from the Florida’s coast. This was the middle of the Cold War, after all.
Because of the changing conditions in Cuba, the Trinidad Plan finally adopted involved a force of up to 3,000 exiles already being trained in Guatemala. Now the plan contemplated a full-scale invasion of Cuba by a Brigade with a small army, a navy of seven cargo ships and many more landing craft, an air force of 16 B-26 bombers and several C-46 and C-54 cargo planes, and even foreign relations, with the Brigade training in the Guatemala jungle and the air force operating out of Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua. The hope was that this Brigade would end the Castro regime. But there was a huge catch. The plan was based on the landing of U.S. forces at the end. Without the American military intervention, even with control of the air, it was impossible for 3,000 men (only 1,200 eventually landed) to defeat a well trained and fully equipped army of between 30,000 and 50,000 backed by perhaps a 200,000 strong militia and the support of most of the population.
But the Trinidad Plan was prepared at the behest of President Eisenhower, the only president who enthusiastically supported covert CIA operations (although, mostly unknown and later denied by him, Truman also supported many clandestine CIA actions in the last five years of his presidency). And now he was gone with the election of Democrat John Kennedy in November 1960. However, Kennedy knew about the Trinidad Plan since at least the summer of 1960. The CIA Director himself, Allen Dulles has given him an outline of the plans to get rid of Castro and Kennedy was a good friend of Richard Bissell, who was to succeed Dulles as the next DCI (Director of Central Intelligence). Kennedy was non committal, but appeared to support the plan. The CIA personnel in charge of the Trinidad Plan was the same that had successfully overthrown the leftist president Jacobo Arbenz regime in Guatemala in 1954 (Bissell was in charge there, too) and Iran in 1953. Bissell and company made the big mistake to believe Cuba would be as easy a target as Guatemala had been. It was not. Cuba is an island and Castro was not Arbenz. The CIA never realized the great differences. Neither did it count on the greatest difference of all: the new president.
Kennedy had made Cuba a large and important part of his presidential campaign, accusing the Eisenhower-Nixon administration of being soft on Cuban communism. Nixon was enraged, since he could not reveal the plans against Castro and he thought Kennedy was being unpatriotic by misusing his knowledge. Kennedy also misused another key campaign issue, the so-called missile gap. There was a missile gap, but it was in favor of the U.S. Yet again, Nixon could not talk about the overwhelming American superiority without revealing that fact to the Soviet Union (USSR).
The attacks on the Eisenhower Cuban policies were helpful to Kennedy in winning the presidency, and during the campaign, in a meeting with former Truman Secretary of State Dean Acheson in October, Kennedy asked Acheson his opinion on the effect those attacks were making. Acheson answered that he should be very careful because he could end up as a prisoner to the promises and expectations he was creating about a change of regime in Cuba. Acheson was prophetic, as the Kennedy rhetoric during the campaign came back to haunt him in early 1961.
Dulles and Bissell briefed Kennedy on the Trinidad Plan at his Palm Beach, Florida compound after his election in late November. He listened in silence and expressed no objections, so that the CIA proceeded full speed ahead. However, a review of the internal White House memoranda from mid January to early April, especially communications between the president and his National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, clearly show Kennedy’s mounting doubts about the Cuban operation. It can be safely stated that he never fully expressed any support for a military solution in Cuba, certainly not an overt attack with U.S. support. Those doubts would be very costly in the end.
The full details of the Trinidad Plan were officially given to Kennedy in a White House meeting on January 28, just a few days after his inauguration as president. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Secretaries Dean Rusk (State) and Robert McNamara (Defense), Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Lyman Lemnitzer, Bundy and assorted advisors and Under Secretaries were present. Allen Dulles made the presentation, assisted by Tracy Barnes, reading from notes written by Bissell. The end of the operation was specifically emphasized to him. Dulles read the following from the official Plan: “The present plan can establish a beachhead on Cuban soil and maintain it for a period of two weeks, possibly as long as thirty days”. Once this had been accomplished, there would be “a basis for an overt, open U.S. initiative to institute a military occupation of the island. There is a reasonable chance that the success of the above plan would set in motion forces which would cause the downfall of the regime”. Two other essential points were made explicitly clear to the audience. Timing was of the essence. The invasion had to take place in March (the 10th was tentatively chosen by the CIA), no later than mid April. This was because of the already mentioned arrival of the Cuban pilots and MiGs from Czechoslovakia but also because of the rainy season, both in Cuba and Central America, which would make it more difficult to implement all the plans. The other point was the key to the entire operation: the Brigade must have total control of the air; the Cuban Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria (FAR) must be totally destroyed on the ground.
