Bay of Pigs, pt. 2: Invasion and Aftermath
by Joe Rubenstein
Joe Rubenstein: Greetings to you. Joe Rubenstein here, producer and host of Real Time 1960s. I want to thank you very much for joining me today for Episode 10 of this portal into the past, where I document and reflect on the ‘60s, in real time, with both podcasts and our daily timeline, which features posts, video, the best images I can possibly find of what happened exactly 60 years ago. And that timeline, along with all our podcasts, social media links, contact info, so you can reach me directly with your feedback, which I strongly encourage you to do, all that can be found on our website, realtime1960s.com.
Our topic remains the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. Last time, I covered a precursor and model for that invasion, a coup in Guatemala in ‘54, orchestrated by the CIA. I talked about the growing antagonism between the U.S. and the Castro regime, which led to the initial invasion plan in 1959. I explained how the Cuban situation affected the 1960 presidential campaign. Finally, I examined the pressure on President Kennedy, from the moment he took office, to approve this invasion plan.
So, that’s a lightning review of part one, to which there’s a link in today’s show notes. That was called "Planning Stages," where I presented the first five of my top ten facts about the Bay of Pigs. Today's episode is called "Invasion and Aftermath.” So, Bay of Pigs, facts six thru ten, right now. [Music]
All right, let’s roll, fact number six. The Bay of Pigs invasion was botched from the beginning -- before the beginning, really. Last-minute changes by President Kennedy, which we’ll get to, had crippled it beyond repair. But the opening gambit was an attack from the air at 6 a.m. on Saturday, April 15th, 1961 -- just 3 days after the Soviets had launched the first man ever into space.
And this strike on three Cuban airfields by American B-26 bombers falsely painted over with Cuban markings was a model of ineptitude. At one of the airfields, the attackers mistakenly destroyed only non-operational aircraft. Another attacker had to bail out because of low fuel. A third was taken out by anti-aircraft fire. So in the end, the bombers only destroyed five of Castro’s three dozen combat planes, instantly putting the operation in mortal peril.
Remember, a huge factor in the success of the World War II D-Day invasion -- much larger scale, obviously, but it was an amphibious invasion -- was that the Allies had air supremacy in Western Europe by the spring of ’44, so our landing forces at Normandy were basically unchallenged by the Luftwaffe. But Castro, having maintained air supremacy, immediately mobilized his militia of 200,000 men, and he also, by the way, rounded up and detained about 100,000 Cubans thought to have even the slightest anti-Castro sentiments, thus dealing a fatal blow to any chance of an island-wide, sympathetic rebellion.
So, after this initial air strike but before the invaders hit the beach, controversy at the U.N., where Cuban Foreign Minister Raul Roa directly accused the U.S. of attacking Cuba, which Adlai Stevenson, our Ambassador there -- who was completely in the dark about U.S. involvement, although he should have suspected it -- Stevenson denied Roa’s charges, and he would soon be deeply embarrassed to learn that he had unwittingly stated a falsehood. More on that later.
The next day, just after midnight on April 17th, the invasion forces landed at the Bay of Pigs and were pretty much dead on arrival -- cut to pieces from the air. Castro’s planes also sank two ships that were carrying food, medical supplies, and ammunition for the exiles. Another problem was that Kennedy, practically at the last minute, had changed the landing site. The original site was not the Bay of Pigs; it was a town called Trinidad, which had access routes into the mountains. But Kennedy thought the Bay of Pigs was less conspicuous. His constant refrain was that the invasion should not be “too noisy.”
Unfortunately, nobody bothered to research the topography of this new location, or they would have learned that there were treacherous coral reefs in the shallow waters at the Bay of Pigs which greatly impeded the progress of the landing craft and destroyed two boats entirely. They also would have learned that, unlike Trinidad, the Bay of Pigs had no escape routes into the mountains, so the invaders were caught in a trap.
And Kennedy, ensconced with Jackie at his country retreat in Virginia, listened with mounting horror to progress reports over the phone from Richard Bissell -- the CIA man in charge of the operation -- at which point, this previously gung-ho president abruptly changed course and refused all requests for further military support.
