2009.11.24 Bombshell from the Rabbit Hole

If it is permissible to dub duds from the rabbit hole "new bombshells," then permit me to excavate my old shocker and see what happens. Unless you were at the founding conference of the Coalition on Political Assassinations (which I note is still going strong) in October 1994, which might as well be a century ago, or you have read my book Looking for the Enemy, which is extremely unlikely, you will not know that I proved (yes, I think I did) that the CIA deliberately sabotaged their own invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 in order to force Kennedy to launch a full-scale invasion. This is the introduction to the first chapter.

From the Bay of Pigs to Vietnam

The failure of the invasion of Cuba in April, 1961 by 1500 CIA-trained anti-Castro expatriates is generally attributed to President Kennedy's loss of nerve at the critical moment, when he canceled the air strikes which were supposed to incapacitate Castro's air force. As a result, more than a hundred men were killed, the rest surrendered, and the Cuban exiles in America never forgave Kennedy for this "betrayal."

Kennedy did assume full public responsibility for what he too considered a disaster, as he should have. Privately, though, he blamed the CIA, and fired the three top men in the agency responsible for the operation: Director Allen Dulles, Deputy Director Gen. Pearre' Cabell, and Deputy Director for Plans (now called Operations) Richard Bissell. Immediately after the failed invasion, on April 22, Kennedy ordered Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the President's special military representative, Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations, Dulles, and Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, to conduct a full investigation of why the invasion had failed. This was submitted on June 13, 1961, but did not become available to the public until twenty years later, when a transcript of the report was published as a book called Operation Zapata (University Publications of America, 1981, referred to hereafter as the "Taylor (Report)"). "Operation Zapata" was the code name for the invasion.

This report merits close scrutiny for a number of reasons, particularly in view of the mountain of literature published on the subject which is inaccurate and based on material written by or elicited from participants, like Dulles and Bissell, who had every reason to present a skewed image of the truth.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Kennedy would not have ordered this investigation if he felt he were truly responsible. He knew what he had and had not done, and obviously that did not go very far toward explaining how things had gone so wrong.

The second thing to remember is that the report resulted in the firing of Dulles, Cabell, and Bissell, so there can be no doubt whom JFK did blame.

I believe a close reading of the report shows that the CIA sabotaged their own invasion, the purpose being to put JFK in exactly the position he found himself in: send in the Marines or face disaster. He chose disaster. Two years later, the same thing happened in Vietnam, and again he chose disaster (i.e. withdrawal, anathema to the CIA and the military), but this time he didn't survive.

My thesis is the CIA leadership secretly wanted the invasion to fail, and sabotaged it, because they thought President Kennedy would commit US forces when he saw it failing. They knew this was the only realistic way to overthrow Castro.

Let me first summarize some points that are relatively uncontroversial.

First, the CIA lied to the Cuban expatriates, whom I'll refer to as the Brigade. Up until the last shot was fired, the Agency assured them that US military help was on the way. Why? Because otherwise they would have stopped fighting and gone back to Miami, or never would have left in the first place.

Second, the CIA lied to the president. They assured him no Americans would participate in combat, but the two men who led the assault on the beach and fired the first shots were Americans. So were a number of the Brigade pilots, including four who were killed.

More importantly, the Agency misled Kennedy on four critical points. Allen Dulles practically admitted this in his private papers. Of course he didn't call it lying. He said they "never raised objections" to Kennedy's misconceptions. But given the circumstances, "lying" is exactly the right word for it.

They said, first, that the US role in the operation would be plausibly deniable, when they knew it wouldn't be. Second, they said if the invasion was successful there would be a popular uprising against Castro, when they knew this was unlikely. Third, they said if the invasion failed the Brigade could escape to the mountains and continue fighting as guerrillas, when they knew this was impossible. Fourth, they said no US forces would be involved in combat, when this was exactly what they were counting on.

All of these points were made definitively by Lucien S. Vandenbroucke in two 1984 articles resulting from his study of the unpublished memoirs of Allen Dulles housed at Princeton University's Seeley G. Mudd Library ("The 'Confessions' of Allen Dulles: New Evidence on the Bay of Pigs," Diplomatic History 8, No. 4 , 377-380, and "Anatomy of a Failure: The Decision to Land at the Bay of Pigs," Political Science Quarterly 99, No. 3, 471-491). Vandenbrouck quotes Dulles himself to explain why he and key associates preferred not to alert the present to "the realities of the situation"--particularly the contradiction between a discreet landing and the expectation of revolts, as well as the implausibility of denying that the United States had engineered the invasion:

[We) did not want to raise these issues--in an [indecipherable word] discussion--which might only harden the decision against the type of action we required. We felt that when the chips were down--when the crisis arose in reality, any action required for success would be authorized rather than permit the enterprise to fail ("Confessions," p. 399).