There is no record of anyone saying anything or asking any questions, other than General Lemnitzer, who commented that he thought 1,200 men might be too few to hold the beachhead. Whereupon Kennedy asked him for the Pentagon to conduct an evaluation of the Trinidad Plan, the first time that the military would even review the CIA plans. The taping system later set up in the White House was not yet in place (it was set up in the summer of 1962), but it is very hard to believe that after hearing the scope and implications of the plan, especially the final intervention of U.S. military forces to ensure the success of the invasion, nobody said anything or asked any questions. Indeed, it is stunning. Which leads me to believe that there must have been many questions and comments. But there is no record, perhaps for a very good reason. The Kennedy apologists who later wrote the history of the Bay of Pigs never even once mentioned this crucial meeting. Neither did any other writer in 50 years, until Jim Rasenberger included the full details of the Plan in his excellent book The Brilliant Disaster published last year. But why not? Because it was the only time that the key element of the Trinidad Plan was ever mentioned on record: that U.S. forces must land to guarantee success and “to occupy” the island. By the time Rasenberger wrote his book, the above information had been declassified. It can now be found in the State Department records cited at the end of this essay.
The Pentagon evaluation was submitted to the president in early February. Signed by Army Chief of Staff General Earle Wheeler, it was prepared by General David Gray. The evaluation of the Plan was “favorable”. However, the summary ends: “The Chiefs consider that the timely execution of this plan has a fair chance of final success”. As it should be quite obvious, the Pentagon report cannot possibly be described as “favorable”. To the contrary, it is a typical bureaucratic document designed only to give cover to the military and to protect the Pentagon from any responsibility in case of failure. Indeed, it was far worse, for after the invasion was defeated, General Gray, in an inquiry, was asked how he could possibly give the operation a fair chance of success. He replied that the word fair was included at General Wheeler’s insistence to “facilitate” the understanding of the report, but that what he meant by fair was only a 30% chance of success. On the other hand, most others understood fair to be good, at least a 50-50 proposition. But even a 50% probability of success was most definitely unacceptable for an operation of this magnitude, the largest and most complex ever attempted by the CIA. The Plan should never have been approved.
In any case, the final meeting to decide whether to authorize the invasion to go ahead was held on March 15 in the White House (the final decision was not made until April 4). The CIA deadline of March 10 had gone, but the planners were still hopeful that Kennedy would give the final approval. Kennedy’s doubts, however, had only increased since the January 28 meeting, especially after he had read the lukewarm evaluation by the Pentagon in early February. Now, prodded by Dean Rusk and the State Department bureaucrats, Kennedy demanded that the plan be changed. And changed it was, drastically so. Now, Trinidad was out because the president wanted something less spectacular, less noisy, more isolated, and he wanted the landing to be at night, the first time in U.S. military history that a large amphibious landing would be attempted at night. The CIA came back with a new site, the only other one possible according to them, in just three days. Desperation was clearly reaching a critical mass with the agency planners. But the CIA still, against all odds, wanted the invasion to go ahead, apparently convinced that in the end, the president would get behind it. They could not have been more wrong.
Kennedy was so much against any military option (unknown to almost anyone at the time), that when Bundy gave him two summaries on February 15, one written by Bissell basically restating the old Trinidad Plan, the other written by Under Secretary of State Thomas Mann, a holdover from the Eisenhower time, but a prestigious career diplomat, Bundy added a cover note saying he had put Mann’s memorandum on the bottom because he knew the president was inclined toward Mann’s alternative. This was the famous “windowpane” strategy. Instead of force, Mann proposed that the Castro regime be isolated, politically, diplomatically and economically. Then, his communist policies would run Cuba into the ground for the entire world to see, especially Latin America. The propaganda victory for the US would be great. Still, Kennedy wavered.
For no matter what Kennedy’s inclinations were, he had become a prisoner of his campaign rhetoric, just as Acheson had warned. And public opinion, that “goddess” of the Kennedys, was strongly in favor of tough policies against Cuba, just as he had promised before the election. So now he had a new plan, the Zapata Plan. The new landing site was at the Bay of Pigs, 90 miles west of Trinidad and much closer to Havana.
But geography was the least of the changes. The Bay of Pigs is surrounded by one of the largest swamps in the hemisphere, the Zapata swamp (thus the operation’s name). It was isolated indeed. There was just one macadam road to the small town of Jagüey Grande. Instead of sandy beaches, there were reefs all over, although CIA analysts insisted the shadows shown by photographs taken by U-2s were algae (some Brigade members from the area knew better, but the CIA ignored their advice). The water was too deep for the Brigade to jump into the water and wade onto the coast (there were few beaches), so that landing craft were necessary and there were strong currents.
But the biggest difference of all was that the Escambray mountains, the escape valve in case of failure in the Trinidad Plan, so that the Brigade could move into the mountains and join the rebels fighting there, were 80 miles away. There was no escape; it was a case of do or die if the Brigade did not win outright. Kennedy’s advisors later claimed that the president did not know how far the Escambray mountains were from the new site, that he was never informed. But that was not true. He was informed many times. Furthermore, as a former Navy lieutenant, the president certainly knew how to read a map. Nevertheless, he approved the Zapata Plan on March 18, reserving the right to cancel it up to 48 hours before the launch.
