Fifty-nine years later, it’s still unclear who deserves the blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, among the most notorious of Central Intelligence Agency operations, also ranks as one of its most avowedly military ventures, a full-scale invasion of a Caribbean nation with which the United States was at odds. Cuban exile troops recruited and armed by the agency stepped ashore on April 17, 1961, only to be trapped at their beachhead and eventually overwhelmed by Fidel Castro’s Fuerzas armadas revolucionarias (FAR).
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy immediately accepted responsibility for the disaster, which has largely been attributed to him ever since. But there are real questions as to who deserves blame for the Bay of Pigs, which some have called the “perfect failure.” The operation was conceived, approved, and largely prepared by JFK’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. How do we apportion responsibility between those two men?
There were many pieces to the perfect failure, not all of them military, but there were military weaknesses in this operation that by themselves ensured failure. One set of problems concerns the character of the military operation—an invasion rather than a gradual infiltration of guerrilla troops to join an internal resistance. Another set contributing to the disaster revolves around the CIA’s Cuban exile air force and its activities. Both add to our perspective on the question of responsibility.
President Eisenhower certainly initiated the CIA’s covert operation against Cuba. Ike not only approved the operation, he sent his secret warriors back to plan something more ambitious when they brought him a scheme for simple sabotage missions. The result became CIA Project Ate, as the cognoscenti called the Cuba initiative. (It originally had a different cryptonym but was renamed when that one became compromised.) The paragraph on military action from the Project Ate concept is worth quoting:
Preparations have already been made for developing an adequate paramilitary force outside of Cuba, together with mechanisms for the necessary logistical support of covert military operations on the island. Initially a cadre of leaders will be recruited after careful screening and trained as paramilitary instructors. In a second phase a number of paramilitary cadres will be trained at secure locations outside of the United States so as to be available for immediate deployment into Cuba to organize, train, and lead resistance forces recruited there after the establishment of one or more centers of resistance.
Preparations would take six to eight months. Gordon Gray, Eisenhower’s national security adviser, complained about the extended schedule and wondered about a crash program. The agency reported that a limited air capability “already exists under CIA control,” and it could expand it. Within two months, the secret warriors could supplement this with a force under deep cover in a third country, and the exile organization would be functional within Cuba.
By August 1960, Jake Esterline’s CIA task force had reworked its plan and presented it in a new memorandum to the president. The key meeting took place at the White House on August 18. Present were CIA Director Allen Dulles; his director for operations, Richard Bissell; NSC officials; General Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Treasury Secretary Robert B. Anderson; and Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates, along with Pentagon officials.
Gates was not happy. Training a force of CIA Cuban exiles did not concern him as much as the possibility that the U.S. military might be going over the beaches into Cuba. Richard Bissell deflected his objection—only 15 or 20 people were involved, most of them already on assignment to the CIA. They would be concerned primarily with the movement of aircraft. Bissell explained, “There would be no conceivable hazard involved and they would get no closer to paramilitary operations than the airstrip in Guatemala.” Lemnitzer, the JCS chairman, saw no difficulty with the military trainers’ being involved to this extent.
Deputy Director Bissell also spoke of the Cuban exile force. He expected they could be ready for action by November and would constitute “a standby force preferably of non-Americans with Special Forces–type training.” Secretary Gates renewed his objection. Hot debate over the use of Americans as part of the force ended when Dulles said the CIA could put the decision aside and reexamine it with the Joint Chiefs. National Security Adviser Gray added that an abortive project would be worse than none—arguing it would be unwise to mount any action without the determination to see it through. If a backup force were necessary, they should consider it fully right away. Director Dulles still wished to defer the issue.
The operational concept centered on the internal resistance to Castro. It might succeed without outside help, Bissell noted.
Some Douglas B-26 bombers would have Cuban exile pilots, and they could fly in support of the “local resistance.” They would be supplied by air and sea, and some exiles would be sent to stiffen them. The CIA had identified a dozen anti-Castro or “alleged groups” with potential. If these failed to unseat Castro, the backup force would capture an island off the Cuban coast, such as the Isle of Pines, that could become the resistance base. Dulles admitted the project had blown through its budget: The CIA now thought in terms of $10 million more than what was already set aside.
Eisenhower’s August decision upped the ante across the board. Cuban exiles began arriving at the CIA training base in Guatemala, Camp Trax. They had accomplished little actual training when Eisenhower, comparing Castro’s large military with the small number of CIA fighters, decided on more forces. First told to set up only a dozen infiltration teams to coordinate with the Cuban resistance, the CIA now got orders to form a larger, conventionally armed unit of Cubans to back up these teams.
On August 22, the lead group of infiltration trainees from Panama arrived at the Trax base. By the 27th, quite a few exiles had arrived. Soon there were 160. Weapons arrived late in September, along with a shadowy staff that included Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, Chinese, and even a Filipino. Esterline, the CIA task force chief, recalled being “knocked off” his original timetable in August or September but was little concerned.
