Bay of Pigs

In the three years that followed the Cuban Revolution, 250,000 Cubans out of a population of six million left the country. Most of these were from the upper and middle-classes who were financially worse off as a result of Castro's policies.

Of those who stayed, 90 per cent of the population, according to public opinion polls, supported Fidel Castro. However, Castro did not keep his promise of holding free elections. Castro claimed the national unity that had been created would be destroyed by the competing political parties in an election.

Castro was also becoming less tolerant towards people who disagreed with him. Ministers who questioned the wisdom of his policies were sacked and replaced by people who had proved their loyalty to him. These people were often young, inexperienced politicians who had fought with him in the Sierra Maestra.

Politicians who publicly disagreed with him faced the possibility of being arrested. Writers who expressed dissenting views and people he considered deviants such as homosexuals were also imprisoned.

In March 1960 Richard Bissell had drafted a top-secret policy paper entitled: A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime (code-named JMARC). This paper was based on PBSUCCESS, the policy that had worked so well in overthrowing President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. In fact, Bissell assembled the same team as the one used against Arbenz: (Tracy Barnes, David Atlee Phillips, David Morales, Jake Esterline, Rip Robertson, E. Howard Hunt and Gerry Droller “Frank Bender”). The only one missing was Frank Wisner, who had suffered a mental breakdown in 1956. Added to the team was Desmond FitzGerald, William Harvey and Ted Shackley.

The policy involved the creation of an exile government, a powerful propaganda offensive, developing a resistance group within Cuba and the establishment of a paramilitary force outside Cuba. In Guatemala this strategy involved persuading Jacobo Arbenz to resign. Richard Bissell knew of course that Fidel Castro would never agree to that. Therefore, Castro had to be removed just before the invasion took place. If this did not happen, the plan would not work. In August 1960 Dwight Eisenhower authorized $13m to pay for JMARC.

Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA Technical Services Division was asked to come up with proposals that would undermine Castro's popularity with the Cuban people. Plans included a scheme to spray a television studio in which he was about to appear with an hallucinogenic drug and contaminating his shoes with thallium which they believed would cause the hair in his beard to fall out.

These schemes were rejected and instead Bissell decided to arrange the assassination of Fidel Castro. In September 1960 Richard Bissell and Allen W. Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initiated talks with two leading figures of the Mafia, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. Later, other crime bosses such as Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante and Meyer Lansky became involved in this plot against Castro.

Robert Maheu, a veteran of CIA counter-espionage activities, was instructed to offer the Mafia $150,000 to kill Fidel Castro. The advantage of employing the Mafia for this work is that it provided CIA with a credible cover story. The Mafia were known to be angry with Castro for closing down their profitable brothels and casinos in Cuba. If the assassins were killed or captured the media would accept that the Mafia were working on their own.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation had to be brought into this plan as part of the deal involved protection against investigations against the Mafia in the United States. Castro was later to complain that there were twenty ClA-sponsered attempts on his life. Eventually Johnny Roselli and his friends became convinced that the Cuban revolution could not be reversed by simply removing its leader. However, they continued to play along with this CIA plot in order to prevent them being prosecuted for criminal offences committed in the United States.

John F. Kennedy was given a copy of the JMARC proposal by Bissell and Allen W. Dulles in Palm Beach on 18th November, 1960. According to Bissell, Kennedy remained impassive throughout the meeting. He expressed surprise only at the scale of the operation. The plan involved a 750 man landing on a beach near the port of Trinidad, on the south coast of Cuba. The CIA claimed that Trinidad was a hotbed of opposition to Castro. It was predicted that within four days the invasion force would be able to recruit enough local volunteers to double in size. Airborne troops would secure the roads leading to the town and the rebels would join up with the guerrillas in the nearby Escambray Mountains.

In March 1961 John F. Kennedy asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to vet the JMARC project. As a result of “plausible deniability” they were not given details of the plot to kill Castro. The JCS reported that if the invaders were given four days of air cover, if the people of Trinidad joined the rebellion and if they were able to join up with the guerrillas in the Escambray Mountains, the overall rating of success was 30%. Therefore, they could not recommend that Kennedy went along with the JMARC project.

At a meeting on 11th March, 1961, Kennedy rejected Bissell’s proposed scheme. He told him to go away and draft a new plan. He asked for it to be “less spectacular” and with a more remote landing site than Trinidad. It appears that Kennedy had completely misunderstood the report from the JCS. They had only rated it as high as a 30% chance of success because it was going to involve such a large landing force and was going to take place in Trinidad, near to the Escambray Mountains. After all, Fidel Castro had an army and militia of 200,000 men.

Richard Bissell now resubmitted his plan. As requested, the landing was no longer at Trinidad. Instead he selected Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). This was 80 miles from the Escambray Mountains. What is more, this journey to the mountains was across an impenetrable swamp. As Bissell explained to Kennedy, this means that the guerrilla fallback option had been removed from the operation.