So Kennedy, almost in a panic state, flew back to Washington, where Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, met him at the White House. And Burke said, “Look, Mr. President, if you don’t want to use warplanes, okay. Why don’t you just let us use a single destroyer’s guns to help out this brigade?” And Kennedy’s almost psychotic response was, “I don’t want the United States involved in this.” And Burke, stating the painfully obvious, said, “Hell, Mr. President, we are involved.” But Kennedy would not be moved.
So, three days after the first shots were fired, the invasion was done. One hundred and eighteen exiles died on the beach, twelve hundred taken prisoner -- many would face firing squads later -- and on the Cuban side, roughly two thousand casualties. But even so, Castro, against all odds, had achieved total victory over the greatest military power in the world. In 72 hours, the U.S. had surrendered moral high ground in the Cold War; had lost prestige worldwide, while giving Communist revolutionaries everywhere cause for both celebration and renewed resolve; and had strengthened Castro’s hand immeasurably while at the same time giving him reason to seek additional military and economic aid from the Soviet Union, including nuclear missiles.
And Khrushchev, on the heels of his space victory, could hardly believe his good luck. I mean, the Bay of Pigs was an absolute gift. But he was also shocked -- not by the invasion itself, that kind of thing he understood very well, and the Soviets had conducted similar expeditions. But the dithering, you know, the indecision -- that’s what he couldn’t wrap his mind around. The communists were always big on seeing things through, body count be damned, you know? Just call them counterrevolutionaries, dig a hole, and move on.
But the Bay of Pigs confirmed a suspicion, already held by Khrushchev, that Kennedy was a weak, spoiled, rich kid in over his head. Now, he took that conclusion too far and ended up underestimating Kennedy’s resolve, which led to Khrushchev’s loss of face in the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year which led, in turn, to his ouster in 1964. But here, in the spring of ’61, this proposed Vienna Summit with Kennedy in June, about which Khrushchev had only been lukewarm prior to the space launch and the Bay of Pigs, now looked like it might be kind of fun.
And in Vienna, Khrushchev was all over an out-of-balance, physically compromised JFK like a pit bull on a poodle. Kennedy had reinjured his perpetually bad back at a tree-planting ceremony in Ottawa two weeks before the summit. So, he was in excruciating pain and using narcotics. But he also ignored advice not to debate ideology with Khrushchev -- big mistake. Khrushchev, who’d been having those debates since Kennedy was a toddler, just ran circles around him.
And after that summit, James Reston, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, had an off-the-record, private meeting with JFK at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Vienna. And Reston said, “How was it?” And Kennedy just kind of sank into the sofa, and he said, “Worst thing in my life. He savaged me.”
And Khrushchev later said in his autobiography, “I hadn’t meant to upset him; I would have liked very much for us to part in a different mood. But there was nothing I could do to help him. As one human being toward another, I felt bad about his disappointment, but politics is a merciless business.”
Okay, fact number seven. You know, it can be interesting to look back and see who stood where as history unfolded. I was just reading a remark made by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in June of 1961 in support of the Freedom Rides. That was a brand-new form of civil rights activism at that time that was testing segregated bus terminals in the South and encountering ferocious opposition. Rockefeller said, “The Freedom Riders are both admirable and evidence of vitality in our system.” Which may not sound like much, but this is at a time when the overwhelming majority of politicians were either silent on the topic or negative.
Former President Truman, for example, that same week said, “The Freedom Riders stir up trouble. They ought to attend to their own business and work through the people who are interested in their welfare in an orderly, legal manner.” So, pretty patronizing. And of course, no criticism at all from Truman of the firebombing of one the Freedom Rider buses in Alabama. And then, many of the Riders, black and white, male and female, were badly beaten at the Montgomery terminal while the police just sat on their hands.
