The failure of the invasion of Cuba in April, 1961 by 1500 CIA-trained anti-Castro expatriates is generally attributed to President Kennedy’s loss of nerve at the critical moment, when he cancelled the air strikes which were supposed to incapacitate Castro’s air force. As a result, more than a hundred men were killed, the rest surrendered, and the Cuban exiles in America never forgave Kennedy for this “betrayal.”
Kennedy did assume full public responsibility for what he too considered a disaster, as he should have. Privately, though, he blamed the CIA, and fired the three top men in the agency responsible for the operation: Director Allen Dulles, Deputy Director Gen. P. Cabell, and Deputy Director for Plans (now called Operations) Richard Bissell. Immediately after the failed invasion, on April 22, Kennedy ordered Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the President’s special military representative, Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations, Dulles, and Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, to conduct a full investigation of why the invasion had failed. This was submitted on June 13, 1961, but did not become available to the public until twenty years later, when a transcript of the report was published as a book called Operation Zapata (University Publications of America, 1981). “Operation Zapata” was the code name for the invasion.
This report merits close scrutiny for a number of reasons, particularly in view of the mountain of literature published on the subject which is inaccurate and based on material written by or elicited from participants, like Dulles and Bissell, who had every reason to present a skewed image of the truth.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Kennedy would not have ordered this investigation if he felt he were truly responsible. He knew what he had and had not done, and obviously that did not go very far toward explaining how things had gone so wrong.
The second thing to remember is that the report resulted in the firing of Dulles, Cabell, and Bissell, so there can be no doubt whom JFK did blame.
I believe a close reading of the report shows that the CIA sabotaged their own invasion, the purpose being to put JFK in exactly the position he found himself in: send in the Marines or face disaster. He chose disaster. Two years later, the same thing happened in Vietnam, and again he chose disaster (i.e. withdrawal, anathema to the CIA and the military), but this time he didn’t survive.
1. Responsibility for the operation
It is generally known that Zapata was a CIA-planned and CIA-run operation from its beginnings at the end of the Eisenhower administration, but it is interesting to see how Dulles tried to weasel out of the responsibility. At one point in the testimony, Admiral Burke reminds Dulles that the actual conduct of the operation “was all in one place and that was in CIA” (p. 249):
Dulles: But that was done by military personnel.
Burke: But not under our command structure.
Gen. Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, puts it more clearly, when he is asked if he “or the Joint Chiefs were the defenders of the military aspects of the operation, or was it CIA?” (p. 323):
Lemnitzer: The defenders of the military parts of the plan were the people who produced it and that was CIA. We were providing assistance and assuring the feasibility of the plan.
Admiral Burke’s answer the next day is equally clear (p. 347):
Question: Did you regard the Joint Chiefs as defenders and spokesmen of the military aspects of this operation?
Burke: No. That’s one of the unfortunate misunderstandings. We sent military people over to CIA, but CIA gave the orders, and they had the people, and they had control. We examined the plan and that was it.
2. The uprising
One clear aspect of the plan was that once the invasion force landed, there would be a spontaneous uprising on the part of the Cuban people, presumably anxious to be liberated from Castro. Dulles also tries to weasel out of this (p. 111-112):
Dulles: We didn’t count on this so much in the Zapata Plan; whereas the Trinidad Plan [an earlier plan to land at another beach] was more of a shock treatment which might have brought the Cuban people around to our side. The later plan was not tailored to this, and it was far quieter. Perhaps Castro might have played down the landing instead of blowing it up. As a matter of fact, he only blew it up when it was rather evident that he had licked the invading force.
This stream of words is meant to disguise the lie in the first sentence — but Robert Kennedy pursues him:
Kennedy: Then what was the objective of the operation?
Dulles: Get a beachhead, hold it, and then build it up.
Kennedy: How could you possibly do that — take a thousand or 1,400 men in there and hold the beachhead against these thousands of militia?
Dulles has no answer to this. If he wasn’t counting on an uprisng, everyone else was, including the Secretaries of Defense and State:
McNamara: It was understood that there was a substantial possibility of uprisings… (p. 202)
Rusk: There was a very considerable likelihood of popular uprisings.
Question: How essential was such an uprising regarded for the success of the operation?
Rusk: It was believed that the uprising was utterly essential to success in terms of ousting Castro (p. 220).
Gen. Shoup, the Marine Commandant, had also been convinced by the CIA that there would be an uprising:
Shoup: …The intelligence indicated that there were quite a number of people that were ready to join in the fight against Castro (p. 243) … My understanding was that the possibilities of uprisings were increasing, that people were just waiting for these arms and equipment, and as soon as they heard where the invasion was that they would be coming after them (p. 245).
Question: The success of this operation was wholly dependent upon popular support?
Shoup: Absolutely. Ultimate success (p. 253).
Question: You’d say then that they would still be on the beach if the plan had been carried out as conceived and depended upon popular uprisings throughout the island of Cuba? Otherwise they would have been wiped out?
Shoup: Absolutely. I don’t think there is any doubt at all. Eventually 1,500 people cannot hold out against many, many thousands.
Question: Would you send 1,200 Marines in there to do that?
Shoup: No, I wouldn’t, unless 1,200 Marines are going to be assisted by 30,000 Cubans.
Question: Did somebody tell you there’d be 30,000 Cubans?
Gen. Shoup: No, they didn’t, but we were getting materials ready for them (p. 253).
The intelligence Shoup refers to came from the CIA:
Question: Who gave you this information on the uprisings?
Shoup: I don’t know. I suppose it was CIA. Well, it’s obvious we wouldn’t be taking 30,000 additional rifles if we didn’t think there was going to be somebody to use them. I don’t think any military man would ever think that this force could overthrow Castro without support. They could never expect anything but annihilation (p. 253).
Lemnitzer also makes it clear that the CIA was the source of information on the uprisings:
Question: What impression did the JCS have of the likelihood of an uprising?