There were a couple of good points about the new site. There was a nearby landing strip long enough for the Brigade’s B-26s. And the sole road could be easily defended against counter-attacking troops. But that was all. And now the timing was really tight. The invasion had to go as soon as possible. Still, the State Department insisted on new changes. Both plans included bombing raids by the Brigade B-26s to destroy the FAR planes on the ground. But the Trinidad Plan included only one raid on the dawn of the invasion by all 16 B-26s. The Zapata Plan included five bombing raids, including the two raids on April 15. And on April 8, as Kennedy continued to vacillate, he told Bissell he “wanted to play down the magnitude of the invasion in the public eye and therefore did not want a full-strength strike but a more limited one”. The president directed Bissell “to reduce the scale and make it minimal”. But he left the details to Bissell, who took it upon himself to arbitrarily cut the use of the B-26s from 16 to eight in the upcoming raids. Kennedy has always been held responsible for this decision, but it was Bissell, not the president, who was responsible (he is, however, confused about the date of this fateful meeting, writing in his memoirs that it was the 14th; but it was in fact the 8th) And it cost him dearly, as the following morning, a Sunday, Esterline and Hawkins, extremely distressed by the halving of the use of the Brigade bombers and the change in landing sites, came to his home, told Bissell that the plan could not work with all the new restrictions, and handed him their resignation. Bissell appealed to their patriotism and convinced them to stay on board, but they extracted a promise that there would be no more changes. They were unfortunately disappointed, as the worst change was about to be made. And this last change inevitably condemned the operation to fail.
The Cuban FAR had 17 B-26s, slightly different from those of the Brigade, which would later prove crucial. They also inherited 13 British-made Sea Fury propeller-driven fighter planes, one old F-51 Mustang and the biggest difference of them all: four T-33 training jets, armed with two 50-caliber cannons on the nose and four rockets. According to both plans, the entire Cuban Air Force had to be wiped out; the Brigade must have total control of the airspace over the Bay of Pigs. That was always a given, but another part of the original Plan was also changed, this time by the CIA and Kennedy may not have been informed. There was to be no popular uprising by the resistance inside Cuba. The CIA decided that because Cubans “talked too much”, there was a high risk that the date of the landing would be discovered by Castro’s intelligence services. Therefore, the resistance groups were never informed by the CIA and two days before the landing, thousands were rounded up and taken into custody. This is still one of the big reasons that many Cubans still feel they were betrayed. They were certainly deceived by the CIA, by not informing them, by making them believe until the very end that they would be an important part of the plan. But it is also one of the big conspiracy theories that refuse to go away. The decision to exclude the resistance may have been wrong, but it was not a betrayal. This was a covert operation, and the CIA reasoning made sense, even if it may have been wrong. Will many of the participants still alive ever accept this? Probably not, but it still was not treason.
Finally, on April 15, the first -and what was to be the only- bombing raid began in the early morning. (There was a second raid attempted, as planned, later in the afternoon, but because of bad whether, it was aborted). Eight B-26s left Puerto Cabezas for the three-hour flight to Cuba. There were three targets: the former Camp Columbia outside Havana, the main Cuban airbase in San Antonio de los Baños, and the airport in Santiago de Cuba. According to the CIA, the FAR planes were lined up all in a row, an easy target. But according to General Rafael del Pino, who defected to the US in 1984, then the highest-ranked defector ever from a communist country, there were no military planes in Camp Columbia, not for over a year. There were a few rusting eighteen-wheelers loaded with artillery shells which exploded on impact. He could never understand why Camp Columbia was bombed.
Del Pino, who was a young air force lieutenant at the time and who fought against the Brigade aboard one of the T-33 which did so much damage on the 17th reported the results of the raid on the 15th and this information has never before been revealed. At the San Antonio base, one T-33 was destroyed along with a few old transport planes. And at Santiago, three Cubana Airlines passenger planes were destroyed and an old Catalina amphibious plane. Nothing else, although an airman, Orestes Acosta, was killed in an accident aboard a T-33 before the raid. Nevertheless, the CIA, based on U-2 photographs taken after the raid, and on reports from the returning Brigade pilots, believed that al least half of the Cuban FAR was destroyed. Now the real trouble began.
Because of the administration’s obsessive concern with the obnoxious concept of “plausible deniability” (wrongly attributed to the Eisenhower administration when it was Congress itself, while it was debating the law creating the CIA in 1949, which first used the term), the State Department came up with another brilliant idea: to make it appear that a rebellion by the Castro’s FAR had begun on April 15th. When seven B-26s bombed Camp Columbia, the San Antonio air base and the Santiago airport, another B-26, with its nose shot up by a CIA agent in Puerto Cabezas and FAR markings on its fuselage, took off for Miami, where Brigade pilot Mario Zúñiga loudly proclaimed that he was a FAR deserter. But there was a problem. The Brigade B-26 was, as we said before, slightly different from those of the Castro FAR, which had a Plexiglas nose and machine guns mounted on the wings, not the nose. The Brigade B-26s had a metal-covered nose with eight machine guns, and no tail guns. This was noticed almost immediately. But meanwhile, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, who had not been informed of any details of the Zapata Plan, proudly announced the “rebellion” of the FAR against the Castro regime. Only to be faced by Cuban Minister of Foreign Relations Raúl Roa holding photos of both the real FAR B-26s and the one that landed in Key West. Stevenson was embarrassed and called Dean Rusk in Washington to protest that if he was not told the truth, he could not be effective. But he also informed Rusk of the very strong reaction against what was now obvious: The attack was U.S. backed. What Stevenson did not say to Rusk, despite accusations to the contrary by Kennedy apologists almost right away, was that he would resign unless the following raids were canceled. He could not have; he did not know about any more raids!
