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The Bay of Pigs Invasion: What Really Happened?
Was President Kennedy or the CIA responsible for the failed Cuban operation in 1961?
NOTE: The renowned journalist Thomas Lipscomb has just completed a new manuscript titled The Oswald Letter and it contains a number of staggering claims on the true story of the Kennedy Assassination based on newly released documents — as well as fresh accounts from new eyewitnesses who have never before been interviewed. This is the fifth excerpt from The Oswald Letter to appear here on my Substack.
Read Part 1: Lee Harvey Oswald’s Last Call
Read Part II: Lee Harvey Oswald Was Trained by The CIA
Read Part III: Hidden In Plain Sight
Read Part IV: The Secret of the Zapruder Film
On April 17th, 1961, there was a nighttime invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained Cuban exiles. It was intended to overthrow the new Communist Castro government just 90 miles from the United States — but it collapsed most embarrassingly in just two days — and it happened only three months into the new Kennedy Presidency.
President Kennedy had inherited the invasion plan from the Eisenhower Administration. A Brigade named “2506” (composed of about 1500 Cuban dissidents) was trained and equipped in Guatemala under the CIA. Brigade 2506 was told there would be a general Cuban uprising to support them once they landed on a swampy coast-line at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba.
The Brigade had its own ships — and a fleet of B-26s and other aircraft in support — repainted in Cuban air force colors pretending to be Cuban air force defectors. They were to take out the Castro Cuban air force, and other targets in advance.
While publicly pretending to take “sole responsibility” for the ensuing failure at the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy’s inner circle quickly spread the word about his true feelings. They put out the word privately, and widely throughout the media and the Washington establishment, that JFK had been duped into going forward with a disastrous plan by the assurances of the American military and the CIA.
In any case, Kennedy’s first big venture on the Cold War foreign policy stage was a total fiasco. He was publicly humiliated — but his PR team succeeded in winning sympathy for the gallant young president among influential Washingtonians who agreed that he was “forced into failure” by incompetent advisers. Although no one realized it at the time, the ramifications of this PR effort were to haunt the Kennedy Administration until its end.
Our perceptions today of what really happened at the Bay of Pigs are artfully and purposefully distorted by self-interested accounts by the participants, and their allies and institutions, overlayed by the prejudices of pro and anti-Kennedy factionalism, along with the weighting of partisan historians and journalists. The only thing everyone agrees on is that it was a fiasco — but whose fiasco?
Daily Mail cartoon April 21, 1961 by Leslie Gilbert Illingworth
Kennedy began his reputation-rehabilitation campaign by a most curious face-saving meeting with his predecessor, President Eisenhower, just as the last defeated remnants of his Bay of Pigs invasion force were being marched to prison in Havana. On April 22, 1961 — just five days after the Bay of Pigs fiasco — President Kennedy sent a helicopter to Ike’s Gettysburg farm to fly him to Camp David for secret talks.
He told Eisenhower that he had followed the advice of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and “everybody had approved” the invasion. The meeting itself, if not the private talks, was set up for major public consumption with dozens of reporters and photographers and a full contingent of military aides. Kennedy was publicly signaling his careful consultation with America’s preeminent military hero, while he was privately blaming the Eisenhower plan that had failed him to anyone who would listen.
Eisenhower informed Kennedy in short terms that not only had the operation been a military disaster, but it had been worse: it had let Khrushchev see that he was weak. “I just took their advice,” Kennedy pleaded, meaning the CIA and the Chiefs of Staff. After leaving the meeting, the new president was visibly shaken.
According to an anonymous source at The New York Times, President Kennedy “wanted to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” Kennedy subsequently dismissed CIA head Allen Dulles, and others at the CIA — and reassigned others.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek summarizes JFK’s point of view clearly: “Afterward, Kennedy accused himself of naïveté for trusting the military’s judgment that the Cuban operation was well thought-out and capable of success. ‘Those sons of bitches with all the fruit salad just sat there nodding, saying it would work,’ Kennedy said of the chiefs.’”
“He repeatedly told his wife, ‘Oh my God, the bunch of advisers that we inherited!’ Kennedy concluded that he was too little schooled in the Pentagon’s covert ways and that he had been overly deferential to the CIA and the military chiefs. He later told Schlesinger that he had made the mistake of thinking that ‘the military and intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals.’”
Kennedy’s heavily publicized meeting with Eisenhower — the man whose plan supposedly had blown up on Kennedy — was a well-planned exercise in duplicity. However, Eisenhower’s notes on the meeting clarify the reality behind the intended obfuscation.