Vandenbroucke's conclusion is far too generous:

At best then, by consciously allowing Kennedy to ignore central weaknesses of the invasion plan, Dulles and other key intelligence advisers sought to steer past him a project he deeply mistrusted, but that they nonetheless wished to carry out. At worst, these advisers may have hope to draw the president into a situation where he would be forced to abandon the policy limits he had been so eager to preserve, granting the covert operators instead the latitude to conduct the operation as they say fit, in order to succeed ("Confessions," p. 371).

The action that would have been required to succeed was quite clear to the military, though not to President Kennedy. Chief of Naval Operatrions Adm. Arleigh Burke told Vandenbroucke in an interview in 1983 that he had

quietly [i.e., without informing the White House] positioned two battalions of Marines on ships cruising off Cuba, anticipating that U.S. forces might be ordered into Cuba to salvage a botched invasion ("Confessions," p. 371, Note 22).

I am going just a little further than Vandenbroucke when I say the Agency sabotaged the operation. Consider the overall situation. What would have happened if the Brigade had achieved what the planners defined as "initial success"? Suppose they had held the beachhead for a week or so. If there were no mass defections from Castro's army and no uprising, which in fact there was never any reason to expect, how long could 1200 men have held out against Castro's 250,000-man army? "Not long," concluded the Taylor report, and "ultimate success," meaning the overthrow of Castro, would have been totally impossible.

In other words, the Brigade was doomed in any case, unless the US intervened. But the CIA, while lying to the Brigade, knew that Kennedy would have to be forced into committing the US military, which he had clearly and repeatedly said he would not do. A successful invasion would not have created the proper circumstances for this. With few defections and no uprising, Kennedy would realize that he had been lied to about that as well as about the non-existent guerrilla option. Therefore, from the Agency's point of view, the invasion had to fail--that is, ultimate success required initial failure. This was the only way to force Kennedy's hand without exposing their own lies. Once Kennedy committed US forces to the invasion, there would be no turning back, and as we know from Vietnam, once a war starts, nobody is terribly interested in the fraudulent nature of its origins.

Of the many incredibly stupid mistakes that were made, I will focus on the most critical ones. In this discussion, it's important to keep in mind the personality of Richard Bissell, the Deputy Director for Plans and the man directly in charge. This was also the man who decided it would be a good idea to hire the Mafia to assassinate Castro, but he was not a stupid man. On the contrary, Bissell was by all accounts a brilliant man. He had taught economics at Yale to both the Rostow brothers, Eugene and Walt, and both the Bundy brothers, William and McGeorge, all of whom admired him greatly. He was a perfectionist, obsessive about details, a can-do, hands-on leader, and quite intolerant of mistakes. One long-time friend remarked that Bissell could react to even the most trivial mistake with "a release with the quality almost of an orgasm" (Peter Wyden, Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story (Jonathan Cape, 1979, p. 17). A rather strange remark, to be sure--implying that the Bay of Pigs must have been the best sex Richard Bissell ever had--but the point is that this was the last man you would expect to make so many catastrophic mistakes.

Let's start with the first airstrikes on Saturday, April 15, two days before the main invasion. These were not expected to destroy all of Castro's 18 planes, only some of them. The rest would be destroyed in a second strike at dawn on Monday, D-Day, coinciding with the landing on the beach. The ostensible purpose of these first strikes was to convince the world that one of Castro's pilots had defected. This would support the fiction--though I'm not sure how--that the strikes two days later were also the work of defectors. This plan, which Dulles once referred to as "a plot, not a plan," originated partly at CIA and partly with McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's National Security Adviser, whose reputation for brilliance is similar to that of his former Yale mentor, Richard Bissell.

But the brilliant Misters Bundy and Bissell must have known that no one would be fooled by this transparent ruse, except Adlai Stevenson, the US ambassador to the UN, who had been especially energetically lied to. Did they really think no one would notice that the defector's plane had machine guns mounted in a metal nose cone, while Castro's planes had plastic nose cones and the guns mounted on the wings? That the defector's guns had not been fired after supposedly shooting up half of Castro's air force? That the pilot's name was being withheld to protect his family in Cuba, when Castro would have known the name immediately if he had been a real defector? Did these brilliant strategists really think that Castro would leave the rest of his planes where they were, so they could be more easily destroyed on D-Day? Could they have been surprised when Castro immediately started arresting suspected dissidents by the tens of thousands, thus eliminating whatever basis there might have been for the uprising the CIA was supposedly counting on?