It was Secretary Rusk who panicked and convinced Kennedy that his vaunted “World Opinion” was too strongly against the administration: the whole world knew the Americans were involved. And Kennedy meekly agreed to cancel all other raids on the FAR in Cuba: All others including the last one, the one scheduled for the dawn of the 17th, just before the Brigade landed at the Bay of Pigs. When Rusk informed Bissell, the CIA Deputy Director was aghast. But Bissell nevertheless ordered Jake Esterline to cancel the raids. This was the last change, the one Bissell vowed to Esterline and Hawkins would not happen. But it did, just hours before the invasion fleet had left Puerto Cabezas for the Bay of Pigs. Now the end was assured: the Brigade could not possibly win, it was now condemned to death. And President Kennedy agreed to the cancellation of the raids knowing full well that the Plan could not possibly succeed without air cover. Yet he allowed the Brigade ships to sail on. But once again, was this a betrayal, was it treason? Perhaps, but he cannot be accused of it. After all, Bissell went along with him. As Colonel Hawkins said at the time, Kennedy can, however, be at least accused of criminal negligence.
However, Bissell did not know that there were eleven planes left in Cuba according to Del Pino: Four Sea Fury fighters, four B-26 bombers and the three mighty T-33 jets. A real massacre was waiting for the Brigade at the Bay of Pigs. For what is worth it, I personally believe that had Bissell known, he would have insisted that the invasion be cancelled. But he did not, although as it was, without air cover and with the cancellation of all other bombing raids, he knew full well the Brigade could never win. But he, along with every other CIA agent involved in the entire operation, was absolutely convinced that Kennedy would ultimately intervene when faced with failure. They were all wrong.
When did Kennedy decide to forbid any U.S. military intervention? We do not know: nobody knows. There is no evidence anywhere that he did, or when. But he must have obviously done so between March 18 and April 12. Indeed, on April 4, at the meeting when his advisors were polled to find out who was in favor of the invasion, all but Senator Fulbright of Arkansas, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave their support (Fulbright was present by invitation. Not only that, but he had been invited by Kennedy to travel to Palm Beach the weekend before. On the return flight back to Washington, Fulbright gave the President a memorandum with his analysis and opposition to the invasion plan. In that memorandum, Fulbright famously wrote: “The Castro regime is a thorn in the side of the U.S., not a dagger in the heart”). But Kennedy also made it very clear that there would be no U.S. military intervention. Nobody present protested, no mention was made by anyone that U.S. military intervention was always an essential part of the original plan.
On the 12th, his Special Advisor, the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., casually (or maybe it was by design) talked Kennedy into publicly announcing during a press conference about to begin, that under no conditions would the U.S. militarily intervene in Cuba. At this time, the invasion had not yet been launched. Did Kennedy decide before, or was it a spur of the moment decision? Again, we do not know. However, there is some evidence that Schlesinger had been trying to convince the president to do so for several days. We do know this. A prominent Cuban attorney, Arturo Mañas, was in New York at the time and when he saw and heard Kennedy at the April 12 press conference, he became extremely alarmed. He had been a top sugar negotiator for years and knew U.S. politics very well. He now called his friend Manolín Hernández, another Cuban attorney very much involved with the operation on the Cuban exile part and a close friend of Revolutionary Council President Miró Cardona, and asked to see Miró urgently. (Hernández was Secretary General of the MRR, Manuel Artime’s organization, and very high among Cubans in the planning of the invasion). The three of them met in the bathroom of a suite rented by the Council at the Lexington Hotel, to avoid the many people present in the suite. Mañas told Miró that in his long experience with American politics, whenever a president made such a strong public statement in front of all the world to see, there was no way he could back down: there would be NO U.S. help for the Brigade; they were alone.