John Seigenthaler, who was a colleague and very close friend of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was there in Montgomery that day. And when he tried to rescue a female Freedom Rider from the mob, he was hit behind the ear with a metal pipe and knocked unconscious. And then he lay there for 25 minutes before a police car finally took him to the hospital. A reporter asked Montgomery Police Commissioner L.B. Sullivan why an ambulance was not called for Seigenthaler, who was a high-up figure in the federal government. And Sullivan’s straight-faced reply: “Every white ambulance in town reports that their vehicles have broken down.” So, there you go.
But with the Bay of Pigs, there were a few in the government and some who had previously held government posts who advised against the invasion. So, let’s start with Dean Acheson, secretary of state under Truman, who held no government post in 1961, but he was someone that Kennedy respected.
On April 7th, Acheson was summoned to a meeting with the President, who took him out to the Rose Garden and said, “Listen, what do you know about this Cuba proposal?” Acheson said he didn’t know there was a Cuba proposal. So Kennedy outlined the plan, the amphibious landing of 1,500 Cuban exiles, et cetera. Acheson was shocked, and he said, “Mr. President, I really hope you aren’t serious about such a crazy scheme. I don’t have to phone Price Waterhouse” -- that’s a major accounting firm -- “to determine that your 1,500 exiles are no match for Castro’s 25,000 Cubans.” And after that meeting, Acheson later said that he instantly forgot the whole thing, the plan just seemed so ridiculous. But then, after it happened and failed as he’d predicted, Acheson gave a talk at the Foreign Service Institute in D.C., where he described President Kennedy as “a gifted young amateur practicing with a boomerang who had knocked himself out.” So, once that got back to the White House, no more consultations.
Actually, after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy, who complained, with some justification, that he’d been given bad advice, increasingly relied on one man he knew he could trust: his brother, Robert Kennedy, who had even less foreign policy experience than he did -- zero, in fact. But Robert Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs, essentially became the vice president -- you could even say co-president. And the truth is his input was actually pretty sound in a number of cases. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, Robert Kennedy was a voice of moderation when some were advocating a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union.
Another interesting byproduct of the Bay of Pigs was the White House taping system, which Kennedy had installed in the spring of 1962. He recorded both meetings and phone calls, many of which you can hear on YouTube. Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s personal secretary, later said that Kennedy had been enraged that certain advisors who had supported the invasion later claimed to have opposed it. So, he wanted to get people on the record. And that taping system was later used by Johnson, as well; those calls are often fascinating. And of course, that system was a critical element in the destruction of Richard Nixon’s presidency. So, you could almost say that Kennedy defeated Nixon twice, once from beyond the grave.
Another dissenting voice on Cuba was Chip Bohlen, who was a seasoned diplomat working in the State Department in ’61. Bohlen told JFK that he could not recall a single case in history when refugees returned and successfully overthrew a revolutionary regime, especially before that revolution had used up its initial capital. So, Bohlen was a no.
Adlai Stevenson, when he found out that he’d been made to play the fool at the U.N., he was furious and ready to quit, telling a friend, “My usefulness and credibility have been completely compromised.” And he railed against Kennedy’s “boy commandos” and stated that the “Cuban absurdity” had made him sick for a week. Ultimately, Kennedy and others convinced him to stay on. Stevenson did kind of redeem himself at the U.N. the following year during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he asked his Soviet counterpart if he denied that the USSR had placed missiles in Cuba. And then, while the Soviet ambassador squirmed, Stevenson famously said, “I am prepared to wait for an answer until Hell freezes over. I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.” So, that was pretty good.
The most articulate opponent of the Bay of Pigs invasion, in my opinion, was Arkansas Senator J.W. Fulbright. In a memo to Kennedy, Fulbright said, “To give this activity even covert support is of a piece with the hypocrisy and cynicism for which the U.S. is constantly denouncing the Soviet Union in the U.N. and elsewhere.” And Fulbright, in that memo, called Castro “a thorn in the flesh but not a dagger in the heart.”
However, there were other, more powerful voices than Fulbright’s in Kennedy’s ear: Dulles and Bissell at the CIA, the Joint Chiefs, many in the Defense Department. Also, the president’s father, Joseph Kennedy, was a big fan of the Cuban operation. Arthur Schlesinger, who was sort of the court historian/apologist of the Kennedy White House, later said that there was a definite change in the president’s attitude after Easter weekend, 1961, which Kennedy had spent in Palm Beach talking to his father for hours.