As Allen W. Dulles recorded at the time: “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.” In other words, he knew that the initial invasion would be a disaster, but believed that Kennedy would order a full-scale invasion when he realized that this was the case. According to Evan Thomas (The Very Best Men): “Some old CIA hands believe that Bissell was setting a trap to force U.S. intervention”. Edgar Applewhite, a former deputy inspector general, believed that Bissell and Dulles were “building a tar baby”. Jake Esterline was very unhappy with these developments and on 8th April attempted to resign from the CIA. Bissell convinced him to stay.

On 10th April, 1961, Bissell had a meeting with Robert Kennedy. He told Kennedy that the new plan had a two out of three chance of success. Bissell added that even if the project failed the invasion force could join the guerrillas in the Escambray Mountains. Kennedy was convinced by this scheme and applied pressure on those like Chester Bowles, Theodore Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger who were urging John F. Kennedy to abandon the project.

On 13th April, Kennedy asked Richard Bissell how many B-26s were going to be used. He replied sixteen. Kennedy told him to use only eight. Bissell knew that the invasion could not succeed without adequate air cover. Yet he accepted this decision based on the idea that he would later change his mind “when the chips were down”. The following day B-26 planes began bombing Cuba's airfields. After the raids Cuba was left with only eight planes and seven pilots. Two days later five merchant ships carrying 1,400 Cuban exiles arrived at the Bay of Pigs.

Allen W. Dulles was in Puerto Rico during the invasion. He left Charles Cabell in charge. Instead of ordering the second air raid he checked with Dean Rusk. He contacted Kennedy who said he did not remember being told about the second raid. After discussing it with Rusk he decided to cancel it.

Instead the operation tried to rely on Radio Swan, broadcasts being made on a small island in the Caribbean by David Atlee Phillips, calling for the Cuban Army to revolt. They failed to do this. Instead they called out the militia to defend the fatherland from “American mercenaries”.

At 7 a.m. on 18th April, Richard Bissell told John F. Kennedy that the invasion force was trapped on the beaches and encircled by Castro’s forces. Then Bissell asked Kennedy to send in American forces to save the men. Bissell expected him to say yes. Instead he replied that he still wanted “minimum visibility”.

After the air raids Cuba was left with only eight planes and seven pilots. Two days later five merchant ships carrying 1,400 Cuban exiles arrived at the Bay of Pigs. Two of the ships were sunk, including the ship that was carrying most of the supplies. Two of the planes that were attempting to give air-cover were also shot down.

That night Bissell had another meeting with John F. Kennedy. This time it took place in the White House and included General Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations. Bissell told Kennedy that the operation could still be saved if American warplanes were allowed to fly cover. Admiral Burke supported him on this. General Lemnitzer called for the Brigade to join the guerrillas in the Escambray Mountains. Bissell explained this was not an option as their route was being blocked by 20,000 Cuban troops.

Within seventy-two hours all the invading troops had been killed, wounded or had surrendered. Bissell had a meeting with John F. Kennedy about the Bay of Pigs operation. Kennedy admitted it was his fault that the operation had been a disaster. Kennedy added: "In a parliamentary government, I'd have to resign. But in this government I can't, so you and Allen (Dulles) have to go."

As Evan Thomas points out in The Very Best Men: "Bissell had been caught in his own web. "Plausible deniability" was intended to protect the president, but as he had used it, it was a tool to gain and maintain control over an operation... Without plausible deniability, the Cuba project would have turned over to the Pentagon, and Bissell would have have become a supporting actor."

After the CIA's internal inquiry into this fiasco, Allen W. Dulles was forced to resign as Director of the CIA (November, 1961) by President John F. Kennedy. He did not actually sack Bissell. Instead he offered him the post as director of a new science and technology department. Bissell turned down the offer and in February 1962 he left the CIA and was replaced as head of the Directorate for Plans, by Richard Helms. He now introduced a campaign that involved covert attacks on the Cuban economy.

Primary Sources

(A1) In 1953, Fidel Castro complained about Cuba's economic relationship with the United States.

With the exception of a few food, lumber and textile industries, Cuba continues to be a producer of raw materials. We export sugar to import candy, we export hides to import shoes, we export iron to import ploughs.

(A2) After Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union met Fidel Castro in New York in 1960 he told a colleague what he thought of him.

Castro is like a young horse that hasn't been broken. He needs some training, but he's very spirited - so we will have to be careful.

(A3) In his book The Perfect Failure, Trumbull Higgins argues that Kennedy had a strong dislike of Fidel Castro and had been discussing his removal even before he became president.

As early as October 1960 Kennedy had discussed with his conservative friend Senator George Smathers of Florida the likely reaction of the American public to an attempt to assassinate Castro. Alternatively, Kennedy and Smathers had considered provoking a Cuban assault upon the base at Guantanamo to provide an excuse for a U.S. invasion of the island.

