The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs
By Jim Rasenberger
Reviewed by Steven R. Maher
The Bay of Pigs means very little to anyone under the age of 50. It was a four day affair in which 1,200 American backed Cuban exiles suffered an ignominious defeat trying to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in April 1961. For the United States, it was a humiliating setback that left new President John F. Kennedy being perceived as weak and indecisive by the Soviet Union. For Fidel Castro, it was “the first defeat of imperialism in the Americas”, a triumph that consolidated his regime and made him a hero to Cuban nationalists.
Rasenberger has written the best book yet on the subject. It is cogent, well documented, and very readable.
Between 1956 and 1958 Castro waged a successful guerilla war against old style tyrant Fulgencio Batista, taking power when Batista fled to the Dominican Republic on New Year’s Day 1959. Rasenberger picks up the story shortly after that, when Castro visited the United States in April 1959.
Rasenberger spends much time on the historical debate on whether Castro was a Communist when he took power on January 1, 1959, or became a Communist as a nationalist response to American pressure against his regime. This is an unfortunate digression. Most historians considered this matter resolved by Castro’s revelation to biographer Tad Szulc, that he contacted the Cuban Communist Party for assistance in Communizing Cuba shortly after he entered Havana in January 1959.
The April 1959 Castro visit was important from another perspective. Castro met with Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who concluded “Castro was either incredibly naïve about Communism or under Communist discipline and that we would have to treat him and deal with him accordingly..” Nixon continued his agitation against Castro, culminating in President Dwight D. Eisenhower ‘s March 17, 1960 “Program of Covert Action Against The Castro Regime.”
Now entering Rasenberger’s account is the central figure in the Bay of Pig saga – Richard M. Bissell. The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) deputy director for plans, Bissell has been portrayed by most historians, particularly Kennedy partisans, as the villain of the Bay of Pigs story. He is almost universally regarded as the person responsible for the disaster. “When Bissell’s name comes up in discussion of the Bay of Pigs, an unpleasant adjective usually lurks somewhere nearby ,” writes Rasenberger, “Certainly he was the scapegoat.”
“It was clear in retrospect that Kennedy was seduced by Dick Bissell’s smoothly persuasive estimation,” said Kennedy aide and later historian Arthur J. Schlesinger.”All of us – Kennedy and Bundy and the rest – were hypnotized by Dick Bissell to some degree.”
Bissell drew up the original Bay of Pigs plan. It called for Cuban exiles, “Brigade 2506” to launch two sets of air strikes using black market warplanes to destroy Castro’s air force. A group of exiles would make an amphibious landing near the city of Trinidad, and seize a slice of territory into which could be flown a provisional government from exile. This would supposedly set off uprisings across Cuba and mass defections from Castro’s forces. If it did not, the invasion force could retreat to the nearby Escambray mountains and fight on as guerillas. The whole endeavor was to be presented to the world as strictly a Cuban exile operation, with no U.S. government involvement.
Incoming President John F. Kennedy didn’t think the U.S’s involvement in so elaborate an undertaking could be concealed. He ordered the plan scaled back. The Bay of Pigs was picked because it was easy to defend, but it was 80 miles away from the Escambray Mountains. There was no place to retreat if the invasion failed to set off a rebellion.
After the invasion began, Kennedy cancelled the second set of air strikes against Castro’s air force. Three or four Castro jets survived the initial air raid. After the exile forces landed, these jets sank or drove off the brigade’s supply ships. Trapped in an area from which there was no escape, quickly running out of food and ammunition, the exiles were driven into the sea. Over 100 were killed and 1,000 captured.
There has long been a conspiracy theory that Bissell and other invasion organizers knew the planned was doomed to fail, and expected Kennedy to order the U.S. military to invade to avoid a complete debacle. Writes Rasenberger: “[E]vidence that the CIA planned the operation in advance with the expectation that the President would have to bail it out is scant.”
Kennedy does not come across too well in these pages. He appears in the first three months of his presidency as weak and indecisive. Kennedy harbored deep misgivings about the plan, but allowed himself to be swayed by the fact it was endorsed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the intelligence agencies, and experts of every hue. After the Bay of Pigs Kennedy took a jaundiced view of the experts and relied more on his gut instincts, which served the country well during the Cuban missile crisis.
Indeed, political partisans of all stripes can find something to criticize this book for. Rasenberger states flatly that Eisenhower and Kennedy both knew of, and supported plans to, assassinate Castro. President Lyndon B. Johnson so feared being accused of “another Bay of Pigs” that he promoted and prolonged the agony of Vietnam. And the obstruction of justice which cost Nixon the Presidency was to have the CIA ask the FBI not to investigate the Watergate break in because it would “open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again.”
This is an excellent book. This writer was unable to put it down, finishing it in one weekend. Rasenberger has crafted a masterpiece, well written, fast moving, and easy to read.