Live by the Sword: The Secret War That Killed JFKby Gus Russo
Humiliated at the Bay of Pigs, John and Robert Kennedy sought desperately to eliminate Castro. Their strategies for overthrowing the Cuban leader were so elaborate and bizarre, they could only engender paranoia. Castro openly threatened to retaliate. Pro-Castro agitator Lee Harvey Oswald learned that Robert Kennedy was personally supervising groups plotting against… See more details below
Humiliated at the Bay of Pigs, John and Robert Kennedy sought desperately to eliminate Castro. Their strategies for overthrowing the Cuban leader were so elaborate and bizarre, they could only engender paranoia. Castro openly threatened to retaliate. Pro-Castro agitator Lee Harvey Oswald learned that Robert Kennedy was personally supervising groups plotting against the Cuban leader. Filled with rage and a sense of destiny, Oswald went to the Cuban embassy in Mexico, announcing he would kill America's president in exchange for sanctuary in Havana. Live by the Sword forces the conclusion that members of the Cuban regime accepted the troubled American's offer. Russo shows that Oswald was indeed JFK's lone assailant, but that after the president's murder, a devastated Robert Kennedy and key officials launched a comprehensive cover-up to hide its true causes.
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THE STORY BEGINS
The Backstory: Cuba in the 1950's and the Emergence of Fidel Castro
"Cuba seems to have the same effect on American administrations as the full moon used to have on werewolves."
--Wayne Smith, Former U.S. State Department Officer in Havana
At the center of it all was Cuba--a small tropical island a mere 90 miles off the U.S. coast. Its recent, tumultuous, and largely secret past is the hidden key which unlocks the mysteries of the century's most important mystery. Only by coming to grips with Cuba can any of us truly understand that catastrophic day in Dallas, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and when the trust between a nation and its citizens began to crumble. Nor, in an intelligent way, can U.S. foreign policy be crafted and executed without knowing what motivated U.S. leaders to wage an undeclared war against the tiny, and seemingly insignificant, country of Cuba.
In the United States of the 1950's and early 1960's, Cuba was a ticking time bomb. During a lengthy period of Cold War hostility, the antagonism between Cuba and the United States became so well-established that in 1963, when John Kennedy was killed, many Americans felt that the U.S.-Cuban disputes had been going on forever. Actually, the conflict was quite young. But by making it their Alpha and Omega, the brothers Kennedy escalated the tensions beyond all reason, and thus guaranteed their own downfall. For while the U.S. government preached its own brand of jingoism, it was matched by the feverish activities of those who believed Cuba's leader, Fidel Castro, to be a virtual Messiah. The polarities that created such volatile obsessions are rooted in Cuba's unique history.
For years, Cuba had been an American vassal. The U.S. had forced itself into the Cuban constitution with the inclusion of the notorious "Platt Amendment," which allowed for U.S. intervention whenever it felt the urge. Until Castro's 1959 revolution, Cuba was ruled by a series of dictators who redefined the terms graft and corruption. The most corrupt of these was President Fulgencio Batista, who controlled the country until the Castro takeover. And, as pointed out by historian Michael Beschloss, Batista had ingratiated himself nicely with his neighbors to the north:
During World War II, he enlisted Cuba behind the Allies, protecting the American naval base at Guantanamo and selling Cuba's 1941 sugar crop to the United States at bargain prices. By the 1950's Americans owned 40 percent of the Cuban sugar industry, 80 percent of Cuban utilities, and 90 percent of Cuban mining.
Under Batista, Cuba's economic involvement with the U.S. exploded. By the 1950's, 75 percent of Cuba's imports were from the United States, which benefited from the fact that its commodities enjoyed a unique exemption from Cuban import duties. By 1958, American investments on the island were approaching the 1 billion dollar mark. The signs of American business and culture were inescapable in Cuba. The Chase Manhattan Bank, Procter and Gamble, Colgate, Texaco, Goodyear, Remington, Borden, Sears, Ford, U.S. Rubber, Standard Oil, Coke, Pepsi--all had substantial holdings on the island.
The Kennedys themselves were among those to benefit from this tropical nest-egg. According to some reports, Joseph Kennedy Sr. had owned stock in a profitable Coca-Cola franchise on the island with Irish tenor and Coke spokesman Morton Downey, Sr. In addition, Robert Kennedy's father-in-law, George Skakel, had financial holdings in Cuba, represented there by Cuban attorney Dr. Carlos Johns. Skakel's company, Great Lakes Carbon, had made the family wealthy. Great Lakes' worldwide holdings included some in Batista-era Cuba, where the firm supplied filters used in the sugar industry. Skakel maintained close friendships with CIA officers, often supplying them with intelligence data he received from the island, some of which would later be used to plan the Bay of Pigs invasion. When the Castro enterprise began, his daughter, Ethel, was known to fear its revolutionary tendencies, and pray for its defeat.
Castro also profited from the excesses of the Batista era and its relationship with the United States. His father had made money from the American-owned United Fruit Company, which had a presence on the island. The young Fidel even tried to cash in on the U.S.-Cuban relationship in professional baseball. In the 1940's, legendary American baseball scout Joe Cambria twice turned down Fidel Castro, then a young, athletic baseball player. "Uncle Joe scouted Castro and told him he didn't have a major league arm," said Washington Senators' owner Clark Griffith, who employed Cambria to milk Latin America for its raw baseball talent.
Fellow scout Ruben Amaro jokes, "[Cambria] could have changed history if he remembered that some pitchers just mature late." And Castro's pitching did mature. By the late 1940's, he became known for his wicked curve ball. One Pittsburgh Pirates scout recalled, "He could set 'em up with the curve, blow 'em down with the heater." By 1949, Castro was indeed offered a contract with the New York Giants and a $5,000 signing bonus. But by then Castro's law studies and political interests had taken root. "We couldn't believe he turned us down," remembered a Giants scout. "Nobody from Latin America had [ever] said `no' before."
Other beneficiaries of the Batista regime included prominent representatives of organized crime. Havana had become a kind of offshore Las Vegas, and Mafia enterprises were obscenely profitable. Raw opium from South America (and possibly from Asia) was processed on the island. Cuban children suffered from disease and malnutrition, but the casinos reaped huge profits ($100 million profit from gambling alone, according to the best estimates). These were supplemented by earnings from abortion services and prostitution. The island was a great draw for American tourists.
The corrupt Batista even hired U.S. mob boss Meyer Lansky to (in the dictator's words) "clean up" the casinos. Lansky, at the time a fugitive from the IRS, was happy to accept the offer. Soon, crime figures from Las Vegas, Miami, Cleveland, and elsewhere were moving in on Havana, where Lansky doled out the casino franchises.
Batista's corruption was recently summarized by historian Thomas G. Paterson:
Probably 20 to 25% of government expenditures represented graft and payoffs. Batista's personal wealth stood somewhere between $60 and $300 million. In 1959 revolutionary government officials opened his safe deposit boxes and found $20 million ... When Batista and his close corruptionists fled the country as 1958 turned into 1959, they took with them--nobody knows how much for sure--some 350 million pesos of the national treasury (one peso equaled one dollar).
But the bubble was soon to burst, for Batista's greed began to foster strong revolutionary movements which threatened to topple the dictator. When Castro started his movement in the early 1950's, many key players in Cuba, weary from extortion by the Batista regime, were willing to assist. For a time, according to Cuban soldier Ramon Conte, Castro enlisted the CIA's help and himself became a CIA informant. CIA agent Ross Crozier, who was assigned to work with Fidel in the mountains as he prepared his final push against the Batista regime, recently corroborated this: "[CIA Western Hemisphere Chief] J.C. King had come down to talk to Fidel in 1959." Castro so wanted the Americans' support, according to Crozier, that he readily supplied Crozier with details of his own troop movements. "Fidel gave us much intelligence. I went on the Manzanillo raid with him." Crozier still possesses a letter of introduction, written on his behalf by Fidel, in which the Cuban leader instructed his associates to give "Mr. Ross" all the cooperation he needed, including access to Raul Castro, his brother.
In December 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a representative to Havana to persuade Batista to resign. However, on January 1, 1959, before Batista could respond, Castro marched victoriously into the streets of Havana, declaring, "For the first time, the Republic will really be entirely free." He later declared, "The Platt Amendment is finished."
One of Castro's first acts as Cuba's leader was to close the largely American-owned casinos (together with many of the country clubs), which the emerging dictator turned into schools and hospitals. "When the barbudos (`bearded ones') from the hills marched into Havana the day after New Year's of 1959," a historian of the period recently wrote, "the first thing the happy street throngs did was to smash parking meters and slot machines in the casinos, the most immediate symbols of the American presence in their lives." Fidel next nationalized all international businesses on the island. Huge enterprises like Coca-Cola and United Fruit, not to mention their owners, suffered greatly.
Batista's departure and Castro's takeover began a huge influx of disenchanted and fearful Cubans to the nearby coasts of the United States, particularly Miami and New Orleans. No wonder. On his island nation, Castro was orchestrating a political purge, dominated by trials and executions of "war criminals." The year following his takeover of Cuba, he presided over the machinegun executions of thousands of handcuffed opponents, who were then bulldozed into mass graves. Thousands more were left to rot, naked, in solitary cells on the Isle of Pines. The year 1961 was officially declared "The Year of the Firing Squad" by Castro lieutenant Captain Antonio Jimenez.
To emphasize their tenure in America as temporary, Cubans fleeing to the safety of the U.S. called themselves "exiles," rather than refugees.
In the early months of the revolution, Castro hoped for American support for his endeavor. "I am going to the United States to gather men and money," Castro had told his people. "I'll come back to see you and we shall plan what we have to do for our military training." But the nationalization of American-owned property, combined with Fidel's firing squad purges, had so outraged U.S. citizens and officials that, in April 1959, when Fidel flew to Washington to seek aid for his fledgling regime, President Eisenhower refused to see him. Not only did the United States refuse any assistance to Cuba, but Eisenhower virtually planted the kiss of death on the revolution by banning all Cuban sugar imports to the America Castro was surely disappointed. The United States had been silent during the excesses of the Batista regime. But now, it seemed, Eisenhower was doing his best to drive Cuba into the Soviet sphere.
What followed was an all too-familiar stroke of opportunism by the Soviets. In October 1959, the Soviets sent an envoy to Cuba--Alexander Alexyev. When word of the U.S. sugar ban reached Soviet Premier Khrushchev, he immediately dispatched a cable to Alexyev to forward to Castro. "When I handed this to Fidel, it said that `we, the Soviet Union, were ready to buy all the sugar, those 700,000 tons rejected by the Americans. And not only that year's assignment, but also all the next year's.' That was really an event! I was at the rally. There were one million people there. I could see for myself the joy of the Cuban people. They were throwing their berets in the air. They were dancing."