Miró now became extremely upset and called the White House to demand an immediate interview with President Kennedy. He spoke with Kennedy Aide Dave Powers, who presumably discussed the urgent matter with the president. Schlesinger, Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle and John Plank, another liberal Harvard professor friend of Schlesinger who went along as an interpreter (why an interpreter was necessary is a mystery, as Berle spoke Spanish fluently) were dispatched down from Washington next day and met with Miró at the Century Club restaurant in Manhattan. Schlesinger did not speak Spanish, but Berle did. An old time advisor to Democratic presidents since Franklin Roosevelt , Berle said to Miró -in Spanish- “What I told you three weeks ago, still goes”. And what he had told Miró was that there were 30,000 U.S. troops ready to invade Cuba as planned. Miró left the meeting fully satisfied and confident of the upcoming triumph. He was to be bitterly disappointed. Did Kennedy lie? Did he send two of his personal representatives to assure Miró of American support and then withdraw it? Or did Berle disobey Kennedy and lie to Miró? Nobody knows or will ever know. But there is another possibility, albeit very farfetched. Perhaps Berle was also convinced that Kennedy would eventually end up supporting a military intervention. Because, how was it possible that the president would let the invasion fail? They were about to find out.
However, there is another version of the meeting. According to a very critical author, Peter Wyden, no such assurance was given to Miró. On the contrary, he was clearly told there would be no American military aid. Berle only told Miró that “we’ll take you to the beaches”. Miró left with Plank and he was “shattered”, according to Plank, who tried to console him by telling Miró that “I can’t believe they would let you people just die on the beach”. But there is a problem with this version. No other author, including Schlesinger, mentions Plank’s presence at this meeting. Problems such as the above are common when trying to find the truth about almost anything concerning the Bay of Pigs invasion. I am inclined to accept my first version, but in any case, it was clear that Miró, whether he was elated or disappointed (and there is copious evidence that he was satisfied as a result of the meeting), always thereafter was convinced that the Americans would definitely intervene in Cuba on behalf of the Brigade
Years later, at a University of Miami conference, Manolín Hernández asked Schlesinger about this episode and Schlesinger demurred, saying he did not remember. Hernández persisted off stage. Schlesinger then said to him “I don’t know why Adolph said that to Miró”. In his book A Thousand Days, Schlesinger mentions the meeting with Miró and Berle, but denies that Berle ever assured Miró of U.S. support. But again, he did not necessarily know. Since he did not understand Spanish, perhaps Berle did say to Miró that there were 30,000 troops waiting to invade Cuba. Furthermore, there were thousands of U.S. troops aboard the two Carriers and several destroyers and carriers a few miles off the Bay of Pigs. Maybe not 30,000, but certainly at least two Marine brigades. Was that still part of the plan, even at that late date? Did Kennedy make up his mind while the Brigade was about to land? Again, we will never know. Was this another betrayal? No. Because there is no record anywhere that Kennedy ever told anyone that U.S. troops would intervene in Cuba. What he did was the opposite. He emphatically declared on national TV that under no conditions would the U.S. intervene in Cuba militarily. So that is the end of the story. We have to accept it as the truth. There was no betrayal, not by Kennedy, not about U.S. intervention at the end of the invasion, as it was part of both CIA invasion plans. Case closed.
Incidentally, the final raid on the dawn of April 17 almost took place, even after Kennedy ordered the cancellation of all planned raids after the UN situation created by Stevenson and pushed by Rusk. But it seems that now fate took a hand. The Brigade’s B-26 bombers were on the Puerto Cabezas tarmac, getting ready to take off for Cuba in a few hours. It was late Sunday afternoon and General Charles P. Cabell, the CIA’s Deputy Director (Dulles was in Puerto Rico on a previous speaking engagement) had just finished a round of golf and was headed home, but decided to stop by the CIA’s War Room in Washington to check on the operations. He asked Colonel Stanley Beerli, who was in charge of air operations, for an update. Beerli said they were preparing the early morning raid before the landing. Cabell said he understood that the last raid was cancelled. Beerli, now becoming agitated and joined by others, insisted it was on. But Cabell went into another room to call Dean Rusk and ask for confirmation. Rusk confirmed the cancellation order and requested Cabell to come to his office. Before leaving, Cabell gave Beerli the order to cancel the preparations for the morning raid. That was the last chance and had not Cabell stopped by the CIA’s War Room, perhaps history would have been different. But it was not to be.
A few additional myths and conspiracy theories remain to be dealt with. Could the Cubans by themselves -that is, the Brigade- without American military intervention at the end, as was planned, but with control of the air, as it was also always planned, have won? Possibly yes, but it is highly improbable. There is a little known, but somewhat inconvenient, glaring fact, which unfortunately is generally ignored by older Cubans and veterans of the Brigade. Because the Brigade had good success in the first few hours of the invasion, winning a number of important skirmishes and having hundreds of militia surrender to them on April 17, many of them are convinced that had they controlled the air, as was promised and as was contemplated in both the Trinidad and Zapata plans until Kennedy eviscerated the plans and cancelled the bombing raids, they had a very good chance of winning. But this is the problem. Already on the second day, the 18th, a lot of damage had been inflicted on the Brigade by Cuban artillery under the command of Captain José Ramón “El Gallego” Fernández. The Brigade was running out of ammunition, and there was worse to come. At least 30,000 well-trained militia troops under Mayor Derminio Escalona, were advancing overland from Pinar del Río. These were not the poorly trained militia from around the Bay of Pigs area, the ones that did not fight very well and surrendered en masse to the Brigade. As it was pointed out a number of times by a number of military -not CIA- personnel, including Marine General David Shoup and Army Chief of Staff General Wheeler, there was no way that 1,200 men could defeat 30,000 well trained militia and perhaps up to 200,000 reserve militia, supported by an overwhelmingly superior artillery. Yes, it is true that the Brigade’s B-26s did a tremendous amount of damage to some army troops on trucks advancing on the lone road to the Bay of Pigs area (some estimates put the Cuban loses as high as 3,000 although the regime only admitted less than 200 dead). And many think that with control of the air, the Brigade could have done similar damage to those advancing troops. But for how long? However, this is only speculation. And since it did not happen, nobody can, or will, ever know.
