Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs
By Grayston Lynch
In April 1961 the United States put a small exile force ashore in southern Cuba to overthrow the then still-young Communist regime of Fidel Castro. Two Americans, both military veterans and agents of the CIA, were on the beach alongside the expeditionaries. One of them was Grayston L. Lynch, who after nearly forty years has finally broken his silence to tell what really happened at the Bay of Pigs. This book is his testimony--a devastating corrective to the historical pseudo-record confected by Kennedy henchmen and apologists.
Decision for Disaster is a dramatic, personal book, and an angry one. Lynch tells his story in a direct and vivid manner, assisted by a useful complement of combat maps. At every turn he recalls the courageous Cubans who fought and died on the beaches, most of them unnecessarily. But this book is not merely a narrative of combat. It is also a tale of betrayal and the loss of our national political innocence. Until April 1961, he writes, "the United States had never backed a loser...never lost a war, and above all, had never deserted a friend." The Bay of Pigs was a defining prologue, to be followed in succession by the similar actions on the part of other Democratic administrations in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Iran.
Sometime around March 1960 the Eisenhower administration concluded that the Castro regime in Cuba, having aligned itself with the Soviet Union, was an unacceptable threat to U.S. security. It proposed to resolve this problem by the same means employed in 1954 to dispense with the pro-Communist regime of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, by arming and training an exile force. By the time the Kennedy administration took office the following January, plans for the operation had been drawn up, and the personnel and weaponry were largely in place in bases in Florida, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The new president inherited the problem and Eisenhower's proposed solution. But as Lynch emphasizes, it was Kennedy's decision to go ahead.
Events unquestionably forced the new president's hand. According to U.S. intelligence sources, Castro was scheduled to receive his first shipment of major Soviet weaponry--including jet fighters (MiG-21s), tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and heavy mortars--on March 15, 1961. Therefore action had to take place before then, "before (Castro's) forces were fully equipped and trained by the Soviets." Yet the Kennedy people postponed the action for a full thirty days, giving the Cuban dictator a crucial window during which to position his forces for what he--as everyone else--knew was coming. It was not the last advantage Castro would obtain from his supposed adversaries in Washington.
The original concept was plausible enough. CIA planners had selected Trinidad, on Cuba's southern coast, as the landing site. There were many reasons for this: It contained an airfield that, with a slight extension of the runways, would enable the exile Brigade's air force to operate from Cuban soil. The area itself was easily approached from the sea, and troops could land without difficulty on its sandy beaches. Afterwards the invaders could easily defend land approaches to the city. And Trinidad itself was a politically favorable environment, a veritable hotbed of anti-Castro sentiment.
While Castro had not yet taken delivery on his MiGs, he did possess a small number of T-33 jets and British Sea Fury fighters. These could be taken out on the dawn of the invasion by the Brigade's antique B-26s, based in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. After this preemptive strike eliminated Castro's air force, successive sorties would wipe out his armor, ammunition, and supply depots, and other means of waging war. This would allow the beachhead to be consolidated as the capital of a new Cuban republic. The United States would then fly leaders of the exile political community to Trinidad, where they would set up a provisional government, which would be immediately recognized by the U.S. and a number of other Latin American countries. The Defense Department would provide whatever military assistance the new regime required, and the Brigade, about 1,500 men strong, would be able to grow as much as ten-fold by recruiting locally.
In outlining this plan Lynch corrects a persistent misconception, namely that the Kennedy administration expected the landing to provoke a series of uprisings in Cuba. The internal opposition, though large, was known to be heavily infiltrated by Castro's intelligence services, so it was decided that the underground would play no part at all in the invasion, not even to the point of being told its exact date. If the B-26s were able to operate out of the Trinidad airfield for two to three weeks, and the exile force was augmented by natural accretion, it was assumed that the majority of Cubans would see that Castro was doomed and would join the rebel side. Here again was essentially a replay of what had happened in Guatemala seven years before.
But the Kennedy administration decided on its own to scrap the Trinidad plan entirely--not because it seemed unworkable, but because it lacked the necessary deniability. Secretary of State Dean Rusk convinced Kennedy that the State Department "would take some political heat when the actions took place." State's position, Lynch explains, was that "in size and scope the Trinidad plan was too much like a World War II invasion, and this would indicate U.S. involvement." Further, State preferred a night operation, which was a fairly startling proposal, given that the United States had never in fact attempted anything of the sort--not at Anzio, Normandy, or anywhere else. State also objected to the use of the Trinidad airfield because it was too small to accommodate the B-26s (the CIA had drawn up plans to expand it immediately). This was an important detail to State since it was essential, in its view, for the air attacks to look as if they came from within Cuba itself--from Castro's own defecting pilots.
When the Trinidad plan was shelved, Kennedy's people also scratched the massive airstrikes by 22 B-26s. The reason, again, was political: State argued that a strike of that size would indicate that the rebels had U.S. backing, and that would make them "politically unsafe."
Instead, the entire project was moved to Bah!a de Cochinos--the Bay of Pigs--some 50 miles to the west. At the same time, the White House ordered the attacking force scaled back from 22 to 16 planes, "since the State Department felt that twenty-two was too large a number to fit the cover story. " There were to be only five strikes, with the planes leaving from Puerto Cabezas and landing at Cochinos to continue their action from there.