The key point turned on Kennedy’s paramount concern to Eisenhower about undertaking the Cuban invasion: “the State Department ‘thought that we should be very careful that our hand not show in this operation.’ If the United States airplanes carried out airstrikes, the diplomats argued, there would be no question of American involvement. They persuaded him to cancel a second bombing run in support of the exiles because ‘the Soviets would be very apt to cause trouble in Berlin.’”
Ike was astounded by this reasoning. Everyone would know that the United States had been complicit. Where else would the invaders have gotten their ships, their arms, and their communications?
Ike says that he told Kennedy that there was “only one thing to do when you go into this kind of thing. It must be a success.”
In one sentence, Eisenhower demonstrated what Kennedy’s real failure had been at the Bay of Pigs: he had sacrificed military effectiveness for absurd political public relations concerns. It hadn’t been the advice of the CIA or the military which had doomed his venture, as he had stated to his close associates. Kennedy had been listening to the advice of the State Department, and his political advisers, in conducting a military operation.
Indeed, there had been a carefully developed invasion plan. Eisenhower had commissioned it early in 1960 under Vice President Richard Nixon’s direction. But Kennedy not only did not follow the Eisenhower plan, he made critical last-minute changes that doomed it to failure before it was executed, exactly as he had told Eisenhower — for political considerations.
That plan, called “Pluto,” was created under the CIA’s Richard Bissell.
Trinidad is a small city 200 miles from Havana, on the south coast of Cuba, in the province of Sancti Spiritus which is south of Santa Clara. From the immediate aftermath of Castro’s revolution in 1959 to 1965, this area was the center of a large number of dissident groups opposing the Communist regime of Fidel Castro. From the earliest revolutionary allies of Castro who did not want a Communist state to former Batista supporters to small farmers resisting collectivism, it totaled thousands of people. In the end, it would take Castro raising 250,000 militia members to finally suppress their uprising — four years after the Bay of Pigs in 1965.
What made the location an ideal hideout for the dissidents was the presence of the wild and extensive Escambray Mountains less than an hour’s drive from Trinidad. The thickets and ravines of the Escambray already held thousands of the anti-Castro guerillas — and the CIA was supplying them, with some difficulty because of the remote location.
The mission was comparatively simple: train and equip Cuban exile troops in Guatemala, make arrangements for them to acquire the ships they needed to carry them (along with their equipment, and other arms and ammunition needed to supply the guerillas already in the Escambray), and land them at Trinidad’s port at Casilda. The port had a 12 meter depth, and roll-on roll-off capability at its dock, making it easy to unload the Brigade’s cargo for transport into the Escambray by truck.
A week after his Inauguration (on Saturday, January 28th), President Kennedy was given a full briefing on the forthcoming Trinidad operation. It had to be scheduled for April, a little over two months later, so it could occur prior to rainy weather — and the arrival of more Soviet military equipment, as well as some MIG jet fighters with Cuban pilots trained by the Czechs. The MIGs might preclude any invasion at all.
As he told Eisenhower, Kennedy staffed his go/no go decision on PLUTO/Trinidad and finally overruled the plan on March 15. Running out of time, only three days later the CIA came back with a new location at the Bay of Pigs. This time it was quickly approved by Kennedy.
The new plan was named after the Zapata peninsula — just off the Bay of Pigs.
Bay of Pigs deep inlet on left (Bahia de Cochinos) Trinidad on far right
Two problems were readily apparent. The Bay of Pigs is only a little over 100 miles from Havana, twice as close as Trinidad, and 100 miles of bad road farther from the refuge of the Escambray mountains. That meant in case of difficulty, Brigade 2506 hadn’t a prayer of making it to the Escambray mountains. Even if successfully landed, it would have no choice but to try to overthrow the Castro revolution with barely 1500 men and some short-lived air support from their own B-26s.
At the beginning of April, David Atlee Phillips [CIA chief of operations for the Western Hemisphere] entered the war room to see on the map a large red cross over Trinidad, and new markings aimed at the Bay of Pigs. “I thought I was victim of an April Fool trick of the meanest kind,” Phillips said.
The new location, he argued, was too far from the Escambray, and the swamp too perilous.
