Probing military debacles

Print edition : July 03, 1999

Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba, edited by Peter Kornbluh; The New Press, New York; pages 339, $17.95.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader; edited by Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh; The New Press, New York; $19.95.

President's Secret Warsby John Prados; Ivan R. Dee, Inc., Chicago; pages 572, $17.95.

NEARLY four decades after the event, the Government of India still refuses to publish the Henderson-Brooks Report on the Indian Army's reverses in the war of 1962. As mentioned in detail earlier, Neville Maxwell has a copy ("Looking back"; Frontline, April 10, 1992). His recent article in Economic & Political Weekly confirms the fact. ("Sino-Indian Border Dispute Reconsidered"; April 10, 1999; footnote 65 refers to the then Director-General of Military Operations, Brigadier D.K. Palit, as "one of the quartet of officers blamed for the debacle in the Army's Official Report (still unreleased) but who rose to be Major-General".)

Neither morally nor politically nor militarily was that debacle at all comparable to the one which the United States invited through its mad venture in the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. Its sole object was to overthrow the Government of President Fidel Castro in Cuba through a military invasion mounted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with the approval of two Presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, who was barely 12 weeks in office. The historian Theodore Draper aptly characterised it as "one of those rare events in history - a perfect failure." The 1,400-man Cuban exile force called Brigade 2506 was crushed by Castro's far larger military and militia in less than 72 hours. Some 114 of its members were killed; as many as 1,189 were captured.

It was originally conceived as "Operation Zapata", which the Pentagon aptly called "Operation Bumpy Road", with a $4-million budget for a covert infiltration project to train a cadre of insurgency leaders and drop them into the Escambray mountains. It grew to a $46-million overt amphibious assault. The U.S. had 27 agents within Cuba when it severed diplomatic relations with the small southern neighbour in January 1961.

The next year, fearing another invasion, Castro signed a defence pact with the Soviet Union and accepted the installation of its missiles on Cuban soil. The Bay of Pigs venture sowed the seeds of the gravest crisis during the entire Cold War - the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Unlike the Henderson-Brooks Report, we now have authentic official records of both as well as of some later CIA ventures.

Almost immediately after the 1961 debacle, CIA Director Allen Dulles asked the agency's Inspector-General, Lyman Kirkpatrick, to conduct an inquiry. For six months he interviewed 125 CIA employees at various levels and read a mass of documents. "The Inspector-General's Survey of the Cuban Operation" was "perhaps the most brutally honest self-examination ever conducted inside the agency." It was also a model of clarity and brevity in its 150 pages.

The architect of the operation, Richard Bissell, the CIA's Deputy Director of Plans, felt "wounded" by the Report and wrote a comprehensive reply which the new Director, John McCone, ordered to be permanently attached to the Report. He also ordered Kirkpatrick to provide him with the distribution list of all its 20 copies. Most of the copies were burnt. The remaining copies were kept under lock and key. In unfriendly hands, Deputy Director-General Charles P. Cabell wrote on December 15, 1961, the Report "could become a weapon unjustifiably (used) to attack the entire mission, organisation, and functioning of the Agency."

That came to pass on February 19, 1998 when the CIA provided the Kirkpatrick report to the National Security Archive, a public interest research library skilled in the use of the Freedom of Information Act. Its staff is committed to the pursuit of transparency and the truth on defence and foreign affairs. It has published the Report with an able introduction by Peter Kornbluh. The publisher, the New Press, is a non-profit alternative to the big commercial publishing houses which dominate the business of book publishing. It operates in the public interest. The first two volumes are a fine product of collaboration between the Archive and publishers. The second volume is a compilation of documents on the missile crisis in 1962, mostly unpublished hitherto. Others in the series cover the Iran-Contra Scandal, The Kissinger Transcripts and White House E-mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan/Bush White House Tried to Destroy.

The National Security Archive worked for the declassification of the Report since 1996. "Two factors provided leverage for eventual declassification: first, President Clinton's 1995 Executive Order that all secret documents over 25 years old be processed for release; and second, the CIA's own announcement in 1992 that it would begin a historical review of 11 past covert operations as part of a new post-Cold War 'openness campaign'. "

Amazingly, the Cubans knew of the U.S. plans in advance and the CIA knew that the Cubans were in the know, as Kornbluh writes: "As early as November 1960, Cuban intelligence sent a report to Moscow on CIA training of the anti-Castro exiles in Guatemala; and in early April 1961, the CIA intercepted a cable from the Soviet embassy in Mexico City accurately stating that the invasion was expected on April 17. On April 9, The New York Times published a front-page story - considerably watered down after a call from the President - titled 'Anti-Castro Units Trained to Fight at Florida Bases'. Castro 'didn't need agents over here,' Kennedy exclaimed. 'All he has to do is read our papers.' Even worse, the U.S. role in the preliminary air strike on April 15 was immediately exposed to the world - before the full invasion took place."

The New York Times correspondent Tom Wicker mentioned an interesting fact in his memoir On Press (1975). He wrote: "After the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy sternly and publicly warned broadcasters and newspapers to 're-examine their own responsibilities' and ask of every story they proposed to print: 'Is it in the interest of national security?' But two weeks later, in the privacy of the White House, he told Managing Editor Turner Coatledge of The New York Times: 'Maybe if you had printed more about the operation you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.'"

Eisenhower admonished CIA officials when he authorised the project on March 17, 1960: "The main thing was not to let the U.S. hand show." That hand was apparent even before the assault. Kennedy made significant changes in the plan: he changed landing sites, decided on night deployment instead of a day-time assault, and effected a reduction in air strikes. He cancelled "a second planned air strike on D-day, which the CIA considered critical for the success of the operation." Kirkpatrick found, however, that this was not "the chief cause of failure."

In the aftermath of the fiasco, two schools of thought emerged. One blamed Kennedy for cancelling the second air strike and for not salvaging the operation through active military intervention. The other blamed the CIA for misleading the President with wrong assessments. Fidel Castro's popularity was evident to all, except to the CIA.

The editor makes a highly relevant point: "In the historiography of the invasion, why it failed is less important than the foreign policy attitudes, assumptions, and actions that contributed to this human, political, and foreign policy tragedy. 'I don't think that the failure was because of the want of a nail.' Kennedy's National Security Adviser, McGeorge Bundy, testified during one post-invasion inquiry. 'I think that the men who worked on this got into a world of their own.'"

In his response to the report, Bissell made a revealing statement. The CIA's successful operation against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 "was an analogy and a precedent" for the Bay of Pigs episode. In August 1960, he had sought authorisation for a CIA-Mafia plot to assassinate Castro. According to another CIA Inspector-General's Report of May 23, 1967, "at the very moment President Kennedy was shot, a CIA officer was meeting with a Cuban agent in Paris and giving him an assassination device for use against Castro."

Kirkpatrick's Report listed the flaws meticulously - "bad planning", faulty intelligence, "fragmentation of authority", mistreatment of the exiles and "failure to advise the President that success had become dubious." He was, however, too optimistic by half: "It is assumed that the Agency, because of its experience in the Cuban operation, will never again engage in an operation that is essentially an overt military effort."

He was sensitive to the conflict between interests and values. "Inherent in this situation was a clear conflict between two goals, a conflict of the sort familiar in recent U.S. history. One objective was that, mainly through the various activities comprised in this project, the Castro regime should be overthrown. The other was that the political and moral posture of the U.S. before the world at large should not be impaired. The basic method of resolving this conflict of objectives that was resorted to was to seek to carry out actions against Castro in such a manner that the official responsibility of the U.S. Government could be disclaimed. If complete deniability had been consistent with maximum effectiveness, there would theoretically have remained no conflict of goals but in fact this could not be (and never is) the case" (emphasis added).

Bissell drew a different conclusion - support an operation only if your are prepared "to use whatever force is needed to achieve success." Both Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell had to leave office. When Kennedy said in the latter's praise "he leaves an enduring legacy", he made, unwittingly, a prophecy which came true with baleful consequences. "The Bissell mindset - a combination of imperial arrogance, ethnocentric ignorance and a false sense of U.S. omnipotence - has dominated the history of covert operations since the Bay of Pigs."

That record is ably documented by Prof. John Prados. It covers the entire period from the last days of the Second World War to the Iran-Contra scandal. It is a most useful volume for reference. The author delivers a warning which all governments should heed - covert military operations contribute little to security and create more problems than they solve.

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