Richard Bissell, Jr., with Jonathan E. Lewis and Francis T. Pudlo, Reflections of a Cold Warrior (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996)
The late Richard Bissell was a career intelligence officer known for his most colossal failure-the management of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. At the time he had already devoted nearly a quarter century to government service, yet the wider public first became aware of him only as he made his inglorious exit through the side door. As befits a serious professional, over the next thirty years Bissell maintained a discreet silence regarding the tumultuous events in which he had played a part. Only in death has he broken his silence, in this case with the joint assistance of a young historian and his former secretary.
Three aspects of Reflections of a Cold Warrior immediately impress themselves on the reader. The first is the tone-which in spite of the dramatic subject matter manages to be consistently flat, gray, clinical, and self-effacing. The style faithfully reflects the man: Bissell was no sensational cloak-and-dagger spy given to bouts of self-dramatization ˆ la Howard Hunt, but a career security bureaucrat who understood the importance of discretion, teamwork, and prudent assessment.
The second impression one gets is that of an absolute minimum of introspection. "Never apologize, never explain" might well have been his motto, and while at times his evaluation of some controversial episodes in which he was involved might invite more extended comment, this taciturnity, one feels, is what one really wants in an intelligence professional. Better that, at least, than someone who feels he knows better than our elected officials. There is no evidence here, pace the late Senator Frank Church, of a rogue elephant loose in the corridors of our intelligence establishment.
Finally, this is a book about someone who belonged to the foreign policy establishment when we really had one-that interlocking directorate of graduates of New England "prep schools" and Ivy League colleges who moved in and out of government, all the while maintaining a remarkable sense of esprit and public service. Time and history have not on the whole dealt kindly with these people. No doubt they suffered from a certain smugness and a provincialism of their own, and may even have occasionally abused class and tribal loyalties. They were not always right on the issues. But how refreshingly idealistic they seem compared to those men and women on the make who have flourished in our more recent anti-elitist age!
Bissell was utterly emblematic of this class: the scion of a Connecticut Republican family, after Groton and Yale (where his classmates included Max Millikan and Eugene Rostow) he became a junior member of the economics department at the latter institution, teaching people like Walt Rostow, McGeorge and William Bundy, and Kingman Brewster. He spent the war years in Washington working for the Commerce Department and the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion. In the immediate postwar period he worked on the Marshall Plan before returning to private life, this time as an officer at the Ford Foundation.
Even while working outside of government Bissell was recalled for regular consultations, and it was in this context that Allen Dulles recruited him early in 1953 as his special assistant at the (then new) Central Intelligence Agency. Once inside, he discovered that our intelligence services were knee-deep in a conspiracy to unseat Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, whose evident closeness to the local Communist Party profoundly disturbed the Eisenhower administration. In retrospect, Bissell admits that the threat in Guatemala "may have been less . . . than it appeared at the time", and he goes on to say that "it is perfectly arguable that U.S. interests" there "over the years might have been better served if Arbenz had remained in power", either to be thrown out by his own people or discredited by ineptitude, corruption, or other forms of malfeasance.
With the wisdom of hindsight, many would regard both remarks as breathtaking understatements-though not blots on the CIA alone. Bissell reminds us that his mandate was merely to dislodge an unfriendly regime; it was not the responsibility of the CIA but of other government agencies to follow through with providing Guatemala a more satisfactory alternative. More's the pity that they didn't see it that way. On the other hand, he freely concedes that easy victory against Arbenz eventually exacted a higher price than official Washington realized at the time. The celerity with which the Guatemalan president was dislodged encouraged the entire national security establishment in Washington to overestimate the potential of covert warfare. "For many policymakers outside the CIA", Bissell writes, it "became a quick fix, an easy way to deal with hostile foreign leaders and renegade nation-states." This was an illusion that came back to haunt successive administrations elsewhere, particularly in Latin America.
Shortly after the Arbenz episode, Bissell was assigned to a unit that eventually developed and supervised flights of the U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. Insofar as the technical aspects of this subject are concerned, the account is admirable for its lucidity and completeness. But it is even more revealing when it comes to the politics involved. To a degree perhaps unmatched by any civilian chief of state before or since, President Eisenhower successfully maintained civilian control over a vital intelligence project, this despite relentless challenges from the Air Force, backed by its allies in Congress.
Bissell also reveals that Eisenhower saw the U-2 as fulfilling a function in domestic politics as well as foreign policy. "If information brought back from the flights revealed that Soviet capabilities remained limited", the President could "use it in the fight against increased defense spending." Through U-2 surveillance, the White House learned that there was neither a missile gap nor a bomber gap (contrary to what Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy claimed during the 1960 presidential campaign), partly as a result of which Eisenhower was able to leave office with his budget in surplus.
