Crazy over Cuba

Crazy over Cuba

Mini Teaser: As this important volume demonstrates,  the overriding requirement of the era was not guts but wisdom. On that score, the Kennedys and their lieutenants flunked.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, vol. X (Cuba, 1961-1962) (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), 1120 pages, $57.

Within weeks of coming to power in January 1961, the administration of John F. Kennedy had "changed the face of American foreign policy." Such at least was the view of presidential special assistant, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Indeed, according to Schlesinger, the hallmarks of the new administration--"the soberness of style, the absence of Cold War clichés, the lack of self-righteousness and sermonizing, the impressive combination of reasonableness and firmness, the generosity to new ideas, the dedication to social progress, the tough-minded idealism of purpose"--had transformed America's image abroad. Having awakened from the long national nightmare of the Eisenhower era, the United States was "emerging again as a great, mature, and liberal nation."

Schlesinger drafted this smarmy memo to his boss on April 10, 1961. Precisely one week later, in an effort conceived, organized, and directed by the United States, some 1,500 Cuban exiles, heavily armed if indifferently trained and led, splashed ashore at the Bay of Pigs. The initial aim of this operation was to secure a lodgment on Cuba's southern coast. But the U.S. officials who had devised Operation Bumpy Road had persuaded themselves that a successful landing would detonate a popular uprising leading to the overthrow of Fidel Castro's communist regime.

The operation collapsed almost as quickly as it began. Within hours, the exile force was fighting for its life. Unwilling to order nearby U.S. naval forces into the fray--and thereby abandon the pretense that the invasion was a Cuban enterprise--Kennedy instead cut his losses. Two days after it had begun, Bumpy Road reached an abrupt dead-end. All but twenty-six of the invaders were killed, wounded, missing, or captured, a casualty rate of some 98 percent. Despite continuing official insistence that the United States was uninvolved, American fingerprints were all over the operation. The embarrassing defeat left the new administration looking neither great nor mature nor liberal.

Early chroniclers of Camelot insisted that this debacle was not without redeeming features. According to Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy himself "would be grateful that he had learned so many major lessons" as a result of the Bay of Pigs, and "at so relatively small and temporary a cost." In this view, humiliation provided JFK with a crash course in statesmanship. Thus, Professor Schlesinger would assert that "no one can doubt that failure in Cuba in 1961 contributed to success in Cuba in 1962." In short, the Bay of Pigs steeled Kennedy for the supreme crisis when he would save mankind from Armageddon.

If less preoccupied with burnishing the reputation of the martyred President, more recent accounts have tacitly endorsed this evaluation. The plaintive question that Kennedy himself posed in the immediate aftermath of failure--"How could I have been so stupid?"--has defined the research agenda. Writers intent on documenting American stupidity have unearthed an abundance of evidence: a half-baked operational plan based on preposterously optimistic assumptions and faulty intelligence; a decision-making process within the executive branch that was sloppy and amateurish; incompetence, gross negligence, and dishonesty in the national security bureaucracy; and eleventh-hour presidential meddling in tactical details that transformed a long-shot into a sure loser. This focus on operational miscalculation has left intact the inclination to view the Bay of Pigs simultaneously as an anomaly (not a true reflection of American statecraft in the Kennedy era) and as an essential precursor (the President emerging stronger and wiser) to the heroics that would follow.

The great virtue of this recent addition to the Foreign Relations series is that it places the Bay of Pigs in an altogether different context. The materials reprinted in this collection span the period from January 1961, when the outgoing Eisenhower administration severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, until September 1962, on the very eve of the missile crisis. To be sure, the 443 documents, many culled from the files of the Central Intelligence Agency, illustrate in excruciating detail the myriad flaws in the planning and execution of Bumpy Road. But this collection demolishes the notion that the chief legacy of misjudgment in April 1961 was an acumen that a chastened President would subsequently put to good use in October 1962. On the contrary, the setback resulting from Kennedy's reckless approval of Bumpy Road prompted greater recklessness still. It led directly to Operation Mongoose, the administration's frenetic effort to even the score with Castro--of which more below. Masterminded by the President's closest advisers, notably his brother Robert, Mongoose repeated the errors that had led to Bumpy Road and added several more for good measure.

