The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms

The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms

by Kai Bird

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"Grey is the color of truth."
So observed Mac Bundy in defending America's intervention in Vietnam. Kai Bird brilliantly captures this ambiguity in his revelatory look at Bundy and his brother William, two of the most influential policymakers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It is a portrait of fiercely patriotic, brilliant and brazenly

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"Grey is the color of truth."
So observed Mac Bundy in defending America's intervention in Vietnam. Kai Bird brilliantly captures this ambiguity in his revelatory look at Bundy and his brother William, two of the most influential policymakers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It is a portrait of fiercely patriotic, brilliant and brazenly self-confident men who directed a steady escalation of a war they did not believe could be won. Bird draws on seven years of research, nearly one hundred interviews, and scores of still-classified top secret documents in a masterful reevaluation of America's actions throughout the Cold War and Vietnam.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Charles Maechling, Jr. The Boston Globe A fascinating account of how...two archetypes of "the best and the brightest" helped to shape the policies that led to the debacle of Vietnam.

Bruce Nussbaum Business Week Compelling....Along with Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, Kai Bird's The Color of Truth forms a trilogy that shows that America, in times of difficulty, finds "wise" men to lead it. But they often lack the courage of their convictions to do so properly.

Ronald Steel The Washington Post A darkly dramatic story, told with sensitivity and political passion, of pride, power, privilege, hubris and idealism — not only of the Bundys but of the nation they served.

Townsend Hoopes Los Angeles Times Keenly perceptive, thoroughly researched, fair and balanced...Bird's detailed account of [the Bundys'] major roles in the Vietnam imbroglio adds significantly to the historical record.

James G. Blight The Washington Post Balanced, highly original....Bird depicts [the Bundy brothers] with nuance and sympathy.

Foreign Affairs The [Vietnam) chapters are first-rate....Bird powerfully shows how the brothers struggled to craft a "vital center" but built one that could not hold.

Mark Danner The New York Times Book Review Bird's sources are well marshaled, and they make for good, sometimes fascinating reading.

Jeff Jones Boston Review Weaving a rich history of government documents-some recently declassified, some still classified — with interviews and a fresh look at available sources, Bird delivers the definitive assessment of two Cold Warriors.

Charles Wright Biography Magazine Bird's dual biography offers a vivid, dramatic chronicle Of the genesis, the conduct, and the aftermath of the long, undeclared war in Southeast Asia.

Richard Poster Milwaukee Journal Sentinel An exhaustively researched, elegantly written, scrupulously fair-minded and intellectually tough-minded biography...A masterful achievement.

Ronald Steel
A darkly dramatic story, told with sensitivity and political passion, of pride, power, privilege, hubris, and idealism—not only of the Bundys but of the nation they served.
The Washington Post
Bruce Nussbaum
Compelling…along with Halberstan's the Best and the Brightest and The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, Kai Bird's The Color of Truth forms a trilogy that America, in times of difficulty, finds 'wise' men to lead it. But they often lack the courage of their convictions to do so properly.
Business Week
Charles Maechling, Jr.
A fascinating account of how…two archetypes of 'best and the brightest' helped to shape the policies that led to the debacle of Vietnam.
Boston Globe

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Simon & Schuster
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Chapter Nine: The Kennedy Years

if every question in the world becomes an intellectual exercise on a totally pragmatic basis, with no reference to moral considerations, it may be that we can escape disaster, but it will certainly be putting the White House group to a test.

Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles April 22, 1961

Mac Bundy returned from his Caribbean vacation in early January 1961 to a bitterly cold New England winter. A few days later, President-elect John F. Kennedy was escorted inside Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s Cambridge home to meet with a select group of his Harvard-based advisers. As a team of Secret Service men stood guard outside, Bundy rode his bicycle past a crowd of onlookers, dismounted and, after leaning his bicycle against the gate, strode in to meet with his new boss. Inside were some of the well-known scholars who would be joining Bundy in Washington. Schlesinger himself was already slated to work as one of the president's assistants; Jerome B. Wiesner became White House science adviser, and John Kenneth Galbraith was named ambassador to India.

