The Untold Story of the Bay of Pigs

By Dallek, Robert | Newsweek, August 29, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Untold Story of the Bay of Pigs


Dallek, Robert, Newsweek


Byline: Robert Dallek

Newly declassified CIA documents reveal new blunders and how close America came to war during the failed invasion of Cuba.

From a transport ship floating in Cuba's Bay of Pigs, CIA operative Grayston Lynch knew the U.S. mission to overthrow Fidel Castro was faltering. The Cuban exiles he had brought with him had abandoned their posts, so he grabbed the boat's recoilless rifles and machine guns and began firing at the aircraft overhead.

On a day of chaos and infamy in April 1961, Lynch would soon understand the consequences of his shooting. He had fired on his agency's own planes, which were trying to protect the U.S.-led Cuban exiles invading the island from being slaughtered by Castro's forces. "We couldn't tell them from the Castro planes," Lynch later explained.

The Bay of Pigs is one of America's most infamous Cold War blunders, and it has been studied, debated, and dramatized endlessly ever since. Yet, for 50 years, details like Lynch's story were hidden away in top-secret CIA files that were finally released this month and reviewed by NEWSWEEK.

The CIA's official history of the Bay of Pigs operation is filled with dramatic and harrowing details that not only lay bare the strategic, logistical, and political problems that doomed the invasion, but also how the still-green President John F. Kennedy scrambled to keep the U.S. from entering into a full conflict with Cuba.

The disclosure is the handiwork of the dogged researcher Peter Kornbluh and his Washington-based National Security Archive. The right-to-know group used the Freedom of Information Act and lawsuits to force the CIA to release all its major documents on Kennedy's failed efforts to overthrow Castro, who this month turned 85 and stands as a living reminder of America's failure to repel communism on an island just 90 miles from Florida.

Written by then-CIA chief historian Jack Pfeiffer between 1974 and 1984, the five-volume history--the last volume of which remains classified--seeks to spread the blame beyond the agency to the State Department and White House, while confirming that the invasion was even more disastrously handled than previously known.

Among the details hidden from public view all these years are that a CIA official transferred funds from the invasion budget to "pay the mafia types" for an assassination plot against Castro, which was so secret that the chief of invasion planning, Jacob Esterline, was not told what the money was for. Despite repeated White House instructions to keep U.S. forces from directly participating in order to preserve plausible deniability of American involvement, the CIA ultimately gave permission for U.S. pilots to fly aircraft over the beaches. The aviators were told that, if they were shot down and captured, they should describe themselves as mercenaries and the U.S. would "deny any knowledge" of them. Sadly, four U.S. airmen lost their lives, and it wasn't until 1976 that they were given medals in ceremonies their families were encouraged to keep secret. Before Kennedy inherited the Bay of Pigs invasion plan from the Eisenhower administration, then-vice president Richard Nixon was a forceful advocate of bringing down Castro and urged the CIA to support "goon squads and other direct action groups" operating inside and outside Cuba.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, the CIA task force in charge of the paramilitary assault did not believe it could succeed without becoming an open invasion supported by the U.S. military. The assessment was part of a brief prepared for President-elect Kennedy that he never saw.

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