In the U.S., debate raged as to whether Castro's dealings with the Soviet Union represented merely financial opportunism or a political alliance. Castro himself supported the view that his alignment was transient and pragmatic. As if to drive home the point of his non-allied independence, he said, "I hate Soviet imperialism as much as Yankee imperialism! I'm not breaking my neck fighting one dictatorship to fall into the hands of another." However, as historian Bernard Weisberger has written:
For Washington's security planners, the controversy was wastefully abstract. The brutal fact to deal with was that before 1959, Cuba had been within the American sphere of interest ... and now it was literally an enemy island in the very waters that lapped at the U.S. Gulf. An unthinkable Soviet foothold, ten minutes from Miami by jet plane.
In Castro, the U.S. seemed to have quite a potential adversary. Maurice Halperin wrote of the country's charismatic head, "Like all political leaders ... he has been a disciple of Machiavelli, capable of inconsistency, opportunism, and deceit but not for their own sake, and always weighing anticipated profits against costs in any political operation." More forebodingly, Halperin quoted Castro as often saying, "We [Cuban revolutionaries] are not afraid of danger. As a matter of fact, we thrive on it. And besides, everyone has to die sooner or later."
The Eisenhower-Nixon Covert Model
In the American public, a vast tide of fear and hatred towards Cuba was rising up. Yet, Dwight D. Eisenhower did not immediately react militarily towards Cuba's new government. As a Cold War president, he had developed innovative strategies towards burgeoning Communist governments, and his administration would rely on these strategies to take care of Castro.
Having seen the horrors unleashed by world war, Eisenhower believed that another such confrontation, now likely nuclear, had to be avoided by any means necessary. That meant stamping out Communist regimes early, before they could gain global allies.
"Ike" further worried about the built-in dangers of the expanding military-industrial complex, which he believed might trigger a world war if given the slightest provocation. Thus, he turned to the Central Intelligence Agency as his personal counter-insurgency weapon, giving that agency a charge unintended by its founder (President Harry S Truman). The pie was sweetened by the fact that CIA covert operations were much cheaper than anything the U.S. military could undertake. What transpired under Ike's direction led Blanche Cook, author of The Declassified Eisenhower, to label him "America's most covert President." Implicit in Eisenhower's demand for counter-insurgency was the need for detailed planning: any undertaking was to commence not one moment before every possible contingency had been addressed. In addition, Ike demanded total deniability for the President, and he got what he wanted: after counter-insurgent escapades, the CIA burned the entire paper trail of its communications with the President.
In 1953, the first year of his presidency, Eisenhower, already caught up in Communist "domino theory" fears, instructed CIA director Allen Dulles to implement Operation Ajax: the overthrow of Iran's leader, Mohammed Mossadegh. The fervent nationalist Mossadegh had had the audacity to nationalize U.S. oil businesses and legalize the Communist party's right to participate in elections. In response, the CIA adopted a British coup plan in the making for over a decade. When the CIA's Kim Roosevelt successfully deposed Mossadegh, Eisenhower was so ecstatic that he secreted him into the White House and bestowed on him the National Security Medal.
The following year, when Guatemala's Jacabo Arbenz nationalized the U.S. multinational United Fruit Company, Ike had Dulles initiate an operation coded PBSUCCESS. On this occasion, Ike told Dulles, "I want you all to be damn good and sure you succeed. When you commit the flag, you commit to win." The coup planning, known only to Ike and the Dulles brothers (Allen of the CIA, and John Foster, Secretary of State), proceeded for over a year before Eisenhower gave the go-ahead. When this coup also proved successful, the White House-CIA covert partnership became entrenched.
After the Guatemalan coup, Ike commissioned an internal report on covert activity. In March 1954, his National Security Council passed Resolution 5412/2, which was intended to give definition and direction to the CIA's covert action capability. The directive resulted in the formation of the "5412 Committee" (later renamed "the 40 Committee," then the "303 Committee," and finally, "The Special Group"). This committee set the standard for the U.S. policy planners:
Create and exploit troublesome problems for International Communisim ... and facilitate covert and guerrilla operations ... U.S. Government responsibility for [covert operations] must not be evident ... and if uncovered the United States can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them. Specifically, such operations shall include sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition, subversion against hostile states ...
The following September, Ike endorsed "The Doolittle Report," which intoned: "There are no rules in such a game--norms of human conduct do not apply. We must try to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever and more effective methods."
It was against this backdrop that Vice-President Richard Nixon, a legendary anti-Communist, convinced President Eisenhower that something had to be done about Cuba. Nixon thus became one of the first in the Eisenhower administration to urge Castro's overthrow. This came as no surprise, given Nixon's role as White House Chair of the "5412 Committee." It was Nixon's gung-ho spirit that initiated not only the idea of invading Cuba, but, quite possibly, the use of political assassination as well.
After meeting Fidel Castro in Washington in the spring of 1960, Nixon became, in his own words, "the strongest and most persistent advocate for setting up and supporting" covert action to end Fidel Castro's regime. Nixon's resolve was reinforced by the opinions of his close friend, William Pawley. Pawley, a World War II hero, became a highly successful capitalist in the Havana of the Batista regime. Ousted after the revolution, Pawley developed a pathological hatred of Castro, and went on to work with both Nixon and the CIA to help launch sabotage raids against the island.
Nixon, as he would later write in 1962, concluded that the U.S. should move "vigorously to eradicate this cancer on our hemisphere and to prevent further Soviet penetration." According to CIA Cuba Project officer (and later Watergate burglar) E. Howard Hunt, Nixon at this time was the "[Cuba] project's action officer within the White House." The U. S. Ambassador to Cuba Philip Bonsai called Nixon "the father of the operation." "Nixon was a hard-liner," says Eisenhower's National Security Advisor, Colonel Philip Corso. "He wanted to get rid of him [Castro]. He wanted him hit hard ... when he was Vice-President. He was a rough customer."
As his first step, Nixon drafted a secret four-page memo to Eisenhower, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and Secretary of State Christian Herter (who succeeded John Foster Dulles following his death). "Castro is either incredibly naive about Communism, or is under Communist discipline," Nixon wrote. All those who received the memo, as well as Nixon himself, were well aware that Castro was not naive. Eisenhower agreed with Nixon's conclusions, and made him the point man for the new operation, thereby initiating a policy that led to many years of invasion and assassination plots against the Castro regime.
Nixon's next step was to appoint General Robert E. Cushman, Jr. as his executive assistant for national security affairs. Cushman's purpose was to coordinate communication between Nixon and the CIA's team: Allen Dulles, Richard Bissell (Director of Covert Operations), and Jake Esterline (who was soon given the role of planning a Cuban invasion).
Cushman has gone on record as saying that Nixon was the one in the White House applying the pressure, via him, to the CIA. The President, a sober military realist, had misgivings about predictions of success from over-enthusiastic bureaucrats. He had been there before, and demanded slow and deliberate planning before he would give the go-ahead. Ike told his Defense Liaison Andrew Goodpaster that the invasion planning was merely a "Contingency plan," and he put little faith in it. Goodpaster warned that the momentum in the Cuban exile community might become unstoppable, to which Ike replied, "That won't happen as long as I'm here." Goodpaster then told Ike that he wouldn't be in office when the plan came to fruition in early 1961. Ike then said (prophetically), "Well, that's going to be a problem for my successor."
Nixon, however, proceeded full-speed ahead. Years later, mired in the war in Southeast Asia, Nixon wrote of Eisenhower's painstakingly-slow planning pace, "The liberals are waiting to see Nixon let Cambodia go down the drain the way Eisenhower let Cuba go down the drain."
From 1959 on, Cuba's Fidel Castro became the chief focus of assassination plots hatched by the United States government. Another target of these attempts was Patrice Lumumba of the Congo. In Congressional hearings two decades later, CIA officials, driven by their relished role of secret-keepers, refused to name the originator of the plots, but insisted that the assassination plans were originally approved by someone at a high political level in the Eisenhower administration. That person appears not to have been President Eisenhower. Richard Nixon may have been the original instigator of these plots.
Recent interviews strongly suggest that Nixon, along with his Military Aide, General Robert Cushman, secretly undertook an anti-Castro operation that operated outside of Presidential and Security Council controls. He enlisted trusted power brokers in Washington and exiles in Miami to hatch not only of a Cuban peso counterfeiting scheme, but also to assemble an assassination squad. The goal was to invade Cuba while Castro was being executed--all prior to the November 1960 election--thus aiding Nixon's presidential bid.
Although Nixon pressed for action before the all-important November presidential election, it was not to happen then. The exile forces proved too difficult to coalesce in such a brief time. The plan would reach fruition sometime in the spring of 1961, and become known as the Bay of Pigs operation.
Cuba and Politics
President Kennedy's inauguration in January 1961 came on the heels of a campaign pitting one Cold War sabre-rattler against the other Though he proved the louder and the more adept, Kennedy's personal history with Cuba gave little indication of the strategy that Kennedy, the campaigner, would later adopt.
Kennedy first visited the Havana casinos in December 1957 during a period of marital troubles. According to the widow of mobster/casino owner Meyer Lansky, young senator Kennedy asked Lansky if he could set him up with women. Kennedy traveled to the island with his friend, Senator George Smathers, Democrat of Florida, who has said, "Kennedy liked Cuba. He liked the style. He liked the people ... Once they started looking after you, which they naturally would a senator, why it was just elegant." It proved so enjoyable that the two pals returned to Cuba again in 1958. Regarding politics, Smathers recalls, "I don't think I ever heard Kennedy express any feeling about Batista or Castro either way."
By the time of his presidential campaign in 1960, John Kennedy knew innately that the political necessities of demonization and hyperbole could create international monsters where none existed. But before succumbing to the rhetoric of the campaign trail, Kennedy authored "The Strategy of Peace," in which he wrote sympathetically of Castro's mission. In that piece, Kennedy compared Castro to the "George Washington of South America," Simon Bolivar, whose leadership freed much of South America from Spanish colonialism. As he later remarked to a friend, "I don't know why we didn't embrace Castro when he was in this country in 1959, pleading for help ... Instead of that, we made an enemy of him, and then we get upset because the Russians are giving them money, doing for them what we wouldn't do." Shortly before his death in 1963, in an interview with Jean Daniel of the Paris Express, President Kennedy elaborated:
I believe there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation, and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part because of my country's policies during the Batista regime. I believe that we created, built, and manufactured the Cuban movement, without realizing it.