His interactions with his father, during the campaign and then the first year of his Presidency, were kept quiet because of Joe Kennedy’s terrible reputation, but they were in far closer touch then people realized. During the first year of his presidency, Kennedy would often call his father 5 or 6 times a day, until Joe Kennedy had a major stroke in December of ‘61, which he survived but caused him to lose all power of speech. But when Kennedy came back to the White House after that Easter weekend, it was clear to everyone that he was fully on board and hell-bent for leather.
Okay, fact number eight. As I said last time, the success of the coup pulled off in Guatemala in ’54, with the backing of the CIA, was the source of much optimism that the Cuban attempt would also succeed. But another possible source of that optimism was the fact that Castro was supposed to be dead when the exiles hit the beach or shortly thereafter. From the beginning, the CIA was committed to the assassination of Fidel Castro, whose personal charisma was so critical to the success of his movement. And that charisma, by the way, mostly baffled John F. Kennedy, whose personal style was almost the polar opposite. Kennedy used to say, “Why doesn’t he take off those fatigues? Doesn’t he know the war is over?” No. To the communist, the war is never over. It’s a religion of perpetual domination, which is why communists are just so awful to be around.
But certainly, a headless Cuban regime in ’61 would have been substantially easier to overthrow. So, this parallel track of assassination started in December of 1959, when Bissell asked Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, head of the Chemical Division of the CIA’s Technical Services Staff -- I love the innocent-sounding names of these divisions -- Gottlieb, a trained chemist whose nickname in the Agency was the “Black Sorcerer,” was in charge of not only the production of various lethal concoctions but experiments in mind control, using LSD and other powerful drugs on unwitting subjects. That aside, I’m sure he was a lovely man.
Things took an even darker turn in the summer of 1960, when the CIA extended one of its tentacles, in the form of an intermediary named Robert Maheu, to the mob regarding this Castro hit. Maheu, a former FBI agent who took on freelance gigs for the CIA, met with three kingpins of the Mafia: Sam Giancana, of Chicago; Giancana’s West Coast associate, John Roselli; and Santos Trafficante, former chief of the Havana underworld who’d been jailed, then expelled by Castro in ’59 and was now plying his trade in Florida. Maheu, by the way, did not tell this trio that he was working for the CIA. He portrayed himself as an advocate for a cabal of international corporations that had placed a $150,000 bounty on the head of Fidel Castro.
But money aside, these mobsters were highly motivated. Castro had wiped out their lucrative casino business in Havana along with all its ancillary businesses: liquor, nightclub entertainment, prostitution, et cetera. So, Giancana offered his support and suggested delivering poison pills to a contact of his, Juan Orta, a government official still in Cuba who had access to Castro, thus initiating the first of a staggering number of failed assassination plots, as the pills -- produced by the aforementioned Black Sorcerer, Sidney Gottlieb -- were delivered to Orta. When he got cold feet, Anthony Verona, who was the head of a group called the Cuban Exile Junta, was tapped. He too was a washout, and so it went.
There was a special Senate Committee formed in 1975, led by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, which investigated abuses by the various intelligence agencies as well as the IRS. And the Church Committee identified 8 separate attempts by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro between 1960 and 1965, by various methods: poison cigars, exploding cigars, a ballpoint pen with a hypodermic preloaded with poison, traditional Mafia-style execution, there was a plan to blow him up during a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s museum in Cuba. And character assassination plots as well, which read like something out of a bad Ian Fleming knockoff: thallium salts to destroy Castro’s beard -- shades of Samson there -- lacing his radio studio with LSD to disorient him during broadcasts and damage his public image. None of this came to fruition. So there it is, your tax dollars hard at work.
