Bay of Pigs, pt. 1: Planning Stages
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 9 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 encourage you to do, all that can be found on our website, realtime1960s.com.
Last time, I concluded my two-part look at actor Steve McQueen, but today, we sidestep into Cold War politics. Haven’t covered politics at all, really, since Episode 4, which was about the election of John F. Kennedy. But today, on this first installment of another 2-part episode, we turn our gaze to the Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 1961. We’ll cover the planning stages of that operation during the Eisenhower years as well as a precursor -- a CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954 which served as a model for the Cuban attempt in ’61. We'll also discuss how the Cuban situation affected the 1960 presidential race, and much, much more. So, the first five of my top ten facts about the invasion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, right now. [Music]
Okay, let’s dive right in, fact number one. As I said, the plan for the invasion of Cuba by exiles trained by the CIA and backed by American firepower had its roots in the Eisenhower Administration. Not to absolve Kennedy of responsibility -- he could have stopped it and did not. But before we get into Kennedy’s role, let’s take our time machine a little bit further back to one of the darker episodes of Eisenhower’s first term, the successful overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, in June of 1954. This was a covert CIA operation that installed a military dictator, Carlos Castillo Armas, who was the first of a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian rulers in that country.
A major advocate of that ’54 Guatemalan coup was the United Fruit Company, a somewhat notorious American corporation formed in 1899, the year after Cuba had won its independence from Spain. And that company traded in -- you guessed it -- tropical fruit grown on Latin American plantations and sold in the U.S. and Europe. By 1930, United Fruit was both the largest landowner and employer in Guatemala, where its employees were paid, basically, starvation wages and treated horribly.
But after Arbenz was elected president in 1951, the Fruit Company’s bottom line was hurt by his labor and land reform efforts. Central to those reforms was the redistribution of unused land to local peasants, for which the landowners were compensated with government bonds. The idea was to transition Guatemala from a kind of pseudo-feudalism into a modern capitalist state, which United Fruit did not want. They were more than happy to fatten their bank accounts with pseudo-feudalism. In the ‘50s, phrases like “labor reform” and “government redistribution” had extremely dark connotations, and there were fears in the U.S. Government, fanned by the United Fruit Company, that this Arbenz was some kind of Communist or at least influenced by Communists, hence the coup.
This operation in Guatemala, which had a multimillion-dollar budget and employed over a hundred agents of the CIA, was similar to the later Bay of Pigs operation in a number of ways, but there were also critical differences. One similarity: both operations were carry-overs from the previous administration. Another was the technique of recruiting exiles who would comprise the bulk of the CIA-trained invasion force. And finally, each operation had a parallel track of assassination -- not Arbenz himself, he was not targeted, as Castro later was. But critical members of his government were targeted. And the ’54 coup is the first known example of the CIA using assassination manuals. These manuals were later refined and reused in subsequent actions. And these similarities, by the way, should not come as any surprise, since Allen Dulles was directing the CIA during both efforts.
Some differences were that, unlike the Cuban plan, which was backed by Eisenhower to the day he left office and beyond, the initial plan for the Guatemalan coup -- which, as I said, had its roots in the previous administration, that of Harry Truman -- was terminated by Truman after Secretary of State Dean Acheson intervened. Acheson felt that orchestrating an invasion and coup of a fellow member country of the Organization of American States -- that had literally just been founded in 1948 -- would be a monumental setback to U.S. policy in the region. And as we’ll see later, Acheson was also mortified by the Bay of Pigs plan and warned Kennedy against it.
But the Guatemalan coup, after having been temporarily killed off by Acheson and Truman, was revived by Eisenhower, which leads to the second critical difference from the Bay of Pigs. The Guatemalan coup succeeded. Arbenz was ousted, infusing Dulles and the CIA with what turned out to be a false sense of optimism that the later plot to overthrow Castro would also succeed. But as Che Guevara, Castro’s comrade-in-arms, said shortly after Castro took power in ’59: “History will not repeat itself; Cuba is not another Guatemala.” And he was right about that.