When Kennedy announced Bundy's appointment on January 1, the president-elect said that his national security adviser would be "helping me to strengthen and to simplify the operations of the National Security Council." What he really meant was that Bundy was going to dismantle much of the NSC's bureaucratic paraphernalia created during the Eisenhower years. Both Kennedy and Bundy had read Richard Neustadt's 1960 book, Presidential Power, which contrasted the freewheeling presidential style of Franklin Roosevelt with the rigid, military chain-of-command system Dwight Eisenhower had brought to the White House. A trendy political scientist at Columbia University, Neustadt argued that Roosevelt's disorderly style actually exposed him to more information from a wider range of sources and gave him the flexibility that was the genius of his administration. Neustadt's book gave Kennedy and Bundy the intellectual rationale to do what they were going to do anyway — run the White House as if it were Harvard, with Bundy as dean and Kennedy as president.

They would promote disorder. There would be fewer people, reports and formal meetings of the National Security Council. Bundy himself would take the jobs of five of Ike's NSC aides. The NSC would become more of a miniState Department and less of a debating society. Within a month the NSCs staff was cut from seventy-one to forty-eight. In place of weighty policy papers, produced at regular intervals, Bundy's staff would produce crisp and timely National Security Action Memoranda (NSAMs). The new name signified the premium that would be placed on "action" over "planning." In effect, foreign policy would no longer be made at cabinet-level meetings. In theory, the men who came to advise the president in these smaller, freewheeling NSC meetings would represent no bureaucratic constituency other than the president, and they would argue the merits of each policy course based on substance. This was how intellectuals, not bureaucrats, would make foreign policy.

Bundy immediately began recruiting his own staff, and many of them were also Cambridge men. Kennedy himself hired Walt W. Rostow to fill one slot in the NSC. Temperamentally, Bundy's old MIT friend was hardly the kind of man to serve as a deputy. Rostow was voluble, exuberant and full of good and sometimes foolish ideas. Bundy didn't mind. The former Harvard dean would give Rostow all the flexibility of a tenured member of the faculty.

Just ten days after the inauguration Bundy phoned another Cambridge friend, Carl Kaysen, forty, and said, "I need help. I'm having a lot of fun. Come work with me." Kaysen replied, "Mac, have you already forgotten Harvard? I have two courses I am committed to teaching this semester."

"Oh, just come and we'll talk about it," Bundy insisted. Kaysen came, was introduced to Kennedy in the Oval office and agreed to start work in May.

Bundy was not as eager to recruit Henry Kissinger; he knew from personal experience that Henry was hardly a team player. At Kennedy's invitation Kissinger visited the White House in early February. It is unclear whether Bundy ever offered Kissinger a full-time position; Kissinger later suggested that Bundy did not seem to share "the President's sense of urgency to add to the White House staff another professor of comparable academic competence." Kissinger wanted to be a player in the new administration, but he also wanted to retain his tenured position at Harvard. Bundy was annoyed, but nevertheless arranged a part-time consultancy in which Kissinger would fly down four or five days a month. The arrangement did not last, and when Kissinger created a diplomatic gaffe during a trip to India in early 1962, Bundy quietly dismissed him.

Having recruited quite a few outsiders, Mac called his brother Bill for the names of a few veterans of government service who knew the drill in Washington. Bill gave him the names of two colleagues from the CIA, Bob Komer and Chet Cooper. Cooper would soon spend half his time in the White House under Bundy. Komer soon went to work as Bundy's man on the Middle East and South Asia. (Blunt and abrasive, Komer would later earn the sobriquet "Blowtorch Bob" for his tough stance on the Vietnam War.)

Despite his qualms about Bundy's move to the White House, or perhaps because of them, David Riesman began lobbying his old dean early that year to hire a young man whom he promised would be the "conscience" of his staff. At twenty-six, Marcus Raskin came to Washington with hardly any of the usual establishment credentials expected of an NSC staffer. A concert-level pianist (he once taught the composer Philip Glass), Raskin had abandoned a career in music to study law at the University of Chicago. In 1959, two years after earning a law degree, he became a staff assistant to Congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier (D.-Wis.). Kastenmeier put Raskin to work coordinating an informal caucus that included nine other congressmen interested in developing a new liberal agenda. They called themselves the Liberal Project, and by 1960, Raskin was editing a collection of essays for publication. Together with another Kastenmeier aide, Arthur Waskow, Raskin had drafted for inclusion in the book an essay critical of nuclear deterrence theory called "The Theory and Practice of Deterrence." Riesman was greatly impressed with the essay and the work of the Liberal Project.