Richard Bissell spoke with Esterline and ground forces boss Colonel Jack Hawkins, arguing several times that because the project relied so much on a landing force, it needed to be larger. A complacent Colonel Hawkins agreed. “I would talk it to Esterline and Hawkins, and I don’t think Esterline bought this view, either as completely or as soon as I did,” Bissell told a CIA interviewer later. “I remember the feeling that I was well ahead of [CIA division chief Joseph C.]King, perhaps—certainly Jake—in the belief that we had to place nearly exclusive reliance for the initial phase on whatever force it was possible to land.”
Esterline also worried about Castro’s military forces. He preferred to go immediately to the active phase, sending in as many Cubans as the CIA had ready, perhaps embarking from a landing ship, tank (LST) and marching them into Cuba’s Escambray Mountains. Even if they failed, it would simply have been seen as one more round of the resistance war, not an obvious CIA-backed invasion. Bissell wanted another thousand or fifteen hundred exile troops and eventually forced that change.
On Halloween, over Director Dulles’ signature, headquarters sent revised orders. They contained a new concept: no more than sixty in the infiltration teams. Everyone else would join an “assault force” that would consist of “one or more infantry battalions.” Its mission would be “to seize and defend lodgment in target by amphibious and airborne assault.” Instructed to count on fifteen hundred men and told that the larger operation needed months’ more preparation, Colonel Hawkins told the Cubans that a “bigger-scale strike” would be better. A reserve unit of several hundred Guatemalans, with their own officers, who could be landed behind the Cuban assault unit, also figured in the scheme. The cable noted that the concept had tentative approval from Dulles and that White House approval was pending.
There can be no doubt the revised CIA plan amounted to an invasion. The 5412 Group, Ike’s covert action management team, resisted it, making the issue one of a CIA operation as opposed to a combined agency/military one. Nevertheless, the invasion plan went forward, restricted to about half the several thousand trained troops Bissell had promoted.
Eisenhower then gave his approval. Trax learned the news on November 4. When the CIA first briefed the Navy on the plan just before 5412 was briefed, the secret warriors described the combat unit option. Eisenhower, not Kennedy, holds the responsibility here.
The new concept, aired in Dulles’ office the week after the 1960 presidential election, envisioned a conventional amphibious landing. The Cuban exiles could establish a beachhead, declare a provisional government, and then call for American help. The plan for an invasion went to the 5412 Group on November 16, to President-elect Kennedy two days later, and to Eisenhower on the 29th.
Ike made no final decision, but he demanded expedited preparations. At the meeting of November 29, which included many of the same people who sat on 5412, he questioned the boldness and imagination behind the project, given the necessity for plausible deniability, as well as whether actions were effective. The president cited concerns about the size of the operation and the character of the Cuban exile political leadership. Referring to the transition to a Kennedy presidency, Ike said he did not wish to be “in the position of turning over the government in the midst of a developing emergency.”
If a “developing emergency” existed, no fault lay with Eisenhower’s intelligence overseers. More than three dozen 5412 Group meetings touched on Cuba between the project’s approval and the end of the Eisenhower administration. From November 1960 on, eight to ten of these involved detailed discussion.
On December 8, the CIA mounted a full-scale briefing. Jack Hawkins described the conventional invasion option, including the latest developments. Hawkins detailed a concept including an amphibious landing on the Cuban coast preceded by airstrikes, to seize and hold a beachhead, then draw dissident elements to join the force, hoping to trigger a general uprising. There would be extensive air preparation—up to a hundred flights a month for many weeks, some of them bombing missions.
The landing force would be a heavily armed unit of six hundred to 750 exiles, with U.S. training and equipment. Camp Trax commander Lt. Col. Frank Egan described the Cuban force and its superior motivation and leadership. Egan felt these exiles would have no trouble exacting a heavy toll against Castro’s larger forces. The 5412 Group issued no formal approval but encouraged the CIA to proceed.
The leaders of the secret war gathered again on January 3, 1961, to discuss progress as well as the rupture of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Bissell reported that Guatemalan ruler Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes wanted CIA forces out of his country by March 1. The exiles’ own morale would suffer if they did not soon see action. Eisenhower considered American bases, the only suitable alternative, unacceptable.
No one spoke of the difficulties of the CIA’s Miami base, the ineffective aerial supply, the lack of visible strengthening of the resistance on Cuba, or the continuing popularity of Castro, and precious little would be said of the deep enmities dividing exile leaders. Participants instead emphasized their confidence in the troops. National Security Adviser Gray mentioned a report calling the Cubans the best army in Latin America. Although he saw some equipment shortages, Joint Chiefs Chairman Lemnitzer agreed. Within weeks, frustrated, these exile troops would mutiny. President Eisenhower summarized: The two reasonable alternatives were to support the Cubans on their invasion in March 1961 or abandon the operation.
Exactly seven days later, on January 10, The New York Times published an account of Cuban exiles training in Guatemala. Did the president bequeath his successor a developing emergency?