In retrospect it is obvious that the Cochinos scenario was conceived by frightened politicians and equivocating diplomats, not by professional soldiers or experienced intelligence planners. The entire coast near the proposed landing point was coral rock, so that instead of an amphibious approach, the invading force would have to be unloaded at sea and ferried to shore. The area itself was practically uninhabited, so that one could not expect to draw on a friendly local population. Most important of all, unlike Trinidad, which was ringed by the Escambray mountains, home to an important anti-Castro guerrilla force, at the Bay of Pigs there was no natural route of escape if things turned bad. The area itself was ringed by swamps, and the only exit was the sea itself, across treacherous coral reefs.
Once the new plan was in place, the State Department immediately began to lose its nerve. The day before the action was to commence--April 17--it began to lobby for a further reduction in the number of airplanes of the invading force from 16 to six. Worse still, it requested that the second, third, and fourth strikes be eliminated altogether to preserve the "noninvolvement image" of the United States. Kennedy approved these cuts routinely, without consulting either the CIA or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As if that were not enough, White House adviser Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. convinced Kennedy to announce at a press conference on April 12 that under no circumstances would U.S. military forces be committed in any manner in Cuba. This deprived the Brigade of a precious psychological asset--namely, uncertainty on the part of Castro and his followers as to the exact dimensions of the military threat they might be facing. It also sent a message to ordinary Cubans, particularly the many fence-sitters and passive opponents of the regime, that the United States was an enemy somewhat less than determined to achieve victory.
After providing us with this background, Lynch shifts the scene to the beach, where the invaders learned--only after the first air raid--that subsequent air attacks had been canceled by Washington for unspecified " political reasons." The rest of his combat narrative deals with the heroic efforts of his Cuban comrades to fight their way onto the beach, and then retreat, under vastly unequal circumstances. At times his tone reaches the white heat of indignation, and rightly so. A case in point was Secretary Rusk's decision to allow the Brigade air force to send four of its jets to the beachhead Monday morning to protect it from Castro's jets. However, they were restricted to the beachhead proper and not allowed to strike Cuban military airfields. "In other words," Lynch writes, "it was considered political bad form for the Brigade's B-26s to strike these jets on the ground, but it was perfectly all right for the B-26s to fly around over Cochinos Bay and wait for Castro's T-33s to shoot them down," which is exactly what happened. More remarkable still, Rusk even forbade the Navy from providing air cover to rebel ships after reaching international waters, "on the grounds that the president had pledged that no American forces would become involved."
The U.S. managed to get the men ashore, but half their supplies and ammunition were lost when Castro's air force sunk the Houston, one of the Brigade's ships. Meanwhile, Washington kept pressuring the ships to leave, promising that the Navy would unload them at sea and return the materiel to the beach in landing craft after dark. Instead, even though the ships were under attack in international waters, the Navy was forced to deny them cover. Relief came only on Wednesday night, when the Navy was finally authorized to go into action, but only to remove the Brigade from the beachhead. As Lynch writes, the invaders were "not defeated in battle, nor did they surrender. They simply ran out of ammunition." And he adds, "the last shots at Cochinos Bay were a concentration from Soviet-made artillery guns at U.S. Navy destroyers," with Soviet helicopter gunships circling over the swamps to slaughter the survivors. It was a fitting coda to symbolize the consolidation of Moscow's new client-state in the Caribbean, perhaps the most enduring achievement to date of the Kennedy administration.
In a harrowing account, Lynch explains how he and his associates tried and sometimes failed to rescue the survivors. He himself was one of the last men pulled out of the area, and sent to Washington under super-secret cover to report to the highest levels of the Kennedy administration. Oddly enough, however, at the debriefing--presided over by General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy--no stenographic notes were taken. These two constructed their own version of the proceedings "from memory." To this date their full report is highly classified. The sanitized version subsequently released to the public sometime later was, according to Lynch, altered beyond all recognition. His own three and a half hours of testimony were reduced to a mere two paragraphs. Kennedy's literary minions--Schlesinger, Ted Sorensen, and Haynes Johnson-- later provided their own version to the world, namely, that the CIA and the Joint Chiefs had "led the New Frontier and its young president down the garden path," as Lynch puts it, "(assuring) him that the invasion would succeed without any American support." That is what most people accept today. The subtext is obvious: The Castro revolution was "popular," but the invaders were not, therefore they deserved to lose. So did the United States, for having chosen to be on the wrong side of history.
In retrospect the most striking aspect of the whole affair is the naivet of the Kennedy State Department and White House staff. From the very beginning no such project--no matter how modest its dimensions--could have hoped to attain its ultimate object without extensive U.S. financial, intelligence, ogistical, and political support. In the event of success, Washington's fingerprints would have been obvious to all and sundry, as indeed it would be in the case of failure. Moreover, a new Cuban government, regardless of how well received by the Cuban people, would have lacked legitimacy in the eyes of many Latin American countries and presumably some others as well. (Witness the fate of Guillermo Endara's government in Panama, installed by U.S. forces in 1989, even though it had been previously elected!) That would have been our problem, but a trivial one indeed compared to the one we eventually faced. Lynch's book underscores the fact that in the end we paid a far higher price at the Bay of Pigs for failure than we would have for success. It also suggests the need to unseal the records. Let the next Republican administration release an unexpurgated version of the Taylor- Kennedy report, so that its contents may be compared to the remarkable testimony in this book.
Mr. Falcoff is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is completing a major study of U.S.-Cuban relations.