Soon after the inauguration, Riesman persuaded Bundy to talk to Raskin about a White House job. The interview took place in Bundy's Office, Room 374A of the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House. "We had a good talk," Raskin recalled. "He was funny and witty; I was also at my best. I remember him asking me, 'Well, Mr. Raskin, do you have a liberal theory of deterrence?' I was all of twenty-six, and I handed him this essay." Bundy was not altogether unfamiliar with the arguments contained in the Raskin-Waskow essay; he had, after all, picked up a healthy skepticism of deterrence theory from his work with Oppenheimer nine years earlier.

Later, as Raskin was about to come on board, Bundy asked him some difficult questions that clearly stemmed from the FBI's security check. Didn't he have a cousin, he asked, who was a communist? Raskin said he really didn't know, and hadn't seen her in years.

"You were on a program with I. F. Stone," the radical journalist, Bundy said. "We know that he is a communist."

"I don't know that," Raskin replied hotly. At this sign of vehemence, Bundy turned crimson, and Raskin later recalled being struck that Bundy was clearly embarrassed. Despite this exchange Raskin was hired.

Bundy knew he was getting a free spirit, a left-of-center, Jewish intellectual who might be troublesome. Curiously, at one point he asked Raskin, "Would you mind being the Oppenheimer of this administration?"

A few weeks later Bundy wrote Riesman, thanking him for his referral of Raskin: "With any luck, he should be at work here in another few days. in my few conversations with him, I have found just the qualities you describe....He has a remarkably powerful and lively mind, and it is flanked by both moral and physical energy. I think we shall probably have some disagreements, but I shall feel a lot better for knowing that certain problems have passed by his critical eye on their way to resolution."

Informality was the rule in Bundy's shop, which he likened to a think tank. Mac had pulled together a staff of very independent-minded men: Kaysen, Rostow, Komer, Raskin, Bromley K. Smith, Dave Klein, Ralph Dungan and, on occasion, Kissinger. These were all "very high-powered, strong-minded people" and Bundy generally made no attempt to block their access to the president. He and his principal deputy, Kaysen, made a point of taking staff members into the Oval Office and allowing them to brief Kennedy on their area of expertise. "We were few enough," Kaysen recalled, so that the president had some idea of who we were and what we were doing."

Bundy's daily routine was hectic. Each morning at 7:45 A.M. a government-chauffeured Mercury sedan picked him up at his spacious, white-bricked home in the Spring Valley section of Washington and ferried him down to the White House. Along the way, he dropped off his sons at St. Albans, Washington's elite prep school. After glancing at the early-morning cable trafficsome seven pounds of paper each day — Bundy would preside over a 9 A.M. staff meeting where he peppered his aides with questions. "Mac is brilliant at 9 o'clock in the morning, as very few other people can be," recalled one staffer. Afterwards, Bundy would go up to the president's quarters and brief Kennedy on the overnight intelligence developments from around the globe.

Most evenings he did not return home until eight o'clock at night. Over a bourbon-on-the-rocks or a martini, he would spend a little time in horseplay with his sons before their bedtime. He enjoyed good food and vintage wines, and was known to consume large quantities of ice cream. He and Mary rarely entertained in their home, but not infrequently attended dinner parties on the diplomatic circuit or with such old friends as Joe Alsop, Walter Lippmann and Felix Frankfurter. Mary found the change of pace from Cambridge "a little frightening. All those parties — I wasn't used to it, you know. It took a lot out of me."

Kennedy's foreign policy team was ostensibly headed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk (formerly president of the Rockefeller Foundation) and Robert S. McNamara, who had left his new job as president of the Ford Motor Company after only thirty-four days to become secretary of defense. Bundy immediately recognized a soul mate in McNamara, whose persona as a "whiz kid" meshed nicely with his own peppery personality. By contrast, Mac quickly decided that Rusk's bland demeanor masked neither wit nor intelligence. Very early in the new administration it became clear that Bundy's shop was running circles around Rusk's State Department. Bundy had daily access to the president; Rusk did not. With calculated modesty, Bundy would tell the press that his job was only that of a "traffic cop — to see what gets forwarded to the President." It was that and much more. one day, the president told his wife, Jacqueline, "Damn it, Bundy and I get more done in one day in the White House than they do in six months at the State Department." Soon, the Washington Post labeled Bundy a "shadow secretary of state." Asked what he would have done if Bundy had been at the NSC when he was secretary of state, Dean Acheson replied, "Resign."

