Rules of Engagement (ROE) are the written guidelines for when and with what force the American military may engage hostile forces. ROE drew a great deal of attention in regard to the SE Asian fighting and ROE restrictions undoubtedly cost American lives there. I’ve become much more familiar with ROE and it appears as a major topic in my upcoming book, Surprise Attack. As it turns out it is proved to be an extremely critical issue – and one generally ignored by the media – during the attacks on America on 9/11. Its also a much more seminal issue all the way back to Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and the early Cold War administrations of Eisenhower and JFK. And as I’m learning in further Bay of Pigs Study it may have been a key factor in the transition of that CIA operation against Cuba.
I’m obtaining more primary source material on the Bay of Pigs but one thing that has jumped out at me so far is that while JFK required written plans for the CIA operation – and forced a broad evaluation of them once his administration came into place, its unclear whether Eisenhower did the same. He certainly met with the CIA officers in charge and got verbal descriptions, certain of his comments are a matter of record. But to date I have been unable to locate a detailed written plan for the Trinidad operation as designed under the Eisenhower administration, or for that matter, the ROE for the Naval forces assigned. I may just be missing it so far but even with what I’ve found its possible to reverse engineer a bit of it simply from examining the Mach and April ’61 changes to the proposed and JCS approved ROE.
One thing that quickly becomes evident is that both JFK and McNamara were quite concerned that the ROE being put in place by the Navy would to easily allow combat to begin between Cuban and possibly even Soviet forces and the American Navy. Of course there was nothing strange about that, its clear the Navy had been assigned to escort the landing ships and support/protect them as a classic convoy operation. Standard military practice – but we find that it produced a series of urgent directives to the Joint Chiefs to modify the ROE and to ensure there were no combat engagements prior to the landing. With those directives, what had been laid on as a standard convoy type escort for the Brigade landing group, literally up to some three miles of the landing – with authority to engage any hostile forces which threatened the Brigade- turned into something very different. Certainly if the Navy destroyers had moved in as close as initially authorized, they would have taken Cuban fire and in return the Navy would have decimated the Cuban defense forces, including their aircraft. But of course that would have quickly been seen as an American invasion. On April 7, direction from the President made it absolutely clear the ROE would be changed to reflect that US forces were to distance themselves by at least twenty miles and no engagement was authorized unless the landing craft were attacked up to that point – and then the landing would be aborted and the US forces would simply cover the landing force as it moved away from Cuba.
The core issue that shows up in all this is that Eisenhower was not nearly as concerned about American visibility in the operation as JFK was, leaving JFK inheriting a plan that was essentially not deniable, and trying to turn it into something that was in something like two months. While it was impossible to control the total operation (after all it included landing tanks and a paratroop drop) it was possible to control the location and the ROE. It also appears that concern over the Navy and its ROE was something that may have stuck with both McNamara and Bundy……leading to their focus on ROE during the Cuban missile crisis, a confrontation with the Admiral in charge of the Cuban blockade and JFK’s personal involvement with details of the Navy ROE, up to the point of what sort of explosives were to be used in interdicting Soviet submarines.
In the end, changes in ROE may have dramatically affected the CIA operation against Cuba, something obscured by all the attention given to the B-26 strikes, but whatever its impact there, the sensitivity to ROE may also have helped avert World War III only twelve months later.