Eisenhower’s presidency ended with the Cuban project at midcourse. Nevertheless, during his final months in office and especially after the election that Kennedy won, Eisenhower had sparked a remarkable surge in preparations, including a much-expanded operational concept.
Only two days before Kennedy’s inauguration, Eisenhower’s councils were still grappling with problems that they could only pass on. The horns of the dilemma were even clearer then: Ike’s chief interagency overseer wrote a memo on January 18 that explicitly said the Cuba project might not succeed under existing plans and that to proceed assumed that the United States stood ready to intervene.
The next morning, at the last Eisenhower-Kennedy meeting of the transition, Ike turned to Cuba. According to Clark Clifford’s notes, the president insisted that the United States had to support “to the utmost” those who struggled against Castro and that responsible action meant “to do whatever is necessary.”
The postmortem conducted later by a panel under General Maxwell D. Taylor concluded that it had been incumbent on the president, at the latest by November–December 1960, to make the basic decision as to how far the United States was willing to go.
By not confronting that choice himself, Eisenhower left questions history has yet to confront openly. Rather, given events that actually took place on Kennedy’s watch, and JFK’s forthright acceptance of responsibility, historians have repeatedly presented the Cuba fiasco as a pure artifact of the Kennedy presidency. But Kennedy’s people had implicitly trusted the secret warriors.
Eisenhower had been at the apex of the secret war for eight years; he knew better. He knew the CIA’s penchant for avoiding implementation review once approvals were given and the conflicts between military and civilian intelligence agencies. Ike knew the status of Project Ate and its specific problems. Until the moment JFK took his oath, President Eisenhower could have shut down the project with a few words. But he didn’t. Ike believed in the secret war.
The declassified records of the Cuba meetings during Eisenhower’s final months reveal that the arguments given Kennedy were well rehearsed. Many recognized the weaknesses in the CIA’s plan. Castro’s forces were clearly more powerful than those the exiles could muster. The point had also been noted that American forces would have to back up the invasion.
Eisenhower told General Taylor just weeks after the Cuban operation that he held no responsibility, as he had never approved any invasion. Two years after Kennedy’s death, Eisenhower repeated that claim in interviews and in his memoir Waging Peace: He had never approved a plan, he said, because the exiles never had a unified political leadership. According to Ike there had been a “program” but no plan. His son, John, and other White House staff support this recollection. Yet the date on the CIA’s plan for a conventional invasion near Trinidad, Cuba, is December 6, 1960, a month before Kennedy’s inauguration. There was also a D-day—March 1961— and a specific timetable for invasion-related events.
At numerous meetings, Gordon Gray remembered, the president repeated one of his mantras: “Now boys, if you don’t intend to go through with this, let’s stop talking about it.” Eisenhower did not take his own advice.
During the 1960 presidential election campaign, there had been an episode in which candidate Vice President Richard Nixon felt a Kennedy statement had stolen the thunder of the Eisenhower administration’s secret anti-Castro operation, which he decided JFK must have known about. The flap over Kennedy’s Cuba statement was the first of four events or decisions that in the eyes of history seem to have taken authorship away from Eisenhower and placed it with Kennedy. The second was Kennedy’s actions during the final preparations.
Dulles and Bissell visited JFK at Palm Beach on November 18, 1960. They broached the Cuba project. The meeting took place outside, near the swimming pool. They laid maps out on a big table. Bissell described the plan for almost an hour, including the invasion (thus Eisenhower’s authorship). As Bissell recalled, “The plan, as we outlined it to him, did contemplate some form of landing of a significant force to act as a catalyst in inducing, ultimately, a revolutionary situation in Cuba.”
The CIA briefing papers note that points prepared for presentation included Eisenhower’s original project approval, the political action efforts already underway, propaganda publications and radio broadcasts, and a range of paramilitary phases. The briefing included discussion of the early guerrilla phase; a second phase with a combined sea-air assault coordinated with guerrilla activity; and a final phase that provided for a possible airborne assault on Havana as well as the contingency for U.S. military intervention if necessary; also, the timing and numbers of men and items of equipment to be sent.
The CIA explicitly noted that it did not believe resistance in Cuba alone could unseat Castro without outside action. Dulles and Bissell avoided soliciting an approval, and the president-elect volunteered none.
Afterward the pipe-toting Dulles took Kennedy into the back garden for a private conversation. Bissell stayed on the terrace. Soon after the two returned, Tracy Barnes, who helped Bissell plan the operation, told CIA employee Howard Hunt that JFK had given a “qualified go-ahead.”
Kennedy attended a full-dress presentation a week after the inaugural. While his Palm Beach conversation had been exploratory, the White House meeting on January 28 was specific. He listened as Dulles mentioned what soon would be called the “disposal problem,” that the Cuban brigade had to get out of Guatemala soon, and what then? Dulles also told of Castro’s growing military power and, somewhat more fancifully, “a great increase…in popular opposition.” Discussion focused not so much on the invasion plan as on comparing it with six alternatives, including economic warfare and direct U.S. intervention. The official record notes the conclusion: “No course of action currently authorized by the United States Government will be effective in reaching the agreed national goal of overthrowing the Castro regime.”