So, here’s a question: how much did Kennedy know about all this? It’s tough to say for sure. There’s no smoking gun, no tape recordings, and certainly, presidents are not in the habit of signing assassination orders. Now, during that ’75 Committee hearing, 3 members of Kennedy’s Cabinet -- Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy, JFK’s Security Advisor, all 3 of those guys went on to work for Johnson, as well -- they all denied under oath having ever heard Kennedy reference a plot to kill Castro. Take that for what it's worth, which is probably not much. Kennedy himself, in November of ’61, told New York Times reporter Tad Szulc that, for moral reasons, the U.S. must not engage in assassination. He said the same thing to Richard Goodwin, one of his speechwriters, telling Goodwin, “If we get into that kind of thing, we’ll all be targets.” Kind of ironic.
But Kennedy, like all politicians, was certainly capable of lying on matters large and small. He once told his friend Ben Bradlee, managing editor of The Washington Post, that he wasn’t a “skirt chaser,” saying, “You’re all looking to tag me with some girl, and none of you can do it, because it just isn’t there.” Hilarious.
Just a brief digression. Here’s what Larry Newman, a former Secret Service agent, said later about his experience trying to protect President Kennedy from himself, essentially: “You were on the most elite assignment in the Secret Service, and you were there watching an elevator or a door because the president was inside with two hookers. It just didn't compute. Your neighbors and everybody else thought you were risking your life, and you were actually out there to see that he’s not disturbed while he's having an interlude in the shower with two gals from 12th Avenue.”
Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who wrote a brutal takedown of the Kennedy administration called The Dark Side of Camelot, said in the epilogue to that book that, if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, Hersh thought he very likely would have been brought down by a sex scandal. There were just way too many loose ends, blackmailers coming out of the woodwork, and the press -- who knew about it, maybe not the extent of it, but definitely knew about it -- was getting a little tired of covering it up.
But getting back to what Kennedy may have known about the Castro hit, Bissell -- who, along with Allen Dulles, was forced out of the CIA by Kennedy a few months after the Bay of Pigs -- Bissell later said that Dulles almost certainly would have briefed Kennedy on the assassination plots or at least made a clear inference. Bissell said that’s not the kind of thing that the Agency would have sanctioned and pursued without presidential approval, which seems, to me, to make sense.
And George Smathers, Democrat Senator from Florida in the ‘50s and ‘60s and a close friend and kind of wingman of JFK, made two statements on this. First, in an oral history just a few months after JFK was killed, Smathers said that Kennedy had asked him in March of ’61 -- so, just before the invasion -- whether “people would be gratified if Castro were assassinated.” And then, about two decades later, Smathers told historian Michael Beschloss that Kennedy had told him that, when the invaders hit the beach, “Someone was supposed to have knocked off Castro, and there was supposed to be absolute pandemonium.”
So, nothing conclusive. But if Smathers’ recollections were accurate, then that certainly could help explain why Kennedy chose to, first, approve the invasion, and then slam the brakes once he realized that Castro was alive and well. Although there were other reasons for slamming the brakes, most prominent, Kennedy’s great fear that Khrushchev would make a countermove on West Berlin, possibly triggering nuclear war. We now know that Khrushchev had no such plans, regardless of what happened in Cuba. He would often make nuclear threats. That kind of bluster was part of his personal style, especially when he’d been drinking. But Khrushchev was not crazy, and he was in no more of a rush to blow up the world over either Cuba or Berlin than Kennedy was.
But as far as the Castro hit, that’s what we know -- or at least, what people who were there have said about Kennedy’s knowledge. As far as what I think? I mean, not a fan of historical speculation, in general, but I would say that Kennedy almost certainly did know about it. But we may never know for sure.
Okay, fact number nine. Something Kennedy did know was how much damage he’d done to himself and his new administration with this blown invasion. So, his first move afterward was to cover his right flank, and he had several high-profile, individual meetings with prominent Republicans: Governor Rockefeller, Senator Goldwater, and Nixon -- all three potential opponents in ’64 -- and then Eisenhower as well; that was the roughest.