Lemnitzer: We had no information. We went on CIA’s analysis and it was reported that there was a good prospect. I remember Dick Bissell, evaluating this for the President, indicated there was sabotage, bombings and there were also various groups that were asking or begging for arms and so forth (p. 334).
Obviously, despite Dulles’s denial, the CIA had convinced Rusk, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs that the uprisings were both likely and essential to the success of the mission.
What basis did the CIA have for this “information”? The Zapata Peninsula, where the Bay of Pigs is located, was swampy, isolated, and uninhabited, so there could have been no possibility of a spontaneous uprising, because no indigenous Cubans would have seen the landing. Therefore, pre-invasion propaganda would have been essential to prepare the Cuban people for what was coming. This was the mission of 12 CIA-controlled radio stations in the region, including one on Swan Island that had been set up in March 1960 by the infamous Gen. Edward Lansdale. There were also supposed to be “extensive leaflet drops” on the day of the invasion (Taylor’s Memorandum 1, para. 38). According to Cuban sources, however, writes Luis Aguilar in the introduction to Operation Zapata, “With the pretext of secrecy, no clear explanation of the expedition’s objectives was given to the Cuban people, and no appeal was made to their anti-Communist feelings” (xii). Indeed, it would have been quite a feat to let the Cuban people know about the impending invasion without letting Castro know too, and as it turned out, Castro was one of the first Cubans to hear about it. He had thousands of potential opponents arrested on April 13, days before they even heard about the coming invasion, thus quelling the “uprising” before it had a chance to get started. The leaflets were not dropped either, because “the military situation did not permit the diversion of effort” (Memo. 1, para. 38), although as it turned out the planes that could have dropped them never took off from Nicaragua.
3. Going guerrilla
A second prong of the invasion strategy was that if the expected uprising failed to take place, the landing force would “go guerrilla,” even though the troops had not been trained in guerrilla tactics and the area was highly unsuitable for them. There was no place to hide, no way to communicate, no food, and no inhabitants to support them. Aguilar quotes Maximo Gomez, the master tactician of guerrilla warfare during Cuba’s war for independence, as referring to the Zapata Peninsula as a “geographical and military trap” (p. xiii). Yet this was the area the CIA picked for the invasion, and they again succeeded in convincing the military, McNamara, and Rusk of the feasibility of the plan. Admiral Burke told the Taylor committee that “if there were opposition and they could not hold it [the beach], they would slip through and become guerrillas” (p. 112). Slip through to where? McNamara said “They would be split up into a guerrilla force and moved into the Escambrays” (p. 202), despite the fact that the Escambray mountains were 60 kilometers east of the landing point. How would they get there? No motorized vehicles were landed with the troops. Rusk is even less well informed:
Question: What was expected to happen if the landing force effected a successful lodgment but there was no uprising?
Sec. Rusk: In that case they would commence guerrilla operations, move into the swamps and into the hills. This swamp area was stated to be the home of guerrillas.
Question: Was the point made that this area had not been used for guerrilla operations in this century?
Sec. Rusk: I don’t recall (p. 220).
Gen. Lemnitzer makes it clear that the CIA was the source of the plan:
It was our understanding of the plan without any doubt that moving into the guerrilla phase was one of the important elements of the plan, and any idea that the Chiefs considered that they were making an indefinite lodgment on the beachhead is not right. Every bit of information that we were able to gather from the CIA was that the guerrilla aspects were always considered as a main element of the plan (p. 318).
During this same discussion (on May 18), Lemnitzer replies to an unidentified speaker who makes the statement:
Statement: The President had the same impression that you did — that if worse came to worst, this group could become guerrillas, but as we’ve gotten into it, it’s become obvious that this possibility never really existed.
Lemnitzer: Then we were badly misinformed (p. 318).
Everyone was misinformed, but in opposite ways. The President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs were told that the guerrilla option was real and that the troops were prepared for it. McGeorge Bundy says in his letter to Taylor:
The President repeatedly indicated his own sense that this [guerrilla] option was of great importance, and he was repeatedly assured that the guerrilla option was a real one … My point is simply that the President steadily insisted that the force have an alternative means of survival, and that he was steadily assured that such an alternative was present (p. 178).
Bundy, of course, as Kennedy’s National Security Advisor and liaison with the CIA, would have been the responsible person to give the President these assurances. Yet on April 19, two days after the landing, Lemnitzer and the President learned to their surprise that the troops were in fact not prepared to go guerrilla:
Lemnitzer: On the morning of D+2, I made a comment to the President that this was the time for this outfit to go guerrilla.
Question: How were your comments received?
Lemnitzer: I received a surprise when Mr. Bissell said they were not prepared to go guerrilla.
Question: This was the first time you’d known about that?
Lemnitzer: Yes (p. 330).
Admiral Burke received the same surprise:
Question: What was your impression of what would happen if the landing was made but there were no uprisings?
Burke: It was my understanding that the landing force would go guerrilla. I never knew they had orders to fall back to the beachhead. The first time I knew that they were not prepared to go guerrilla was when Mr. Bissell made this point on the night of D+1 (p. 331).
The troops, however, were told the opposite:
Question: Was there ever any mention of your becoming guerrillas?
Mr. Estrada: No, we had no plan to go to the mountains (p. 296).
Question: Was there ever any talk, when it appeared things were becoming critical, of going guerrilla?
Mr. Betancourt: Not that I know of.
Question: During your training, was there any talk of this?
Mr. Betancourt: No (p. 310).
When confronted with this fact, that the CIA had made plans for the troops to go guerrilla without so much as telling the “guerrillas” about it, much less training them, Dulles takes his characteristic weasel’s position:
Statement: Without training and instruction, they would never have gone guerrilla.
Dulles: I wouldn’t wholly buy that. These people had a cadre of leaders — 20 percent to 30 percent would be the leaders. They knew about guerrilla warfare. The guerrillas in WW II never had any training until they got into a guerrilla operation.
I think this statement reveals a lot about the way Dulles thought. People are to be manipulated and, if necessary, sacrificed. It doesn’t matter if the baby can’t swim: throw it in the pool and it will learn; if not, tough. I think this was the way Dulles saw not only the guerrilla option but the entire operation, as I will try to make clear.