“It was very ethereal,” Bobby Kennedy recalled a few months later. He remembered being told “it would be impossible to successfully overthrow Castro because of his control over his armed forces and the country in general, unless you had the invading force backed up by intervention by U.S. forces.” JFK received a CIA estimate judging that time was on Castro’s side.
Kennedy ordered intensified political action, sabotage, and spy flights over Cuba by the CIA’s Lockheed U-2 aircraft, and State Department preparation of an anti-Castro propaganda plan to implement throughout Latin America. He discovered that the U.S. military had not considered the feasibility of Project Ate and directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review it.
Events began to move swiftly. A few days after Kennedy’s orders, the Joint Chiefs were officially briefed on the CIA’s plan for the conventional invasion. This provided for a landing on the south coast, near the town of Trinidad and the Escambray Mountains.
The Joint Chiefs’ official opinion, after a few days of study by a committee led by Brig. Gen. David W. Gray, appeared in a paper titled “Military Evaluation of the CIA Paramilitary Plan—Cuba.” Its seventeen conclusions indicated continuing differences. On one hand, the military judged that if the airborne drop was successful, it would take several days for Castro to react to the landing and thus, despite shortcomings, the CIA had a fair chance of success. On the other hand, the chiefs concluded that the Cuban army could reduce the beachhead.
What constituted a fair chance? General Gray put it at 30-70. No one he heard went any higher than 40-60. Others estimated the chances against achieving surprise at a whopping 85-15.
The military’s warning implied the need for rapid breakout from the landing site. But the CIA’s own view, articulated by Jack Hawkins in a January 4, 1961, report for Esterline, “Policy Decisions Required for Conduct of Strike Operations Against Government of Cuba,” held quite the opposite: Brigade 2506 should try to survive on the beachhead and not break out until either the time became more opportune or the United States intervened.
Indeed, the CIA planned to fly in Cuban politicians to form a provisional government while agency planners arranged for supply landings for a month on the beachhead. The conflicting views of the military and the CIA were not reconciled, and President Kennedy now lacked the supervisory staff to tell him that.
American intervention remained a sensitive matter. The CIA personnel understood the need to disable Cuban air forces that could disrupt the exile landing. Although a program of exile airstrikes had been laid on, the secret warriors knew that Castro possessed some jet fighters. The exiles had no comparable aircraft.
Both CIA officers and secret war managers had mentioned supporting the cause by jets, the most obvious form that U.S. intervention might take. Kennedy rejected such intervention, and the CIA knew of his reluctance.
On February 9, Admiral Robert L. Dennison, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, sought clarification. At a discussion with Kennedy, the admiral asked, “Am I likely to be involved in a bail-out operation?”
“No,” replied the president. If there were any problems, he thought the exiles would fade into the hinterland. The next day Dennison received a directive from Joint Chiefs Chairman Lemnitzer defining the scope and restrictions on navy support. Clearly, aid was to be minimal.
At Bissell’s full-dress presentation of the plan for an invasion at Trinidad, Cuba, on March 11, Secretary of State Dean Rusk voiced objections. Rusk wanted an airfield big enough to handle B-26 bombers so that strikes against Castro’s bases could be said to be coming from Trinidad. Told the field was not that long, Rusk wondered if the CIA could airdrop a bulldozer to lengthen it.
“If I ever made a suggestion like that to Mr. Dulles,” Esterline interjected, “I should be summarily fired.” The Cuba task force chief wore out his White House welcome that day.
JFK saw a daylight landing at a Cuban city as a “spectacular” invasion and asked for an alternative, convincing some that in asking for alternatives he sold out the Cubans that day. But Kennedy nevertheless issued a directive stating that he expected to approve the invasion. People outside the White House have a very different view of Kennedy’s decision: Reducing the visibility of the invasion, an action tantamount to diminishing its chance of success, had roots in the president’s ambivalence. Kennedy’s decision on the visibility of the invasion is the second of the choices that have marked him with authorship of this disaster.
Commentators on the Cuban operation often write of the Trinidad plan as if Project Ate would have been successful if only the CIA’s exiles had gone into Trinidad instead of their eventual target. But there were no panaceas. Castro, who had no spies in Guatemala but plenty in Miami and whose security services carefully followed media accounts of exile activity, expected the CIA invasion at Trinidad. Where the Pentagon and CIA held that the nearest Castro troops were a hundred miles away and evaluated their response capacity as a single battalion on the first day, Castro revealed at a 2001 conference that his FAR had concentrated two full brigades right at Trinidad (four times the force of the Cuban exiles) backed by thirty heavy cannons, with observation posts overlooking the bay and registered artillery targets.