Okay, fact number two. Relations between the Eisenhower Administration and the new Castro regime had a brief, uneasy honeymoon in early ‘59 that quickly gave way to antagonism and divorce. So let’s start with the honeymoon. Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt and brutal dictator toppled by Castro’s revolution, had certainly given Castro and his comrades plenty to work with. Batista had basically used his power to facilitate the exploitation of his countrymen by American corporate, entertainment, and gambling interests. Why? Because it made him a very rich man. During Batista's reign and really before, Cuba was basically a vassal state of the U.S. Its plantations, mines, and large farms were owned almost exclusively by American interests. And American tourism was also a huge factor in the Cuban economy. Havana had earned its reputation as a kind of hedonistic playground for the world’s elite.
But despite the fact that Batista was strongly anti-Communist, key elements in both the American media and the government turned on Batista by the late ‘50s and, sort of by default, boosted Castro. Major media organs like Life magazine -- run at that time by the very conservative Henry Luce -- and also The New York Times really soft-pedaled Communist elements of Castro’s movement in ’58 and early ’59 and portrayed him as a kind of youthful, idealistic Robin Hood fighting for a democratic Cuba. Batista, who was fond of torturing political opponents and then displaying their mutilated bodies for all to see, had become impossible to root for. And then the State Department, perhaps hedging its bets as Castro’s movement continued to grow, announced the end of arms shipments to Batista in March of ’58. And finally, on New Year’s Day 1959, Batista fled into exile in the Dominican Republic, taking with him a personal fortune of 300 million dollars.
So began the honeymoon, first in Havana, where ecstatic crowds threw flowers at their new, bearded messiah. Ed Sullivan flew down to conduct a friendly interview with Castro; you can see it on YouTube. And Castro, at this stage, whether out of ideological confusion or by design, was sending mixed messages about what this new Cuba would be. On the one hand, he did appoint some moderates to his new government and placed a moderate lawyer, Manuel Urrutia, as head of state. On the other was a seemingly endless parade of show trials and summary executions. The numbers are tough to pin down, given the lack of transparency in Castro’s Cuba, but between 1959 and ’61, roughly 700 political executions were carried out in Cuba. That’s a minimum.
So, already by April of ’59, the month of Castro’s first visit to the U.S. as the Cuban premier, there was deep concern in the Eisenhower Administration about this new regime, initially focusing on Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, and Che Guevara -- both openly communist. So, Eisenhower chose not to meet with Castro. He delegated that task to Secretary of State Christian Herter -- who had just replaced John Foster Dulles, Allen’s older brother, who was dying of cancer -- and also, Vice President Nixon. Each of those two men met with Castro individually, and they each had similar reactions: impressed by Castro’s charisma but concerned about his politics.
Nixon, in a memo to Eisenhower, said, “Castro has those indefinable qualities which make him a leader of men, but he is either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline. My guess is the former.” Now, with hindsight, it seems that the latter is more likely. And really, every move Castro made in ’59 pointed in the communist direction: the nationalization of utilities; the appropriation of previously private enterprises, many American-owned, including holdings of the United Fruit Company; redistribution of land, without compensation, as had been done in Guatemala; elimination of opposition press, which even Batista hadn’t done. And then in July, Castro denounced Urrutia and forced him out after Urrutia had said some mildly critical things about communist tendencies in Cuba.
And rhetorically as well -- you know, Castro and Guevara always spoke of their revolution as a continuous, unending phenomenon, which exactly matched the rhetoric of Khrushchev and Mao. So, despite the fact that Eisenhower was preoccupied with a number of issues in the summer of ’59 -- the latest Berlin crisis, Nixon’s trip to the Soviet Union in July, his own meeting with Khrushchev at Camp David in September -- by that point, the U.S. clearly viewed Castro as an adversary and was deeply concerned that what had been a vassal state of the U.S. would now become a client state of the Soviet Union and a communist base of operations just a hundred miles from American shores. So, honeymoon over.