In one sense, this volume reveals little in the way of startling new discoveries. Existing accounts by Trumbull Higgins, Lucien S. Vandenbroucke, and Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali have used to good effect many of the materials it contains. Yet to wade through the minutes and memoranda in their entirety, retracing with minimal intrusion by intermediaries the evolution of American policy, is to gain a heightened appreciation for the pathologies that by the 1960s pervaded the national security apparatus.

With regard to the Bay of Pigs itself, the record shows clearly that the CIA played the President for a sucker. In March 1960, Kennedy's predecessor ordered the agency to develop plans to overthrow Castro. Over the next year, what began as a small covert program metastasized. The original low-profile concept of guerrilla infiltration into the Cuban interior evolved into a blueprint for conventional war: an amphibious assault by a brigade equipped with tanks and other heavy weapons and supported by its own air force. Along the way, the training of this force under U.S. auspices at a "secret" base in Central America became front-page news. Earnest professions that anti-Castro activities were exclusively the handiwork of freedom-loving Cubans fooled no one: Americans were calling all the shots. Indeed, CIA operatives had "reduced the exiled [Cuban] leaders to the status of puppets", treating them "as incompetent children whom the Americans are going to rescue for reasons of their own."

Rather than boosting its prospects for success, expanding the plan only magnified the consequences of failure. Yet as Mark Falcoff has correctly observed, CIA officials like Deputy Director Richard M. Bissell, Jr.--puffed up by earlier successes in Guatemala and Iran--were not about to acknowledge that unseating Castro might prove to be a risky proposition. Rather than warn the new President of the difficulties inherent in the invasion and thereby invite outright cancellation, Bissell pressed Kennedy to give the go-ahead. To allay presidential misgivings, Bissell agreed to a host of last-minute adjustments to make the operation less "spectacular": shifting the beachhead away from population centers, scheduling the landing during hours of darkness, and curtailing air support. These modifications demolished whatever remnant of tactical integrity the plan had retained. By his own account, Bissell concealed their significance from the President.

Bissell engaged in this deception expecting that one of three outcomes would result. The preferred (if least likely) possibility was that the invaders might get lucky. Once ashore, some portion of the exile force might survive--if not inspiring a popular uprising, at least dispersing into the interior to provide the basis of an anti-Castro opposition that might mature over time. The second possibility was that the imminent prospect of losing the exile force on the beaches would prod the President into approving the use of U.S. forces--Bumpy Road, in essence, serving as a wedge that would open the way for an outright takeover of the island. The third possibility was that having launched the exile operation the United States would simply let it fail. Were that to happen, the fact that the President had been personally involved in the actual planning would reduce the CIA's own exposure; tarred with responsibility for the outcome, Kennedy would cooperate with damage control efforts, minimizing the negative fallout for all concerned.

Why did Kennedy fall into this trap? The President was seduced by several considerations. First, the CIA insisted that having gone so far, the United States could not now turn back and simply demobilize the force. Let loose in Miami, the disappointed exiles would be sure to talk. Critics at home and abroad would view Kennedy's decision to scrap the invasion as evidence of faintheartedness--this from a President who had vowed on the campaign trail to get tough on Castro. Second was the view, pervading the administration, that prospects for deposing Castro were fleeting. U.S. officials accepted without question comforting reports--almost certainly bogus--that popular enthusiasm for the Cuban revolution was dwindling. According to intelligence estimates, only 20 percent of the Cuban people supported Castro. Yet these same officials also persuaded themselves that Castro was becoming stronger with each passing day--hence, the imperative of acting quickly, using the resources at hand. A third factor leading Kennedy astray was that virtually none of his senior advisers, whether those in his own inner circle or those inherited from Eisenhower, had the wit or confidence to challenge the premises of the CIA plan. Nor did they find fault with the continuous operational tinkering that occurred during the final weeks leading up to the actual invasion.