(A4) Terence Cannon was born in the United States but in the 1960s lived and worked in Cuba. In his book, Revolutionary Cuba, Cannon discusses the air-raid on Cuba on 14th April, 1961.

Nine CIA planes had taken off that morning from Puerto Cabezas (Nicaragua): eight for Cuba and one directly to Miami... each plane bore an imitation of the Cuban Air Force insignia. The single pilot bound for Miami was to arrive there just after the others had bombed Cuba... An enterprising reporter got close enough to his plane to notice that dust and grease covered the bomb-bay doors and that the muzzles of the guns were taped shut. The plane had obviously not participated in any attack.

(A5) Peter Bourne worked as an assistant to President Jimmy Carter. After meeting Fidel Castro in 1979 he decided to write a book about him. In the book he dealt with the Bay of Pigs incident.

One plane that took off from Nicaragua with the others did not engage in the raid, but flew to Miami with an engine deliberately feathered by pistol shots. When it landed, the pilot claimed that he was a member of Fidel's air force who had defected after bombing his own airfield... Knowledgeable journalists noticed that his B-26 had a metal nose cone while those in the Cuban air force were made of Plexiglass.

(A6) After the bombing raid on 14th April 1961, Fidel Castro made a speech to the Cuban people.

The imperialists plan the crime, organize the crime, furnish the criminals with weapons for the crime, pay the criminals, and then those criminals come here and murder the sons of seven honest workers. Why are they doing this? They can't forgive our being right under their very noses, seeing how we have made a revolution, a socialist revolution. Comrades, workers and peasants, this is a socialist and democratic revolution of the poor, by the poor and for the poor, we are ready to give our lives.

(A7) In 1961 the Cuban government published details of some of the 1,197 prisoners Involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Occupations: 100 plantation owners; 67 landlords of apartment houses; 35 factory owners; 112 businessmen; 179 lived off unearned income; and 194 ex-soldiers of Batista.

Total property owned in Cuba: 923,000 acres of land; 9,666 houses and apartment buildings; 70 factories; 12 night clubs; 10 sugar mills; 24 large property owners; 5 mines and 3 banks.

(A8) On February 4,1962 Fidel Castro made a speech in Havana where he considered the motivations behind the Bay of Pigs invasion.

What is hidden behind the Yankee's hatred of the Cuban Revolution... a small country of only seven million people, economically underdeveloped, without financial or military means to threaten the security or economy of any other country? What explains it is fear. Not fear of the Cuban Revolution but fear of the Latin American Revolution.

(A9) After the Bay of Pigs, Philip Bonsol, the United States Ambassador in Cuba, wrote about the failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro .

The Bay of Pigs was a serious setback for the United States... It consolidated Castro's regime and was a determining factor in giving it the long life it has enjoyed... It became clear to all concerned in Washington, in Havana and in Moscow that for the time being the Castro regime could be overthrown only through an overt application of American power.

(A10) E.Howard Hunt, interviewed for the television programme, Backyard (21st February, 1999)

When I came back (from Cuba), I wrote a top secret report, and I had five recommendations, one of which was the one that's always been thrown at me, is that during... or... slightly antecedent to an invasion, Castro would have to be neutralized - and we all know what that meant, although I didn't want to say so in a memorandum with my name on it. Another one was that a landing had to be made at such a point in Cuba, presumably by airborne troops, that would quarter the nation, and that was the Trinidad project; cut the communications east to west, and there would be confusion. None of that took place. Once, when I came back from Coconut Grove and said, "What about... is anybody going after Castro? Are you going to get rid of him?", "It's in good hands," was the answer I got, which was a great bureaucratic answer. But the long and the short of it was that no attempt that I ever heard of was made against Castro's life specifically. President Idigros Fuentes of Guatemala was good enough to give our Cuban exiles two training areas in his country, one in the mountains, and then at (Retardo Lejo) we had an unused airstrip that he gave over to us, which we put into first-class condition for our fighter aircraft and our supply aircraft, and we trained Cuban paratroopers there. And the brigade never numbered more than about 1,500, which was 10 times more than Castillo Armas commanded.

(A11)Chauncey Holt was interviewed by John Craig, Phillip Rogers and Gary Shaw for Newsweek magazine (19th October, 1991)

We went to Cuba many times. At that point in time Carlos Prio was President of Cuba and Batista was in exile. It was Lanksy who was instrumental in getting Prio to allow Batista back into the country. He came back into the country and one day he just walked into the Presidential Palace apparently, and made Prio an offer he couldn't refuse... Batista was always in Lansky's pocket. So we were back and forth there in regards to the casinos.

Later on, when Castro started kicking up a force, and of course after he had landed there in the Escambay Mountains, Lansky, to hedge his bet, began offering assistance to Castro in the form of money and arms that were flying in. So although he was a very close friend of Batista, he was still assisting Castro. Around that time flying arms to Castro was no problem. The State Department didn't bother you at all. They just tolerated it.