Okay, fact number three. Two individuals, Christian Herter at State and Allen Dulles at the CIA, made the initial push to topple Castro. Herter, in a memo to Eisenhower in the late summer of 1959, wrote that Castro had officially gone too far. Moderate voices in Cuba had been silenced. Castro and Guevara were “fomenting anti-American sentiment, not only in Cuba, but across the Caribbean.” Across the world, really. Guevara, in June of that year, had launched a heavily publicized world tour, during which he repeatedly denounced the American “monopolists and imperialists," and Fidel had put his openly communist brother Raul in charge of the armed forces.
So, Herter’s initial proposition, officially endorsed by Eisenhower on November 9th, 1959, was that the U.S. should actively undermine Castro by encouraging opposition forces that could, in due time, unseat him. And then in December, Director Dulles and J.C. King, chief of the agency’s Western Hemisphere Division, came up with a more specific plan to bring about “the overthrow of Castro within one year and his replacement by a junta friendly to the United States.” You don’t often hear the word “junta” used in a positive context, at least not these days, but that was Allen Dulles.
The Agency’s plan at that point suggested a variety of means, most of which were carried over from Guatemala: anti-Castro radio propaganda, the jamming of Cuba’s own radio broadcasts, and most critically, the formation of anti-Castro groups that would “establish by force a controlled area within Cuba.” The document I’m quoting, by the way, is a declassified memo from J.C. King to Dulles, which also suggests that “thorough consideration be given to the elimination of Fidel Castro.” Now, “elimination” can mean multiple things, obviously, and it’s interesting that Dulles actually edited that sentence of the memo. He deleted King’s word “elimination” and substituted “removal from Cuba.” Now, whether Dulles hadn’t fully settled on killing Castro yet or, perhaps more likely, was establishing plausible deniability is unknown. In any case, by December of ’59, U.S. policy toward Cuba was, basically, Guatemala 2.0, shifted about 900 miles to the east.
Enter Richard Bissell, who was an interesting and pretty accomplished person. Bissell, in 1947, had been appointed administrator of the Marshall Plan in Germany. For those who may not know, the Marshall Plan -- officially called the European Recovery Program -- was a 13-billion-dollar aid program designed to do two things: first, to resuscitate the economies of Western Europe after the war, and then also, to help prevent the spread of communism into those countries. Those two goals were interrelated, obviously, and both were achieved.
Then in the ‘50s, Bissell, having now joined the CIA, was charged with developing the U-2 spy planes, reconnaissance aircraft that provided the U.S. with critical data on the Soviet Union’s military capabilities. So by ’59, Bissell had moved into the upper echelon of the Agency; he was now Deputy Director of Plans, second only to Dulles. And in January of ’60, he was instructed by Dulles to form a special task force, called Branch 4, to refine and implement the Cuban plan, at which point Bissell assembled, basically, the same team that had been used in Guatemala, with a few additions.
Okay, fact number four. John F. Kennedy, during the 1960 campaign, used the “loss of Cuba” to communism during the Eisenhower Administration to hit Nixon but also to exact some revenge on the Republicans, who for years had blamed the “loss of China” on the Democrats. That had been the Republican take for years: China went communist when Truman was president, Truman was a Democrat, so the Democrats lost China. They never bothered to explain what Truman was supposed to do, exactly, to reverse the course of the 20-year Chinese Civil War, but that was their rhetoric. And it kind of worked, to be honest.
So, Kennedy in 1960 said, “Okay, two can play that game,” and he hammered the Republicans for having permitted this communist menace to fester “only eight jet minutes from Florida.” That was his favorite phrase. So, here’s a prime example of the stupidity of presidential campaigns, where every issue is reduced to a bubble of idiot simplicity. But it did give Kennedy an opportunity to attack Nixon from the right, which he did throughout that campaign. If you go back and listen to those debates, most of Kennedy’s rhetoric would have fit comfortably in the mouth of Barry Goldwater.
The two debates in which Cuba figured most heavily were the second and the fourth. At the second, Kennedy, in his opening statement, described in almost apocalyptic tones an America that was in grave danger of being surpassed by the Soviet Union both economically and militarily. This was a total fiction, by the way. Our economy dwarfed the Soviet Union’s, and there was no “missile gap,” as he liked to say. Well, there was, actually. They were behind. But that was Kennedy’s contention, that the U.S. had been standing still while the Communists surged.