In an episode in which few distinguished themselves, the performance of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) was especially egregious. The President repeatedly asked his military advisers to assess the evolving CIA plan. But when it came to Castro the Joint Chiefs were themselves not exactly disinterested observers. In the new administration's first week, they had gratuitously announced their belief that "the primary objective of the United States in Cuba should be the speedy overthrow of the Castro Government." Despite explicit warnings from their own subordinates, the Joint Chiefs breezily signed off on Bumpy Road.

Defeat, Kennedy famously observed, is an orphan. When the invasion failed, the brass were quick to absolve themselves of responsibility. General David Shoup, commandant of the Marine Corps, was explicit. On May 8, 1961 he testified that, "I don't feel that I or the other Joint Chiefs had any responsibility for the success of this plan." Asked where the President might turn for military advice on such matters, Shoup responded, "I would have to presume that in accordance with his title as Commander in Chief he would be thinking about the military part." Scholars searching for the roots of civil-military discord in Vietnam, take note.

Fixating on operational detail, neither Kennedy nor his advisers ever paused to ask larger questions: What sort of threat did Castro pose to U.S. security interests? What was the range of options available for addressing that threat? What were the risks involved? What were the costs?

Even in the aftermath of disaster, administration officials studiously avoided those questions. Thus, the administration's internal investigation of the Bay of Pigs--chaired by General Maxwell Taylor, with the President's brother, the director of central intelligence, and the chief of naval operations as members--was more an exercise in deflecting criticism than in reaching truth. The principal conclusion of this bureaucratic kabuki dance? Things went awry because the exile force lacked sufficient ammunition.

The real "lesson" derived from the failure of Bumpy Road was that half-measures led only to disaster. Henceforth the gloves would come off. As early as April 19 Robert Kennedy was insisting that "the time has come for a showdown" over Cuba. A day later Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara directed the JCS to develop plans to overthrow Castro using U.S. forces. This inspired the Air Force to suggest in early May "that the Cuban problem be resolved through rather heavy and perhaps indiscriminate bombardment." Liberals in the Kennedy camp argued for an indirect approach: to frustrate Castro's efforts to export his revolution throughout the region, the United States should beat him to the punch. Thus, recommended Richard N. Goodwin, assistant special counsel to the President, while subverting the Castro regime the United States should also "consider means of precipitating the fall of Trujillo and Duvalier and possibly Somoza" as well.

But in the confused and panicky aftermath of Bumpy Road, one voice dominated: Robert Kennedy's. For the attorney general, not strategy but action mattered most. In a handwritten note to the President on November 7, he wrote, "My idea is to stir things up on [the] island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder, run & operated by Cubans themselves with every group but Batistaites & Communists." Whether such a program would succeed in overthrowing Castro remained to be seen, "but we have nothing to lose in my estimate."

This determination to "stir things up" became the genesis of Operation Mongoose, organized in November 1961. The Kennedy brothers believed that at the Bay of Pigs so-called experts in the permanent government had duped the President. Mongoose was meant as payback, not just for Castro but for those who had led JFK astray. It would enable the White House to circumvent established bureaucratic channels. Robert Kennedy would provide energizing force. Brigadier General Edward Lansdale, legendary veteran of clandestine adventures in the 1950s, would serve as chief of operations.

From the outset, Mongoose was bravado and can-do swagger masquerading as policy. "We are in a combat situation", Lansdale declared in January 1962. Working on a crash basis, he flogged into existence an ambitious effort to "help the Cubans overthrow the Communist regime from within Cuba and institute a new government with which the United States can live in peace." The resulting plan distributed among various executive departments and agencies thirty-two specific tasks, running the gamut from "inducing failures in food crops" and picking targets for sabotage to recruiting defectors and devising "songs, symbols, [and] propaganda themes" to boost the morale of an all but nonexistent indigenous resistance. According to Lansdale, accomplishing this menu of tasks would culminate with Castro's overthrow. The target date for completion: October 1962.