4. The D-2 air strikes
Now to the crucial matter of the air strikes. Two air strikes were planned. The first one, on D-2 (Sat., April 15), was to be a bombing raid on two airfields (at Santiago and San Antonio de Los Baños), accompanied by a “diversionary” landing of 160 men 30 miles east of Guantanamo. The landing did not take place, which is a good thing for the 160 men, who would obviously have been quickly captured or killed. The bombing raids did take place and destroyed a small number of Castro’s planes. But the logic behind this first strike was never clear. The B-26s, which were actually flown from Nicaragua, were meant to look like Castro’s own planes, flown by defectors who shot up their own air field and then hightailed it for parts unknown, whence they would return in two days to carry out the definitive D-Day strike and provide air cover for the invasion. This would preserve “plausible deniability” from the U.S. point of view, i.e. the fiction that it was solely a Cuban exile operation. The ploy didn’t work, of course. Two of the bombers landed in Key West with their machine guns obviously not having been fired, and the Cuban ambassador denounced the attack as a U.S. plot in the U.N. the same day. Why did the CIA bother with this subterfuge? Who did they think would be fooled? How would it explain the 1500 men who would storm the beach? Why not hold the air strikes until D-Day? The “defectors” story would have been just as convincing, or unconvincing, then as two days earlier. As it was, all the D-2 strike did was embarrass the U.S. and tip Castro and the whole world off to the likelihood of another attack. Taylor summarizes the controversy surrounding the D-2 strikes as follows:
These strikes were for the purpose of giving the impression of being the action of Cuban pilots defecting from the Cuban Air Force and thus support the fiction that the D-Day landing was receiving its air support from within Cuba. The Joint Chiefs of Staff did not favor these D-2 air strikes because of their indecisive nature and the danger of alerting prematurely the Castro force. Mr. Bissell of CIA also later stated at a meeting on April 6 that CIA would prefer to conduct an all-out air strike on the morning of D-Day rather than perform the D-2 defection strikes followed by limited strikes on D-Day. Nevertheless, the political advantages led to their inclusion in the plan but with the realization that main reliance for the destruction of the Castro Air Force must be placed on the D-Day strikes (Memo. 1, para. 30).
It is clear from the testimony that the military were against the D-2 strikes and were ill-informed:
Question: Do you feel that you had absolute and complete knowledge about this operation?
Gen. Shoup: Absolutely not (p. 249).
Gen. White: … I thought that if we did do the pre-D-Day strikes, there was a pretty good chance that world reaction would be such that the thing would be called off … I think the best operation would have been to launch as heavy a strike as we could on the airfields on the day of the attack (p. 256).
Gen. Lemnitzer: The D-2 strikes were added for nonmilitary reasons. We could have preferred to do without the D-2 air strikes. They were never intended to accomplish the destruction of the Castro air force. They were to lend plausibility to the story that the D-Day strikes had been launched from within Cuba.
Question: Did you object to the D-2 air strikes?
Lemnitzer: No, we did not object. We would have preferred not to have them, but for nonmilitary reasons they were considered to be of great importance and they were approved (p. 322).
Question: Now with regard to establishing the plausibility of aircraft operating out of Cuba, would you feel that the Joint Chiefs had a responsibility for arguing against that concept? Rather, do you feel that the Joint Chiefs should have registered a reclama on this?
Burke: Yes, and Gen. Lemnitzer did protest (p. 347).
Who insisted on the D-2 strikes, then? Despite Bissell’s purported disavowal, Dulles admits that it was the CIA and Bissell’s former student, McGeorge Bundy (whose brother William was a CIA officer):
Question: Who was the proponent of the D-2 strikes, Allen? I don’t recall that point.
Dulles: I think that it was partly in our shop and partly with Mac Bundy, as I recall. The idea of the defections — this was one of the keys to the idea that the planes that were striking Cuban airfields were operating from Cuba. I can’t say whether that limited strike concept was ever brought over here [to the Pentagon] or not. I think it must have been known to Gen. Gray, but I don’t know whether it was discussed in the Joint Chiefs (p.257).
He doesn’t know if it was discussed by the military? Why was the military involved at all, then? What Dulles says in this case is probably the truth: it was a CIA-Bundy plan. (The feigned defections and the limited strike were the plan.) Interestingly, however, Bundy does not even mention the D-2 strikes in his letter to Taylor.
Dulles may have revealed more than he intended when he responds to Gen. Shoup’s description of the D-2 plan as a “half-effort”:
Dulles: General, may I add this: The D-2 Day was essentially a plot, not a plan.The plan was the D-Day strike (p. 249).
Allen Dulles was anything but a naive man, and one wonders whom this “plot” was intended to deceive. At another point, he admits that the attempt to make the whole operation look “plausibly deniable” was hopeless:
Dulles: When you get an operation this big, the cover blows off (p. 265).
Later he tries to hedge:
Statement: I think they wanted to make it appear that this force had come from Cuba somewhere and consequently they wanted to get the ships out of there.
Mr. Dulles: Yes, but they were Cuban ships and Cuban crews and Cuban owned. Everything about them was Cuban (p. 286).
Of course, by “Cuban” Dulles means Cuban exiles. I wonder if he was thinking of one of the supply ships that was sunk during the invasion and which had the distinctly non-Cuban name of Houston? (The name may have further significance, which I will get back to later.) In any case, the question remains: Who could Dulles possibly have thought he was fooling — if indeed that is what he thought? And if it was enough that the men and equipment used on D-Day were “Cuban,” why were the D-2 strikes necessary?
The truth is that neither Dulles nor anyone else believed the efforts to achieve “nonattribution” would work:
Rusk: We were hoping for the maximum [deniability]. In retrospect, however, this looks a little naive (p. 223).
Gen. Shoup: I don’t think that at this time in 1961 or hereafter you are going to do it covertly.
Question: Did you really think that this could be covert in the sense that it would not be attributed to the United States?