However, Trinidad, a big town, violated President Kennedy’s edict to reduce visibility. On March 12, Esterline got orders to redraft his plan. In a frantic all-night work session, Jack Hawkins surveyed the Cuban coast for localities that met three criteria: sites that were not easily accessible to Castro forces, had an airfield capable of accommodating B-26 and Douglas C-54 aircraft, and could be captured on the first day and were close to suitable beaches. Only one place met all of those criteria: the Bay of Pigs, about eighty miles west of Trinidad. Two days later, the paramilitary planners presented the Bay of Pigs option to the Joint Chiefs.
On March 15, both options were outlined at the White House. To adviser Arthur Schlesinger’s mind, JFK listened somberly, again rejecting Trinidad as a “World War II assault operation.” He ordered the Bay of Pigs plan reoriented for a night landing as opposed to one at dawn. No one told Kennedy that the United States had never carried out a major nighttime invasion.
Other profile-lowering measures included halting rebel resupply flights at the end of March and canceling leaflet drops until after the landing. The CIA, whose chance of victory depended on mobilizing the Cuban population, foolishly accepted the flight stand-down, stopping the supply flow to the resistance. JFK also wanted to be able to call off the invasion up to the day before it happened.
Meanwhile Project Ate accelerated. Two final postponements resulted in an invasion set for April 17. On April 1, Admiral Dennison received marching orders in a Joint Chiefs memorandum. The navy reinforced Guantanamo in case Castro should move against it, and Admiral Arleigh Burke, chief of naval operations, quietly put two Marine battalions on transports in the area.
Dennison provided a flotilla built around the carrier Essex. Destroyers Eaton and Murray, with superior navigation gear, would accompany the invasion fleet to the Bay of Pigs while amphibious ship San Marcos carried the exiles’ landing craft with their vehicles and some supplies. A submarine would carry out a diversion at a point off Pinar del Rio, at the other end of Cuba. Dennison’s instructions were to avoid association with the exile fleet.
The effort to destroy Castro’s air force was the first crucial action of Project Ate. It carried the code name JM/Fury. If not eliminated, FAR airplanes posed a tremendous threat. Castro’s inventory included six B-26 bombers, four Lockheed T-33 jet trainers modified to be fighters, and two to four British Hawker Sea Fury fighters. Principal bases were at Havana and Santiago. A surprise air attack scheduled two days before the invasion was designed to do the trick, and any remaining planes would be bombed at dawn after the landing. A follow-up strike the day before the invasion dropped out of the planning.
There was no lack of warnings on the criticality of this element. On their way to a late White House meeting, General Gray asked a CIA officer whether anyone had ever told the senior officials that the full air preparation was a necessity. The officer admitted they hadn’t, but told Gray not to worry. Similarly, Richard Bissell brought in air force General Leo Geary for a last-minute assessment. Geary concluded that the air plan would be adequate only if implemented in all its aspects. Bissell then made choices that precluded that possibility.
The CIA hoped to conceal the exiles’ hand, claiming that Castro defectors flew the airstrikes. To this end the agency acquired two extra B-26s simply to fly from Nicaragua to Florida, where the pilots would retail the cover story. Sixteen bombers would hit six Cuban air bases in the real attack. When Kennedy continued to insist on reducing visibility, Bissell, on his own, halved the initial strike force. The CIA had to scale back targets to only main airfields, to be hit by just eight bombers. Esterline’s staff became increasingly doubtful about the project because of these reductions.
The mission proved successful as far as it went. The exile planes achieved surprise. Shortly after dawn on April 15, 1961, they disabled about half of Castro’s air force.
President Kennedy tamped down the next planned round of CIA bombings to avoid a United Nations debacle. Then he directed National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy to issue fresh orders to Dulles, Secretary of State Rusk, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara prohibiting any deployment of U.S. forces. In addition, “The specific plan for paramilitary support, [code-named] Nestor, has been rejected, and the President does not wish further planning of any such operations for an invasion of Cuba. There will be quiet disengagement from associations developed in connection with Nestor.”
Meanwhile, Colonel Stanley Beerli at the CIA’s Air Operations Center planned a follow-up airstrike to neutralize the remainder of Castro’s air force. Communications intelligence indicated that Castro’s last aircraft had regrouped at San Antonio base. Beerli and his assistants selected targets from the latest U-2 photographs. Then fate again intervened, in the person of CIA Deputy Director Charles Cabell.
Dulles, as part of the cover, had a speaking engagement in Puerto Rico that he had accepted long before, so Cabell had command that weekend. His arrangement with Dulles provided for the two to be interchangeable, each cognizant of all aspects of CIA business. In addition, Cabell chaired the CIA Watch Committee and could comment authoritatively on current intelligence. He considered himself on top of the case.
Returning from an April 16 golf date in sport shirt and slacks, Cabell heard that the CIA had gotten the final “go” for the invasion at 1 p.m. Reviewing the plans, he asked if Beerli’s latest airstrike had been approved. Cabell wanted to check with Rusk even though Beerli insisted everything was fine. About 9:30 p.m., National Security Adviser Bundy, alerted by Rusk, called with JFK’s decision that no further strikes be launched until Brigade 2506 captured an airstrip inside Cuba. The net effect cut air support to the missions already flown rather than the forty-odd flights once programmed (but not in fact proposed to the president, who had only been asked to approve strikes on D-day and on D-plus-2).
