One of the pitfalls of writing on historical research is that once I finish a project I somehow imagine everyone knows what I’ve learned and it becomes “old news” to me. After working on In Denial for some three years, and then getting the book into print, I fell into the trap of thinking several key questions regarding JFK and the Bay of Pigs had finally been resolved. But recently, in reading an online forum post on the longstanding issue of the canceled air strikes, I realized that for the world in general (or the part of it that cares about President Kennedy and his administration) that remains a point of debate, and considerable mystery.
What is missing from contemporary discussions of JFK and the Bay of Pigs is that over the last few years we have come to know a good deal more now about the operational details of the Cuba Project of 1960/61, particularly in regard to the landings of the Cuban volunteer Brigade at the Bay of Pigs. For example, we now have all segments of the CIA IG report, with nothing restricted. Beyond that we finally have all sections of the CIA Historian’s report, especially the last section which, while filled with polemic, is extremely educational – especially because it contains extensive comments and excerpts from the Taylor Commission report. That was the inquiry ordered by President Kennedy, its work and report remains unreleased; however the CIA historian managed to obtain access to it for his research.
That is extremely important because it gives a much deeper view into what the new Kennedy Administration principals were actually told in advance of the landing, as well as what was not shared with them (from CIA senior officers Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell), as well as what was totally misunderstood by other participants such as CIA project principal General Charles Cabell. Close attention to the Taylor Committee reports also reveals details of how the Kennedy Administration members were shielded from operational details, and misled by Dulles and Bissell’s simple practice of not commenting on certain points – especially in regard to certain of JFK’s directives operational guidance or the prospect of a general Cuban resistance uprising in conjunction with the landings. We can now see the extent to which that precluded any real discussion of key issues like the intelligence available on the assumed Cuban uprising that was seen as key to the plan. That meant there was no CIA reality check on a number of key points, leaving administration participants with what in reality were false assumptions.
Beyond these new materials, we now have oral history information from the project’s military leaders (Esterline and Hawkins) as to exactly what they were told by Project Chief Bissell, information on actual instructions given to the Cuban Brigade leaders, and details of what the CIA officers unofficially detailed to the landing (Grayston Lynch and Rip Robertson) were told – and assumed as official operational doctrine for the landings. I should mention that the level of disconnects in information from those actually involved in the effort becomes both obvious – and depressing.
The disconnects actually became so obvious to both Esterline and Hawkins that in the end they concluded that Bissell had actually lied to them on a number of occasions – including telling them that the anticipated D Day air strikes had been personally cancelled by JFK. After seeing the new information made available to them, they felt that too had been a lie, along with many other things that Bissell had represented as decisions coming from President Kennedy.
Finally, thanks to some deep digging into released CIA operational memoranda and communications on the project (an effort involving a huge amount of research and “crypt cracking” by my friends David Boylan and Bill Simpich), we now have insight into a level of detail that give us a totally new view into the military aspect of the project – and a significant reality check on what has been previously been written about the landings at the Bay of Pigs.
A number of key points emerge in that detail, including the fact that the Cuban Brigade Air element had no direct communications with the beachead, that the Brigade’s own officers had no direct communication with the aircraft over the beach head, and that the Navy was using entirely different radio frequencies, a point only revealed during actual combat. Clearly the operational screw ups were immense, severely undermining the actual fight by the Brigade’s volunteers.
One of the most pitiful documents describes a message from Brigade Air to the Navy desperately pleading with them to make sure they provided air cover for the American pilots which had been allowed to fly a last ditch air strike – as it turns out that message was actually sent after the Navy had totally failed at that task. You can read the frustration in the messages being exchanged, especially when Brigade Air refuses to send any more volunteers.
In the end it becomes clear that even the endless debate about JFK, and the cancellation of the final Day 1 air strikes has been largely meaningless. The Joint Chiefs had officially gone on record that the CIA’s logistics support for any sustained supply of the beachhead was very questionable; they cautioned that it would collapse without an almost immediate island wide uprising – which the CIA itself understood was extremely unlikely. When you find that given the desperate nature of the supply situation at the end of Day 1, the US Air Force was authorized to fly supply drops over the beach with American transports – and were unable to do so – you further realize how lacking the planning was, contingencies simply were never addressed.
The good news, from a historical point of view, is that we now know the truth about the Bay of Pigs, the bad news is how what that truth reveals.