Gen. Shoup: I did not (p. 254).
Gen. Decker: It never occurred to me that we could disown supporting this operation (p. 271).
The Secretary of Defense is more confused on this point:
Question: Were the implications of the conflict between operational requirements for success and the need for nonattribution clearly understood?
McNamara: Not really … (p. 204).
That is, he did “not really” understand that the invasion could not succeed if they tried to hide the U.S. role in it, although this was obvious to his military experts.
Question: What degree of nonattribution was sought and why?
McNamara: The highest possible degree because the Latin American countries had indicated they would not support the operation.
So it was also obvious to “the Latin American countries,” with whom the invasion plans were discussed, that the U.S. would be held responsible. Who else, then, might be fooled?
Question: Was there any doubt that, globally speaking, this operation would be attributed to the United States?
McNamara: We felt it would to a degree, but wanted to reduce this to a minimum (p. 203-4).
I am afraid that what McNamara meant here is that nobody in the world would be fooled except perhaps his own countrymen.
5. The D-Day air strikes
Now we come to the crux of the matter — the D-Day air strikes. The mythology has it that President Kennedy cancelled these strikes at the last minute for fear that the U.S. role would be obvious, especially after the embarrassment of the D-2 strikes. Some speculate that Adlai Stevenson, the UN ambassador, who had not known about the D-2 strikes and vociferously denied any U.S. part in them at the UN meeting on April 15, felt humiliated and convinced Kennedy to change his mind about the second strike. This is patently absurd, since the one thing we know for sure is that Kennedy gave final and formal approval of the D-Day strikes at noon on Sunday, April 16. What happened after that is cloudy, but again the mythology has it that Kennedy changed his mind late Sunday evening. There is no clear evidence of this, and it certainly doesn’t jive with Robert Kennedy’s report that the President said on D-Day (Mon., April 17):
… that he’d rather be called an aggressor than a bum, so he was prepared to go as far as necessary to assure success, but we were always about five or six or seven hours behind on our information … We didn’t have any idea what the situation was there. The President said he used to walk around on that White House lawn thinking he’d like to do something if he knew what was going on.
What was clear all along, though, to Kennedy and everyone else, was that the D-Day air strikes, which would destroy Castro’s small air force, were absolutely essential to the success of the invasion. Bundy says “It was clearly understood that the Air battle should be won” (p. 177). The military understood it too:
Shoup: However, one thought was predominate. You must achieve air superiority or you are not going to be able to get ashore (p. 244).
White: Well, the number one thing that I felt was vital was surprise [D-Day] air attacks on the several airfields (p. 255).
Lemnitzer: … I’d like to point out that the D-2 air strike was never expected to wipe out Castro’s entire force. It was the D-Day strike which was the important one (p. 324).
It is also clear, though seldom mentioned in the literature, that the order to cancel the air strikes, after Kennedy had formally approved them, came not from Kennedy himself but from McGeorge Bundy. Taylor relates the sequence of events:
At about 9:30 P.M. on 16 April, Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President, telephoned General C.P. Cabell of CIA to inform him that the dawn air strikes the following morning should not be launched until they could be conducted from a strip within the beachhead. Mr. Bundy indicated that any further consultation with regard to this matter should be with the Secretary of State (Memo. 1, para. 43).
General Cabell, accompanied by Mr. Bissell, went at once to Secretary Rusk’s office, arriving there about 10:15 P.M. There they received a telephone call from [deleted reference to one of the brigade commanders] who, having learned of the cancellation of the D-Day strikes, called to present his view of the gravity of the decision. General Cabell and Mr. Bissell then tried to persuade the Secretary of State to permit the dawn D-Day strkes. The Secretary indicated that there were policy considerations against air strikes before the beachhead airfield was in the hands of the landing force and completely operational, capable of supporting the raids. The two CIA representatives pointed out the risk of loss to the shipping if the Castro Air Force were not neutralized by the dawn strikes. They also stressed the difficulty which the B-26 airplanes would have in isolating the battlefield after the landing, as well as the heavier scale of air attack to which the disembarked forces would be exposed. The Secretary of State indicated subsequently that their presentation led him to feel that while the air strikes were indeed important, they were not vital. However, he offered them the privilege of telephoning the President in order to present their views to him. They saw no point in speaking personally to the President and so informed the Secretary of State. The order cancelling the D-Day strikes was dispatched to the departure field in Nicaragua, arriving when the pilots were in their cockpits ready for take-off. The Joint Chiefs of Staff learned of the cancellation at varying hours the following morning (Memo. 1, para. 44).
The questions raised by this account are:
1) Did the cancellation order come from the President? If so, what had happened in the preceding nine and a half hours to make him change his mind? If not, who did it come from?
2) Why did Bundy refer Cabell to Rusk for “further consultation”? As Rusk shows in his testimony, he was hopelessly ill-informed about the operation and about the importance of the air strikes in particular, and since when does the President go to bed in the midst of a crisis of this magnitude and leave the final decision to the Secretary of State? This does not fit either Kennedy’s character or the structure of the national security hierarchy. Strictly speaking, that is by law, the Secretary of State would not have to know anything about a covert CIA operation, but Bundy, as the National Security Advisor, had to know all about it. That was his job, to act as the President’s personal and direct link with the CIA.
3) How could Cabell and Bissell have failed to convince Rusk of the importance of the air strikes? Taylor says they pointed out the “risk of loss to the shipping” and the “heavier scale of air attack” from Castro’s planes if the strikes were cancelled, but this was understated to the point of being misleading. The B-26 bombers, though equipped with machine guns, would be hopelessly out-maneuvered by Castro’s T-33’s, which would wreak havoc on both the troops and the supply ships if any of them got off the ground.
The plan was to destroy them — all of them — on the ground. This was understood by everyone, including Bundy, according to Col. L. Fletcher Prouty, who was the Air Force liaison officer with the CIA at the time, though not directly involved in the operation (personal communication). Taylor, however, says the importance of the T-33s “was not fully appreciated in advance” (p. 37). It is hard to imagine how this was possible, since the T-33s were U.S.-made planes and, though they were originally intended as trainers, had been equipped for combat on other occasions. The testimony is contradictory here:
Question: In the performance of the T-33s, were you surprised at how effective they were?