So Nixon, who looked far better, less sweaty and emaciated than he had at the first debate, cleverly hit Kennedy for defeatism, implying without saying so that Kennedy’s rhetoric was anti-American while, at the same time, reviving memories of Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy, and his defeatism in the 1930s regarding Nazi Germany, for which Joseph Kennedy was widely disparaged and, ultimately, removed by FDR from his post as ambassador to Great Britain, a job he should never have had in the first place.
But skillful debating tactics by Nixon, who then countered Kennedy’s claims of Communist advances by highlighting such advances during the last Democratic administration, that of Harry Truman, during which, Nixon said, “600 million people went behind the Iron Curtain.” Which again, may have been an effective debating ploy, but looked at as an actual argument is ludicrous. How exactly was Harry Truman supposed to free Eastern Europe from the grip of the Soviet Union after World War II? Start World War III? Stupid.
But the fourth debate is where things got really weird. The night before, the Kennedy campaign issued a statement proposing “the arming of non-Batista, democratic, anti-Castro forces in exile and in Cuba itself who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro.” Interesting -- almost the exact plan the CIA had been developing. So, the question is: did the Kennedy campaign just happen to announce a policy more or less identical to the CIA’s secret plan for Cuba, or did somebody leak the plan to the Kennedy campaign and did Kennedy then use that knowledge to score on Nixon by making himself look tougher on Cuba? And beyond that, set himself up very nicely if the invasion was launched before the election since, having issued this statement, Kennedy could then claim that Eisenhower had filled his prescription.
Nixon always felt that Dulles had briefed Kennedy on the plan, and he was very bitter about that. There’s no evidence of it, but it certainly could have happened. But Kennedy had plenty of other contacts who could have told him. And his father, Joseph Kennedy, had been buttering up Allen Dulles and J. Edgar Hoover for years, knowing full well how much dirt they had on his son, more than enough to destroy his presidential ambitions, which had been Joseph Kennedy's personal obsession ever since his oldest son, Joe Jr., was killed in 1944. And it’s interesting that JFK’s first major move, two days after he was elected, was to announce that he would keep both Dulles and Hoover in their positions.
But the proposal by the Kennedy team the night before the fourth debate to overthrow Castro led to perhaps the most bizarre moment of the 1960 campaign, at least in retrospect. Since Nixon couldn’t say to Kennedy, “Listen hotshot, you know goddamn well we’re planning to invade as we speak, and I can’t talk about it,” since he couldn’t say that, he went hard in the other direction and attacked Kennedy’s “dangerously irresponsible proposal” to arm Cuban exiles and promote the overthrow of Castro -- the exact plan his own administration was pursuing and what Nixon had been practically begging Eisenhower and Dulles to do before the election.
And what’s striking is that Nixon’s argument against the policy he favored was not only convincing, but seemed to win the debate for him. Kennedy certainly thought so; he was so frustrated after that fourth debate that he punched a wall. And what was Nixon’s argument? That an invasion of Cuba by the U.S. or U.S.-backed forces would A, alienate world opinion, which it did, and B, would extend “an open invitation to Khrushchev to come into Latin America,” which is exactly what happened with the Cuban Missile Crisis. So Nixon, in advancing an argument in which he did not believe -- which all debaters are trained to do, by the way -- ended up making a really solid case against the intervention he so desperately wanted.
Okay, fact number five, more of an observation, actually. Although the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 is usually presented by historians as a clear break with the Eisenhower Administration and was framed that way by Kennedy himself in his inaugural speech, this is a superficial interpretation of history that does not hold up to serious scrutiny. The fact is that the Kennedy presidency, despite the Camelot flash, was in many, perhaps most respects a continuation of Eisenhower’s.