After two months on the job Bundy quipped to a New York Times reporter, "Yes, at this point we are like the Harlem Globetrotters, passing forward, behind, side-wise and underneath. But nobody has made a basket yet." About the same time he wrote Stanley Hoffmann, then attending a seminar in Geneva, "Your description of Geneva makes it sound like the opposite of Washington. There you have serious discussions in an atmosphere of unconcern, and here..." But then he confided, "I think perhaps we are moving toward a period in which we shall be able to take serious decisions, some of them even based on thought."

Kennedy had a special rapport with his national security adviser. "They think alike," said one colleague. "He knows what the President wants. The President's intensity is perfectly complemented by Bundy's ability to move things." Kennedy hated small talk and quickly cut off those who bored him. Bundy, of course, never bored anyone. It was not long before the New York Times was quoting an anonymous official as saying that Bundy was the president's "alter-ego...another Harry Hopkins — with hand grenades." The analogy was both apt and inept. Franklin Roosevelt's friend and confidant was a gentle soul, an intensely introspective man who arrived at his judgments after exhaustive consultations. There was nothing abrupt about Hopkins. But perhaps just as Hopkins came to symbolize an archetype for the actionoriented intellectual of the Roosevelt era, so too Mac Bundy would soon become a model for the liberal policy intellectual of the 1960s. He knew he was serving a man impatient with the language of bureaucrats. So he took to summarizing tedious State Department cables with oneliners that amused the president. He once said of a visiting foreign diplomat that the man possessed "a very tactical sense of the truth."

Bundy didn't hesitate to push Kennedy if he thought the president was wrong. When Kennedy kept interrupting Bundy's early-morning intelligence briefing with complaints about press leaks, Bundy calmly cut the president off. "Goddammit, Mac," Kennedy was once overheard exclaiming, "I've been arguing with you about this all week long."

There was no mistaking that they liked each other immensely. Kennedy jokingly told his (and Bundy's) childhood friend, Newsweek bureau chief Ben Bradlee, "I only hope he [Bundy] leaves a few residual functions to me....You can't beat brains....He does a tremendous amount of work. And he doesn't fold or get rattled when they're sniping at him." Temperamentally, Bundy and Kennedy were cast from the same impatient mold. A Harvard professor who knew both men said of Bundy, "He pays no attention to what the other fellow may think. He's as cold as ice and snippy about everything. He and Jack Kennedy are two of a kind."

Yet, Bundy sometimes could surprise people with unexpected warmth. Once, after hearing Kennedy give a State Department official a tongue-lashing on the phone that "made the wires sizzle," Bundy called the official fifteen minutes later and said, "I was in the room when the President, talking to you, and I just wanted to say that it has happened to all of us. This little hot spot will quickly cool, and you should realize that the President would not have permitted himself that kind of blow-off if you were not one of those he regards highly and fully trusts." The official in question, Roger Hilsman, would have his differences with Bundy, but he always thought of him as a "man of warmth and thoughtfulness."

Kennedy also found it convenient that his national security adviser was a Republican. When Bundy suggested that he now "felt like a Democrat" and that perhaps he ought to change his party registration in time for the 1962 congressional elections, Kennedy told him that it was "marginally more useful to me to be able to say that you're a Republican."

Jack Kennedy was also a man who felt compelled to complicate his sexual life with a large cast of women — both inside and outside the White House. It helped that Bundy was the kind of Boston Brahmin who was not a prude. Evidently, Kennedy trusted him enough that he felt no need to hide all of his sexual dalliances from his friend. Still, it could be awkward, particularly when the president arranged for one of his lovers -a Radcliffe graduate he had met in 1959 — to work on Bundy's staff. "It was very embarrassing," the woman later told Seymour Hersh. "It put McGeorge in a very creepy situation." In any case, Bundy was a paragon of discreetness.