Gen. White: I was surprised to find that they were armed.
Question: You did not consider that they were combat aircraft?
Gen. White: We did not (p. 259).
Question: Were there any comments or discussion about the T-33s in particular?
Gen. Lemnitzer: I think I had information that they were armed … (p. 326).
Still, even if the efficacy of the T-33s was underestimated, it was clear, as shown above, that the air war had to be won for the invasion to succeed. Bissell himself testified to the committee that “we would have had to assume that we would have knocked out Castro’s air force” (p. 112). Cancelling the strikes meant there would be no air war at all, since Castro’s planes would have the skies entirely to themselves.
4) Why didn’t Cabell and Bissell call the President? Rusk invited them to. It must have been obvious to them that Rusk did not understand the importance of the air strikes, although they certainly did. Why would they have seen “no point” in talking with the President, when they knew that the brigade would be slaughtered if Castro got his planes off the ground?
Rusk’s account of what happened the night of April 16 is perplexing, so let us look at it piece by piece, as it appears in the transcript (p. 221-2):
Question: Was it understood that control of the air was considered essential to the success of the landing?
Rusk: Yes, it was understood that it was essential to the success of the landing, but there was an inadequate appreciation of the enemy’s capability in the air.
This is nonsense. Cancelling the strikes meant Castro’s planes would be the only ones in the air. There would be no air control whatsoever, regardless of the enemy’s capability.
Furthermore, neither the President nor I was clear that there was a D-2 air strike. We did have it in our minds that there would be a D-Day air strike. Following the D-2 air strike there was considerable confusion.
If this is true, the D-2 strikes were carried out without the knowledge of the President.
It wasn’t realized that there was to be more than one air strike in the Havana area. The President was called on this matter and he didn’t think there should be second strikes in the area unless there were overriding considerations.
When was the President called? What did he mean by “in the Havana area”? The D-Day strikes were planned for San Antonio de los Baños, which is near Havana, and for Santiago de Cuba, which is at the opposite end of the island. In any case, “strikes in the area [of Havana]” cannot refer to all the strikes planned for D-Day.
And what are “overriding considerations”? Wouldn’t the difference between success and failure of the operation be one? Rusk’s wording (” he didn’t think there should be unless”) does not sound like he is talking about a presidential order. I suspect he is referring to a talk with the President on Saturday or Sunday morning, before Kennedy made the decision at noon to go ahead.
We talked about the relative importance of the air strikes with Mr. Bissell and General Cabell at the time. However, they indicated that the air strikes would be important, not critical. I offered to let them call the President, but they indicated they didn’t think the matter was that important. They said that they preferred not to call the President.
This is very clear, referring to Rusk’s talk with Cabell and Bissell late Sunday evening. “Important, not critical”? If Cabell and Bissell said this, they must have been purposely misleading him, because they knew perfectly well the strikes were critical.
Question: Did you attempt to advise the President as to the importance of theair strikes?
This question, immediately following Rusk’s answer above, clearly means “Did you try to call the President after talking to Cabell and Bissell?” Of course, since they had told him the air strikes were not critical, there was no reason to call the President.
Rusk: I had talked to him and he had stated that if there weren’t overriding considerations the second strikes shouldn’t be made. Since Mr. Bissell and General Cabell didn’t want to talk to the President on the matter, I felt there were no overriding considerations to advise him of. I didn’t think they believed the dawn air strikes were too important. I believe that Castro turned out to have more operational air strength than we figured.
This again is clear. The past perfect tense (“had talked,” “had stated”) following the question in the simple past (“did you attempt”) emphasizes that Rusk is referring to a previous conversation, probably the same one referred to earlier, which probably took place on Saturday or Sunday morning. Cabell and Bissell would have known this too, and it is simply inconceivable that they would have chosen to let the matter rest there, when they had received the President’s formal go-ahead for the invasion as planned — with air strikes — at noon. How could they have considered such an inexplicable and disastrous about-face as “not too important”?
Cabell’s behavior here must be compared to his behavior the next morning (Monday, April 17), when he went to Rusk’s home at 4:30 in the morning to ask for U.S. air cover for the supply ships and from there “by telephone made the request to the President” (Memo. 1, para. 45). This time the request was for offical U.S. planes, which of course were not “deniable,” and Kennedy refused. The point is, why was Cabell willing to call the President at 0430 in the morning to make a much more daring request than what the original plan called for, when he was unwilling to call him at 10:30 or 11:00 the night before to ask why the crucial element of the approved plan had (supposedly) suddenly been reversed?
There is another version of Cabell and Bissell’s meeting with Rusk in the testimony, this time by an unidentified source, but I suspect it was Tracy Barnes, a CIA officer who was present at the testimony on that day (April 25):
Question: What led to the cancellation of the air strikes?
Answer: At 1300 Sunday it was understood that the plan, including the airstrikes for dawn of D-Day, had been approved. At about 7:00 p.m. CIA representatives were called to Mr. Rusk’s office. He was concerned over the apparent defection of two rather than one B-26 and an additional cargo plane because he felt these additional defections had caused him to mislead Mr. Stevenson. At 10:30 p.m. the CIA tactical commander was advised that the air strikes had been called off. He most strongly urged that this decision be reconsidered and reversed. In debating the air strikes question and in discussing the action to be taken to strengthen Mr. Stevenson’s position, the President was contacted. In discussing the air strike question the President said he wasn’t aware that there were going to be any air strikes on the morning of D-Day. At 2315 Mr. Rusk announced that there would be no dawn air strikes. At this time the invasion ships were within 5,000 yards of their landing beaches and it was physically impossible to call off the strikes (p. 130).
