I suppose my continuing to blog about the CIA’s Cuba Project, JFK and the Bay of Pigs is an indication of stubbornness – but admittedly I am stubborn about “real history”. And I continue to see remarks and receive questions about the Bay of Pigs based on decades old histories of the event. After the work I put into In Denial, I’m just not about to give up on getting the word out on the real history, especially in regard to the Bay of Pigs, a seminal event in the Kennedy Administration

Many of the standard remarks and questions about that event still come from people who repeat at least one of these long standing takes on the Bay of Pigs: a) it was a disaster demonstrating JFK’s failure as a commander, b) it showed his nativity as a new President, c) it was all part of a well structured conspiracy to entrap him into full scale war against Cuba, or d) it was intended to fail, thereby embarrassing him and making him a tool of the CIA during the next four years (the last option primarily pointing towards CIA Director Dulles as the evil mastermind).

As In Denial demonstrates, the first three premises are simply nonsense, part of a meme initially orchestrated by Cuba Project leader Richard Bissell to divert blame to his own failures onto President Kennedy.

In regard to the CIA and a well organized conspiracy, with what we know now, it is hard to find anything about the Cuba Project that would be considered well organized – or communicated accurately to the incoming Kennedy Administration.

DIA Director participated in a few minutes, giving only minimalist and often vague and uninformed comments on the project and its operations.  J.C. King (CIA Western Hemisphere Director) was far more involved in those administration reviews meetings, as was Air Force General Charles Cabell, detailed to the CIA and the Cuba Project.

The primary briefing officer in the meetings, and the source of what details JFK and his senior administration members were told was Project Chief Richard Bissell.  The project’s infantry chief, in charge of preparing the Cuban volunteers, was Colonel Hawkins, He attended a limited number of briefing meetings in early 1961, commenting on the training and readiness of the Cuban Brigade ground force – which was his assignment. 

The air arm of the Brigade was very under represented in those same meetings, with Bissell often speaking for them – a major mistake since he had no relevant experience and had personally mandated the total separation of the Air arm from the ground forces under Hawkins. That was a move which Hawkins advised could prove fatal – and did.

The person that might have made the real difference in the meetings with the new administration, or with with JFK, was Jake Esterline, the actual project operations head But in the months immediately before the Bay of Pigs, Bissell began to screen him out of meetings, apparently because Esterline was being too hard nosed about the issue of increased air support (something which caused he and Hawkins attempted resignation only days before the landings).

In response Bissell promised them he would convince JFK more and larger air strikes were needed, but then almost immediately cut plans in half without telling them (his own decision, not JFK’s). 

Decades later, with access to operational and historical documents, Esterline concluded that Bissell had made sure he was not in key meetings because his comments would likely have exposed serious operational risks, and JFK likely would have cancelled the whole thing.  Neither of the two operational commanders were in direct contact with JFK as the force launched towards the beaches; if they had been issues and questions would undoubtedly have come up which could well have aborted the landings – and ended Bissell’s career then and there.

Later it appears that it was Bissell who first fed negative information to the media, leading to the articles which directed all the blame at JFK. And it was also Bissell who lied to Esterline and Hawkins in regard to the air strike decisions, again placing all the blame on JFK. 

In the highly classified post-Bay of Pigs Taylor Commission hearings Dulles actually accepted a good deal of blame.  Not that he did not deserve it as being the senior man in charge, but his sins were largely of omission.  An example shows up in the meetings in which the Joint Chiefs had pointed out the logistics were so weak that the beachhead would collapse without a major uprising / resistance campaign. 

JFK’s people heard that and accepted that it was part of the plan. What they did not hear was any specific commentary on that uprising at all from Dulles et al. In reality neither Bissell or Dulles had any intelligence or reason to believe that would happen (later confirmed by both the CIA IG and the CIA Historian) and Bissell had actually ordered contact with the resistance groups for operational security.  The CIA’s own highly trained Cuban volunteer maritime paramilitary assets were not even deployed to reconnoiter the landing area, much less make contact with resistance groups in the area.