With Nixon, Kennedy asked for his advice on what to do next with Cuba. Nixon’s recommendation was that Kennedy should find proper legal cover and go in. He said that Kennedy could justify an all-out invasion using the fig leaf that he was protecting American citizens and property as well as the Guantanamo military base. Kennedy then expressed his concern about Khrushchev possibly moving on West Berlin, to which Nixon said, “Khrushchev will prod and probe in several places at once. But if we show weakness, he’ll create crisis to take advantage of us. We should act in Cuba and Laos.” So, Nixon’s position, essentially, was that Kennedy had erred, not in giving the green light, but in not being aggressive enough -- which, as I said last time, was the exact opposite of Nixon’s public position during debates a few months earlier.
The meeting with Eisenhower at Camp David, as I said, that was the roughest. It was like a prep schooler who’d been bad-mouthing the headmaster for months had now been called in for a scolding. Eisenhower, like Nixon, was confused as to why Kennedy had withheld air cover once the exiles were on the beach. Kennedy again expressed that concern that Khrushchev would move on Berlin. And Ike basically echoed Nixon. He said, “That is exactly the opposite of what would really happen. The Soviets follow their own plans, and if they see us show weakness, that’s when they press the hardest. It’s the failure of the invasion that will embolden the Soviets to do something they would not otherwise do.” And events did kind of bear that out. There’s a direct line from the Bay of Pigs failure to Khrushchev’s belligerence in Vienna to Khrushchev’s deployment of ballistic missiles in Cuba.
Eisenhower was even more dumbfounded by Kennedy’s now-shattered fantasy that he could have somehow maintained plausible deniability about America’s involvement in the invasion. And here’s where that famous temper, which Eisenhower never showed in public, made an appearance, and there was nothing Kennedy could do but just sit there and take it.
Eisenhower said, “How could you possibly expect the world to believe that we had nothing to do with it? I mean, where did these people get the ships to go from Central America to Cuba? Where did they get the weapons? I believe, Mr. President, there is only one thing to do when you go into this kind of thing: succeed.” Which must have been especially brutal coming from this five-star general who’d been the primary architect of D-Day.
Ike was right in one sense. There’s no question that if the U.S. had brought enough military pressure to bear, Castro certainly could’ve been taken out. But there’s a flip side to that coin as well: the cost. First of all, the death toll -- especially on the Cuban side -- of a “successful” invasion and coup certainly could’ve exceeded 100,000. And beyond that critical factor is the question of whether we should be in the business of toppling foreign governments. Go back to Fulbright and his objections to the hypocrisy after American denunciations of similar acts by the Soviets.
And by the way, the suffering inflicted on the Cuban people by the Castro regime is not lost on me. But in my view, unless the U.S. is either attacked, as it was in 1941, or there’s evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that we’re facing the imminent threat of attack, you don’t do that. You don’t go around toppling foreign regimes at will, however oppressive they may be. And you don’t assassinate heads of state, however pugnacious and irritating they may be. I mean, beyond the moral question, there’s always collateral damage -- always, without fail, unforeseen consequences when you do that.
Look at Iraq a few years ago and the rise of ISIS in that region that we’d destabilized for no good reason. Or look at Afghanistan -- 20 years of nation-building, what do we got? Chaos. And I hear some people say, “Well, the second we leave, there’s going to be a bloody civil war. Wouldn’t that be terrible?” Yeah. It would be. And you know what? Afghanistan should really do something about that. So, as far as these regime-change adventures, unless our hand is forced, hard pass.
Okay, fact number ten. You would think, in the wake of this fiasco, that Kennedy’s poll numbers would’ve taken a nosedive, right? But they actually went up -- I think, for several reasons. First, a phenomenon that’s kind of gone by the wayside, here, maybe for good: national unity in the face of a crisis, even if that crisis was self-inflicted.
Second, Kennedy’s strategy of meeting with his political opponents paid dividends. Each of those Republicans, including Eisenhower, issued statements of support for the president after their meetings and kept their criticisms private, at least for the time being.
Finally, perhaps most important, Kennedy received substantial aid and comfort from the media, which did not exactly cover itself in glory in the aftermath of this episode, despite the fact that they’d been blatantly lied to by Kennedy at his April 12th press conference just prior to the invasion, when he said, “There will not under any conditions be an intervention in Cuba by U.S. armed forces. The basic issue is not between the U.S. and Cuba. It is between the Cubans themselves. And I intend to see that we adhere to that principle.” Obviously not true; he knew that the U.S. was not adhering to any such principle.