The manic activity that followed included a pronounced element of opera bouffe. The slogan devised to inspire the Cuban opposition (task 27) was "Guasano Libre", loosely translated by one unimpressed State Department official as "worms of the world unite." Concerted efforts by the Defense Department to induce Cuban exiles to enlist in U.S. armed forces (task 32) yielded a meager total of 142 recruits. Hundreds more had expressed interest only to be rejected on "moral and security grounds." The explanation for this puzzling problem? Most of the would-be warriors, reported McNamara in September, had "admitted histories of sexual deviation."

Within weeks, it became evident that prospects for fomenting an uprising inside Cuba were remote and that "final success will require decisive U.S. military intervention." In short, sabotage, harassment, propagandizing, economic warfare, and assassination--for by the summer of 1962 at the latest that had become part of the mix--would at best provide a pretext for American invasion.

Disappointment did not persuade the administration to reassess its determination to depose Castro. Nor is there evidence that it abandoned Lansdale's timetable. Rather, by August 1962 Mongoose had undergone a metamorphosis. Rather than itself serve as the instrument of decision, it became a preliminary step, paving the way for "the instantaneous commitment of sufficient armed forces to occupy the country, destroy the regime, free the people, and establish in Cuba a peaceful country"--in other words a large-scale invasion by the United States. Indeed, the historian James G. Hershberg has suggested that Kennedy may have been preparing such an operation in October 1962, an intervention pre-empted by the onset of the missile crisis. The information in this volume, which includes detailed contingency planning, is consistent with but does not fully confirm that hypothesis.

One thing the documents do make abundantly clear: obsessed with getting Castro, U.S. officials were oblivious to developments that might cast doubts on the wisdom of so doing. Hence the determination throughout the summer of 1962 to find a benign explanation for the rapidly increasing flow of Soviet military equipment and advisers into Cuba. In this regard, one joint CIA-State Department estimate had stated categorically in May 1961 that "the Bloc will not supply offensive type missiles nor [sic] nuclear weapons" to Cuba. For his part, Schlesinger expressed confidence in August 1962 that any weapons entering in Cuba would necessarily be defensive since "a launching pad directed against the United States would be too blatant a provocation."

Crazy over Cuba, the Kennedys and their lieutenants could not conceive that their own actions over the preceding year and a half might constitute in the eyes of their adversaries a huge provocation--and that such a provocation might subject the nation to grave danger.
Robert McNamara has since confessed that "we were hysterical" about Cuba. By "we" McNamara presumably means Kennedy's national security team. Our very first impression of that team remains indelibly etched in memory. They were all brilliant: acclaimed scholars (from Harvard!), chief executives of major corporations and foundations, highly decorated military officers, seasoned intelligence professionals, above all the engaging and charismatic politician who was their leader. That mere citizens, unschooled in the intricacies of statecraft, should defer to such sophisticates in matters of national security seemed entirely appropriate.

Arguably, that deference--based on the presumption that foreign policy ought to be the exclusive preserve of elites--constitutes the real bedrock of bipartisanship both during and after the Cold War. Sometime after 1945, so the story goes, foreign policy moved beyond the ken of the average American (whose parochial inclinations tended dangerously toward isolationism anyway). Best to entrust the nation's well-being to those who know better.

Yet as this remarkable collection of documents clearly shows, hysteria over Cuba--compounded by the previous twenty years of unrelieved crisis--elicited from that elite policies that were naive, foolish, at times bizarre, and ultimately irresponsible. Viewed through the prism of its Cuba policy, the Kennedy administration is notable not for the soberness of style and tough-minded idealism that Professor Schlesinger claimed to detect. Rather, its distinguishing characteristics were arrogance, myopia, lemming-like conformity, and blind zealotry.

By mid-September 1962, the flow of Soviet arms into Cuba had become too blatant to ignore. Overflights of the island using U-2 spy planes provided imagery critical to assessing the situation. Dean Rusk was becoming increasingly nervous about the hazards that those flights entailed. At a meeting convened to discuss Rusk's concerns, Robert Kennedy taunted the secretary of state, "What's the matter, Dean? No guts?"

History does not record Rusk's reply. As this important volume demonstrates, however, the overriding requirement of the era was not guts but wisdom. On that score, the Kennedys and their lieutenants flunked.

Essay Types: Book Review