The Lesson John Kennedy Learned From the Bay of Pigs

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JFK displays the flag of a Cuban exile group involved in the Bay of Pigs debacle

Forty years ago in the sweet first spring of the New Frontier, John Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Swelled with the possibilities that lay ahead, Kennedy believed he would soon stride the world as the bold young President blooded in World War II, tempered in the political battles of 1960 and daring enough to have subverted the Soviet Union's puppet Fidel Castro.

The three-day battle beginning on April 17 was, of course, a disaster. The strategic concept was faulty, the tactics worse, the forces and weapons inadequate, the intelligence abysmally off the mark. The idea was that between 1,400 and 1,500 Cuban exiles bolstered by U.S. training and equipment would march triumphantly from the Bay of Pigs into Havana where the people would rise against Castro. If that did not happen, the force was to slip into the mountains and launch guerrilla warfare. Instead they were captured by Cuba's 20,000 troops, leaving Castro to stand even taller astride his small world.

A humiliated Kennedy wondered what happened. Arrogance for one thing. I recall being at a party the night before the invasion at Hickory Hill, Bobby Kennedy's Virginia estate. "Do you have any correspondents in Havana?" he asked me before leading me to a quiet part of his living room. I assured him that we did. He was wedged into the corner, and as he talked he slid down to escape the party's babble until we were both seated on the floor. "There is going to be a big story there tomorrow," he said. "It is going to be dangerous. I can't tell you any more. Just be ready." With that he was off among his guests, those bright, ambitious, super-confident young men and women who had flooded to Washington with the Kennedys three months earlier.

When Bobby had talked to me about the "the big story" his eyes had been bright with anticipation, his manner one of assurance. I knew him pretty well, and later when I learned the whole story of the Bay of Pigs I could see how the plan would capture his imagination. It was everything the Kennedys were about; the terrible swift sword delivered with righteous fervor against a contemptible foe. And it was in the cause of freedom — and the greater glory of the Kennedys. Magnificent, macho, melodramatic.

The smart can be dumb, too

Humility came to the President and to Bobby in the second dawn of the battle. Everything began to fall apart, including President Kennedy's nerve, and he would not allow backup U.S. forces to join the lopsided struggle.

"Someday, write a book about all this," John Kennedy said to me weeks later when we talked calmly in the Oval Office. "I want to know how all this could have happened. There were 50 or so of us, presumably the most experienced and smartest people we could get, to plan such an operation. Most of us thought it would work. I know there are some men now saying they were opposed from the start. I wasn't aware of any great opposition. Even Bill Fulbright [Senator, who later claimed to have heatedly protested the invasion plans] was not so outspoken as he claimed. After the last briefing which he attended, he took me aside and told me he could see there was a lot more to this plan than he had realized."

Kennedy continued: "But five minutes after it began to fall in, we all looked at each other and asked, 'How could we have been so stupid?' When we saw the wide range of the failures we asked ourselves why it had not been apparent to somebody from the start. I guess you get walled off from reality when you want something to succeed too much. Remember, Sidey, write that book and explain it to all of us."

A patriarch's parting shot

I never wrote the book, but others have examined those dark three days of April 196l and the chain of ignorance sustained by arrogance is plain to see. The best and brightest can be pretty dumb when self-adoration takes over.

I can, however, add a footnote. As fall approached, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, the irascible and slightly infamous patriarch of the Kennedy clan, called me up to muse a bit about that hot summer (Berlin Wall, Khrushchev blasts at the Vienna Summit). The conversation went something like this: "I tell you, Hugh, Jack is the luckiest guy I know. He could fall into a pile of manure and come up smelling like a rose. The Bay of Pigs and the other things were the best lessons he could have gotten and he got them all early. He knows now what will work and what won't, who he can trust and who he can't, who will stick with him and who will not."

Old Joe was right. Kennedy stood up to it, took the blame for the Bay of Pigs, rearranged his staff and a year later when confronted by the Cuban Missile Crisis steered a steady and successful course through that nuclear peril.