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COLD WAR: 1961-63 (1 of 7)

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Cold War: the Kennedy Years

Bay of Pigs Invasion | Vienna Summit Conference, June 1961 | The Berlin Wall Goes Up | Showdown at Checkpoint Charlie, October 1961 | The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 | Kennedy, Vietnam and Ngo Dien Diem | The Kennedy Assassination

Bay of Pigs Invasion

John Kennedy was a liberal Democrat concerned about vulnerability to attacks on being soft on Communism. Like Nixon and Joe McCarthy he had criticized President Truman for losing China. The syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop described Kennedy as Adlai Stevenson (the Democratic Party's 1952 and 1956 candidate) "with balls," and Kennedy, according to Peter Beinart, "relished the line."

In Kennedy's campaign for president in the fall of 1960, he was unaware of Eisenhower and the CIA organizing an invasion of Cuba, and he criticized the Eisenhower administration for failing to support anti-Castro Cubans in their "fight for freedom." Nixon could not disclose the plan against Castro, but in his second televised debate with Kennedy he sought credit for the decline of dictators in Latin America since the Eisenhower administration had taken office. Nixon stated that a treaty with all of the Organization of American States prohibited the US from interfering in the internal affairs of any other state, but Nixon added:

map showing location of the Bay of Pigs

D-Day Morning

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Let me make one thing clear. There isn't any question but that we will defend our rights there. There isn't any question but that we will defend Guantanamo if it's attacked. There also isn't any question but that the free people of Cuba – the people who want to be free – are going to be supported and that they will attain their freedom. No, Cuba is not lost, and I don't think this kind of defeatist talk by Senator Kennedy helps the situation one bit.

Kennedy replied that he had "never suggested that Cuba was lost except for the present." He criticized Nixon for having described the Batista regime as competent and stable in his press conference in Havana in 1955. Kennedy added, that Batista "killed over twenty thousand Cubans in seven years" – an apparent reference to the years 1952 to 1959.

During the campaign, Kennedy attempted to link Nixon to a purported Eisenhower administration complacency: a missile gap that favored the Soviet Union. Kennedy said he would close that gap and that he would be firm with the Soviet Union. Benefiting from intelligent reports, Eisenhower knew there was no missile gap, but thinking he had to protect US intelligence he kept silent.

The vote count in early November gave Kennedy a lead of 0.2% of the popular vote. Nixon admitted defeat but was often to say that he had been robbed of victory. The voting in Chicago had been crucial. The Chicago gangster, Sam Giancana, had delivered a lot of votes for Kennedy, a deal said to have been brokered by Frank Sinatra and initiated by Kennedy's father, Joseph, with Sam Giancana believing that he might someday benefit from good will with the Kennedys.

On November 18, 1960, Allen Dulles of the CIA briefed President-elect Kennedy on Eisenhower's plan to overthrow Castro. And, on December 6, President Eisenhower met with the president-elect regarding the plan. Having criticized the Eisenhower administration during the campaign for having failed to support anti-Castro Cubans, Kennedy could not easily turn his back on Eisenhower's project. Allen Dulles, moreover, was arguing that if Kennedy ended the project it would demoralize those Cubans already training in Central America and send them scattering elsewhere in Latin America with negative talk about the Kennedy administration and the United States. Dulles argued too that the Soviet Union was training Cubans as pilots and was expected to deliver MiG aircraft to Cuba and that it was important to overthrow Castro soon rather than waiting and watching.

Khrushchev was still at odds with Communist China, with Mao arguing against the significance of nuclear weapons. As a counter to Maoism, Khrushchev bragged about the Soviet Union's support for wars of national liberation. He spoke of colonialists not granting independence, that resistance to imperialism was inevitable and that wars of national liberation would eventually lead to Communism. Kennedy was alarmed by Khrushchev's bluster, and he was moved to include in his inaugural speech defiant words about paying any price, bearing any burden, meeting any hardship "in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

The CIA's preparations for the invasion of Cuba continued, and on January 11 the Joint Chiefs of Staff were informed and consulted for the first time about the CIA's plan. Kennedy's advisor, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, told Kennedy that he was against the plan, claiming that the US would be unable to disguise its complicity and that it would dissipate the good will that his administration was gaining in the world.

William J. Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued against the invasion. The operation, he said, was wildly out of proportion to the threat. It would, he said, compromise the moral position of the US in the world and make it impossible to protest treaty violations by the Communists.

Within the CIA was also doubt about the invasion. Richard Helms, a future director, smelled failure. One CIA report described Castro as invulnerable to insurrection. But Dulles and some operatives who had taken part in the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala were confident that they could take care of Castro the way they had taken care of Arbenz.

Kennedy wanted it to appear that it was the Cubans who were overthrowing Castro. Whatever happens, he said, there would be no direct US involvement. This he told to the CIA and others around him, but it was not communicated to the Cubans training for the invasion, in Guatemala.

The plan against Castro included air strikes two days before the invasion, with B-26 bombers flown by Cuban pilots – the bombers supposedly belonging to a liberated airforce from within Cuba. There was to be a diversionary landing of 160 men near the Sierra Maestras, and the main invasion was to land near the town of Trinidad and link with an anti-Castro guerrilla force of 1,000 men already in the nearby Escambray Mountains.

On April 12, Kennedy held a press conference at which he was asked whether the US was going to help an uprising against Castro. Kennedy answered:

First, I want to say that there will not be, under any conditions, an intervention in Cuba by the United States Armed Forces. This government will do everything it possibly can, I think it can meet its responsibilities, to make sure that there are no Americans involved in any actions inside Cuba… The basic issue in Cuba is not one between the United States and Cuba. It is between the Cubans themselves.

On April 15, the air strike began, with eight B-26 bombers against three Cuban air bases, done with hope of destroying Castro's ability to attack the invaders from the air. Those taking part in the bombing saw more damage than they had actually created. Meanwhile, the anti-Castro diversionary invasion never made it to shore. Seeing a militia on shore, the 164-man force turned back.

Kennedy decided that a nighttime landing at the Bay of Pigs would be better than an early morning landing at Trinidad. At the Bay of Pigs was an air-strip that the invasion could use for more bombing raids. Once the bay was secured, it was thought, a provisional Cuban government would be set-up that the United States would recognize as Cuba's legitimate government.

The invading Cubans learned at the last minute that they were heading for the Bay of Pigs rather than Trinidad. They landed at midnight as planned, but nothing else went right. They were exposed to Castro's airforce, and as planned there was no air cover from the US coming to rescue them. There was no popular rising against Castro in favor of the invaders, and Castro's troops, with Russian tanks, moved against them. The invading force lost 89 as killed, and 1197 were taken prisoner. Castro's Cuba suffered 157 killed.

The invaders found a common explanation for their failure: they had been betrayed – in other words stabbed in the back. They blamed Kennedy for not sending help. Although Kennedy had never promised it, they believed that there was supposed to be back-up insurance by the US military. The invasion failed, it was said, because Kennedy lacked cojones (balls). A counter-theory, that the CIA plan which they had bought had been unrealistic, was ignored or given little credence.

Kennedy blamed the CIA, but he also asked how he could have been "so stupid." Before the end of 1961 he fired Allen Dulles and his deputy, Richard Bissel. But publicly he took responsibility for the failure, with familiar words about failures being orphans.

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