There is still a widespread belief that there was a KGB mole inside the CIA, who denounced the operation to Castro beforehand, including the crucial date of the landing. And unfortunately, there is some disturbing evidence of that, although it has mostly been presented as “fact” by two Hollywood films, one highly rated, The Good Shepherd, one of the best spy movies ever. A lesser known but better, made-for-TV miniseries, The Company, also strongly suggests that the entire operation was betrayed by KGB agents inside the CIA. The “factual” information is that “the CIA intercepted a cable from the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City accurately stating that the invasion was expected on April 17”. However, although this information is from a trustworthy book, the author provides no documentation. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, Castro never knew when or where the invasion was coming. My main reason for this opinion is how the Castro regime reacted to the date and the landing spot: they were extremely surprised and were definitely not expecting the invasion at the Bay of Pigs on April 17.
Another point of contention is the covert plans by the CIA (although perhaps I should say by Bissell), in conjunction with some Mafia elements, to assassinate Castro before the invasion landed. Some authors have even speculated that the reason Kennedy took (or failed to take) a number of decisions late in March-April, most importantly the cancellation of the raids, was precisely because he had been assured by Bissell that Castro would indeed be dead by the time the Brigade came ashore at the Bay of Pigs. There is some evidence of this and Bissell himself so states in his Memoirs. One writer, Seymour Hersh, uncovered 14 unreported visits (not included in the Secret Service logs) by Bissell to the White House between late January and mid April. Kennedy met with him alone and there is no record whatsoever of what was said between them. Thus, the conjecture that they must have talked about the assassination plans. I do not share the opinion that Kennedy made decisions, especially the crucial one of cancelling the bombing raids, because he was convinced that Castro would be dead by then. My reason is that even if Kennedy believed that Castro would be dead, many of his fateful decisions are nevertheless NOT excused, or even explained by that belief. The CIA assassination plans were very real, though, and if successful, they would obviously have changed history. The assassination plans are, on the other hand, anathema to many older Cubans and Brigade veterans. Many of them, who are so willing to believe all kinds of wild conspiracy theories, simply refuse to accept, or even to acknowledge, the assassination plans (which ran concurrently with the invasion plans and which were conceived as far back as Eisenhower’s times).
The last conspiracy theory remaining is the one that refuses to go away. Indeed, it seems that it becomes more entrenched with each passing year. Even some of my close friends share this belief. That the CIA -intentionally- planned and executed the Bay of Pigs invasion to fail, with the hidden purpose of consolidating the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro’s regime. This is an article of faith for all true believers. As such, it is truly impossible for anyone to rationally disprove that belief and I certainly cannot. However, for those who believe, I have one question: Qui Bono? This is the old Latin legal question meaning, who benefits? True believers cannot answer the question -they never have and they never will. Therefore, for the purposes of this essay, that conspiracy theory is laid to rest in front of history.
Finally, the time has come to assign responsibilities for what happened. There is no question that the CIA must bear a heavy burden for what happened and why. The planners, specifically Bissell, were stuck in 1954 and the successful Guatemala operation. Most of the agents involved in that adventure, led by Bissell also, were part of the Bay of Pigs team. They failed to recognize the important differences between Cuba and Guatemala and did not adjust the plans to this new situation. The plan evolved, as has been mentioned, going from a small operation with 50 men infiltration teams, to a plan that eventually included 600 men (eventually up to 3,000) and an overt invasion of a foreign country. A military operation of this kind was well beyond the scope of the CIA, but not until three months before the landing was to take place was the Pentagon even consulted as to the feasibility of the plan. The Pentagon gave it very unenthusiastic support and basically washed its hand off of it. But it became a self-sustaining situation with many vested interests involved. Critical thinking stopped. The invasion took on a momentum of its own. And as its scope and size grew, it became impossible to apply the concept of plausible deniability. How could a full-scale invasion with a small army of over 1,200 infantry and four tanks, a mini navy of at least seven transport ships and several landing craft, an air force of 16 B-26 bombers and several C-46 and C-54 cargo planes, and even a “foreign relations department” with ties to Guatemala and Nicaragua, be launched without U.S. involvement? It could not, and the whole world knew the U.S. was involved. In the end, the obsession with plausible deniability sank the entire operation.