I should say, in the name of fair play, that Eisenhower also lied about the Bay of Pigs, when he said in September of ’61 that no invasion plan had been developed during his Administration. This lie was immediately refuted by an anonymous source in the Kennedy White House, possibly Kennedy himself, who told The New York Times, “I’m sorry to say the general is in error. I not only know there were plans for an invasion while he was in office, there are documents to prove it.” And indeed, there were.
But Kennedy, at the first press conference after the Bay of Pigs on April 21st, continued to stiff-arm the press. He said, in his opening statement -- I found this incredible -- he said, “I know that many of you have questions about Cuba. I made a statement on that subject yesterday afternoon.” He’s referring there to a speech that he’d delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- where no questions were taken, by the way. And it was a very bellicose speech. I'll get to that in a minute. But here, at the press conference the following day, he said, “I do not think that any useful national purpose would be served by my going further into the Cuban question this morning. I prefer to let my statement yesterday suffice for the present.” And with that, he moved on to other topics.
And in that room full of veteran reporters, all but one swallowed that with barely a grumble. The exception was Sander Vanocur of NBC, who apparently did retain some testicular function. He asked Kennedy why they could not explore the real facts behind the Bay of Pigs, to which Kennedy responded, with audibly less confidence than he’d recited that opening statement, “Because I do not believe such a discussion would benefit us during the present, difficult situation.” But that was the end of that. So, no profiles in courage in that room besides Vanocur, who was basically just left high and dry by his colleagues.
So, why is this important? Because maybe, if Kennedy had been pushed by the media at that time into a discussion of both the decision-making and the interventionist philosophy behind this failed invasion, then maybe that confrontation could have, first of all, informed the American public as to the facts, which is what journalists are paid to do. But also, maybe, if Kennedy had been pushed after the Bay of Pigs, then that could’ve paved the way for a more open discussion of a much costlier disaster, the Vietnam War, from the outset. Because Kennedy, to demonstrate strength in the Cold War after the Bay of Pigs debacle and then the Vienna debacle, immediately set his sights on Vietnam. At that speech I mentioned, the day before the post-invasion press conference, Kennedy said, “We dare not fail to see the insidious nature of this new and deeper struggle. We dare not fail to grasp the new concepts, the new tools, the new sense of urgency we will need to combat it, whether in Cuba or South Vietnam.”
And a few weeks later, on May 12th, 1961, Kennedy sent Vice President Johnson off on a friendly mission to South Vietnam, where Johnson actually called Diem, the deeply corrupt and brutal president of South Vietnam, “the Churchill of Asia.” I tell you, politicians really can get their mouths to say the most astonishing things. This is the same Diem, by the way, who two and a half years later the CIA would help assassinate, or at least facilitate his assassination. But there he was -- big Lyndon, there on Kennedy’s behalf, ready to make Vietnam great again. And then that summer of ‘61, American military advisors started pouring into South Vietnam: 3,000 by the end of the year, up to 11,000 in ’62, 16,000 total by the time Kennedy was killed, and then Johnson’s dramatic escalation in March of '65, when he sent in the Marines.
And that famous speech, that televised speech that Eisenhower gave just before leaving office about the military-industrial complex -- you know, it’s easy to miss the critical insight of that speech because Eisenhower, who was gifted in any number of critical ways, was just not a good public speaker. But if you listen to the content of that speech -- or maybe better, read it -- it really was prophetic and, I think, as relevant today as it was in 1961. A quick look at our next episode right after this. [Music]
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Rubenstein: Coming up on Episode 11 of Real Time 1960s, a deep dive into what I believe is the best American film of 1961, The Hustler, starring Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason. I did a ton of research for this one. So, it'll be a combination of personal observations and fascinating facts about that film’s production, director and cast, many of which may surprise you. So, that’s something you're not going to want to miss.