Phillips had a word for the changes required by Kennedy: “madness.” Indeed they were. Kennedy thought he could hide US involvement in the operation by landing his Brigade 2506 on a glorified sandbar, backed up by miles of swamp. It was an easy drive from Havana but far from the Escambray. It was so badly reconnoitered that it was found to contain Cuban military listening posts, and a reef off-shore that caused the Brigade to run out of food and ammunition. Once they landed on the beach, they couldn’t get their supplies from their ships on shore.
Rather than telling President Kennedy that it was too late to do a year’s worth of planning for a new site in three days, the CIA itself proposed the disastrous Bay of Pigs site and encouraged JFK to go ahead. If it was an “April Fools trick” as Phillips had thought, it had to be blamed on his colleagues at the CIA who knew perfectly well that Operation Zapata was doomed before it began.
So what were they doing?
Both the CIA’s Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick and General Maxwell Taylor — on behalf of the Kennedy Administration — did extensive after-action analyses of the catastrophe. The CIA turned out to be operating on two assumptions (the first one for cover and the second one its true agenda): that Castro was too weak to crush the invaders, and that President Kennedy would have to land the Marines and finish Castro if it seemed that Brigade 2506 was doomed. CIA officials — from Dulles on down to the branch chief who ran the operation — professed this same belief but tacitly assumed President Kennedy would commit US troops rather than let the Brigade be overrun. Both assumptions turned out to be dead wrong.
Two American destroyers and a submarine were steaming in international waters off the beaches during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Two US Navy carriers, the Essex and Shangri La, flew reconnaissance sorties over the carnage on the beaches for the duration of the conflict and reported back. And there was almost the entire 2nd Marine division on transports, some elements directly off the Bay of Pigs, ready to go in and support Brigade 2506. Did Kennedy even know this? There is no indication that he did. It went directly against his orders: there was to be no American military intervention.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff were horrified that having unleashed this catastrophe, Kennedy would do nothing but let his Brigade be overwhelmed.
It turns out that Kennedy was right. Nothing could have helped them outside of a full United States invasion (which the CIA was trying to provoke) as both Maxwell and Kirkpatrick concluded in their after-action report. President Kennedy had received a warning directly from Khrushchev that risked far higher stakes if he went further in Cuba. On the first day of the invasion, Khrushchev wrote Kennedy that he would not allow US intervention in Cuba, and would respond with a nuclear attack on the US heartland. The problem wasn’t of Kennedy’s making. It was in launching the Bay of Pigs invasion in the first place.
Recently revealed notes from an unpublished manuscript by Allen Dulles underline the perception of the CIA study and JFK’s under Taylor. Dulles put it this way: “I have seen good many operations like B of P – insistence on complete secrecy – noninvolvement of the US --- initial reluctance to authorize supporting actions. This reluctance tends to disappear as the needs of the operation become clarified.”
President Kennedy wasn’t going to fall into the CIA’s “clarification” trap — and now we know Dulles had clearly agreed to Zapata precisely because he knew it would fail. Dulles thought he could force JFK into the full invasion that Dulles had been planning for years, using the naval task force waiting quietly offshore.
As Kennedy summarized it, the military and the CIA “couldn’t believe that a new president like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face,’” Kennedy later told his aide Dave Powers. And to give him proper credit, Kennedy demanded Brigade 2506 agree to expect no American intervention before going forward with the Zapata plan.
So who was finally responsible for the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs? Certainly Kennedy, as Eisenhower saw immediately when JFK informed him airily that the key element of his decision making on a military operation was its PR effect. Just imagine Eisenhower being told by Churchill and FDR three weeks before D-Day that his objective at Normandy had to be changed to Calais!
Allen Dulles and his CIA were to blame as well, since they had tried and failed to sandbag a newly-elected President into supporting the CIA’s foreign policy rather than the President’s own; by deceptively acting in his stead as Commander in Chief of the nation’s military assets; and by trying to force him into the action they wanted.
An understandably outraged president promised “to splinter the C.I.A. in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” Kennedy fired Dulles and others too. He thought that he had solved the problem by installing a West Coast Republican, John McCone, to replace Dulles as CIA Director. McCone wasn’t part of the Ivy League clique that made up the CIA — and he was a gritty industrialist by profession. However, Dulles stayed in Washington, and appeared to almost be running a parallel CIA from his Georgetown townhouse.
After Kennedy’s death, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, Willie Morris, tried to get Dulles’ inside story on the failure of the Bay of Pigs. After considering it, Dulles decided not to open up — but Morris never forgot the searing summary that Dulles gave him on the murdered JFK: “That little Kennedy,” Dulles said, “…he thought he was a god.”
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