If we take Dulles's hint and look at this as a plot rather than a plan, it makes much more sense. What did it accomplish? In addition to warning Castro that an invasion was imminent, the premature exposure of the US role in the operation gave Bundy a strong argument that he could use in two opposite but complementary ways. First, the embarrassment at the UN enabled him to convince the president to cancel the second airstrikes. Second, when the time came for the opposite argument, he could say: Well, Mr. President, there's not much deniability left to lose, so we might as well send in the Marines. The second tactic, obviously, didn't work, but the first one did.

On Sunday afternoon, Kennedy gave his final approval for the invasion, including the airstrikes at dawn. Sometime between then and 9:30 that evening, however, Bundy and Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, convinced Kennedy to cancel the airstrikes, apparently because of the furor caused by the strikes on Saturday. This, as everyone knows, doomed the entire operation, because the Brigade's planes and ships were not capable of defending themselves against even one of Castro's planes. They all had to be destroyed on the ground. Kennedy, obviously, did not understand this, or was prevented from understanding it. Rusk makes a pretty good case for not understanding it either.

But Rusk was not the president's link with the CIA. Bundy was. It was his job to understand, and I am sure he did. He wrote to the Taylor committee: "It was clearly understood that the air battle should be won" (Taylor, 177-8). Then he waffles about not realizing how effective Castro's T-33s could be, but this is nonsense. Those T-33 jet trainers were American-made planes, and it could not have been a surprise that they had been outfitted with machine guns, especially since they must have been visible in Mr. Bissell's new and highly praised U-2 aerial reconnaissance photos. And the Joint Chiefs had written in March, one month before the invasion, that "one Castro aircraft armed with .50 caliber machine guns could sink all or most of the invasion force" (Taylor, 10). So the waffling doesn't work. Bundy knew there wasn't supposed to be an air battle, because none of Castro's planes were supposed to be in the air.

Cabell, whose brother Earl, incidentally, was mayor of Dallas when Kennedy was shot, was an Air Force general, in addition to being the No. 2 man at CIA, so he certainly understood this too. So did Bissell. The problem, Bissell said, was that the president didn't understand the "absolute essentiality of air command and of effective air cover."

Now, look carefully at the choice of words. Bundy says "air battle," but he knew that no air battle, in the sense of air-to-air combat, was anticipated. The Brigade B-26s had not been fitted with tail guns, and the CIA didn't want to bother putting machine guns on the supply ships, because no air combat was expected. Bissell says "air cover," but he knew the Brigade had no fighters to provide it, and he can't mean cover for the troops on the beach, because the B-26s did fly over the beach all day on Monday. So the only thing he can mean here is air cover by US Navy jets. What he is really saying, then, is that Kennedy did not understand the "absolute essentiality of effective US air cover"--that is, the essentiality of reversing his policy and doing what Bissell wanted him to do. It's always fun to catch a spook telling the truth right in the middle of a lie.

After Bundy cancelled the airstrikes on Sunday evening, Cabell and Bissell rushed over to Rusk's office to protest. But they only convinced Rusk, according to the Taylor report, that "while the strikes were indeed important, they were not vital." Then Rusk offered to telephone Kennedy so they could present their case directly. What did Cabell and Bissell do? They "saw no point in speaking personally to the president and so informed the Secretary of State" (Taylor, 20). The most crucial action in the operation is canceled at the last minute by the president's assistant, after being personally approved by the president 7 1/2 hours earlier, and they see no point in talking to the president? Nor do they abort the operation, as they should have. Is this credible? Bissell admitted later that his behavior was "negligent." I don't think so.

By this time Bundy is conveniently unavailable, having gone off to New York to console Adlai Stevenson. So is Allen Dulles, having chosen this evening to give a speech in Puerto Rico. Perhaps Cabell and Bissell don't realize there are telephones in New York and Puerto Rico. In any case, after cogitating on the matter for 5 1/2 hours, Cabell goes to Rusk's apartment at 4:30 in the morning, and now all his shyness about speaking directly with the president is gone. He phones Kennedy from Rusk's apartment. But this time he's asking for what he really wants. Please, Mr. President, send in those Navy jets. Mr. President refuses.

Despite the cancellation of the dawn airstrikes, the Brigade's B-26s fly over the beachhead all day on Monday, and later Monday evening Bissell orders the same airstrikes that were planned for that morning to take place on Tuesday morning. I'd like to know how he, or Bundy, convinced Kennedy that any of this would be more plausibly deniable than the strikes at dawn on Monday would have been. In any case, it's too late. Castro's handful of remaining planes control the skies, and the airstrikes on Tuesday morning fail, due to "heavy haze and low cloud" (Taylor, 24). This is puzzling. How could a mission so dependent on weather conditions even been conceived? What if there had been "haze and low cloud" on Monday morning? Then it wouldn't have mattered whether they were cancelled or not; the mission would have been doomed in any case.