This contradicts Rusk’s testimony on two crucial points — by implying that Rusk called the President in Cabell and Bissell’s presence, and by stating that the President did not know about the planned D-Day strikes. By placing Rusk’s “announcement” of the cancellation at 2315, the impression is given that Rusk was relaying an order the President had just given to him on the telephone, although the actual order had come from McGeorge Bundy at 9:30 p.m. This is the version that appears in Peter Wyden’s much-quoted book Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story (Jonathan Cape, 1979), and repeated, for example, in John Ranelagh’s The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA (Touchstone, 1986). But Rusk’s account is more credible, if only because it comes from the Secretary of State rather than from a unidentified “CIA representative.” Furthermore, the idea of Cabell and Bissell refusing to speak with the President when Rusk has him on the line is even harder to believe than their refusing to telephone him themselves. Taylor’s report also indicates that there was no phone call to the President while Cabell and Bissell were with Rusk, who “offered them the privilege of telephoning the President in order to present their views to him” (Memo. 1, para. 44), which they declined. Whoever this unidentified CIA man is, he must have been lying. Why?
There are other inconsistencies. Despite the cancellation of the dawn air strikes, the brigade’s B-26s were allowed to cover the landing beach throughout D-Day:
In all, a total of 13 combat sorties were flown on D-Day, in the course of which 4 B-26s were lost to enemy T-33 action (Taylor Memo. 1, para. 56).
Who authorized this air action? If Kennedy cancelled the air strikes at dawn, why would he allow these? Taylor’s report does not indicate that the President was ever consulted. Then, on D-Day night, after it was much too late to be effective, the CIA decided to do on its own what it had supposedly been prevented from during at dawn:
Impressed by the ease with which the T-33 aircraft could destroy the obsolete B-26-type aircraft, the CIA leaders decided to attempt, by a bombing attack, to destroy the remaining Castro aircraft at night on the ground. Six aircraft were scheduled to strike San Antonio de los Baños, believed to be the main base of operations, in two waves of three each during the night of 17-18 April. The mission was flown but was unsuccessful because of heavy haze and low clouds over the target (Taylor Memo. 1, para. 57).
This is a very fishy story. First of all, why didn’t the CIA feel they had to ask presidential permission for this action? It was not part of the plan the President had officially approved the day before, which had called for exactly this action, but 24 hours earlier, when it still had an excellent chance of succeeding. If the CIA was bold enough to act on its own in this way on Monday night (April 17-18), when it was too late, why was it not bold enough to do the same thing on Sunday night (April 16-17), when it was still possible to succeed? On Sunday Cabell and Bissell had not even been bold enough to ask the President directly why he had (supposedly) countermanded his order of 9 hours previous. On Monday they were bold enough to do exactly what he had (supposedly) ordered them not to do the night before without even trying to ask him for permission.
Secondly, although I am not a pilot, I cannot believe that these planes flew all the way from Nicaragua to San Antonio de los Baños only to turn around and go back because of a few clouds. An airport is a pretty big place, and you would think a few bombs would have been dropped in the hope of hitting something despite the poor visibility. Why didn’t they try again? Why wasn’t there an alternative target? Why was there no antiaircraft fire? What would have happened if the strikes had not been cancelled at dawn on D-Day and there had been clouds and haze? The success of the invasion hinged on destroying Castro’s air force on the ground. Is it credible that the invasion planners would have left this up to the weather?
On April 18, six more combat sorties were flown against Castro’s advancing army:
The attack was reported to have been very successful with an estimated 1800 casualties inflicted on the enemy and the destruction of 7 tanks. Napalm was used in these attacks, as well as bombs and rockets (Taylor Memo. 1, para. 66).
I wonder how “plausibly deniable” the use of napalm would have been? Where would the Cuban “defectors” have gotten hold of it? Furthermore, the CIA used “some American civilian contract pilots” in these sorties, because “some of the Cuban pilots either were too tired to fly or refused to do so” (Taylor Memo. 1, para. 66). How plausibly deniable would this have been if they had been shot down and captured? And again, the President was not consulted — the same President who was supposedly so concerned about deniability that he supposedly cancelled the most crucial action of the invasion.
As a result of Castro’s air defense, two brigade supply ships were sunk, and the rest put out to sea. After the second day of fighting, the troops on the beach were running out of ammunition, and the last chance for them to save themselves was to be resupplied Tuesday night (April 18-19), under cover of darkness. The ships were too far away to make it before daylight, though, so the convoy commander asked the CIA for a U.S. destroyer escort and Navy jet cover, without which continuing would have been suicidal. The CIA refused this request and stopped the convoy. That was the end for the troops on the beach and Operation Zapata. It is interesting to compare Taylor’s two somewhat different versions of why the CIA made this fateful decision. In Memo. 2 (“Immediate Causes of Failure of the Operation Zapata”), he writes:
As a result of these messages, CIA Headquarters, feeling that it would be futile to order these ammunition craft to attempt a daylight unloading, called off the mission and the attempt to get ammunition to the beach by sea ended. The President was not requested for specific authority to extend the air cover to protect the ammunition convoy. (para. 7)
This gives the impression that the CIA thought a daylight unloading would be futile even with the U.S. air cover, so they didn’t bother asking the President. In Memo. 1, though, the detailed general narrative, things are presented a little differently:
Considering the climate in which this operation had been planned in Washington, the CIA leaders apparently felt that it was hopeless to ask for either destroyer escort or jet cover for the ammunition convoy. Without this overt U.S. support, it was felt that the loss of the ships would be inevitable if they tried to run in in daylight — if, indeed, they could get the Cuban crews to make the attempt. Under these circumstances, they felt justified in calling off the sea resupply effort and made no further attempt beyond an arrangement for another air drop to get in ammunition before the final surrender. (para. 69)
The “CIA leaders” were of course Cabell and Bissell. In this version, it is clear that their decision was not based on the presumed futility of landing in daylight, as the first version implies, but on the presumed futility of getting the President’s permission for air cover!