The order struck Cabell “like a falling bomb.” He thought the go-ahead included all subsidiary measures, such as the airstrike. At this point, Richard Bissell entered, demanding a reconsideration. He and Cabell rushed to Rusk’s office, appealing to him. Cabell knew air support the way a cook knows beans, and he advanced a series of reasons why forces should strike Castro’s airfields. Rusk rejected their entreaties, save to let the exile air force fly support over the beaches.
Both CIA officials protested vigorously; Rusk finally phoned the president and put their arguments to him. Cabell later conceded that Rusk rendered his points accurately. JFK again rejected the airstrike. In history, this refusal became the third factor in assigning Kennedy the full blame for the Cuba failure.
A veteran of bombing campaigns, General Cabell knew their weaknesses and, well steeped in the JM/Ate plan, knew that its success hinged on taking out Castro’s air force. He also recalled his understanding then that the invasion could no longer be called off. With the strikes, he believed the operation to be risky but feasible. Now the president wanted to reject that vital measure.
Yet Cabell declined Rusk’s offer to speak directly to the president. That was Cabell’s error, not Kennedy’s. “I don’t think there’s any point,” the general said. Rusk held out the phone to Bissell. “I think I agree with that,” the CIA man added.
Missions would be restricted to direct support over the beaches on the first day. There would be thirteen exile B-26 sorties, none of them against FAR bases. Castro’s air force got its chance.
The switch to the Bay of Pigs moved the scene of action to the sparsely populated Playa Girón. For the same reason that Castro’s troops could reach the site only along a few roads, it would be virtually impossible for any campesinos (peasants) who wanted to join Brigade 2506 to get to the beachhead safely. The depth of optimism in the plans nevertheless is shown by the fact that the CIA’s two landing craft, infantry (LCIs) carried weapons for an additional fifteen hundred recruits, while a merchant vessel scheduled to arrive two weeks after the landing bore arms for thirteen thousand more. Perhaps fifty Cubans joined the assault unit once it landed, in part because it was inaccessible.
Cuban military dispositions at the moment of the invasion indicate no knowledge of immediate CIA objectives. The FAR had broken up the huge force it concentrated for the encirclement of the Escambray. Only a small detachment of militia guarded Playa Girón. The nearest real unit, nothing more than a militia battalion, camped at Central Australia, a sugar refinery more than twenty miles away. In fact, Castro noted in 2001 that the locale and timing of the invasion were excellent.
The CIA’s bombing of Castro’s airfields two days ahead of the invasion served as a clear warning to Havana. Castro staged a huge rally in the city, proclaiming Cuba’s determination to stand up to Washington. And for the first time, he publicly declared the revolution a Socialist one. Simultaneously, Cuban security apprehended every dissident and rebel it knew of, along with plenty of Cubans who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Castro arrested more than twenty thousand people, with some estimates as high as a hundred thousand or even a quarter million. As a result, internal resistance was swept from the board before the invasion even began.
Dawn found most of the brigade ashore but with far less than the planned amount of supplies. The brigade contained six small battalions and a heavy weapons group. Men of the 1st Battalion trained as paratroopers, getting up at 3 or 4 a.m. for even more strenuous exercises. The 4th Battalion made up a small armored force with five M-41A2 tanks, plus trucks mounting .50-caliber machine guns. (The tank detachment’s men actually trained at the U.S. Army base at Fort Knox and never met their comrades until the invasion.) The weapons unit contained 4.2-inch mortars, 3.5-inch bazookas, and 57mm and 75mm recoilless rifles. The battalions ranged from 167 to 185 men, somewhat fewer than a standard rifle company in the U.S. Army.
The exile air force under the nominal command of Major Manuel Villafaña numbered more than 150 Cubans and an equal number of Americans, both as aircrew and in support roles. The combat element consisted of sixteen B-26 bombers, the air transport unit of eight Curtiss C-46s and six C-54s.
The invasion fleet remained off the beaches when Castro’s air force made its appearance: In two strikes, at 6:30 and at 9 a.m., his planes hit the ships. Nilo Carreras’ Sea Fury fighter scored rocket hits on the transport Houston. Carreras hit below the waterline; otherwise, the ship might well have exploded, since it carried ammunition. Also aboard were the 130 men of Ricardo Montero’s 5th Battalion. The survivors swam ashore without equipment, into the salt marshes of the Zapata Peninsula, across the bay from the brigade positions. Off Playa Girón, Sea Furies sank Rio Escondido with the brigade’s communications van and aviation gasoline for use at the Girón airstrip.
Among key assumptions through- out the planning had been that Castro would need days to react. Exile officers were told before embarkation that there would be no resistance at the Bay of Pigs, that FAR would require until D-plus-2, the second day after the invasion, to mount significant opposition. Bissell, Hawkins, and other planners repeatedly used this estimate. Their confidence was striking given their ignorance of conditions in Cuba.
