A week or so ago I enjoyed doing a couple of presentations for the DPUK annual conference held in Canterbury, England. In response to the one focusing on new research relating to the transition and in particular Navy participation for the Cuban Brigade project, I received a question that has come up before but which caused me to rethink its implications. The question was simply that Bissell was certainly a smart fellow so did he actually mess up the project or was it intentional, suggesting some high level CIA effort to manipulate the new President – forcing him into full scale military action. My current thinking on that is as follows:
1) Bissell and the whole Guatemala team were treated as miracle workers over the success of the Guatemala coup project; so much so that they were personally honored by President Eisenhower. It was that team that formed the core of the new Cuba project that Eisenhower ordered in 1960. However in retrospect, the success in Guatemala my have had more to do with a full scale blockade which Eisenhower had ordered and the fact that a Navy landing force with Marines was off shore to support the CIA operation – it now appears that the Guatemalan leader was convinced that a full US invasion to support the meager CIA exile contingent was inevitable.
2) We know now that Eisenhower was far more supportive of the initial Trinidad plan – which did not include a beach landing but sailing the Brigade force right into the harbor – than is often taken into consideration. One of our problems is that nothing about that plan was put in writing, all briefings were verbal and we do not have a copy of the Navy Rules of Engagement. However based on recent oral history work and in the information in blogs I’ve made here it appears that Ike was far more willing to go overt. He suggested to the CIA that they might stage an incident to trigger American military involvement, he appears to have approved a ROE for Trinidad that would have allowed full destroyer and combat air support for the landing itself and he even cautioned JFK that he needed to be bold and not back off being as overt as necessary. We can’t prove it but its very likely up to Dec, 60 that Bissell thought he would have far more overt support than JFK would end up allowing him – and after all, JFK’s win in the election was a narrow one. Bissell could very well have been taking orders from Nixon, who had been heavily involved in encouraging the whole Cuba project. Beyond that, Ike had given verbal approval to assassination projects and it now appears that there were multiple projects in play to assassinate Castro, all the way up to the final weeks before the landing.
3) The Navy recommended and the Joint Chiefs endorsed Rules of Engagement that would have provided combat air patrols, engaging any Cuban forces approaching the Brigade ships and extending into an area only one or two miles off shore – if JFK had accepted that then Cuban aircraft would undoubtedly have been engaged and full scale American military support would have evolved quickly. We know, and JFK may not have, that the carrier Essex – serving as the landing command ship – had secretly embarked a Navy attack air group and that the carrier was stocked with a full set of munitions, not just for air to air but air to ground attack. JFK rejected the ROE proposal and directed that if the Brigade ships were detected or engaged they should retreat and the landing should not occur.
4) We also know that a suite of additional Navy ships had been alerted, but this appears to have been done by senior Navy command itself and was not in the plan approved by JFK. Ostensibly it was to provide a safeguard for Guantanamo in case it was attacked but it may very well have originated in the much more extensive verbal discussions with the Navy that occurred under Eisenhower. The real point here is that was not a force setting off shore waiting – as had been the case in Guatemala – and it would have required time to bring it into combat. All that could happened during the landing if JFK had been talked into Navy air support were Essex air strikes and destroyer bombardment of the landing area. That would have help cover a retreat but by that point in time the Brigade was already in dire straits and it support ships had retreated, its ammunition ship was sunk. It is not as if a switch could be thrown and the Marines would immediately hit shore to relive them.
In summary, my conclusion is that Bissell was a bright guy but he got rolled up in a time frame and political transition that essentially trapped him. His estimates of Soviet military support for Castro lagged significantly, there was no blockade to prevent that as there had been in Guatemala, he was encouraged by Ike and no doubt envisioned military support that JFK didn’t give him and in the end he was in a position of either throwing up his hands and calling the whole thing a bust or gambling on the assassination attempts and/or rules of engagement that the Navy proposed – as well as apparently believing in promises from his own Air Group had made him vs. the harsh critique of that he had received from the Joint Chiefs team assigned to evaluate it. JFK would have loved to see the CIA back off, in turn it would have been a huge embarrassment for Dulles and the Agency and a career disaster for Bissell. So, I think he was a bright guy left holding the bag without enough nerve to call off the whole thing and in the end simply taking a gamble that he should not have. Given how much he did not tell his own military commanders or the exile commanders I suspect he knew that they would have aborted themselves if he had been honest with them. Instead, he steadfastly blamed the whole think on JFK to the end…a perfect case of going into denial.