Sixty Years Later, the Bay of Pigs Remains a Cautionary Tale

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Some years are so crowded with memorable anniversaries that it seems like the world once faced one damn sensation after another. So it is now, the 60th anniversary of 1961. That spring, French generals in Algeria attempted to overthrow President Charles de Gaulle through a military coup, including a planned Foreign Legion parachute drop on Paris. That summer, the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West. On April 12, it will be six decades since the launch into orbit of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first human being in space.

And five days later, the U.S. launched one of the most disastrous military operations in history, in an effort to reverse the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in Cuba.      

The plan, for an invasion of the island by Cuban exiles trained and armed by the CIA, was an absurdly open secret. The New York Times withheld from publication its full knowledge of what was about to happen in the interests of national security. President John F. Kennedy afterward told the paper’s editor that he wished the NYT had blown the story open. Exposure, he said, might have forced him to cancel.

As it was, on the morning of Gagarin’s triumph, the first question Kennedy faced at a press conference in Washington was not about space, but instead about the much-leaked impending strike against Castro. The president ruled out any role for U.S. armed forces. “The basic issue,” he said, “is not one between the United States and Cuba. It is between the Cubans themselves.”

The next day, Rio de Janeiro’s Jornal do Brasil was among many organs that applauded Kennedy’s apparent pledge of nonintervention: “All this is very good, because it shows the United States is beginning to understand Latin-American psychology.”

Yet before dawn on Monday, April 17, the CIA unleashed 1,400 Cuban exiles on the island’s southeast coast, at a place known as the Bahia de Cochinos, a name that has passed into history as the Bay of Pigs.

Today, the operation figures in every textbook of statecraft as a template for how not to do stuff. To paraphrase the great cynic Talleyrand, it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder. It was less significant that the assault was immoral and foolish, condemning its Cuban participants to death or captivity, than that it made the U.S. appear ridiculous.      

Much of my own working life has been spent researching conflict. This has made me a skeptic about intelligence organizations. Despite their billion-dollar budgets, again and again, from the Cold War through Iraq and Afghanistan, they have wildly misread people and places. The record of America’s Central Intelligence Agency is no worse than that of its Russian, Chinese, British and, for that matter, Israeli counterparts. Yet historians still marvel at the CIA nonsenses surrounding the Bay of Pigs.

Two years earlier, after Castro gained power, he enjoyed a brief honeymoon with the American people. On the romantic guerrilla’s first U.S. visit as Cuba’s leader, a New York homemaker raved: “I don’t know if I’m interested in the Revolution, but Fidel Castro is the biggest thing to happen to North American women since Rudolph Valentino.”

Sixty Years Later, the Bay of Pigs Remains a Cautionary Tale

The love affair ended abruptly. The bearded hero launched wholesale confiscations of U.S. commercial and property interests. Many frightened, dispossessed or merely hungry Cubans fled. By the winter of 1960, more than 100,000 were already in Florida.

The State Department issued a statement in the spring of 1961, asserting, “The Castro regime offers a clear and present danger … to the whole hope of spreading political liberty, economic development and social progress through all the republics of the hemisphere.”

President Dwight Eisenhower authorized the CIA to recruit and arm Cuban anti-Castro exiles. One of them was 28-year-old Manuel Artime, who spoke no English, but was nominated by the Americans to become a senior officer. His CIA handler greeted him by saying: “OK, Artime, you are our friend and we are going to be very close friends of yours.”

Training camps were established in Guatemala, at the time controlled by a friendly dictatorship. At the outset, the idea was to dispatch a force to wage a protracted guerrilla campaign. Then the planners got impatient. With Russian jets, arms and equipment being shipped to arm Castro, they needed a quick outcome. This could be achieved only through a conventional assault across the beaches, a miniature of the landings the U.S. Marines had made so often and courageously in the wartime Pacific.

Unfortunately, the Cuban exiles had never been through Marine Corps training at Parris Island. They were perfunctorily instructed in the use of small arms, tanks and artillery, but only one in 10 had military experience. One of their leaders said later: “Most were there because they knew the whole operation was going to be conducted by the Americans. They did not trust me or anyone else. They just trusted the Americans.”

Early on April 15, key targets in Cuba were bombed by a handful of B-26 Invader medium bombers painted with Cuban markings, flown by exiles. They killed some soldiers and civilians, and wrecked several of Castro’s planes. Later that day, amid uproar at the United Nations, U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson denied that the government was involved. He claimed, at the CIA’s behest, that the planes had been flown by defectors from Castro’s air force. The White House nonetheless panicked, and canceled further bombing sorties.

Two mornings later, the invasion force was transferred from five rust-bucket transports to landing craft off southeast Cuba that took them to the beaches, or at least to reefs unnoticed by American planners, from which the Cubans waded ashore. Some sentimentally kissed the sand. 

American briefers had told them they would enjoy 72 hours’ grace before Castro’s forces mobilized. Instead, they were quickly engaged by local militia. The Cuban air force attacked the landing fleet. When the prohibition on exile air attacks was lifted, and some B-26s based in Nicaragua launched new sorties, most were shot down. Two of the transport ships were hit by Castro’s bombs. One blew up, obliterating the landing force’s ammunition, rations, fuel and medical supplies. 

Cuban regular troops converged on the assault area. The surviving ships withdrew, and the invaders progressively surrendered. Fighting petered out on the third day. More than 100 exiles had been killed, and during the months that followed, many alleged sympathizers were executed by the Havana government. 

More than 1,000 invaders became prisoners of Castro. They were ransomed by the U.S. 20 months later, for sums varying from $25,000 for humble soldiers to $100,000 apiece for commanders, a total of $53 million in food and medical supplies.