But there were extremely serious operational errors made, beginning with the faulty photographic analysis of the results of the only bombing raid on April 15. Instead of half the FAR planes destroyed, there were 11 planes left, including the deadly T-33 jets, which the CIA discarded as unimportant and did not even know they were armed with cannons and rockets. The crucial Río Escondido ship, with most of the airplane gasoline, ammunition and communications gear for the Brigade was sunk by one T-33. The CIA also made a mistake with the analysis of the landing area, confusing reefs with “algae” and then refusing to listen to reports to the contrary from people familiar with the area.
The transport ships were old and unreliable and the crews were inexperienced. The landing craft were not suited for landing in the designated area. Even things as basic as the wrong fuel mix for outboard engines, which resulted in delays and even the inability of some of the Brigade to land. Some of the CIA trainers in the Guatemala training camp were arrogant, some even detested the Cuban exiles they were training, although in general, all the CIA personnel were committed to the success of the operation. Indeed, ten pilots from the Alabama National Guard eventually flew some of the B-26 on the last day of the invasion, when everything was lost and they knew they were going to their death. Four of the ten Americans died, two in a fiery crash in the water, two others surviving a forced landing on the island but killed by Cuban militia. In short, the CIA personnel, from Bissell down to Esterline and Hawkins, and to Grayston Lynch and Rip Robertson, who actually landed on Cuban soil before any members of the Brigade did, believed in the operation, believed in the importance of bringing the Castro regime down, believed that they were contributing to winning the Cold War. And most importantly, they all believed the U.S. military would go in after the Brigade, especially when things began to unravel and failure was a very real probability. But they were all wrong. Kennedy kept his word that under no conditions would the American military forces intervene in Cuba.
Richard Bissell must be specifically singled out as the most responsible, except for one person. Bissell became so engrossed with the idea of the invasion and with toppling Castro, that he lost sight of any critical thinking whatsoever at the end. As well, he became more and more enamored with the CIA/Mafia conspiracy to assassinate Castro. He basically conducted the assassination “track” as a dual operation with the invasion of the Brigade. And he may have carried Kennedy along, in the sense that they were both hoping for Castro to be dead by the time the Brigade had landed. That way, all the rest of the “unpleasantness” could be dispensed with. Bissell himself almost admits as much in his Memoirs. And perhaps even more damaging, he admits -and regrets- that he was not more forceful in emphasizing to the president the paramount importance of the bombing raids. Castro’s remaining attack planes must be destroyed or the entire operation would fail. But he did not. Neither did Dulles, who also bitterly regretted it afterwards.
Bissell did not even speak to the President when Dean Rusk offered both him and General Cabell the telephone to speak directly with Kennedy on the night of April 16th. They both went to see Rusk at the State Department after hearing from McGeorge Bundy at 9:45pm that the president had given direct orders cancelling the dawn bombing raid prior to the Brigade’s landing at the Bay of Pigs. Rusk told them: “At the present time, political requirements are over-riding”. They continued to plead for a reinstatement of the dawn raids and meanwhile, a call from Colonel Hawkins, the Brigade’s military advisor, came in. He had just learned of the cancellation order and was livid. He predicted that unless the bombing raid went on as planned, the Brigade’s supply ships would be sunk and the entire invasion would fail. He begged Bissell to change the president’s mind. Whereupon Rusk called the White House and spoke with Kennedy, who again refused to change his mind. Rusk passed the phone first to Cabell, then to Bissell. They both refused to speak with the president. That was the invasion’s last gasp. Bissell cannot possibly be forgiven for allowing the invasion to go on under the circumstances. At the very least, he should have resigned on the spot. But he did not. For that, he must answer to history.
Then, who was most responsible for the invasion’s defeat? It should be obvious, but it is still not, after 52 years. It was the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was not temperamentally fit to be president; he did not even want it, except for his father’s pressure on him since his older brother Joe had died in a WWI accident. He was an undistinguished Congressman and Senator from Massachusetts when he ran for president in 1960. He was a very sick man, who took more than 20 often dangerous drugs every day of his life and an obsessive womanizer who slept with another woman the night of his inauguration (according to his friend Ben Bradlee). He was never interested in domestic or foreign affairs and was dismally ignorant about Cuba. Days before his death, he told French writer Jean Daniel in a White House interview that “there is no country in the world… where economic colonization, and the humiliation and exploitation of its people were worse than Cuba” (he had written similar words in his ghost-written 1960 book The Strategy of Peace).
But he was a strong anti-communist thanks in part to his father and as was mentioned before, he used Cuba as a winning issue in the campaign, only to become a prisoner of his own rhetoric. After he became president, he had to face enormous pressure from his liberal base (Schlesinger, Chester Bowles, Senator Fulbright) to reject the invasion plans and just as strong pressures from the CIA -and public opinion, which was decidedly in favor of getting rid of Castro- to approve them. His liberal advisors also pointed out that his marquee project for Latin America, the Alliance for Progress, would be severely jeopardized by an attack against Cuba. Still, he hesitated, he would not make up his mind. He never believed in the operation, but ended up cynically supporting it, callously saying of the Brigade: “We have to get rid of these men. Let’s dump them in Cuba; especially since that’s where they want to go anyway”.