What for some was Bundy's arrogance appeared to Kennedy as simple "balls." Kennedy respected balls. When the president's brother Bobby, the attorney general, resigned his membership in the Metropolitan Club over the club's refusal to admit a black guest, Bundy astonished all of Washington by joining the club just a month later. When reporters queried him about it, Bundy responded, "This is a question each man must decide for himself...if I were Attorney General I might come to a different conclusion. I have no quarrel with those who reached a decision to resign." He did not say so, but among those who had resigned was his own brother Bill, then deputy assistant secretary of defense. "There'd been a recurrent question of blacks coming to the club," Bill Bundy recalled. When the club made it clear that blacks weren't welcome even as guests, "this raised it to the level of outrage," he said, "and I resigned. It wasn't a very great sacrifice...." It was not an issue between the brothers, but the incident spoke volumes about their respective political sensibilities.

People who worked with both Bundy brothers were struck by how different they were. "Mac had a mathematical mind," recalled Chet Cooper, who first met the younger brother in 1961. "Very clipped. Almost surgical. And then there's Bill with the legal thing, who was able, I think, to argue for either the plaintiff or the defendant. They were two brothers, very different mind-sets, although in many respects, very much the same. A staff meeting with Bill and a staff meeting with Mac are really two very different kinds of sessions."

Friends naturally wondered about sibling rivalry. That chemistry had to be there, people thought, but the Bundys rarely gave evidence of it. Mac confessed to at least one friend that he had "twitches of conscience because his brother had so much more governmental experience than he had." But there was no time to dwell on the ironies of life. By his own testimony, Mac was a man "genuinely in a hurry."

At the age of forty-four, Bill seemed on first impression more easygoing than Mac. Walt Rostow — who knew both Bundys from Yale and now was working for Mac in the White House — thought Bill "rather straitlaced in appearance, but he could turn around and suddenly dance the Charleston. He sometimes did imitations of people; he could be quite fun. I've never seen Mac Bundy do anything like that." Bill's secretary, Blanche Moore, always pictured him arriving each morning at his office humming Broadway tunes or whistling. But he was also very demanding, expecting her dictation to be letter perfect. "He dictated like a lawyer," Moore recalled. "He never had to back up; his sentences were always full, grammatical sentences. You didn't change anything. It was such a pleasure to see his mind work." When he once discovered that Moore had not returned a classified document to the vault, he made her go down to the security office and confess the transgression. "He told me," Moore said, "'I have given my word, and if I don't keep it, how can they trust me?' I felt so ashamed. But after that incident, he never checked up on me." Moore would loyally serve Bundy as his secretary for more than a dozen years.

At the end of a long day Bundy typically invited a reporter into his Pentagon office — just down the hall from where his father had worked under Stimson — for a drink, something Mac never did except with senior journalists like Joe Alsop or James Reston. Bill saw working reporters like Henry Brandon, Meg Greenfield and Joe Kraft. He would stretch his six-foot four-inch frame out on his office couch, sip his drink and smoke short, nonfilter cigarettes. off the record, he "chewed" over the day's events and quizzed reporters about what they thought. He laced his speech with quaint, "hasty-pudding" expressions which his friends came to call Bundyisms. "No strain," he would say to his secretary when she couldn't find a book he wanted. "I must have pinched it." He used phrases like "whiff of grapeshot," "cannonball on the deck," and when an unsatisfactory memo landed on his desk, he would say, "We need to bring this up to concert pitch." To voice his disapproval of an ideal he would say, "Well, we can't suck eggs on that one."

There was nothing archaic about Mac in these years. Where Bill could be disarmingly polite, Mac was brisk to the point of brusque. Bill could be harshly self-critical, while Mac — though not oblivious of his mistakes — had no time for introspection. "Most men have too much ego," said one of Bill's colleagues years later. "But Bill has just the right amount. He doesn't feel like he has to convince people of his worth. But then he also thinks people will naturally be interested in hearing what he has to say."