Admiral Dennison, in his own planning, had submitted a list of ninety specific questions on Castro forces, and twenty-nine on the Cuban resistance, as early as December 1960; less than a dozen had been answered. The secret warriors had been wrong that there were no reefs; they were also wrong that no Castro forces would be in the area. About a hundred militia guarded Girón and vicinity, and a larger force, the 339th Battalion at Central Australia, had already begun to pressure the paratroops north of Playa Larga.
At the time of the first invasion scare in December, Castro’s mobilization orders had caused confusion. Later repeated scares created a highly efficient system, however, and Castro had two days after the air attack to put his units in motion. This time there were no mistakes. By 9 a.m. Commandante José Ramón Fernández at Central Australia had his troops en route from the Matanzas Militia School, sending them forward without dismounting from their trucks. Large forces, including armor, deployed against the exile brigade from the first day. Before evening the paratroop roadblocks had been driven back toward Playa Larga, and Castro’s forces could begin to attack down the causeway to the head of the bay.
Ultimately, some twenty thousand troops assembled against the invasion force. Planning a night counterattack, Castro appeared at Central Australia, directing operations using an old hand-cranked black telephone. He called his brother Raul, telling the defense minister, “You’re missing the party!” He ordered “a hell of a barrage.”
Fernández pushed his troops down the causeway. By early morning of the second day, April 18, the exiles at Playa Larga grew desperate as FAR tanks approached. The paratroops near Covadonga on the opposite flank of the bridgehead were also in retreat.
On the second day, Castro’s forces had driven Brigade Commander Pepe San Roman’s troops back on all fronts. San Roman sent his deputy commander, Erneido Oliva, to Playa Larga with some troops and a couple of tanks. Oliva put up a good defense, but the village had become impossible to hold, and the exile troops fell back to Girón.
The biggest Cuban exile success of April 18, an airstrike against the Castro column advancing from Playa Larga, became known as the “slaughter of the Lost Battalion,” as many of the 339th militia and their trucks expired under Oliva’s fire and the strikes, disrupting the FAR’s advance. Castro had assembled two dozen tanks and self-propelled guns, and the B-26 strikes knocked out seven of them.
The Cuban exile pilots of Major Villafaña’s air force were demoralized after losing four planes on D-day (two more made forced landings) and run ragged from flying constant missions. They tried a night attack on San Antonio Air Base but could not find it in the dark, overcast sky. Next morning, Bundy warned JFK to expect the CIA to plead for air help. Bundy noted that assistance would be hard to deny because the Cuban exiles needed it, but the real issue lay in whether to reopen the question of U.S. intervention.
Bundy advised Kennedy to wipe out Castro’s air force, “by neutrally painted U.S. planes if necessary,” but to “let the battle go its way.” The president authorized navy air cover, but for an area away from the combat zone. Kennedy’s refusal to engage U.S. Navy aircraft in direct support of the CIA Cubans is the fourth decision that saddled him with responsibility for the Bay of Pigs.
By the third day, Brigade 2506 had virtually exhausted its ammunition. The ships of the invasion fleet, carrying the supplies, had scattered. Dennison’s warships rounded them up. Grayston Lynch and Rip Robertson, CIA agents who later disobeyed orders and landed in Cuba, were aboard Blagar and Barbara J, and Blagar shot down FAR aircraft. Amid frantic appeals from Pepe San Roman and the CIA, Kennedy came closer than ever to intervention. American jets made intermittent overflights from Essex.
On Wednesday, April 19, Eaton and Murray closed in toward shore with orders to take off survivors. Cuban artillery sighted in on the U.S. destroyers, but Castro ordered them not to fire. San Roman sent a last plaintive message, then shot out his radio. The navy found twenty-six survivors.
Dulles faced the music with Eisenhower on Friday, April 21. Conciliatory, Ike reassured the shattered CIA director. Prelude to a weekend the Eisenhowers had been invited to spend at Camp David with the Kennedys, the briefing cued the former president to the inside story. Ike and Mamie helicoptered over from their Gettysburg, Pa., farm anticipating a social visit, but JFK opened with business and walked Ike over to the terrace at Aspen Lodge.
He did not quibble. “The chief apparent causes of failure,” JFK told Eisenhower, “were gaps in our intelligence, plus what may have been some errors in ship loading, timing, and tactics.”
Kennedy also told Eisenhower there would be an investigation. Indeed, an investigation could not be avoided, and in fact more than one. General Maxwell Taylor presided over the first committee, which called itself the Green Board. Robert F. Kennedy represented his brother, the president. Dulles guarded the CIA’s interests. Admiral Burke watched out for the navy. The board held twenty hearings with participants from Bissell on down, including brigadista escapees and politicians.