On April 21, Kennedy indeed took full responsibility for what was has been, since then, the debacle, the fiasco, the disaster, of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He truly had no choice: he WAS responsible. But it was none of those. It was, instead, a great tragedy. First, for the Brigade. Then for the Cuban exiles. Then for all Cubans, including those in the island, who were condemned to live for the next 52 years under a totalitarian regime. Then for the United States. The invasion’s failure cost the American people millions of dollars and thousands of deaths over the next half century all over the world. Finally, it cost the whole world dearly in terms of revolutionary subversion, guerrilla warfare, international terrorism (Palestine terrorists, including Yasser Arafat, were trained in Cuba) and the drug trade gone wild. But ironically, Kennedy must be forever linked with Cuba. The Bay of Pigs invasion came first, just four months into his presidency. Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis, directly caused by the invasion’s failure. In the end, Castro and Cuba may even have been involved in the president’s assassination. There has never been any proof of this, but his successor, Lyndon Johnson, certainly believed Castro was involved.
President Kennedy also took complete responsibility for the cancellation of the bombing raids after the first and only one of April 15, which only destroyed ONE single FAR plane and left 11 to dispose of the Brigade. Yet, ever since the aftermath of the invasion, Kennedy apologists began the greatest disinformation campaign in American History. Kennedy was not responsible for anything, no matter what he said. It was the CIA. It was Dulles. It was Bissell. It was -anyone but Kennedy. Many years later, when the CIA Inspector General’s Report, after being kept secret since October 1961, was finally published in 1998 and put ALL the blame for the failure on the CIA and NONE of it on President Kennedy, pro-Kennedy historians could only give a collective sigh of relief and tell one another -and the rest of us: “See, we told you so”. (But not all left-leaning historians swallowed many of the Kennedy myths. Five years ago, my doctoral advisor at Rice University, Professor Allen Matusow, a prominent historian then and now, told me when I visited him in Houston, that I was right all along and he -and many of his leftist colleagues, including formerly “Marxist” historian Eugene Genovese- were wrong: not just on Castro’s Cuba, but on Kennedy and communism, too).
However, not just the CIA principals, from Dulles, down to Bissell, down to Esterline and Hawkins, down to Lynch and Robertson, down to the four Alabama National Guard pilots who sacrificed their lives for Cuba’s freedom, all of them and a number of objective historians have correctly put the blame on the cancellation of the bombing raids -and on Kennedy, where it belongs. And in 1985, long after the blame-game had stopped, John McCone, who became the new CIA Director after Dulles and Bissell had been fired by Kennedy, wrote a private letter to Bissell. It is worth quoting a line from it: “It was this fatal error [the cancellation of the bombing raids] that caused the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation”. Even Fidel Castro, when asked by an interviewer shortly after the invasion why it had failed, answered: “Because of the lack of air cover”. That is enough for History.
A final comment on sources. This essay was originally written in Spanish for a non-academic audience, as I have done for the last decade on every anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion. But for this version in English, because it will be published in Cuban Affairs, the Quarterly Journal of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, it should be mentioned that all information in the essay is the result of my 43 years researching and writing about both the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. My doctoral dissertation was written about the 18-month period between the two great Cuban Crises, from April 1961 to December 1962. Thus, I have dedicated well over half of my life to the study of these two major Cuban crises on the 20th century. I have met and spoken with hundreds of participants in the invasion over these 43 years and I have had access to some Cuban sources in the past decade. I believe I have read most of the books and articles written on the topic
But in essence, all citations, quotes or information about the CIA plans and all communications among Kennedy advisors, and with the President, come from the archives of the State Department (FRUS, Volume X, Cuba, 1961-1962, especially documents 27 to 31 and 46 to 61); and other U.S. government publications. All other specific citations come from José Manuel Hernández, Brian Latell, General Rafael Del Pino and the three best books on the Bay of Pigs invasion: Decision for Disaster (2000) by Grayston Lynch; The Bay of Pigs (2008) by Howard Jones and The Brilliant Disaster (2011) by Jim Rasenberger. For this version of the essay, I have also spoken over the telephone recently with Professor Jones, Mr. Rasenberger and Dr. Latell, all good friends, just to refresh certain facts and to discuss certain still controversial and even secret issues. All emphasis throughout is mine. And, of course, I am solely responsible for the contents.
Diego Trinidad was born in Cuba in 1946 and came to the United States with his family in 1960. He has degrees from the University of Miami (B.B.A. 1967, M.A. 1970) and a doctorate in history from Rice University (1972). He is a retired businessman and has given many conferences, written hundreds of articles published in magazines in Miami, New York and Madrid and three chapters for two books. He is a political analyst and full time history researcher presently working on a history of the Cuban Revolution. He lives in Cutler Bay, Florida, with his wife Cristina and their three cats.