Bill was the kind of man who was generally liked by just about anyone he got to know. Mac, however, could arouse extreme passions. People either liked him immensely or feared him. After dining with Mac one evening, the Oxford historian Isaiah Berlin wrote Joe Alsop, "I have never admired anyone so much, so intensely, for so long as I did him during those four hours...his character emerged in such exquisite form that I am now his devoted and dedicated slave. I like him very much indeed, and I think he likes me, now, which was not always the case. "On the other hand," an anonymous colleague told the New York Times in 1962, "I would not like to have him as my enemy." And another half-admirer said, "McGeorge Bundy is the iron priest of an iron faith in the definitiveness of his yes or no, and he has such a marvelous storehouse of language to make everything he says sound plausible that he scares the hell out of me."

Mac scared people, but some learned that if you stood your ground he would listen. "Sure he's sharp; at times even nasty," said a State Department Official, "if he thinks you're off base. But often, suddenly, halfway through the conversation, he'll turn and tell you, 'You're right.' The important thing is that he is there and he listens." Mac once told Max Frankel of the New York Times that he understood that "where feelings become strong and differences of opinion become evident, there is some truth on every side and also some danger of error."

Some people loved Mac Bundy even when they disagreed with him. James C. Thomson, Jr., worked for both Bundy brothers during the early 1960s and would clash repeatedly with them over Vietnam policy. But Thomson relished in Mac what so many people found dangerous. "Mac loved taking risks," Thomson said. "He loved irreverence and humor. He loved hearing dissent. He loved all the things that troubled his older brother. Bill was prim about irreverence, humor and all the things that made Mac so earthy funny and wise."

Mac always got good press during these years, while Bill labored in relative obscurity. Reporters found Mac colorful and unusually spontaneous for a White House official. They were astonished, for instance, that he rarely spoke from a prepared text. One day a reporter called and learned that Bundy was just beginning to think about what to say an hour before he was scheduled to give a formal address. When the reporter expressed some surprise at this, Bundy explained, "I'm used to the university lecture platform." Then he added what the reporter dubbed Bundy's Law: "Never write it out unless you have to get it cleared for security reasons." This was good copy and endeared him to members of the press.

When Bobby Kennedy decided he wanted to host a monthly seminar at his Hickory Hill estate, Mac was the Bundy brother he thought to invite, not Bill. Organized by Schlesinger, Bobby's seminars brought together no more than twenty-five or thirty people — husbands and wives — and served to remind them, in Schlesinger's words, that "a world of ideas existed beyond government." Scholars like Isaiah Berlin, Ken Galbraith, George Kerman and Eric Goldman would give a short lecture and then the audience — which included such leading lights of the Kennedy administration as Bob McNamara, Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Ambassador-at-Large Averell Harriman — would pepper them with questions. "They sound rather precious," Alice Roosevelt Longworth later said, "but there was nothing precious about these lectures. It was all sorts of fun." At Hickory Hill, Mac got to know Bobby Kennedy as an eager interrogator, "a terrier of a man" who like himself could sometimes seem abrasive to people, particularly upon a first meeting. Mac didn't often say a great deal; the seminar topics — though not the surroundings — must have seemed old hat to a former Harvard dean. The seminars continued throughout the Kennedy presidency, and Mac would be there for most of them.

At forty-two, Mac looked ten years younger. He wore the same clear-plastic frame glasses that he had sported as a Cambridge dean. He dressed his five-foot ten-inch, 160-pound frame in casual suits cut with the narrow lapels fashionable in the early 1960s. His cheeks were perpetually rosy, and his thinning sandy brown hair was brushed straight back — and disheveled just enough to suggest a man in a hurry.

While Mac Bundy was busy pulling together his team, the new president was weighing what to do about Fidel Castro's Cuba. Ever since Castro's guerrilla insurgency toppled the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, CubanAmerican relations had soured. By the autumn of 1960, Dean Bundy was telling the Harvard Crimson that it would be "difficult for us not to support a movement on the part of true Latin American liberals to depose the current regime." just eight days after the inauguration, CIA director Allen Dulles told Kennedy and Bundy, "Cuba is now for practical purposes a Communist-controlled state." Ten months earlier President Eisenhower had authorized the CIA to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of the island, and in the meantime the Agency organized a series of hit-and-run attacks along the Cuban coastline. The CIA also began hatching assassination plots against Castro. On January 3, 1961, the Eisenhower administration broke diplomatic relations with Castro's regime. In effect, Ike was handing his successor an undeclared war.

