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.