Almost every subsequent postmortem on the Bay of Pigs has identified the same absurdities. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson observed caustically, after JFK confided the plan to him: “You don’t have to call in Price Waterhouse to discover that fifteen hundred Cubans aren’t as good as twenty-five thousand Cubans.”  

The CIA anticipated the collapse of Castro’s armed forces in the face of a token assault, which it assumed would trigger a popular uprising. Planning, weaponry and tactics were comically inadequate. 

Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said in a mea culpa long afterward: “I underestimated cost of failure by a very great deal. We all felt that the Castro regime had hardened into a very tight dictatorship, that there really had been an extinction of free choice, that it was not wrong to let a group of Cubans have a test … there was a fairly general view, which may sound funny now, not only in the administration but in the country as a whole, that any time you had a communist takeover in a country, most people in that country really wouldn’t like it and would be in favor of liberation.”

The administration had the worst of all worlds: It had run an operation, to topple a foreign government, which was supposed to be deniable. It thus lacked U.S. muscle, while having the Stars and Stripes painted all over it. A secret report by General Maxwell Taylor exonerated Kennedy from direct blame, by attributing failure to a mistaken belief that so large an operation “could be plausibly disclaimed.”

Secretary of State Dean Rusk blamed the disaster squarely on the CIA for launching a “shoestring operation run by amateurs.” The agency, however, remained publicly impenitent. The New York Herald Tribune carried a front-page story on April 26, based on an off-the-record briefing by CIA director Allen Dulles, saying: “The CIA insists its information was accurate and was correctly analyzed. The fault, in this view, was not an intelligence miscalculation, but a military failure — the inability of the anti-Castro forces to hold a beachhead.”

Dulles also sought to hang blame on the Pentagon and the administration’s refusal to authorize serious air support. He concluded that “there had been no real test of whether there could be a popular uprising against Castro, as there had to be an occupied area in being and available before the defections could start.”

Nobody much believed this. Dulles was forced to resign, followed by his deputy Richard Bissell, the operational manager of the Bay of Pigs. Yet the agency continued planning for a possible second invasion of Cuba, and launched a succession of unsuccessful plots to murder Castro. There were many more covert operations in support of Latin American dictators, and of anticommunist leaders everywhere, however ugly or unpopular.

Preparations for the Bay of Pigs took place under the Eisenhower administration. Kennedy certainly had the power and opportunity to order the attack to be aborted. But a president only three months in the White House still had everything to prove to himself and the world, above all that he was not “soft on communism,” the deadliest charge that conservative critics might lay against him.  

U.S. foreign policy is often unwisely influenced by a president’s belief in what he thinks his people want him to do, even when experts counsel against it. Many Americans in the spring of 1961 viewed Castro’s defiance of their might, from a tinpot island a few minutes flying time from their shores, as an insult to the flag.

Kennedy was right that his people would welcome the dictator’s overthrow. But he placed reckless trust in the competence of the CIA to achieve this. Modern intelligence is often impressive at the highest level, through electronic monitoring of actual and potential foes. It is weakest at “humint” — understanding foreign peoples.    

The CIA convinced itself and the administration that the Cubans were ready to overthrow their president, with just a helpful shove from American-sponsored exiles. More recently, American and British intelligence have repeatedly failed in assessments of factional, tribal and family sentiment in the Middle East and Afghanistan, where such loyalties are critical.        

The Bay of Pigs did Castro a giant favor. It boosted his popularity among his own people, and his prestige in the eyes of the world. The exile prisoners, instead of becoming martyrs for freedom, found local people spitting at them and crying, “Paredon, paredon, paredon!” — “The wall, the wall, the wall!” — shorthand for firing squads.  It is hard to imagine that Cuban communism could have survived to this day, amid its disastrous economic failure, without capitalist enemies next door who have perversely legitimized it.   

In December 1962, Castro went personally to inform the Bay of Pigs prisoners that they were being flown to Miami. One of them, Pepe San Roman, boldly demanded to know how the dictator dared to let them go. Castro responded contemptuously, and correctly: “None of you will come back. But if you do, I don’t care if a thousand more come with you. It wouldn’t make any difference.”

Covert operations to unstick foreign governments seldom work. Even when they do, their sponsors generally end up regretting them. Think of the American-incited murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam in 1963. Recall the 1979 Soviet coup to remove the president of Afghanistan that dragged Moscow into a disastrous 10-year war. 

Even had the Bay of Pigs miraculously succeeded — expelled Castro from power — a new Havana administration run by the Cuban exiles would have been doomed by their branding as “Yanqui stooges.”

Cuba was, as it still is, best left alone by Washington. The Bay of Pigs prompted Castro to announce that he had joined the Soviet bloc. A Kennedy administration official was reported as saying, penitently and plaintively, “Probably some countries can’t be saved from communism, and we’ll just have to get used to it.” The reporter observed that his source “seemed to be suffering from shock in the aftermath of Cuba.” 

Intelligence agencies should be run on the tightest of leashes. Many spooks, even if they start out sane, become progressively somewhat unhinged, because their secret world is an inherently unreal one.

We need our spies, essential elements of the machinery to defend us. But they should never be wholly trusted, as former President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair can testify. Both men crippled their reputations by embracing intelligence briefs about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.  

Back in 1961, Kennedy, criticized for refusing to place blame for the Bay of Pigs publicly on his military and intelligence chiefs, shrugged to his press secretary: “What could I have said? That we took the beating of our lives? That the CIA and the Pentagon are stupid?”   

A journalist at an off-the-record briefing on April 25 asked Kennedy how, after three months, he was enjoying the presidency. The question prompted almost as much laughter as the response: “Well, I liked it better up to about nine days ago.” Happy anniversaries. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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