This is an exact repetition of Cabell and Bissell’s performance on Sunday night. It was “futile” to ask Kennedy why he had cancelled the crucial air strikes, and “futile” to ask him for this crucial air cover. So, because “the CIA leaders apparently felt that it was hopeless” to pick up the phone and talk with the President, they abandoned the troops on the beach and ensured that the last possible chance to save the operation was lost. Once this was done, however, Bissell did ask the President to provide cover for an air drop of supplies on Wednesday morning, which was totally inadequate to save the situation:
Although permission was not sought for jet escort for the ammunition ships, Mr. Bissell of CIA sought and received Presidential authority to have the Navy to fly CAP over the beachhead from 0630 to 0730 on the morning of D+2 (Memo 1, para. 70).
This completes the pattern we have already noted:
1) The crucial D-Day dawn strikes are cancelled, supposedly by the President, without the CIA attempting to consult the President directly.
2) The same strikes are made D-Day evening, when it is too late, without consulting the President.
3) The crucial D+2 ammunition resupply convoy is stopped, without consulting the President.
4) The resupply is attempted by air on D+2, when it is too late, this time consulting the President.
We must remember that this was a major U.S. military operation, albeit a covert one, and that the President had responsibility not only as commander-in-chief of the armed forces but more directly as the superior — in fact the only superior — of the CIA. The regular military has the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense to contend with, but the only person the CIA is accountable to in a covert operation is the President — not to Secretaries of Defense or State. Cabell and Bissell were well aware of this when they were told by Bundy to discuss the matter further with Rusk. Yet we are asked to believe that they were too timid to talk with Kennedy on the two most critical points of this operation (1 and 3 above), while they were bold enough to act on their own (2) or talk with him (4) immediately after those critical points had passed.
6. The real plan
One might ask, at this point, where Allen Dulles was when his agency was undertaking probably the biggest operation (that we know about) of his career. He was in Puerto Rico, giving a speech. Why did he choose not to be in Washington at this critical time? Was it because he knew it would be harder for him to pretend that he was afraid to talk with the President directly than it was for Cabell and Bissell? Did he hope that by being away, the inconsistent behavior of his subordinates would be more explicable? It doesn’t matter. Cabell and Bissel were in charge, and I don’t believe for a minute that they would have suffered from timidity or indecisiveness at these crucial points in an operation that had been in preparation for two years, where hundreds of lives and the reputation of the country were at stake. And if they did, there are telephones in Puerto Rico.
One more point needs to be mentioned. According to at least one source quoted in Operation Zapata, a leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Front, the main political organization of Cuban exiles in the U.S., the CIA does not seem to have wanted a true counterrevolution from the very beginning:
Mr. Ray: We had a plan to take the Isle of Pines, but this was constantly postponed and we never got the supplies that we were supposed to. Later on we asked for help in the Escabrays, for airdrops between September and February, and during all this period we never received any airdrops. Then in early April we presented a plan of sabotage in Cuba which we call Cuban Flames. We felt we could be very successful in this because we had made a very deep penetration in the labor movement; however, we never received the support we needed for this either (p. 339).
The Front did NOT want an invasion, but a true counter-revolution:
Mr. Ray: We still believe that we can cause an uprising within Cuba amongst the Cuban people but we believe that the leaders must be developed within Cuba itself. We believe that the invasion concept was wrong (p. 339).
The CIA did not even allow the Front to participate in selecting the invasion force:
Mr. Ray: Another thing that was wrong with this operation was the fact that many of the elements in the invasion force represented the old [Batista] army. We felt it was wrong to give the impression that the old army was coming back and we protested (p. 339).
Even the leader of the Brigade was a Batista man:
Question: Did you approve of Pepe San Roman as the commander?
Mr. Ray: No. Everyone knew that he liked Batista. His brother had also fought against Castro in the Sierra Maestra (p. 340).
Yet the CIA believed an invasion of 1500 men led by Batista supporters could prevail against the charismatic Castro, who was still idolized by most of the Cubans who had remained in Cuba.
All of this can only point to one conclusion, assuming that the CIA wanted Operation Zapata to succeed: they — the CIA — were either incredibly stupid or incredibly incompetent. I do not believe this, and from all that has discussed here, it is difficult to believe that the CIA wanted the invasion to succeed. Despite what they led the military, administration officials, and Kennedy to believe, there would be no uprising of the Cuban population (especially not in support of a small band of ex-Batista supporters), no guerrilla alternative, and no chance at all of even holding the beachhead without defeating Castro’s air force. CIA made sure that even these small chances for success they were lost at the critical moments, by failing to insist on the air strikes on D-Day and on the air cover for the ammunition convoy two days later. In other words, it looks as if the CIA sabotaged its own operation.
Why? It is conceivable that what Dulles and his friends really wanted (though certainly not everyone in the CIA) was a full-scale U.S. invasion of Cuba, and were hoping to put Kennedy in such a compromised position that he would feel compelled to order it. Perhaps Dulles thought he could manipulate Kennedy as easily as he and his brother John Foster had run the Eisenhower administration. When Kennedy saw the invasion becoming a disaster, his fighting Irish spirit would rise to the occasion, he would send in the troops, and Castro would be easily overthrown. I am sure there was a good deal of private encouragement during the crisis for Kennedy to do just that, which does not appear in the Taylor report. But what Dulles could not have counted on was Kennedy’s refusal to fall for this ruse and his willingness to accept defeat rather than be pushed into an overt invasion he did not want.
We must remember too that the CIA had been preparing secretly for a greater war in Southeast Asia since at least 1955. The Bay of Pigs “disaster” provided the perfect demonstration of what would happen if we didn’t “stand up” to Communism. It led to the missile crisis of 1962 and a greatly increased perception of the worldwide Communist threat. Cuba became the prime example of what could happen, and would happen, even in our own back yard, if we were not prepared to fight the Communists. Vietnam was not far away.