However, in the 1960 presidential campaign, both major party candidates, Nixon and Kennedy, recognized the votes to be gained by being tough on Castro. This shared anti-Castroism would prove to be Kennedy's fatal mistake. In his zeal to win the presidency, John Kennedy chose to vilify Castro. He saw it as a convenient way to polarize the electorate. Kennedy's soon-to-be Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, was startled by the intensity of Kennedy's new anti-Castro feelings and thought that Kennedy "had it in for Castro." Historian Bernard Weisberger concluded, "Future positions were frozen. Kennedy became rooted in absolute hostility to Castro."
In late October 1960, with the election near and its outcome very much in doubt, Kennedy told advisor and speechwriter Richard Goodwin to prepare a "real blast" for Nixon. From written questions the public submitted to the candidate at his major evening stops, Goodwin had noticed that Americans feared Cuba and Castro more than the USSR and its leader, Nikita Khrushchev. In fact, Castro had come to personify the conflict between communism and Americanism. He was public enemy number one. The idea of a communist outpost 90 miles from Florida disturbed Kennedy's listeners more than any other foreign policy issue. "It was almost as if the communists had taken over southern Florida," Goodwin remembered later.
Tapping into this large reservoir of fear and anger seemed a good way to juice up the campaign, and it was consistent with his past conduct. During his terms in the House and Senate, Kennedy had been a stalwart Cold Warrior. Nothing in his background gave Kennedy's speechwriters pause before attacking Nixon for "losing" Cuba, much as the Republicans had attacked the Democrats on the equally ridiculous charge of "losing" China to communism in the late 1940s.
Thus did Cuba become a "major" campaign issue in 1960, as Goodwin, who was partly responsible for making it so, would put it:
In dozens of speeches we assailed Nixon and the Republicans for losing Cuba to our communist adversaries. ("Ike didn't lose it," Kennedy scribbled in the margin of one of his speeches, "he gave it away.") We censured the feeble Republican response to this new danger; proposed further sanctions, a step-up of propaganda, action to "quarantine" the Cuban revolution, increased support for those Cubans, in exile and elsewhere, who opposed the Castro regime.
Goodwin composed the "real blast for Nixon" one evening late in October. It attacked the Republicans for weakly opposing the perceived menace of communist Cuba. But this one went further than its predecessors by decrying the Eisenhower administration's feeble support of anti-Castro forces, both in exile in the U.S. and underground in Cuba, offering "eventual hope of overthrowing Castro." Those "fighters for freedom" deserved greater support, Goodwin wrote.
The speech, which was released to the press before the candidate approved it, provoked criticism for its "rash" call for government aid in overthrowing Castro: a clear violation of international law in general and the Inter-American treaty in particular. Nixon professed outrage at Kennedy's recklessness in advocating American-sponsored revolution or invasion. Either, he said, would greatly harm American interests by demonstrating Washington's willingness to baldly breach its international responsibilities and commitments. Unknown to the public, this was a striking display of Nixon's deviousness. The vice-president had been largely responsible for the training of a force of Cuban exile guerrillas--training that President Eisenhower approved in March 1960.
Kennedy's campaign strategy, according to Nixon, was no less devious than his own. He believed that Kennedy had been briefed by CIA chief Allen Dulles about plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion (Dulles later denied the charge). Therefore, according to Nixon, Kennedy was aware that the Eisenhower administration was going after Fidel, and knew that Nixon was incapable of responding to Kennedy's charges because of the project's secrecy. Nixon would later write in his memoirs:
In order to protect the secrecy of the planning and safety of thousands of men and women involved in the operation, I had no choice but to take a completely opposite stand ... the most uncomfortable and ironic duty I have had to perform in any political campaign.
Recent disclosures indicate that Nixon was correct that JFK had inside information about the planned invasion of Cuba. Not only was Kennedy said to have secretly met with the leader of the invasion brigade (Manuel Artime) in July of 1960, as will be seen later to be the case, but it is now known that Kennedy had still another source for the sensitive intelligence.
John Patterson, then Democratic governor of Alabama, had been told of the Cuban operation in October of 1960 by his friend George R. "Reid" Doster, a National Guard instructor assigned to train the invaders. Patterson, a Kennedy campaigner, immediately flew to New York and briefed Kennedy--before the final TV debate with Nixon. (Patterson said precisely this in his oral history for the Kennedy Library, only to find it censored by library officials.)
While the campaigning continued, the Bay of Pigs invaders were hard at work trying to coalesce a 1,500 man force in training camps in Guatemala. The invaders were assigned consecutive badge numbers, which, oddly, started with the number 2,500. According to one Brigade member, "We were trying to appear larger than we were." When Brigade member 2506 (Carlos Santana) fell to his death during training, CIA coordinator Barney Hidalgo suggested, "We should name the force after him, as a memorial." Thus was born the force known forever after as "Brigade 2506."
Prescriptions for Disaster
John F. Kennedy came to the White House with promises to toughen Eisenhower's supposedly weak commitment to getting rid of Castro--and "when you become an advocate of a point of view," as Goodwin would put it in retrospect, "you tend to believe it. I think everybody got to feel that way about Castro. And Kennedy's desire to prove himself in foreign policy by getting Cuba back was important."
But as the newly-elected president took the reins of power, the invasion plans, already beset with problems, suffered from the expected inadequacies of a young, inexperienced Chief Executive, and the predictable degree of chaos any changing-of-the guard brings with it. The key problem, however, may have been Kennedy's own inattention to the whole Cuban issue after it served his electioneering purpose. Kennedy aide Harris Wofford later wrote:
Kennedy paid Cuba little heed in February . His trouble spot that month was Laos, where the Communist-led Pathet Lao continued to do well. There was, therefore, a vacuum of inattention in which the landing scheme moved into its final phase, and in that silence all parties to the operation acted out a perfect scenario of how to march, with all good will and intelligence, straight into a disaster.
Kennedy, however, was acutely concerned with the potential for negative political fallout, and demanded that a new plan, providing him deniability, be prepared in only four days. Calling the proposed plan "too noisy," he wanted it substituted for a "less spectacular" one that would remove all administration fingerprints.
One such plan involved a newly-formed exile umbrella organization called the Cuban Revolutionary Council (CRC). The CRC was a wing of the Frente Revolutionario Democratico (FRD), formed in May 1960 by prominent Cuban expatriates such as Dr. Manuel Artime and Dr. Aureliano Sanchez Arango. After its organization in Mexico, the FRD created the CRC to be its official liaison to Washington. The Kennedy White House noted: "The United States regards the Revolutionary Council as the central point of contact in its dealings with the Cuban exile and underground activity." The memo added that the CRC would be allocated one million dollars per year, and "retain contact with the White House." This plan also heralded both Washington's and the Kennedys' liaisons with Cubans in New Orleans, where the CRC maintained a key outpost.
Exile leader and former Castro supporter Nino Diaz was assigned by his CIA controllers to lead a mission so sensitive that certain aspects were withheld from Diaz himself. Diaz was sent to New Orleans to command a rust-bucket fishing boat called the Santa Ana, which had been leased by the CIA for $7,000 a month. "They gave me this beat-up old ship. Nothing worked on it," recalls Diaz. Although he was told his mission was to "create a front in the Oriente province [of Cuba]," Diaz is now convinced "this was a lie." He and his men were told to dress in Cuban Army uniforms and fly the flag of Costa Rica.
The Santa Ana mission was prepared in New Orleans, with the assistance of the Cuban Revolutionary Council's delegate Sergio Arcacha Smith. That effort, Arcacha says, was coordinated directly by Bobby Kennedy. It's now known that Diaz's mission was personally approved by the President. The provocation gambit was originally proposed to the President by his friend Senator George Smathers of Florida in the weeks prior to the attack.
Historically, Diaz' mission has been portrayed as a diversionary tactic, drawing Castro's firepower away from the Bay of Pigs landing site towards the Santa Ana, which would arrive at Oriente. However, the mission was cancelled at the last moment when Diaz, by U.S. accounts, got "cold feet."
Recent testimony suggests that the ploy may have had a more sinister agenda. A CIA agent testified in 1978 that Diaz' exiles, dressed like Castro's troops, were to appear as a "tripwire"--a fake attack against the U.S. naval forces at Guantanamo that would justify the Bay of Pigs invasion.
"We were lied to," says Diaz. "We weren't even told about the landing at the Bay of Pigs until we were near our landing site. The CIA knew Castro's troops were waiting for us--we were to be sacrificed."
The Invasion Plan
In its initial formulation, the invasion actually made some sense: a daylight beach landing at Trinidad, at the foot of the Escambray Mountains. Because of the cover provided by U.S. air strikes, the exiles would, at the very least, enter Cuba, escape to the mountains, and encourage the locals to initiate guerrilla warfare, that, over time, might overthrow the Castro government.
For three decades, the Marine in charge of planning the invasion has remained silent about the Bay of Pigs operation. Recently, however, Colonel Jack Hawkins described the initial thinking:
The Trinidad Plan was actually a good plan. The force could have been inserted into the mountains very easily where they could have remained for a very long time. We had agents in Trinidad who reported that the people there were very pro-guerrilla and anti-Castro. Fundamental to it all was--we were going to destroy Castro's Air Force by using 40 sorties of B-26's. We met every week for briefings at the White House. I was appalled at what I was hearing. Bissell was briefing the President, not [Joint Chiefs Chairman] Lemnitzer or the other military present. They were all afraid of [Defense Secretary] McNamara. One month before the invasion, [Secretary of State] Rusk, with Kennedy's agreement, vetoed the Trinidad landing as "too noisy." Bissell and McNamara stood silent. Bissell gave us four days to arrive at a new plan. Rusk demanded a landing near an airstrip. The only place that fit that requirement was the Bay of Pigs. We had almost no sleep for the four days. When I gave Bissell the plan, I said, "We can land there, but we can't hold it long. It's just not suitable." The final plan provided for 40 [air] sorties.
Now, after eight months of planning, and with only weeks to go, the invasion evolved into a night-time amphibious assault landing at a swamp known as the Bay of Pigs. There were only two problems with this approach: first, there was no escape route from the Bay to the Escambray Mountains; and second, the exiles had no training in this newly-revised tactic. In February 1961, the official report of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the invasion planning gave a strong clue as to how the events would transpire. "The amphibious element of the [invasion] force," wrote Chairman Lemnitzer to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, "has received no amphibious training and is not now scheduled to receive any prior to the operation ... Against moderate, determined resistance, this plan will fail to provide adequate logistic support."