Of course that is only a glimpse into the full story, which I will continue to try to make visible as real history. For those interested, I will be on Chuck Ochelli’s show Thursday evening, September 10, 7 PM central time, talking about the Cuba project, these issues and many others.  It also gets archived if you can’t listen live.

6 responses »

  1. AnthonyM says:

    Keep on being stubborn, if the end result is work of this quality!
    I must admit I had taken it that the ‘plan’ was that the President would be persuaded to authorise US military action once the Brigade got into significant difficulties, which, without an uprising was inevitable. As they knew an uprising was unlikely, given the damage done to resistance groups in Cuba and widespread support for Castro in Cuba, anything else seems somewhat delusional on Bissel’s part. Even a successful assassination of Fidel woukd hardly have destroyed the Cuban government.
    But, there we go…

  2. larryjoe2 says:

    With all the details we now have at hand it certainly does seem “delusional” on Bissell’s part. He and possibly Barnes were the only ones in the position to have the full picture of the plans exposure, and certainly Bissell conveyed that to no one. Perhaps the most incredible thing is that he watched even what would have been the wild card fall one by one during the final two weeks or so, and yet didn’t offer JFK what the new President clearly wanted – advice to back off.

    He could have made a strong argument that it simply was too late and events had overtaken even the best plan he could make. JFK gave him every opportunity to do that but Bissell consistently passed. Delusional, in Denial, yes – Hubris, most certainly. But we know that does happen, unfortunately it still is – 2020 clearly confirms that.

  3. larryjoe2 says:

    Speaking of “wild cards” it is just possible that if the last one in play – something still speculative – was the provocation at Guantanamo that I discuss in the book, it would have been even more significant than assassinating Castro as it would almost certainly have triggered the destruction of the Cuban military.

    That plan may have aborted with an accident at the explosives cache outside the base, only days before the landings. If Bissell had been betting on that last card, he would have found himself in the position of recommending a last minute cancellation to JFK – with no explanation other than to reveal something that had been withheld from the President, which would led to other revelations of hidden measures – something fatal to Bissell’s career and perhaps beyond that in terms of the role of the CIA.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Agreed…and v interesting about the possibility of a staged attack on Guantanamo being planned…and yet even then they didn’t abort. I can’t totally absolve JFK from all blame In this. He had more military experience than me, even if at a junior level and naval, but even I can see the Brigade could never have generated sufficient combat power to survive on its own without a mass uprising, and I don’t think that would only be with hindsight. He was a great statesman but the Bay of Pigs was a massive error…but clearly CIA and the Joint Chiefs were deeply culpable

  5. AnthonyM says:

    But there again, perhaps I am being too harsh…most people wouldn’t have my sad interests and as POTUS you should be able to rely on truly expert advice.

  6. larryjoe2 says:

    I think that if you actually read the book you will come up with a much different opinion of JFK. When you realize that the project chief literally lied to him and then lied to his own military officers you begin to get a better sense of matters. When you learn that several of JFK’s operational directives were literally ignored, the picture becomes more clear. And when you see JFK’s actual national security directive, the limited definition it contains ,and gain a better picture of the command and control disconnects with the project itself, his role finally comes into perspective. As does his willingness to compromise on a number of his restrictions as the fighting was actually underway.

    JFK and his senior advisors did have issues and did challenge the plan, as did the Joint Chiefs. In the end, he listened to the JCS who said that the volunteers could be landed but that they could only hold the lodgement with certain assumptions and that logistics were highly questionable. The CIA proceeded without really acknowledging those assumptions were extremely questionable or addressing the logistics issues….but said nothing in regard to either the issues or logistics in the review sessions. I know that sounds hard to believe, all I can do is refer you to the book and the actual post-operations inquiries.

    What is certainly true is that JFK trusted both the CIA’s senior officers and the JCS review more than he should have….but given their experience and the number of opportunities he offered them to back away from the project – in the end he did leave it to their assurances. What is important to note is that only weeks later, when the JCS and CIA recommended a huge conventional military intervention across Laos and into Vietnam, JFK had learned his lesson – he began to ask the operational and logistics questions he had not about Cuba and in the end they could not answer them, and their call for the intervention faded away as they failed to do so.

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