It was during Bissell's watch that U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union and eventually produced for display in a Moscow courtroom. This was, of course, the biggest single intelligence disaster of the Eisenhower administration, leading to the dramatic collapse of a Paris summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The best explanation Bissell can provide is that "we felt that there was very little chance that a pilot would be shot down and live." In another one of his breathtaking understatements, he simply adds "we were not well-prepared for what happened."
By the time John F. Kennedy took office in 1961 the Agency was already at work on what became the Bay of Pigs invasion. This section of the book will probably hold the greatest interest for readers, though some of what Bissell reveals has already been covered by others, notably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Peter Wyden. Evidently, the Cuban affair was intended to replicate the Agency's success in Guatemala: An exile force would land, establish a beachhead, and with the aid of radio broadcasts, leaflets, and general panic, invite the Cuban military and other functionaries to abandon their support of the Castro regime. This would also be the signal for anti-government elements across the island to declare their existence and join forces with the invaders.
Just before his departure from office, President Eisenhower was sentient enough to pose the following question to the Agency: "What are the feasible means of helping to mobilize a stronger invasion force so that a failure in the first effort would not wipe out the whole project?" The query received no immediate answer and was never again posed, possibly because the Agency task force encouraged or allowed Eisenhower's successor and his advisers "to believe that in the event of uncontainable pressure at the beachhead the brigade could retire and thereby protect the guerrilla option." Whether the "guerrilla option" was really feasible was apparently never thoroughly explored, possibly to avoid uncomfortable discovery that it was not.
As anyone who has worked in either the military, business, or government knows, big projects tend to acquire a life (and eventually, a justification) of their own. Within government, agencies strive not infrequently to be on both sides of a divisive question so that they will not be caught short no matter what happens. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, nobody seems to have been sure that the plan would have worked, but no one would say so forthrightly. For example, the Joint Chiefs of Staff produced a report that accurately predicted that loss of surprise "could lead to the destruction of all or part of the invasion force." Yet, it conceded, the chance of maintaining secrecy in Miami's gossip and rumor-prone Cuban community was next to zero. Significantly, however, this point was left out of the Executive Summary, whose optimism poorly reflected the whole document's actual contents.
It is generally conceded today that to have succeeded at the Bay of Pigs a series of air strikes would have been needed to take out the microwave radio links that constituted the island's basic communications network and also carried much of Castro's military traffic. But as planning for the invasion went forward, President Kennedy continually reduced the number of such strikes so as to provide plausible deniability of U.S. involvement in the affair. The President's anxiety was fed by pleas from Secretary of State Dean Rusk and UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, both of whom were understandably reluctant to face the diplomatic consequences.
As a result, Kennedy repeatedly asked his aides whether the air strikes were really necessary at all. During those weeks Bissell's greatest fear was that he would be forced to say, "Mr. President, this operation might as well be made open because the role of the United States certainly cannot be hidden." Fortunately for him, that moment never arrived. Instead, Kennedy split the difference, ordering just enough air strikes to show our hand, but far fewer than required to make a military difference. With his communications network largely intact, Castro was able to move troops to the invasion sight much earlier than anticipated, effectively eliminating the possibility that a rebel beachhead would be established.
In retrospect, Bissell is still not certain that the air strikes alone would have been sufficient to guarantee success. But in yet another example of his penchant for extraordinary understatement, he writes that "there would have been a significant difference between flying eight sorties and close to forty." Perhaps the final word on the matter comes best from his chief, Allen Dulles, whom he quotes from a hitherto unpublished document: "Great actions require great determination. . . . One never succeeds unless there is a determination to succeed", which necessitates "a willingness to face some unpleasant political repercussions."
Bissell left the Agency just as its reputation for infallibility was crumbling. Still ahead lay disasters in Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, and one in Iraq that required massive military action to repair. But to say that intelligence professionals and the White House can seriously err in the use of covert action is not to say-in Bissell's view at least-that our policies can somehow be made foolproof by submitting them to legislative oversight. Such oversight, he reminds us, always existed even in the heyday of the Cold War, though in those days the appropriate congressional committees were only briefed in a very general fashion. More to the point, with the exponential increase in the size of the staffs of the House and Senate, and their increasing tendency to leak sensitive materials to the press, one might as well abandon covert action as an option altogether. Whether our national interests will ultimately and always be served by such an abandonment is, of course, another matter.
Despite its unexciting prose and tendency to flatten what must have been far more dramatic events, Recollections of a Cold Warrior is informative and stimulating. It shows us where we have been and poses some hard questions on where we might wish to go in the future. It is both a fitting memorial and a legacy worthy of the conscientious public servant who has bequeathed it to us.Essay Types: Book Review