The last chance to save the invasion, or at least prolong it, comes on Tuesday evening, when an ammunition convoy heads for the beach. They know they won't stand a chance against Castro's planes when they attack at dawn, so they radio CIA headquarters to request a destroyer escort and jet cover. Another critical moment for Cabell and Bissell. What do they do? Nothing. They don't even pass the request on to the president. They radio the convoy and tell them to turn back. That's the end of Operation Zapata.

Taylor explains Cabell and Bissell's behavior here as follows: "Considering the climate in which this operation had been planned in Washington, the CIA leaders apparently felt that it was hopeless to ask for either destroyer escort or jet cover for the ammunition convoy" (Taylor, 28). On the other hand, they did not think it hopeless to ask for air cover for one last attempt to resupply the troops by air, although this was truly hopeless, since only a fraction of the needed supplies could be dropped from the air.

Surprisingly, Kennedy agrees to cover the air drop, but only for one hour, on Wednesday morning. This mission also fails, because, incredibly, the four US jets arrive over the beachhead an hour late. So no ammunition is dropped, and two Brigade planes are shot down, killing four American contract pilots who had been called in to replace the Cubans, who by this time were tired of the CIA's lies and refused to fly (Taylor, 29).

I am emphasizing these actions and non-actions by Cabell and Bissell because they show a pattern. When action is critical and they should appeal directly to the president, they do nothing. This happened on Sunday night, when they should have insisted on the airstrikes, and again on Tuesday night, when they should have at least asked for the cover for the ammunition convoy. On the other hand, when action is not critical, when it's too late and inadequate, they do act, as they did in ordering the airstrikes for Tuesday morning and requesting cover for the air drop on Wednesday morning. Does this sound like the behavior of men who want their undertaking to succeed? Does it sound like mere "negligence" on the part of a brilliant perfectionist like Richard Bissell?

I think the true critical point came at 4:30 on Monday morning, when Cabell, backed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the first request for overt US intervention. The pressure continued throughout Monday and Tuesday. By late Tuesday night, when Bissell announced, to the astonishment of Kennedy and everyone else, that the Brigade was "not prepared to go guerrilla," it was clear that Kennedy was not going to give in. At that point, it really was pointless to ask him to cover the ammunition convoy, but not for the reason we are supposed to assume. The ammunition might well have allowed the Brigade to hold the beach a while longer, but that wasn't what the CIA leaders really wanted. On the contrary, as I've said, if they had held the beach, with no uprising and no guerrilla option, they would have looked even more foolish--or worse, their real plan would have been exposed.

The second chapter in this story is Vietnam. The parallel with the Bay of Pigs is that in the latter part of 1963 Kennedy was again in the position of having to choose between disaster, which in this case meant withdrawal from Vietnam, and escalation, which is what the CIA and the military, and their hawkish allies in the Administration, had been pressing for all along, first in Laos, even at the time of the Cuban invasion, and then in Vietnam. When Kennedy again chose disaster, that is, withdrawal, over escalation, he signed his death warrant.

I know that some people dismiss this theory out of hand because despite National Security Action Memorandum 263 and the 40 pages in the Gravel Pentagon Papers devoted to the withdrawal plan, they say there was no withdrawal plan. This is pure sophistry. And quite surprising, when it comes from corners of the political spectrum one would least expect to support Establishment lies (Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn). The fact is that two days after the assassination the CIA began to reverse their assessment of the military situation in Vietnam. They decided that things were going badly, instead of well, as the withdrawal policy had assumed. In fact, they decided, things had been deteriorating since July. In other words, it took them 5 months to realize that they were losing a war instead of winning it, and this light just happened to dawn on them two days after Kennedy was killed.

Anyone who believes this is what I call a "coincidence theorist." The murder of the president and the reversal of the military assessment--and subsequently of the withdrawal policy--are just two unrelated events that happened to coincide in time. Of course, this is a very naive position to take, so if you want to look a little more sophisticated, you manage to say that one of the events did not occur. The withdrawal policy cannot have been reversed because there never really was such a policy in the first place. Therefore, the question of the relation between the assassination and the Vietnam War doesn't even arise.

This is a specious argument, unworthy of some of the otherwise reasonable people I've heard utter it, and unworthy of the millions of victims of that war, including President Kennedy. We owe it to them to at least ask the question. And we should try to answer it, with or without the help of the United States government, which, no matter how many documents it throws at us is never going to admit that it sacrificed a president, as well as 58,000 other Americans, in pursuit of its $570 billion war enterprise in Southeast Asia.