Bay of Pigs

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The launching of so-called “covert operations” by the United States Central Intelligence Agency has been praised by some Americans as essential to the national interest and damned by others as immoral. In Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story, Peter Wyden, a professional journalist and writer, has written a definitive account of one of the most poorly managed of all the CIA covert operations: the abortive Cuban exile landing at the Bay of Pigs, in April, 1961. The author ably re-creates the atmosphere of overconfidence and wishful thinking which produced this debacle.

Wyden has put a considerable amount of effort into doing the research for this book. He has interviewed everyone from the highest United States Government official to the humblest common foot soldier. He was able to talk not only with Cuban exiles and American intelligence officers, but also with the men on the other side: Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro and the militiamen who did so much to defend his regime against the exile invaders. Besides relying on interviews, the author has also made use of hitherto secret CIA documents, which he succeeded in getting declassified only after two-and-a-half years of struggle.

Wyden shows that it was in March, 1960, during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that the CIA was authorized to plan covert activities against the new Dictator of Cuba, Fidel Castro, who was already showing himself to be strongly sympathetic to Russia and to Communism. Although Allen W. Dulles was the head of the CIA, it was his subordinate, Deputy Director of Plans (Director of Covert Operations) Richard M. Bissell, who was placed in charge of the Cuba project. Under Bissell’s direction, training camps for anti-Castro Cuban exiles were set up in the friendly Central American state of Guatemala, and an airstrip was built there also. Exile airmen received training from CIA pilots.

Richard Bissell, a former Yale University Economics Professor, had, Wyden shows, both a reputation for brilliance and a gift for persuading people. His sole military experience prior to this time had been the organizing of U-2 airplane reconnaissance flights over Russia. Yet it was this man who, in November of 1960, decided, on his own initiative, to escalate the Cuba project from a mere infiltration scheme to a full-fledged plan for invasion.

An American Marine officer and veteran of Iwo Jima, Colonel Jack Hawkins, became CIA military commander of the project; his chief subordinate was the former soldier Grayston Lynch. Colonel Stanley Beerli became the project’s head of Air Operations. The commander of the exiles’ Cuban Brigade, “Pepe” San Román, was appointed by the CIA project leadership. The Central American state of Nicaragua secretly allowed the CIA to use part of its territory as a staging area for the planned invasion.

In January, 1961, John F. Kennedy became President of the United States. In order to win the new President’s support for the Cuba project, Bissell blithely assured him, over and over again, that the Cuban people would rise in revolt against Castro the moment the exile invasion force landed. Wyden severely criticizes Bissell for having seriously underestimated the popularity of Fidel Castro within Cuba, the fervor and bravery of his Cuban supporters, and the effectiveness of his measures of repression.

From the beginning, Wyden makes clear, the planning and organization of the Cuba project were incredibly amateurish. Because of the desire of the CIA for secrecy, there was no arrangement for recording in writing either the original plan or later modifications of it. As a result, there was little coordination of effort between the CIA and other branches of the government, including the Defense Department. Except for Bissell, few people, even in the CIA itself, knew exactly what had been approved and why. Bissell himself, eager to see the exile invasion carried out at almost any price, agreed to a series of arbitrary changes which fatally weakened the original plan.

The author of these changes was President Kennedy. The President, the author shows, was not the dashing young knight of the Camelot legend, but an indecisive, often confused, and inexperienced chief executive. He was torn between a strong desire to take vigorous action against the Western Hemisphere’s first Communist government and an unrealistic hope that the United States could succeed in overthrowing that government while keeping its own role in the operation absolutely secret. In his behind-the-scenes account of the agonizing debates in the President’s Cabinet over the invasion plan, the author shows how, step by step, the original plan was completely twisted out of shape.

The first change concerned the site of the landing. According to the original plan, the landing was supposed to take place near the city of Trinidad. At a Cabinet meeting held in March, 1961, however, President Kennedy, fearful that this plan would be too spectacular, asked for a change in the landing site away from that populous city to a less heavily populated region. By changing the landing site to the Bay of Pigs, the author points out, the CIA planners unwittingly made it impossible for the exile invaders to flee to the mountains and survive as guerrillas in the event of an initial defeat. Trinidad was quite close to the Escambray Mountains, where guerrillas could survive for a long time. The Bay of Pigs was separated from these mountains by eighty miles of swamp. Although the CIA planners were unaware of it, the people of the Bay area were quite pro-Castro; the area was the Cuban Dictator’s favorite resort. Right up until the invasion’s...

(The entire section is 2319 words.)