Declassified transcripts of Taylor panel testimony reveal an odd circumspection. It could hardly have been otherwise. The details of the airstrikes, the plans for invading Trinidad versus the Bay of Pigs, and the military’s review of the CIA plans were repeatedly examined. How these were handled set off Grayston Lynch. But they did not confront other central questions at all. Dulles mounted a preemptive defense of the CIA. At one session, he remarked that he favored reassigning paramilitary activities to the Pentagon.
The committee eventually attributed failure to a mistaken belief that this large operation could be conducted with plausible deniability; to a lack of coordination among U.S. agencies; to the attempt to command from a distance, with headquarters at Washington. The panel concluded that the guerrilla option had not really been available to the exiles, and that Project Ate’s plan had “a marginal character…which increased with each additional limitation.” By not actually rejecting the CIA plan, the Joint Chiefs seemed to have approved it and thus bore a measure of responsibility. Everyone had failed to do the things possible to ensure success.
The CIA came out looking much better than it should have. Bissell himself agreed, telling an agency interviewer in 1975 that the Taylor report had been very fair, reasonable, and mild. The report said nothing of the absurdity of using an invasion plan cobbled together in just a few days, a month before execution, and very little about the feasibility of committing fifteen hundred Cuban exiles in a beachhead area forty miles wide against a military establishment numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The report even observed, “We do not feel that any failure of intelligence contributed significantly to the defeat,” although it conceded that the data had not been perfect and the effectiveness of Castro’s military forces was “not entirely anticipated or foreseen.”
Agency historian Jack Pfeiffer, author of the CIA’s four-volume official account of Project Ate, and other agency veterans have been highly critical of the Taylor report, seeing Bobby Kennedy’s role as having been to ensure that outcome. But the plain facts show a wide array of basic errors in CIA’s implementation of the project.
There is no question that the Cuba debacle stripped away the CIA’s luster, especially that of the Directorate of Operations. Although the CIA might not have looked so bad in the Taylor report, Kennedy came into office considering Dulles a master spy and a political asset, and now he did not. At lunch with Arthur Schlesinger and James Reston during the last days of Project Ate, the president remarked, “Dulles is a legendary figure and it’s hard to work with legendary figures.” He kept Dulles on until completion of a new CIA headquarters building in Langley, Va., the construction of which had been one of Dulles’ great dreams, then let him go.
Among smaller fry, Grayston Lynch, in a 1998 memoir, published a fierce diatribe aimed primarily at Schlesinger, speechwriter and Special Counsel Ted Sorensen, and journalist Haynes Johnson. In common with a number of CIA veterans, Lynch saw in those accounts the same whitewash as in the Taylor report. The on-scene CIA officer, Lynch defended the stalwart fighters of Brigade 2506 and placed the onus of responsibility squarely on Kennedy’s shoulders.
Lynch had certain details wrong. Bissell, not JFK, halved the initial strike against Castro’s air bases, though based on his understanding that the president wanted less “noise.” There was not—at least in Washington councils—a plan for a campaign of five or more major strikes before the invasion. It was true that internal uprising held a significant role in the CIA’s concept. Castro did not mistake the U.S. deception in Pinar del Rio for the true invasion.
Lynch’s core argument was that if the brigadistas had ruled the air, the operation would have ended with the downfall of Fidel Castro. Agency Deputy Director Charles Cabell made the same argument. This is sheer speculation.
At best the CIA air force might have denied Castro forces entry into the Girón area. More likely it could have done no more than make the FAR assault slower and more costly. Brigade 2506 still would have had to get away from the invasion site, through a far superior Cuban army that the terrain would then have favored, just as it helped the exiles in defense.
A completely hidden obstacle would have been a species of crab native to Girón. The thousands of crabs crushed while crossing the roads, their razor-sharp shells often piled several feet deep, would have sliced the tires of the brigade’s vehicles. Beyond the beachhead, victory still would have required the Cuban people to change sides.
Lynch’s and Cabell’s contention was held by participants ranging from Jack Hawkins to exile pilot Eddie Ferrer, to observers like John McCone. But air superiority, while necessary for success, could not guarantee victory. Aircraft could not destroy Castro’s army, certainly not the types and numbers of planes available to the CIA. Meanwhile the internal resistance, weak and far away, had no chance to link up with the brigade. The CIA lacked the capacity to wean the majority of the Cuban people from the romance of the revolution.
Any one failure would have wrecked this complex plan. Every single element had to go right for it to have had even a chance of success. The CIA’s project had been marginal, at best, from the beginning. Eisenhower and the agency can apportion the blame for that. Eisenhower countenanced a transforming of the CIA operation from one of partisan support— which had a relatively greater chance of success—to that of invasion.
Ike refused to make a decision—and make it stick—about the involvement of U.S. forces. And President Eisenhower sanctioned acceleration of the project after the election but before Kennedy assumed office, making the Cuban scheme that much harder to shut down had JFK made such a choice. Kennedy made the mistakes that he did. At the Bay of Pigs, there was blame enough to share.
John Prados, an MHQ contributing editor, has most recently written Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA, (Ivan R. Dee, 2005), from which this article was adapted.
Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.