Now CIA chief Dulles urged the Kennedy White House to approve a plan to topple Castro with an invasion force of some 1,500 Cuban exiles trained by the CIA in Guatemala. Kennedy was noncommittal. By February 8, Bundy was telling him, "Defense and CIA now feel quite enthusiastic about the invasion....At the worst, they think the invaders would get into the mountains, and at the best, they think they might get a full-fledged civil war in which we could then back the anti-Castro forces openly." Kennedy's cautious response came just a few days later. After reading a New York Times story which went into considerable detail about the planning behind what was supposed to be a covert operation, Kennedy dictated a memo to Bundy: "Has the policy for Cuba been coordinated between Defense, CIA [and State]?...If there is a difference of opinion between the agencies I think they should be brought to my attention."

Bundy replied with a "road map" to these differences. Defense and CIA were "quite enthusiastic," while the State Department "takes a much cooler view...." He reported that he and Dick Goodwin "join in believing that there should certainly not be an invasion adventure without careful diplomatic soundings. We also think it almost certain that such soundings would confirm the judgment you are likely to hear from State." In other words, Bundy was skeptical of an "invasion adventure. Skeptical, but not opposed.

Throughout February, Kennedy refused to make a decision about the operation, and indeed, he kept asking for "alternatives to a full-fledged invasion." Could not, the president asked, such a force be landed gradually and quietly and make its first major military efforts from the mountains — then taking shape as a Cuban force within Cuba, not as an invasion force sent by the Yankees?" The notes Bundy took of this particular conversation make it clear that the CIA's deputy director for plans, Richard Bissell, just didn't think there were "other really satisfactory uses of the troops in Guatemala...Bissell and Kennedy were talking right past each other.

Over the next two months Bundy thought he was doing his job, playing gatekeeper to the oval Office. On February 18, Bundy handed Kennedy two memos, one from the CIA's Bissell and another from Thomas C. Mann, assistant secretary of state for Latin America. "Bissell and Mann are the real antagonists at the staff level," Bundy wrote in a cover note to the president. "Since I think you lean to Mann's view, I have put Bissell on top." Bundy then told the president that he thought the "gloomier parts of both papers are right....The one hope I see is in an early — even if thin — recognition of a rival regime." Bundy wanted to stall for time, recognize a government-in-exile, impose a "full trade embargo against Castro," and then, "conceivably, we could hold back Bissell's battalion for about three months and even build it up somewhat. And when it did go in, the color of civil war would be quite a lot stronger."

The Bissell-Mann debate came down to the fact that Mann thought it highly unlikely that the invasion would spark a popular uprising, and without such a rebellion, Mann thought the invasion force would be doomed. Bissell responded that in the absence of a general revolt, the invasion force could be sustained almost indefinitely as a guerrilla force. Kennedy read the Mann and Bissell memos, but he again decided, to postpone a decision on whether to authorize the invasion. In retrospect, Bundy clearly should have used Mann's dissent memo to press for a full-dress debate. Bissell later told the historian Piero Gleijeses that he had never seen the Mann memo. Mann later said of his memo, "It was like a stone falling in water." Eventually, even Mann would decide that his dissent had gone far enough, and he voted to proceed with the operation.

By March 11, when Bissell gave another briefing to the president, Kennedy persuaded himself that he had to approve some kind of operation involving the landing of "an appropriate number of patriotic Cubans to return to their homeland. The CIA-backed force of Cuban exiles was a fact which would not go away, Allen Dulles told him. As Bundy later put it in a postmortem, the president was being told that the Cuban force had to leave Guatemala in the near future. Politics was a major factor. If the operation was canceled, Republicans would have blamed "this antsy-pantsy bunch of liberals....Saying no would have brought all the hawks out of the woodwork."

So for domestic political reasons, Kennedy allowed the CIA to refine its covert plan to ease the exile army into Cuba. As designed by Bissell, Operation Zapata would be executed without any overt involvement of U.S. military forces. The brigade of Cuban exiles would seize a beachhead at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba's southern coast and establish a defensive perimeter that would include control of a local airstrip. A CIA-run air strike from planes based in Guatemala could then be attributed to defectors from the Cuban air force. Within days the exiles would be launching air strikes all over Cuba from the Bay of Pigs airstrip, creating chaos throu

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