This is certainly true in civil rights. Kennedy, like previous Democratic presidents, greatly feared antagonizing the Southern legislators in his own party and made very little effort to articulate the moral dimensions of the civil rights movement, at least until a few months before he died, when the integration crisis at the University of Alabama sort of forced his hand. And even then, he was reluctant to make that televised speech on civil rights on June 11th, 1963. But he did, and it was a very good speech. But to that point, he basically followed Eisenhower’s civil rights approach of slow, quiet gradualism.
And although Kennedy and Martin Luther King have often been linked, historically -- I guess because they were both assassinated as young men within a few years of each other -- there was no great love lost there. King often criticized Kennedy both publicly and privately. And he would later make the pointed remark that not until Lyndon Johnson became president did he feel that he had a real friend in the White House. Of course, that relationship was ruptured when King came out against the Vietnam War in 1967, but that’s another story.
And also on foreign policy -- Kennedy, who met with Eisenhower the day before he was inaugurated, followed his predecessor to a great extent. At that meeting, they mostly discussed the crisis in Laos -- which was kind of a foreshadowing of the Vietnam War, with the Soviets backing the Communist rebels there and the U.S. backing the pro-Western government -- but after that meeting, Kennedy dictated a note. He said, “I came away from the meeting feeling that Eisenhower would support intervention, that he felt it was preferable to a communist success in Laos.”
And it’s not hard to conclude that Kennedy chose to continue that policy of interventionism, in both South Vietnam and Cuba. Eisenhower also said at that meeting: “In the long run, the U.S. cannot allow the Castro government to continue to exist in Cuba.” And Kennedy’s path was further narrowed by Eisenhower’s decision to break off relations with Cuba in January of ‘61 after Castro demanded that the U.S. reduce its embassy staff in Havana. Now, it’s a little unusual for a president to make that bold a move on the way out the door, but he did.
And then, from practically the minute Kennedy took office, there was this steady drumbeat of pressure on Cuba, with Dulles telling him that the clock was ticking on the invasion plan, that Castro was strengthening his defenses as we speak, that the trainees in Guatemala and elsewhere were chomping at the bit. And when Kennedy expressed some doubts -- and he did have doubts -- Dulles brought up the “disposal problem.” If the invasion were called off, what do you do with all these trainees, just say “never mind, go home”? And if you do that, what kind of blowback would result? Do they hold a press conference and denounce Kennedy for being soft on Castro, soft on communism? It’s not inconceivable.
And again, this was a young, untested president, basically a newcomer to foreign affairs. He had served on the Foreign Relations Committee his last three years in the Senate, but a lot of that time, he’d spent setting up his presidential campaign and was a frequent no-show on Capitol Hill.
As far as his much-vaunted military experience during World War II, yes, he had performed heroically under duress. There’s no question about that. But his critics, including Eisenhower, were fond of pointing out that the largest command he’d ever held was a torpedo boat that had been rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, right? He’d never held a job outside of government, never managed any organization, no diplomatic experience whatsoever, and here he was, in the White House, presented with a complete plan already in motion, endorsed by Eisenhower -- arguably the greatest American soldier of the 20th century -- backed by the Joint Chiefs, backed by Allen Dulles, who had run an almost identical operation 7 years earlier with great success, assuring him of a big win early in his presidency.
Again, it would have taken a tremendous amount of gumption for Kennedy to tell all these battle-tested, old hands to just take a breath, so he could examine this operation in a more measured way. But he didn’t have it, he just didn’t -- at least not at that point. A quick look at our next episode, right after this.
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Coming up on Episode 10 of Real Time 1960s, “Bay of Pigs, Part 2, Invasion and Aftermath,” as we find out who the supporters and detractors of this invasion were, both inside and out of the Kennedy administration. Of course, we'll cover the invasion itself; I'll explain what went wrong, which was pretty much everything. We'll examine the CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. Finally, we'll cover the political fallout, both national and international, resulting from the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy's strategy for dealing with that.
Don’t forget to visit us at realtime1960s.com for our timeline, each and every podcast, links to social media, how to reach us directly, everything you need to know about this portal into the past that we are creating. Thanks so much for joining us. Take care, and I'll see you soon.