McNamara, however, remained silent about this memo in subsequent cabinet planning meetings. His failure to convey "the damning analysis in Lemnitzer's report," wrote Bissell, "is part of the pattern of incomplete interaction that continued throughout the period leading up to the actual invasion." But, as will be seen, Bissell also withheld vital information--and from the President himself.
The plan further suffered from the tight internal security placed on the operation. Knowledge of it was so tightly held that experts who should have been consulted were left completely out of the loop. Because he was unable to ask, Bissell never learned that his early reports of dissent in Castro's regime were dreadfully overestimated. By February 1961, Castro had excoriated his political enemies, and enjoyed widespread popularity, but Bissell, Dulles, and others were out of touch.
Furthermore, the internecine rivalry between the various Miami-based exile leaders should have been enough alone to scare off the U.S. planners. As Bissell himself later came to admit:
The leaders of the Cuban exile community, centered in Miami, were in competition with one another for U.S. funds, supplies, and support.... It was disheartening to hear [radio] broadcasts by exile program managers who seemed more concerned with serving the political ambitions of Cubans in Miami than with the situation of those trapped on the island.
Kennedy Administration officials would never develop much respect for the Cuban exiles, whose apparent selfishness caused considerable infighting. Desmond FitzGerald, the CIA official later tabbed by the Kennedys to bring about Castro's downfall, wrote his daughter Frances, "I have dealt with a fairly rich assortment of exiles in the past, but none can compare with the Cuban group for genuine stupidity and militant childishness. At times I feel sorry for Castro--a sculptor in silly putty."
To make matters worse, the media, most notably the New York Times and the New Republic, leaked word that Cubans were training for an imminent invasion. When he read Tad Szulc's New York Times article, "Anti-Castro Units Trained to Fight at Florida Bases," JFK fumed, "Castro doesn't need agents over here. All he has to do is read our papers."
In fact, Castro agents had already infiltrated every aspect of the Bay of Pigs operation. Former CIA executive assistant Lyman Kirkpatrick, Jr. wrote that, "the leaks about the operation from its very inception were horrendous." Philip Bonsai, former U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, recalled, "The nature of the activities and the number of people involved made concealment impossible. I assume that Castro's intelligence service knew of the project within weeks, perhaps days, of the operation."
Raphael "Chi Chi" Quintero, a Brigade leader at the camps, was one of the first to arrive at the training base. "We definitely had spies at the [Bay of Pigs] training camps [in Nicaragua]," he recently affirmed. One of the few who was there before Quintero was later found to be a Castro spy. "This man actually helped construct the camps," says Quintero. "One month after the Bay of Pigs invasion, I secretly infiltrated to Cuba and saw this same man working in Castro's security force."
Captain Albert "Buck" Persons was one of the American pilots who flew in the invasion, as well as helping with the training in Nicaragua and Guatemala. He recalls:
It would have been very easy for Castro to have infiltrated our camps. We had AWOLs all the time. He knew there was an invasion coming, and he had very good intelligence. Still, I believe we could have established a beachhead, if we had stayed with the original plan and landed at Trinidad. It was a city of 20,000 people who were known to be friendly with the Castro resistance in the nearby Escambray Mountains. But Kennedy changed the landing site because he wanted to disguise our participation in the invasion. It was insanity. Everyone would know in ten seconds that the U.S. was involved, no matter where we landed.
Lyman Kirkpatrick, the CIA's Inspector General, wrote:
[Castro] obviously knew about the [U.S.-sponsored] training camp in Guatemala. He was certain that some sort of major blow against his regime was in the making ... As a result, Castro directed his security forces to round up all known or suspected members of the opposition. Nearly 100,000 were arrested and taken to detention camps all over the island. This was the first catastrophic blow to the Bay of Pigs operation, because here was the hard core of those who might have rallied to the support of the beachhead.
In 1961, Kirkpatrick conducted an internal CIA review of the operation, the only copy of which was withheld from public scrutiny for thirty-seven years. When finally released in 1998, the report stated one of its conclusions: "Such massive preparations could only be laid to the U.S.... Plausible denial was a pathetic illusion."
Rafael Nuñez, then serving as Castro's Diplomatic Attaché in Costa Rica, recently recalled how in early 1961 he picked up one of Raul Castro's counter-intelligence chiefs, General Fabian Escalante, at the Costa Rican airport. "He told me that his main objective was to gather intelligence on the exile training camps," Nuñez recalls. "He told me they were in training to invade Cuba near the Zapata Peninsula. When the Bay of Pigs occurred, Castro was waiting for them."
Castro's supporters were not at all amused by what they were learning. In late March 1961, barely nine weeks into the Kennedy presidency (and two weeks before the Bay of Pigs invasion); the first of an unending series of anti-Kennedy threats emanating from Havana was apparently made. At the time, the President's wife, Jackie, and three-year-old daughter, Caroline, were spending the Easter holiday at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Secret Service surveillance teams were closely monitoring a group of four Cubans living in Miami known to have close ties to pro-Castro activists in Havana. One of the Cubans was heard to remark, "We ought to abduct Caroline Kennedy to force the United States to stop interfering with Cuba's Castro government."
The Secret Service, taking the threat very seriously, expected the group to attack the family while at St. Edward's Catholic Church on Easter Sunday. To keep close tabs on the threatening Castroites, the agency used the intelligence network of the recently-formed anti-Castro group known as the Cuban Revolutionary Council (CRC). The subjects were watched around the clock, and the threat never materialized.
This assistance, combined with the CRC's support for the Diaz mission, heralded the beginning of a long relationship between the Kennedy White House and CRC members. According to a Congressional investigation, the CRC had been formed to coordinate anti-Castro activities with the U.S. government. The report further conceded, "The new organization had direct access to President Kennedy and top White House aides." The CRC went on to maintain a strong presence in New Orleans, where, in two years, the President's future assassin would arrive.
On April 9, 1961, eight days before the invasion, Castro appeared on Havana TV warning, "the extremely vigilant and highly-prepared Cuban people would repel any invasion attempt by the counter-revolutionaries now massing in Florida and Guatemala who are sponsored and financed by the United States.
Col. Hawkins concluded the obvious:
This thing was going to be an utter disaster. During the preceding months, Castro had a massive military buildup, drafting 200,000 militia. He had fifty tanks. So I went to see Jake [Esterline, the CIA coordinator]. Jake agreed with my assessment and said, "We have got to go to Bissell and get him to stop this thing." The next day, Sunday, we went to him. He refused to call it off, and we both threatened to resign. To keep us on, Bissell promised to persuade the President to increase the airpower.
Thirty-four years later, Hawkins and Esterline would learn that this promise was a lie told to prevent their resignations. In 1995, when Bissell's presidential briefing memos were released, it was learned that Bissell, before his confrontation with Hawkins and Esterline, had agreed with Kennedy to cut the air support.
Not only were American coordinators wanting out of the invasion, but key Cuban leaders, such as FRD founder Aureliano Sanchez Arango, sensed imminent disaster, and would have nothing to do with it.
But if JFK had any qualms about proceeding, he quickly dismissed them when he met with CIA Director Allen Dulles. The young president revered Dulles. Dulles would later painfully confess, "I confronted an inexperienced President Kennedy directly with the argument, `Do you want to be perceived as less anti-communist than the great Eisenhower?'" Dulles assumed that Kennedy would give adequate air support. When told the night of the invasion that Kennedy had reduced the air attacks, he said, "The President must be confused."
Before approving the invasion, Kennedy briefed Senator William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Fulbright urged him to leave Castro alone because he and his regime were a "thorn in the flesh" but not a "dagger in the heart." Fulbright considered the invasion illegal and immoral, as well as badly planned. Behind the invasion, he said, was fundamentally the same "hypocrisy and cynicism for which the United States is constantly denouncing the Soviet Union." But as historian Bernard Weisberger said, Kennedy's position by this time was "frozen."
Kennedy told aide Ted Sorenson, "I know everybody is grabbing their nuts on this," but he wasn't going to be "chicken." Yet Kennedy's macho stand was fatally weakened by his overriding concern for deniability. He insisted that the invasion should in no way be traced to his White House. But with the plan now revised to land the exiles in the suicidal, enclosed swamp, the CIA's Dick Bissell concluded, "the long-touted guerilla option was as much a myth as plausible deniability."
At the last moment, Robert Kennedy was warned not to proceed with the operation by Constantine "Gus" Kangles, a Chicago-based attorney in the unique position of being a Democratic pol friendly with the brothers Kennedy, as well as being a longtime friend of the brothers Castro. He thus became an invaluable source of Cuban intelligence for the Kennedys. "I told Bobby [that] Castro knew everything--he was waiting for them. Not only did Castro know, but he enjoyed huge popularity. As far as an uprising, I told Bobby, `It ain't gonna happen.' But Bobby didn't care. He wanted him [Castro] out."
Unknown to Kangles, Bobby may have had a secret basis for confidence in green-lighting the operation. In a recent interview, Kennedy's great friend Senator George Smathers recalled walking with the President on the White House South Lawn just prior to the invasion. At one point, Kennedy disclosed to Smathers what was about to happen at the Bay of Pigs. According to Smathers, Kennedy told him, "There is a plot to murder Castro. Castro is to be dead at the time the thousand Cuban exiles trained by the CIA hit the beaches."
Kennedy admitted as much to CIA officer Hans Tofte. One month before the invasion, Tofte was briefing the President on guerrilla activity in Colombia. Tofte was also aware of the upcoming invasion, and boldly suggested to the President that Castro should be killed as a prequel, to give the operation any chance of success. Kennedy responded, "That is already in hand. You don't have to concern yourself about that."
What happened next, regardless of who should shoulder the blame, would set off a chain of sinister events that would culminate in Dallas in 1963 and guarantee that any investigation of the death of President John F. Kennedy would be woefully, and intentionally, incomplete.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion
The attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961 quickly won a high place among America's worst debacles in foreign affairs. The troops who made the landing, 100 miles southeast of Havana, were Cuban exiles formed into Brigade 2506. Quickly apparent was the conclusion that the White House and CIA would not repeat their 1953 success in replacing the elected government of Iran with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, and in overthrowing Guatemala's leftist government of Jacabo Arbenz the following year.
Within hours of the botched landing through hull-gutting coral (of which intelligence had failed to warn), the attempts to hide America's massive participation, not to say conception and direction at every stage, were coming apart. Within days, they appeared farcical to most of the world. The predictions of success--two chances out of three, as Bobby Kennedy was assured when first briefed about the venture--now seemed equally absurd. Bobby had also been promised that another kind of success would be achieved even if Castro were not immediately overthrown. The invaders, operating as guerrillas from the mountains, would harass Castro, much as Castro had harassed and eventually disposed of his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista. Then again, these predictions were based on the Trinidad landing scenario.
When the invasion took an instant turn towards disaster, and the Brigade members turned into cannon fodder, the planners approached the president for more sea and air reinforcement. Over the next few days, the CIA repeatedly begged Kennedy for it. Instead, he cut the first wave of air attacks by 80 percent. "We found out about it only hours before the invasion," Hawkins recently recalled. The reduction was the exact opposite of what was promised when Esterline and Hawkins had their showdown with Bissell weeks earlier. (When his White House launched a coup against Guatemala, Eisenhower, in sharp contrast to Kennedy, had been the driving force behind providing air support.)
The CIA's Jake Esterline was "ashen-faced" as he broke the news to Hawkins. Hawkins said, "Goddamnit, this is criminal negligence!" Esterline added, "This is the goddamnest thing I have ever heard of." Years later, in separate interviews, key planners assessed the disaster. Hawkins remembered these "devastating orders" coming from the White House: "Military failure was now virtually assured." When the second wave of air strikes was canceled, the exiles, who had been promised air support, were left to fend for themselves in the cold, dark swamp. Kennedy's own Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Lyman Lemnitzer, would later comment, "Pulling the rug like that was unbelievable.... absolutely reprehensible, almost criminal."
"I called Bissell and Rusk right away," remembers Hawkins. "Kennedy had conveniently left town, of course. Rusk called Kennedy, and without explaining why we needed the air cover, he advised that Kennedy's plan should proceed without changes. Kennedy agreed. Bissell didn't take the phone."
In the invasion, Captain Eduardo Ferrer led the exile air force--he had trained with them in Guatemala. He pulls no punches about where the blame should be placed: "The failure was Kennedy's fault," he says. "Kennedy was immature, a little bit chicken. Today, ninety percent of the Cubans are Republicans because of Kennedy, that motherfucker."
"Bissell and Kennedy thought they had some kind of magic bullet for the Bay of Pigs--assassination," says Jake Esterline. "Of course, they weren't going to support air strikes. The Kennedys were so egotistical to think they could pull this off. They thought one of these assassination things was going to work." When none of them did, and air support was canceled, disaster was guaranteed.
"We were sending those Cubans to their deaths," concludes Hawkins:
"Everybody knew that's what they were doing. Kennedy knew that's what he
was doing. Don't think he didn't. Fifteen hundred men's lives were not as
important as his political purposes. It was one of the most disgraceful
things I ever had to be a part of. I've regretted it all my life."
In a last-ditch attempt to salvage the operation, Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke begged the President for permission to use a U.S. aircraft carrier to annihilate Castro's air force, and bring amphibious landing craft to evacuate the troops from the swamp. The president refused. Kennedy later attempted a different spin, telling aide Dave Powers, "They were sure I'd give in to them and send the go-ahead order to [the aircraft carrier] The Essex. They couldn't believe that a new president like me wouldn't panic and try to save his own face. Well, they had me figured all wrong."
Of course, saving face was precisely what the president was attempting to do. When the first American ashore, Grayston Lynch, found out about the cancelled air strikes, he said it was like "finding out that Superman is a fairy."
Rushing armor and infantry to the Bay of Pigs, Castro's defenders caught the invaders in the swamp. Ninety of the 1,300-odd men of Brigade 2506 were killed. Most of the others were captured, to Castro's intensely self-satisfied glee, and the invaders were utterly crushed. The last message the U.S. received from Brigade Commander José "Pepe" San Román read, dismissively, "How can you people do this to us?" Almost two years later, JFK confided to San Roman that the real reason he withdrew the air support was that after the initial (April 15) air strike, he was secretly warned by the Soviets that they would attack West Berlin if he continued. Kennedy thus had to choose, in his own mind, between the lives of the 1,300 invaders and a possible nuclear conflagration. (There is no independent corroboration that the Soviets actually issued this threat.)
Rubbing salt into the Kennedys' wounds, the Cuban premier took to the microphone ridiculing capitalism in general and the United States in particular, and his listeners cheered in delight. He strutted about the battlefield, showing foreign correspondents, with immense satisfaction, how his forces had humiliated the invaders and their Yankee sponsors. Soon he was delivering arm-waving, chest-thumping speeches about why the imperialists had lost: they counted on geography and weapons, whereas socialists counted on hearts and minds. Castro had a huge sign erected at the invasion site that read: "Welcome to the Site of the First Defeat of Imperialism in the Western Hemisphere."
Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of the Bay of Pigs venture was the political judgment on which the military strategy had been based--the analytical underpinning of the entire operation. Even before the landing, skeptics wondered how a single brigade of 1,300 exiles--never mind how well-trained and led they were--could defeat a home army of 200,000 men, operating on their own soil, with proportionate knowledge of the terrain and a good supply of war materials. The unabashed answer was that the Cuban people would rise to join the exiles in overthrowing Castro, whose rule they had come to detest. "How did I ever let it happen?" Kennedy asked later. "I know better than to listen to experts. They always have their own agenda. All my life I've known it, and yet I still barreled ahead."
For Kennedy, the fiasco assumed consuming proportions. Dozens of commentators debated the degree of his responsibility. Was it diminished because he had inherited the invasion plan from President Eisenhower, whose military competence Kennedy naturally refrained from questioning? That was the administration's claim, stated most impatiently by Bobby Kennedy: "It was Eisenhower's plan. Eisenhower's people all said it would succeed." Or, to the contrary, did the president's longstanding drive to demonstrate how tough he could be--an old inclination of the Kennedy family--make him even more guilty? The question is, of course, unanswerable, but the attitudes of the Kennedy family as manifested in Jack and Bobby are relevant, for they would bear on the full course of the tragedy that lay ahead.
Furthermore, while President Eisenhower had indeed approved the training of the Cuban exiles for a possible invasion, he never did more than that. He never ordered the invasion that actually took place--and if he had, it is fair to assume that, with his usual caution and military expertise, he would have insisted on changes in the deeply flawed CIA plans. Richard Goodwin, a member of the high councils of the Kennedy administration, was among those who later concluded that Eisenhower would not have approved the invasion at all. "On the basis of Eisenhower's general record [i.e., of nonintervention], we have to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he would not have invaded."
In either case, the defeat was officially Kennedy's responsibility, and the first major defeat of his life. Manolo Reboso, a member of Brigade 2506 who escaped from the beach head and went on to work with Bobby Kennedy on future Cuban projects, agreed with domestic observers: "The passion of the Kennedys over Cuba was because they had never lost anything in their lives." The daughter of one of the five CIA pilots who lost their lives in the invasion (officially denied for 17 years) put it more bluntly: "Life was a series of touch football games. The Kennedys wanted to win `the football game' in Cuba." In their mind, Castro had only won the first round.
In future years, many of the principal players, except the Kennedys and their sycophants, came to agree on the causes of the Bay of Pigs failure. Two of the most incisive statements came from former CIA Directors. Allen Dulles said, "One never succeeds unless there is a determination to succeed, a willingness to risk some unpleasant political repercussions, and a willingness to provide the basic military necessities. At the decisive moment of the Bay of Pigs operation, all three of these were lacking." John McCone, Dulles' successor, explained, "The `stand down' of the air cover ... was the fatal error that caused the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation ... The responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of President Kennedy."
The Bay of Pigs represented not merely a stunning military loss for Kennedy. It was also a p ersonal humiliation. To Richard Nixon, whom he had so recently defeated for the presidency, the president described the debacle several days later as "the worst experience of my life." The Castro-hating Nixon, during this same April 20 phone conversation, advised the confused young President, "I would find a proper legal cover and go [back] in. There are several legal justifications that could be used, like protection of American citizens living in Cuba and defending our base in Guantanamo."
On the first night of the invasion itself, Robert Kennedy anticipated the disaster, saying that "the shit has hit the fan. The thing has turned sour in a way you wouldn't believe!" By all accounts, the President was stunned and devastated. Kenny O'Donnell, a long-time aide from Boston, remembered him as more distraught--"as close to crying"--as he had ever seen him. Bobby Kennedy took it just as badly. "They can't do this to you," he said privately to Jack after other advisors had retired that evening, and Jack paced the White House grounds alone for nearly an hour. "Those black-bearded communists can't do this to you."
On April 19, just two days after the disaster, RFK let it be known that he wanted revenge. He dictated a letter to his brother: "Our long-range policy objectives in Cuba are tied to survival far more than what is happening in Laos or in the Congo or any other place in the world ... The time has come for a showdown, for in a year or two years the situation will be vastly worse." And in a phrase that would most likely haunt him, Bobby added, "If we don't want Russia to set up missile bases in Cuba, we had better decide now what we are willing to do to stop it." What they ultimately did is now believed by many to have instigated the very occurrence they tried to prevent. On June 1, 1961, RFK issued a memo that declared, "The Cuba matter is being allowed to slide ... mostly because nobody really has an answer to Castro."
Robert Kennedy saw that his brother was "more upset at this time [the Bay of Pigs] than he was at any other"--so upset that it produced a physical reaction in the President who was always fully composed in public; who took great pains to conceal stress from even his closest advisors. In private, he kept shaking his head and rubbing his hands over his eyes. The President told advisor Clark Clifford that a "second Bay of Pigs" would destroy his presidency. "It was the only thing on his mind, and we just had to let him talk himself out," remembered friend Charles Spalding. His depression reached such depths that he told his friend LeMoyne Billings, "Lyndon [Johnson] can have it [the presidency] in 1964," saying that the presidency was the "most unpleasant job in the world."
One of the job's more unpleasant aspects was foisting all the blame on someone else's shoulders in order to protect the president's own reputation. A week before the invasion, Presidential Special Assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had foreshadowed this possible necessity in a long memo he composed for the new president. "The character and repute of President Kennedy constitute one of our greatest natural resources," wrote Schlesinger, who had originally opposed the Cuban venture but later sought to ensure its successful execution. "Nothing should be done to jeopardize this invaluable asset." Another memo, which was entitled "Protection of The President," went on to suggest a course of action that now seems to have been followed: "When lies must be told, they should be told by subordinate officials." In the event of failure, Schlesinger recommended placing the blame on the CIA, painting them as "errant idealists and soldiers-of-fortune working on their own." (In Dulles' papers is a non-published memo on the Bay of Pigs, in which he wrote of the Schlesinger tactic, "I deplore the way this is being done ... If what is written goes entirely unanswered and without critical examination, it will go down as the history of the event. It is not the true story.")
After a suitable period of time, the CIA's Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell were asked to resign, which they did by the end of 1961. Dulles had dutifully offered his resignation to the President when it became obvious that the invasion had failed. Kennedy initially refused the tender, but it soon became apparent that he needed scapegoats. Kennedy told Allen Dulles that he and Bissell, men he had personally liked and admired, would have to leave their posts after things quieted down. "Under a parliamentary system of government, it is I who would be leaving office. But under our system, it is you who must go." E. Howard Hunt concluded, "Both Bissell and Mr. Dulles were slated to go, scapegoats to expiate administration guilt."
The New York Times later ran a front page story, which documented how Kennedy, in the wake of the failed invasion, had railed at the CIA. He would, he threatened, "splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds." In fact, Kennedy's actions were exactly the opposite. Over the following weeks and months, Dulles and the President spoke often, and Dulles would later say of Kennedy, "There was never one harsh or unkind word said to me by him at any time thereafter."
At a White House meeting, when Vice-President Lyndon Johnson attempted to point the finger of blame for the invasion's failure at the CIA, Kennedy admonished him. "Lyndon, you've got to remember [that] we're all in this, and that when I accepted responsibility for this operation, I took the entire responsibility on myself. We should have no sort of passing the buck, or backbiting, however justified."
JFK went out of his way to defend Dulles in this trying time. Shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion, one of the Kennedys' Palm Beach neighbors, Charles Wrightsman, with whom Dulles had often stayed, told the president that when he (Wrightsman) next came to Washington, he would not see Dulles. Kennedy then invited Wrightsman for a drink at the White House. Unbeknownst to Wrightsman, Kennedy also invited Allen Dulles. Dulles' biographer recounts what happened next: "When Allen walked in--Wrightsman was already settled down--Kennedy stood up and, in case the rich man from Florida did not get the message, the beleaguered president put his arm around Allen's shoulders to lead him to a comfortable chair." Kennedy summed up his opinion of Dulles at a luncheon held just days after the botched invasion. Speaking privately with New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Kennedy said, "It's not that Dulles is not a man of great ability. He is. Dulles is a legendary figure, and it's hard to operate with legendary figures."
There were solid political reasons for Kennedy to take this "colossal mistake" so seriously. The new administration wanted dearly to protect an image of a reborn America striving for a new order based on justice and ethical principles. Kennedy had entered the White House proclaiming that "the torch had passed to a new generation of Americans," and promising a new kind of leadership for the free world. He would lead it in new, saner, and more humane directions, away from anything smacking of rigidity or behavior that could prompt memories or mistaken images of America as an imperialist power. And much of the free world responded enthusiastically to those promises. From the first, Kennedy was relatively more popular in many countries of Europe and Latin America than at home.
Days before the invasion, when rumors about it were rampant in Washington, Kennedy made an unequivocal public announcement that "there will not be, under any circumstances, any intervention in Cuba by the United States armed forces." After the debacle, despite administration efforts to portray the operation as the work of Cuban exiles without American support, few in the world took this patent fiction seriously. During the pre-invasion week, James Reston of the New York Times thought that Allen Dulles was "lying like hell" when he denied CIA involvement. After the Cuban Foreign Minister reported air strikes on the island--and identified the planes as American--the United Nations scheduled an emergency session, during which Adlai Stevenson, the American Ambassador to the UN, promised that his government would do anything possible to insure that "no American participate in any action against Cuba." Stevenson had not been informed that Americans were participating for all they were worth. When he learned the truth, the Ambassador considered his previous statement "the most humiliating experience" of his public life.
If it was humiliating for Stevenson, it was an even greater personal disgrace for Robert Kennedy. Earlier, he had stifled administration dissension about, and even outright opposition to, the invasion. Now Bobby worried that the Bay of Pigs harmed his brother's "standing as President and the standing of the United States in public opinion throughout the world." He worried that, abroad, "The United States couldn't be trusted," for either honesty or competence.
Until the invasion's failure, Bobby Kennedy's role in the administration had been somewhat limited. He was to fulfill his function as Attorney General, and to advise the president on a wide range of issues whenever the president solicited his opinion. The April failure prompted the president to retrench; to reach back to the kid brother he most trusted among his advisors; to elevate Bobby to the President's right hand. Now Bobby would also advise on foreign affairs--and not only advise, but also implement action in some of the most sensitive matters.
He was appointed to the Cuba Study Group, which included retired General Maxwell Taylor; Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations; and Allen Dulles, the CIA Director. The committee met in a Pentagon basement, where Bobby took notes with an intense desire for action--in this case, to find out what went wrong in order to get it right the next time. During the next six weeks, the Cuba Study Group would interrogate 50 witnesses about the failure at the Bay of Pigs, and come to the conclusion the White House wanted to hear: that the chief cause had been the new administration's reluctance to oppose plans proposed by President Eisenhower, America's "greatest military man." In support of that highly questionable judgment, Bobby asserted that not to have gone ahead with the project "would have showed that [President Kennedy] had no courage." However, the Study Group also concluded that the proximate cause of the failure was the direct result of the inability to destroy Castro's air force.
No matter how much Americans disliked Fidel Castro, the apparently greater Administration need was to demonstrate Kennedy's courage by invading a sovereign nation. (The President himself manifested the same concern to Ted Sorenson days before the invasion. The longtime aide and chief speechwriter concluded that Kennedy would not listen to the plan's critics at that stage because he was not going to be cowardly.)
Even more revealing was Bobby's behavior at a meeting, less than a week after the debacle, of Kennedy's Cuban advisors. Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles advised that, practically speaking, nothing could be done about Castro, as he was now firmly entrenched. Other aides such as Richard Goodwin agreed. However, when Bowles finished his presentation, Goodwin would write, "Bobby exploded" at the notion that nothing could be done to shake Castro from power. "That's the most meaningless, worthless thing I've ever heard," Bobby screamed. "You people are so anxious to protect your own asses that you're afraid to do anything ... We'd be better off if you just quit and left foreign policy to someone else."
That was not the language of Cabinet room discussions. Goodwin and the others blinked at the "harsh polemic ... the embarrassing tirade." The rest of the group sat silently, "stunned by the ferocity of his [Robert Kennedy's] assault." Bowles himself called the atmosphere "almost savage ... The President and the U.S. government had been humiliated and something must be done." Bowles also described the President at this time as being in "a dangerous mood."
Bowles was one of the earliest to sense what was happening. He pleaded with the President to not let the situation "deteriorate into a head-to-head personal contest between the President of the United States and Fidel Castro." The seasoned, experienced Bowles, realizing that the Kennedys were newcomers to foreign policy matters, feared that they were easy targets for "military-CIA-paramilitary type answers."
Bowles himself had less reason than others to be stunned by Bobby's Cabinet room exchange. He had earlier felt Bobby's fury--a fury that others described as without bounds. The episode occurred when Bobby concluded, wrongly, that Bowles was the source of a leak to the press about opposition to the invasion. Bobby was convinced that the purpose of the leak was not to save the country from a huge mistake, but to embarrass his brother. Encountering Bowles in a corridor, he lashed out at him with scathing remarks, emphasizing them with pokes to the chest with his finger. Bowles later denied that physical contact occurred, but the denial may well have been diplomatic. "His teeth hurt from that finger in his chest," a Bowles friend later remembered.
Bobby's rage at Bowles persisted. A few months later--in the summer of 1961--he would call Bowles a "gutless bastard" for obstructing a plan to land troops on the Dominican Republic in order to install a friendly regime there. Bowles wrote that Bobby was "slamming into anyone who suggested we go slowly." But the thrust of Bobby's anger at the Undersecretary came from Bowles' opposition to the Bay of Pigs adventure--opposition greatly justified, it turned out--and for what he felt was insufficient anti-Castro militancy. Unlike Jack, Bobby frequently and unrestrainedly spit out his animosity. He had "a tremendous capacity for love and hate," as William Hundley, chief of the Organized Crime division in Kennedy's Justice Department, put it. "You wouldn't want to get on his wrong side." And Castro was as far on his wrong side as possible.
General Edward Lansdale, a counter-insurgency expert who later worked intimately with the Attorney General trying to destabilize Communist rule in Cuba, joined almost every observer in concluding that Bobby felt the April defeat even more strongly, and even more personally, than Jack. "He was protective of his brother, and he felt his brother had been insulted at the Bay of Pigs. He felt the insult needed to be redressed rather quickly." This is not to say that President Kennedy could not be vengeful, or that his friends never felt the "cruel whip" of his arrogance and self-absorption. During Bobby's Cabinet room expression of fury, Richard Goodwin watched the seemingly calm, relaxed president tap the tip of a pencil against his teeth. Goodwin knew this as a sign that "some inner tension was being suppressed." He also knew "there was an inner hardness, often volatile anger beneath the outwardly amiable, thoughtful, carefully controlled demeanor of John Kennedy." He became certain that Bobby's anger represented the silent President's own feelings, which he had privately communicated to his brother in advance.
It is also not to say that Jack, in his own way, didn't want to settle the score with Castro as much as Bobby. A CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence felt that both brothers were "deeply ashamed after the Bay of Pigs, and they were quite obsessed with the problem of Cuba. They were a couple of Irishmen who felt they had muffed it ... and being good fighting Irishmen, they vented their wrath in all ways that they could."
According to documents held for 35 years, Che Guevara, Castro's second in command, met with Kennedy's Latin America advisor, Richard Goodwin, at a cocktail party four months later in Uruguay. At Guevara's insistence, Goodwin was brought to the 2 a.m. session, where he was offered a Cuban olive branch. Guevara's proposal was sweepingly attractive: Cuba was ready to foreswear any political alliance to the USSR, pay for confiscated U.S. property, and consider ending its support for communist insurgents in the area. All Castro wanted in return was a Kennedy pledge to cease hostile operations against his regime. According to Goodwin (who, playing hardball politics as he had during the 1960 election, advised Kennedy against the idea), "Guevara's proposal was never pursued."
Castro rankled Kennedy more than could be explained by any real threat to American interests. Of course, some threat was there, but it in no way justified the out-of-proportion U.S. response. Many analysts have pointed out that America shared responsibility for the mutual antagonism between Washington and Havana--by backing the corrupt dictator Batista for so long, by failing to see Castro in the tradition of Simon Bolivar, as an expression of a yearning desire for liberation, and by resorting to a boycott too soon after Castro's Marxist professions. Cuba had become for Kennedy what Khrushchev liked to call his "bone in the throat." Presidential historian Michael Beschloss put it this way, "What he [JFK] resented more were the costly political choices forced upon him by Castro's rise to power and his alliance with Moscow. He told friends that sooner or later, every politician acquired an albatross: `I've got Cuba.'"
The Kennedy Dynamic
In his autobiography, published just prior to his death in 1996, the CIA's Richard Bissell refers to fear of failure, an oft-described Kennedy family dynamic, and how it manifested itself in Jack and Bobby on the subject of Cuba:
The Kennedys wanted action and they wanted it fast. Robert Kennedy was willing to look anywhere for a solution ... From their perspective, Castro had won the first round at the Bay of Pigs. He had defeated the Kennedy team; they were bitter and they could not tolerate his getting away with it. The President and his brother were ready to avenge their personal embarrassment by overthrowing their enemy at any cost. To understand the Kennedy administration's obsession with Cuba, it is important to understand the Kennedys, especially Robert.
Joe, the Kennedy patriarch, had used questionable and unscrupulous means in his drive to amass an immense fortune, and inculcated in his children a singular stress on the importance of winning. Joe was no ordinary father in his ambition for his children. Even after making himself extremely rich, he remained extraordinarily compelled to assert himself, partly through them. He raised his sons under an extremely rigorous set of values. As one biographer concluded, "Failure was not to be tolerated, passivity was a disgrace."
Kennedy family members agree on the key point of Joe's child-rearing philosophy. "The thing he always kept telling us," remarked Joe's daughter Eunice, "was that coming in second was just no good. The important thing was to win--don't come in second or third. That doesn't count--but win, win, win."
By all accounts, Joe Kennedy's mandate as family patriarch achieved its fullest expression in Bobby. Most agree with the views of RFK biographers Lester and Irene David, who wrote, "He was just like the old man, Joseph Kennedy." In describing her husband, Ethel Kennedy once said of Bobby:
"For him, the world is divided into black and white hats. The white hats are `for us,' the black hats are `against us.' Bobby can only distinguish good men and bad. Good things, in his eyes, are virility, courage, movement, and anger. He has no patience with the weak and the hesitant."
A number of RFK acquaintances have volunteered that Bobby's headstrong focus on results displayed a classic case of "short man complex." Physically, he had no reason for a Napoleonic complex -- he stood over five feet, nine inches tall. But he was small in comparison to his siblings--which, of course, was the milieu in which he developed. "In a fiercely competitive family," Richard Goodwin noted, "[Bobby] had to battle more ferociously, recklessly, in order to hold his own." "Bobby grew up to be the runt," biographer William Shannon observed, "... in a family where all the other men were six feet or taller." Bobby's mother Rose recalled a fear that he might grow up puny and girlish because he was the smallest and thinnest of the boys--but "we soon realized there was no fear of that." In fact, he went the opposite way, becoming a young man who had to distinguish himself daily to a family of "provers." Some thought Bobby tried the hardest and accomplished the least, intellectually as well as physically. But his overriding qualities derived precisely from the attempt.
As Jack's presidential campaign manager, the younger Bobby channeled his own thrusting ambition into becoming the elder brother's servant, protector, henchman--and, when he felt it necessary--hatchet man. As an old friend of Jack, LeMoyne Billings, once observed, Bobby had "put his brother's career absolutely first; and [cared] nothing about his own career whatsoever." As Attorney General, and de facto intelligence czar, Bobby Kennedy realized that part of his job was to deflect criticism of his brother. "The President," Bobby once said, "has to take so much responsibility that others should move forward to take the blame. People want someone higher to appeal to ... It is better for ire and anger to be directed somewhere else."
Bobby became the caustic, ornery executive officer who cracked down on his shipmates in order to run a tight ship for his beloved skipper--beloved, in Jack's case, because of his personal charm. The executive officer doesn't care that he is hated, because that comes with the job. A high CIA official once said that Bobby "always talked like he was the President, and he really was in a way." Bobby was much more than Jack's right-hand man. He would also become the prime mover--inspirer and instigator--of some of the most secret (and dangerous) facets of the President's personal foreign policy.
"He's always been a lightning rod for Jack, trying to take the heat away from the presidency. It's not important what happens to him. What is important is what happens to Jack. I would say few men have ever loved a brother more." So spoke Bobby's successor, Ramsey Clark, Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson. From the standpoint of presidential deniability, this seemed to play nicely when Bobby took charge of the Cuban initiatives.
On the difference between Jack and Bobby, Papa Joe once remarked, "Not that Jack isn't just as courageous, but Bobby feels more strongly for or against people than Jack does--just as I do." Another remark by his father was more direct: "Everyone in my family forgives--except Bobby." This trait was also a chip off Papa Joe, who once said of himself, "When I hate some son of a bitch, I hate him till I die." Jack was incomparably better than Bobby at controlling his expressions of displeasure, reducing them to a dismissal or cold stare. Bobby tended to get hot quickly, releasing his fury indiscriminately
Jack, too, was competitive in his way, and could be quite aggressive. For example, newsman Walter Cronkite years later recalled how he felt JFK's wrath during the 1960 campaign. Cronkite had asked Kennedy about the impact of his Catholicism on the election. Cronkite later learned that a furious JFK contacted CBS president Frank Stanton and bellowed, "When I become president, I get to name the members of the FCC, which controls your license [to operate]."
But Bobby's competitiveness had a rawness to it, and Jack's did not. This difference reflected itself in their domestic life styles. While the White House glowed with grace, elegance, and culture, Hickory Hill, Bobby's estate in nearby McLean, Virginia, was a place where he challenged his guests to physical encounters. No one ever broke a bone visiting Jack, "but chipped fingers, wrist fractures, loosened teeth, torn muscles and ligaments, and even broken legs were not uncommon at Hickory Hill," as one RFK biographer put it.
Evelyn Lincoln, the President's personal secretary, made a skillful stab at summing up the brothers' dissimilarities. "The difference between Bobby and Jack," Lincoln offered, "was this: Jack was evolutionary, Bobby was revolutionary." Her observation was quite perceptive. A photographer covering Bobby once suggested to him that he was really a revolutionary. After some thought, Bobby acknowledged that the photographer, in a large sense, was right. He was a revolutionary in the way he attacked whatever issues were on his agenda at the moment. While Jack, the cool skeptic, was keenly aware of the value of good appearances, Bobby, the firebrand, often appeared disheveled, just like a good revolutionary should. While Jack liked ideas, Bobby preferred action. Kennedy aide Harris Wofford observed during his brother's administration, "[Bobby] was always saying, `Don't sit there thinking, do something!'"
These differences between the brothers were not absolute. But in terms of how they expressed their antipathy to "that guy with the beard," as Bobby often called Castro, they were very important. They helped explain why the younger brother was "a man driven by demons" in the secret war with Cuba. "Bobby was emotional as he could be," Ray Cline, Deputy Director of Intelligence for the CIA, would remember. "He was always bugging the Agency about the Cubans."
The personal differences also explained why the White House's chief occupant could have been pictured as a man of peace--which he was in many critical ways not concerning Cuba--while his brother, his trusted right hand, was deep in Florida's Everglades, on secret visits to personally supervise quasi-legal acts of war against Fidel Castro and the sovereign nation of Cuba. This was the Bobby who, with his heavy preference for action over contemplation, was "fascinated by all that covert stuff, counter-insurgence, and all the garbage that went with it," as Undersecretary of State George Ball once put it. This was also the brother whom no one had to like because he wasn't running for anything, or furthering his own ego, but merely serving Jack. And it was the brother so widely known as ruthless by those who worked with and under him.
With his intellectual curiosity, and his knowledge of history and other leaders' mistakes, John Kennedy grew remarkably as a statesman during his 34 months as president. He took courageous steps toward peace with many adversaries. But Cuba remained the exception. As his father opined, "Cuba gave this administration a chance to be great." Tragically, it was an opportunity not seized.
The Kennedy Connections
John F. Kennedy inherited more than a family characteristic for stubbornness. He inherited his family's resources, its wealth, and connections as high as the CIA and as low as the Chicago underworld. Joseph Kennedy had built a network of trustworthy men, which JFK expanded while he occupied the highest office in the land. The men in this large network would protect him during his presidency (and after his death), but couldn't protect him from the repercussions of his brother's actions, taken either on his behalf or according to his orders. This network of powerful friends has been pointed to as evidence of an anti-Kennedy conspiracy. The truth is just the opposite.
Patriarch Joe Kennedy founded a Kennedy tradition when he entered the bootlegging business in the 1920's. His relationship with the Mafia would grow, culminating when he approached the underworld for its support in JFK's 1960 presidential campaign. Joe Kennedy's contacts in that area would also prove invaluable when Robert Kennedy was later looking for "unofficial" intelligence opportunities in Cuba. The Mafia had been almost entirely shut out by the Castro regime, and they very badly wanted to return to Cuba. RFK was not opposed to using them to get what he and his brother were after.
The Kennedys had informal bonds with CIA members long before John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. Robert Kennedy's wife's family, the Skakels, maintained close relationships with CIA officers. In 1966, the closeness of the Skakels with the CIA was noted when George Skakel, Jr. (then running Great Lakes) and three friends chartered a plane for a hunting trip in Idaho. When the plane crashed, killing all aboard, it was reported that 15-year CIA veteran Lewis Werner was one of the victims. In charge of the St. Louis division of the CIA at the time, Werner often traveled to Cuba with Skakel to hunt wild boar.
In addition, a variety of New England liberals such as Allen Dulles, Des FitzGerald, Richard Bissell, Richard Helms were part of a social/intellectual clique that included Joseph P. Kennedy. CIA executive Bill Harvey referred to this group as "Fifth Avenue cowboys." As historian Burton Hersh points out, "Most of the leadership of the CIA was enlightened, preponderantly Democratic, with emerging senior managers like Tracy Barnes and Dickie Bissell quite dedicated social reformers." Comparisons to the Kennedys are inescapable.
The Kennedy brothers had also preserved a long-lasting association with Allen Dulles, then CIA Director. Letters in both the Kennedy and Dulles collections reflect that John and Robert Kennedy maintained correspondence with both Dulles brothers from at least 1955. Traveling in the same social sphere, Allen Dulles and John Kennedy were "comfortable with one another and there was a lot of mutual respect," Richard Bissell said in an interview. In fact, Kennedy was known to regard Dulles as a legendary figure. Historian Herbert Parmet wrote, "Dulles often went to the Charles Wrightsman estate near Joe Kennedy's Palm Beach House. As far back as Jack's early days, they socialized down in Florida, much of the time swimming and playing golf." Dulles himself said, "I knew Joe quite well from the days when he was head of the Securities and Exchange Commission."
But Papa Joe Kennedy's relationship with Dulles extended far beyond that of neighbor and occasional golf buddy. On January 13, 1956, when Allen Dulles was CIA Director, Joseph Kennedy was appointed to President Eisenhower's Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). "PFIAB is a sort of holding ground for people who couldn't obtain, or didn't want, Congressional approval [to serve the U.S. government]," explains Colonel Alan D. Campen, who served under President Reagan as Director of Command and Control Policy in the office of the Secretary of Defense. Historian Michael Beschloss adds, "After exerting himself to win appointment to Eisenhower's intelligence board, he [Joe Kennedy] improved his acquaintance with Dulles."
Among other commonalities, Joe Kennedy and Allen Dulles were both outspoken isolationists at the start of World War II. Kennedy was often called pro-Nazi (by, among others, Lyndon Johnson) when he publicly insisted that the German-English "feud" had nothing to do with U.S. interests. Likewise, Dulles, whose law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, represented many German and U.S. investors, told businessmen who belonged to the German SS that he believed that many of their objectives were well-founded. At one point, Dulles remarked to a German SS member that he was "fed up with listening all the time to outdated politicians, emigres, and prejudiced Jews."
Dulles first met Jack Kennedy at the Kennedy Florida compound in 1955. They became fast friends. "Our contact was fairly continuous," Dulles later said. "When [JFK] was in Palm Beach, we always got together." Jack came to revere both Dulles' intellect and accomplishments.
Robert Kennedy, too, was clearly impressed with Dulles. Regarding his performance at the time of the Bay of Pigs, Robert Kennedy later recalled, "Allen Dulles handled himself awfully well, with a great deal of dignity, and never attempted to shift the blame. The President was very fond of him, as I was." He elaborated to historian Arthur Schlesinger, "He [JFK] liked him [Dulles]--thought he was a real gentleman, handled himself well. There were obviously so many mistakes made at the time of the Bay of Pigs that it wasn't appropriate that he should stay on. And he always took the blame. He was a real gentleman. JFK thought very highly of him."
Dulles kept a variety of Kennedy secrets from the public. For example, when John Kennedy won the election in November 1960, the CIA under Dulles conducted a background investigation of Kennedy in anticipation of his first intelligence briefing as President-elect on November 18. Such investigations were designed to predict how the subject would respond when informed of the full range of CIA operations, and to show Dulles the most effective method of appeal. Prepared by CIA psychologists, the study included hot evidence from the FBI: the indiscretion of a youthful Jack Kennedy, at the height of World War II, with alleged Nazi spy Inga Arvad Fejos. In 1942, while serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, Jack Kennedy had established this potentially dangerous liaison. The FBI, which had wiretapped Arvad, initially compiled the file. Historian Thomas Reeves wrote:
When Jack's relationship with the woman became known to Navy officials, the assistant director of the Office of Naval Intelligence wanted to cashier the young ensign from the Navy. A witness remembered the officer being "really frantic." Reminded of Joe Kennedy's prestige, however, the official eventually calmed down and consented merely to give Jack a speedy transfer to an ONI outpost in Charleston, South Carolina.
(FBI sources state that it was Hoover's direct pressure that brought about the transfer. The potential value of this kind of political dynamite was most assuredly never lost on the FBI Director. It was just the kind of file that kept Hoover's power inviolate for so long.)
Dulles' decision, or favor, to keep this matter secret was quite possibly rewarded later, when Kennedy, as president-elect, retained Dulles as CIA Director. It may also have played a part in Kennedy's initial refusal to accept Dulles' resignation after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
The CIA after the Bay of Pigs
"In the course of the past few months I have had occasion to again observe the extraordinary accomplishments of our intelligence community, and I have been singularly impressed with the overall professional excellence, selfless devotion to duty, resourcefulness and initiative manifested in the work of this group."
--President Kennedy, in a letter of commendation to new CIA Director John McCone, January 9, 1963
After thinking it over, it was clear to John Kennedy that the blame for the Bay of Pigs was largely his and not the CIA's. And although Kennedy needed public scapegoats in his administration, he drew the line at a public indictment of the original Eisenhower-era planners of the invasion. Kennedy's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, later testified, "President Kennedy was very angry when some people around him tried to share responsibility with President Eisenhower because President Kennedy knew that he and his senior advisors had a chance to look at that and made their own judgment on that, and he did not like the idea of having to share the buck."
Although Kennedy's threat to "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and cast it to the winds" has long been used to support theories that the CIA had reason to hate JFK, just the opposite is true. Kennedy's "threat" was a knee-jerk reaction to the failed invasion. Years later, E. Howard Hunt, the CIA's liaison to the Cuban exiles, surmised, "For him [Kennedy] to have said that was probably a way of disguising from himself the fact that he himself was responsible for the fiasco, and I'm sure that's something that haunted him for the rest of his days."
All of John Kennedy's other statements regarding the CIA were nothing short of glowing. On November 28, 1961 Kennedy went to Langley, Virginia to dedicate the CIA's new headquarters, which came to fruition under the outgoing Director, Allen Dulles. Addressing the large throng, Kennedy said:
I want, first of all, to express my appreciation to you all for the opportunity of this ceremony to tell you how grateful we are in the government and in the country for the services that the personnel of this Agency render to the country. It is not always easy. Your successes are unheralded--your failures are trumpeted. I sometimes have that same feeling myself. But I am sure you realize how important is your work, how essential it is--and, in the long sweep of history, how significant your efforts will be judged.
In addition to the dedication, Kennedy had planned a surprise for his loyal friend. Dulles' biographer, Peter Grose, described the event:
Allen greeted the presidential helicopter at the landing pad hidden among the trees of the campus. Interrupting the carefully scripted ceremony that followed, with more than six hundred CIA professionals in attendance, Kennedy turned to the dais behind him. "Would you step forward, Allen." On his lapel he pinned the National Security Medal. Short of knighthood or lordship, it was the highest honor of the United States government.
Turning to address Dulles, Kennedy said, "I want to express my appreciation to you now, and I am confident that in the future you will continue to merit the appreciation of our country, as you have in the past." The next day, JFK dashed off a letter expressing his great admiration and affection for Dulles. In closing, Kennedy wrote, "You leave behind you, as witness to your great service, an outstanding staff of men and women trained to the nation's service in the field of intelligence." In what appears to be a genuinely heartfelt letter to his old friend Dulles, the President added, "I am sure you know you carry with you the admiration and affection of all of us who have served with you. I am glad to be counted among the seven Presidents in whose administrations you have worked, and I am also glad that we shall continue to have your help and counsel ... Your integrity, energy, and understanding will be a lasting example to all." Two years later, in the wake of JFK's assassination, Dulles' kinship with John Kennedy would play a role in Dulles' decision to withhold critical information from his fellow Warren Commission members.
On March 1, 1962, JFK would similarly honor Bissell with the same National Security medal. In ceremonies at the White House, Kennedy made it clear that he still held Bissell in high esteem. In part, Kennedy said:
During his more than twenty years of service with the United States government, he has invested a rich fund of scholarship and vision. He has brought about returns of direct and major benefit to our country. In an area demanding the creation and application of highly technical and sophisticated intelligence techniques, he has blended theory and practice in a manner unparalleled in the intelligence profession. Mr. Bissell's high purpose, unbounded energy, and unswerving devotion to duty are benchmarks in the intelligence service.
The Kennedys and the CIA
After the Bay of Pigs, as both he and his brother Robert began to understand the intended role of the CIA, John Kennedy would oversee one of the greatest budget increases for the intelligence community in U.S. history. "You have to always bear in mind how the Agency was originally set up," instructs one high-ranking Agency official. The CIA, he reminds us, was instituted as the intelligence arm of the Executive branch--the President and official Washington have never been confused about that fact. First conceived by President Harry S Truman, the CIA was established and organized by the National Security Act of 1947 (Truman submitted it to Congress, which passed it on July 26, 1947).
The CIA's charter is unambiguous in stating that the Agency would function only in response to directives of the President and of the President's own intelligence apparatus, the National Security Council. Nowhere in the charter is there any inference that the CIA would be allowed to initiate policy. JFK, a close student of history, was undoubtedly aware of the Eisenhower-CIA partnership that had toppled regimes in both Iran and Guatemala. The Directors of the CIA, appointed by the President, take their loyalty to the President seriously, and often have performed tasks against their own better judgment at their bosses' behest.
In return for this loyalty, Kennedy often went out of his way to shield the CIA from unwelcome scrutiny. At a news conference in November 1963 (six weeks before his death), Kennedy responded to a question regarding the CIA. A newsperson had asked Kennedy if the CIA was conducting unauthorized activity in South Vietnam. Kennedy rose to its defense, saying:
I think that while the CIA may have made mistakes, as we all do, on different occasions, and has had many successes which may go unheralded, in my opinion in this case it is unfair to charge them as they have been charged. I think they have done a good job.
Robert Kennedy also knew where the buck stopped. In 1967, when the CIA was criticized for giving illegal financial support to the National Student Association, Bobby refused to let the CIA take the rap. He went on record as saying that the CIA policies were approved at the highest levels of presidential administrations. "If the policy was wrong," Bobby said, "it was not the product of the CIA but of each administration." When Kennedy family friend Jack Newfield tried to goad Bobby into criticizing the Agency, Bobby again rose to its defense, saying, "What you are not aware of is the role the CIA plays within the government. During the 1950's ... many liberals found sanctuary in the CIA. So some of the best people in Washington, and around the country, began to collect there. One result of that was the CIA developed a very healthy view of Communism, especially compared to State and some other departments. So it is not so black and white as you think."
The Kennedy brothers, Bobby more than Jack, soon became smitten with the clandestine world the CIA inhabited. Author and intelligence expert John Ranelagh most accurately summarized the relationship. According to one CIA man with whom Ranelagh spoke, "Robert Kennedy, in his shirtsleeves, delved into the inner workings of the agency. In the end, he did not shake it up as his brother had wanted, but fell in love with the CIA and the concept of clandestine operation." Ranelagh added:
Jack Kennedy realized, as he told Clark Clifford--an influential and trusted Kennedy advisor and Democratic power broker--"I have to have the best possible intelligence," and soon reversed his decision to punish the CIA. Both brothers saw that alone of the agencies of government the CIA was willing to take action and had tried to do in Cuba what the President wanted. The Bay of Pigs failure meant that the agency would not resist tighter control. Rejection of the agency was not necessary: the windmill was now the Kennedys' to turn and direct. They were determined to make it work under their close direction.
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