Thus Dulles may have created a win-win situation, but I don’t think he counted on getting fired. That would explain his trip to Puerto Rico: to confuse the command structure at the critical moment. If Kennedy did not react as anticipated, things would turn out exactly as they have: the invasion would be considered a general screw-up, with Kennedy, as commander-in-chief, shouldering the blame. The general view would be, as McNamara told the Taylor committee, that “It was not a CIA debacle. It was a government debacle” (p. 204). As I hope to have shown, however, a close reading of the Taylor report reveals that the bungling on the part of the CIA top echelon was so extreme that it must have been deliberate. Kennedy is the one who ordered this report, and the conclusions he drew from it became obvious when he fired Dulles, Cabell, and Bissell. He might have been young and naive when he came into office, but he was a fast learner.
He did not fire McGeorge Bundy, and this, I think, was a fatal mistake. Bundy was Kennedy’s own appointee and must have been able to convince the President that he had acted competently and in good faith, but the record does not support this. Bundy says in his letter to Taylor that “Mistakes were made in this operation by a lot of people whom the President had every right to trust, as a result of circumstances of all sorts” (p. 179). One of these people was certainly Bundy himself. But were what he calls “mistakes” really mistakes?
Bundy was the author, along with CIA, of the D-2 plan, the effect of which was to embarrass the U.S. at the UN and make it clear to the world that further air strikes would have no chance of being “plausibly deniable.” On the key question, whether Kennedy actually cancelled the D-Day strikes, there is no direct answer. What we do know is that 1) Kennedy approved the D-Day plan, including the air strikes, at noon on April 16, and 2) Bundy cancelled the strikes at 9:30 that evening. Bundy’s order went directly to the CIA, following the chain of command (President-National Security Advisor-CIA), but deviated drastically from it in referring further discussion to the Secretary of State. There is no indication of what Kennedy actually said or thought at this point or whether he was even consulted. Bundy told Cabell the strikes “should not be launched,” not that the President had ordered them cancelled (para. 43, quoted above).
Bundy further obfuscates the point in his letter to Taylor:
In my meeting with General Taylor and his advisory group, I was asked about the decision not to permit an air strike by the Cuban invasion force early on Monday morning. This is a matter which arises from a conversation with the President and the Secretary of State, and I do not believe I am the right man to comment on it. I do have the recollection that during the presentation of the Zapata landings, the impression was conveyed to the President that there would be no strikes on D-Day that could not plausibly come from an airstrip in Cuba” (p. 179).
This merits close scrutiny. If Bundy had acted on Kennedy’s direct order, he would have said so here. Instead, he refers to “the decision,” not “the President’s decision,” and to “a matter” (not “a decision”) “arising from a conversation with” Kennedy and Rusk. What conversation? Was Bundy present? When did it take place — before or after noon that same day? Did Bundy feel that any “matter arising” from such a conversation could be interpreted as an order to be passed on to the CIA? Why did he refer the CIA to Rusk, who was outside the chain of command, if he was relaying an order from the President? Again, there is no indication that Kennedy asked to be cut off in this way, and it is extremely unlikely that he would have wanted to be. Then, as if to add insult to injury, Bundy tells Taylor that he is “not the right man” to be answering such questions. Yet as the President’s liaison with the CIA, if anyone had to know about the importance of the D-Day air strikes and the consequences of cancelling them, it was Bundy. The record shows that Bundy cancelled the strikes, but it does not show that Kennedy did so, and Bundy himself does not say this. Nevertheless, he obviously was able to convince Kennedy that the blame lay solely with the CIA. Perhaps Kennedy did not realize just how good a student of Richard Bissel Bundy had been at Yale (1939-40).
If we take this speculation to its nastiest conclusion, the Bay of Pigs may have foreshadowed what happened in Dallas in 1963. The war machine was again moving Kennedy inexorably toward war, this time in Vietnam, and he again did not behave as anticipated. By October he had changed his mind about Vietnam and decided to withdraw all U.S. troops by 1965, a little-known fact to this day, thanks to the historical engineers. His opponents were obviously prepared for this: he was shot on Nov. 22, and Johnson proceeded immediately with the escalation of the war, reversing Kennedy’s policy while pretending to continue it. Many Americans suspect that the same groups that wanted most to retake Cuba, namely the CIA, anti-Castro Cubans, and the Mafia (who wanted their casinos and bordels back), all of whom were intensely antagonistic to Kennedy, were behind his assassination. Kennedy had also alienated Big Oil, but most of all, his decision to withdraw on Vietnam threatened to deprive the warmongers, the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned Kennedy about when he took office, of the $570 billion “cost” that the war would eventually produce — which for them was of course income.
Could this be “the whole Bay of Pigs thing” that Nixon was afraid Watergate would reveal — that the CIA engineered both the “disaster” at the Bay of Pigs and in Dealey Plaza? Does this explain the presence of Nixon in Dallas the morning of the assassination, the presence of Allen Dulles and future vice-President Gerald Ford on the Warren Commission, the fact that Gen. Cabell’s brother Earl was mayor of Dallas at the time, the obvious determination of the Commission and the CIA over a quarter of a century to thwart any reasonable investigation, and the fact that, through it all (1961-1966), the one person constantly in a position to know all the CIA’s dirty secrets was McGeorge Bundy? Is it mere coincidence that the presidency has now passed from John Kennedy, who was bitterly antagonistic to the CIA, to George [H.W.] Bush, one of Allen Dulles’s successors [as CIA Director]?
Finally, speaking of coincidences, I mentioned earlier that one of the supply ships used in Operation Zapata was the Houston. George Bush’s oil company was the Zapata Petroleum Corporation and was based in Houston. One of the landing craft at the Bay of Pigs was the Barbara J. Now, if Barbara Bush (née Barbara Pierce) had a middle name like Jane or Jennifer, we might be on to something, but apparently she has no middle name at all. This surprises me, somehow.
P.S. I wrote this in September 1991. A year later it occurred to me to ask Arthur Schlesinger, jr. what actually happened the night of April 16, 1961, at the presidential retreat at Glen Ora, since his account in A Thousand Days implies that he was there. I also took the opportunity to ask him about his reaction to Oliver Stone’s JFK, which had come out in the meantime. Here is my letter and Schlesinger’s reply, for what they are worth: