A 50-Year Perspective—JFK, Richard Bissell, and the Bay of Pigs


Howard Jones is University Research Professor of History at the University of Alabama and the author of "The Bay of Pigs." He is researching a new book entitled "Into the Heart of Darkness: My Lai."

As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, most observers continue to blame President John F. Kennedy for the debacle.  Had he not changed the landing site from Trinidad to the Bay of Pigs, reduced the pre-invasion air strikes on Castro's air force, prohibited air cover on D-Day, and banned U.S. military force, the outcome, so these observers argue, might have been considerably different.

The president acted on the advice furnished by the chief architect of the Cuban projectRichard Bissell, the CIA’s Deputy Director of Operations. Widely known as "the most brilliant man in Washington," he had amassed an impressive string of achievements, most notably his development of the U-2 reconnaissance plane—a feat that so impressed CIA director Allen Dulles that he put the young man in charge of covert operations. Indeed, Bissell appeared to be Dulles’ heir apparent.

Bissell upgraded the original covert action plan to an amphibious invasion and, on the recommendation of two veterans of World War II, CIA operative Jacob Esterline and his chief paramilitary officer, Marine Colonel Jack Hawkins, selected Trinidad has the site.  The coastal city had a population of 18,000 and was a well-known center of anti-Castro activity whose supporters could provide the nucleus of a popular uprising.  It had excellent landing beaches along with first-rate docks, all in close proximity to the Escambray Mountains, which furnished a safe haven for the invasion force and was home of a thousand anti-Castro guerrillas and a potential base for future operations.  The Trinidad plan also stipulated D-2 and D-1 airstrikes on Castro's small air force, along with air cover on D-Day.  Unknown to Esterline and Hawkins, Bissell secretly incorporated an assassination plan reliant on cooperation with the Mafia.  “Assassination was intended to reinforce the plan,” Bissell later insisted.

The CIA thus took charge of a military operation for which it had no expertise, and it no longer had any chance of hiding the American hand by plausible deniability.

President Kennedy objected to Trinidad because of the "noise" factor—comparable to the D-Day invasion at Normandy in World War II and therefore so "spectacular" that the United States could not claim plausible deniability.  JFK inexplicably insisted that the brigade’s landing be nocturnal and quiet to assure surprise.

Rushed by the ongoing Soviet buildup on the island, Bissell searched for an alternate invasion site in a less populated area and that contained an airstrip capable of accommodating B-26s.  Only then could the White House contend that the pre-invasion air assaults had come from Cuban defectors flying B-26s pirated from Castro.

Bissell recommended the Bay of Pigs, an isolated spot west of Trinidad and much closer to Havana.  It had the desired airstrip at Playa Girón but no port facilities, and its waters were shark infested, too deep in some places to anchor, and ribbed with razor-edged coral reefs that ran along the entire beachhead and could rip the bottoms of boats as well as the legs of men.

But the chief problem was its location on the Zapata Peninsula—a virtually uninhabitable and impenetrable wilderness spanning miles of hot tropical swampland situated eighty miles from the Escambrays.  The mountains no longer provided refuge, and the sparse population eliminated the possibility of a mass insurrection.

Most striking, Bissell kept these problems from the president.  Robert F. Kennedy later declared that Bissell’s “greatest mistake” was his failure to warn JFK of Zapata’s liabilities.

As D-Day approached, President Kennedy remained deeply concerned about hiding the American hand and took other actions that further undermined the plan:  He cut the number of planes in the initial D-2 strikes from sixteen to eight, and then canceled the D-1 operation along with the D-Day cover.

The president remained confident that the assassination of Castro would set off an insurrection.  But the potential assassin had feared exposure and sought sanctuary in the Mexican embassy.

Why did Bissell lead JFK to believe the plan was sound?  And why did the president ignore his best instincts and approve it?

Both Bissell and JFK believed they had fail-safe mechanisms that would save the project.  Bissell feared that the president would kill the plan once knowing its flaws, believed it would work with Castro dead, and felt certain that Kennedy would resort to U.S. military force if necessary.  The president likewise counted on Castro's assassination, along with a popular insurrection and a place of refuge in the mountains.  But he had never suggested the possibility of using American military force.

Failure was not conceivable to either man, nor was cancellation of the invasion.  Either outcome would jettison Bissell's CIA ambitions while denying JFK his last chance to bring down Castro before the full Soviet military arsenal arrived in Cuba.

Historian Theodore Draper once called the Bay of Pigs episode the "perfect failure," and if any event in history comes close to that status, it occurred on those three days in April 1961 when Castro crushed the brigade and soon afterward declared himself a Marxist-Leninist.

In analyzing this fiasco, it is fair to repeat that the president acted on information provided by Bissell, who headed the operation and was responsible for keeping him well-informed.  Bissell did not do so.  Hubris, an ambition that reached for the CIA directorship, and a poorly thought out decision not to alert the president of the many problems with the plan—these factors led him to deceive and ultimately fail the president.

The result was an embarrassment for the young president, who appeared to lack courage and wisdom.  Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev proceeded to test his young adversary’s resolve in Berlin and again in Cuba in the missile crisis.  JFK became convinced after his poor showing with Khrushchev at the Vienna meeting of June 1961 that he had to make a stand and that Vietnam was “the place.”  Despite the outcome at the Bay of Pigs a half-century ago, the Kennedy administration (and others afterward) did not lose faith in covert operations, pre-emptive strikes, and perhaps even assassination in bringing about regime change.

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