After Fidel Castro, who had ousted Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, expropriated American economic assets and developed links with the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to plan Castro’s overthrow in March 1960. The CIA proceeded to organize the operation with the aid of the Mafia and various Cuban counter-revolutionary forces. After he was elected in November, John Kennedy was briefed and gave the go-ahead. On April 15, eight CIA-supplied B-26 bombers attacked Cuban air fields before returning to the U.S., and on the night of April 16 the main invasion landed at Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs. On April 20 the invaders finally surrendered, with the majority of troops being publicly interrogated and then sent back to the U.S. The failed invasion strengthened Castro, who improved ties with the Soviet Union. This ultimately led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The invasion was a major embarrassment for U.S. foreign policy. Here, William T. Pryce details the meetings that occurred before the invasion, including the difficulty the State Department had with making a case for its own plan, and the reaction to the failed invasion and overthrow of Castro.
People felt this plan would not succeed
At that point I was a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Inter‑American Affairs in the State Department, Thomas Mann. I must say it was a unique position because Secretary Mann wanted to have a staff assistant in all his meetings and so he insisted that I get clearances to attend meetings that he had with the CIA, with Defense and others without holds barred. As a result I was involved in the meetings that were leading up to the Bay of Pigs. There was a very detailed plan developed by the CIA involving an invasion of Cuba from Nicaragua and Guatemala originally. The overall plan was to first destroy Castro’s air fields by having planes take off from a couple of places and bomb the air fields, bomb Castro’s planes on the ground so that the invasion could then take place.
Mr. Mann felt this was not a viable program and he opposed it inside the circles of the government. He wrote a memo to Secretary Rusk showing why this plan wasn’t the right one. He became very unpopular of course with the Agency, because there was tremendous pressure, frankly. We had built up this huge apparatus that President Kennedy was handed and there were hundreds of people, perhaps thousands of people, ready to go on this invasion and it would be very difficult to call it off. Mann had two fundamental points. [The first was]…that it probably wouldn’t succeed, it would have great difficulty succeeding without U.S. involvement, and that the U.S. should not be involved… [The second was] that if we did become involved, we should see it through and we should be prepared to use U.S. troops to make it succeed.
He then proposed an alternative plan: if something had to be done we should try to use the OAS [Organization of American States]. It was a very interesting time, because there were people that felt this plan would not succeed. Another fascinating thing was that this was a covert plan which was bandied about in The New York Times for probably a month before the invasion took place…. One of the interesting things is that, as you probably remember, [U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] Adlai Stevenson was not privy to what was going on…even though talk about an invasion appeared in The New York Times.
“President Kennedy made very clear that there was to be no U.S. involvement”
I guess it was a question of plausible deniability. What I remember very clearly was that one of the premises was that the Agency had at least one or two, several I think, Cuban pilots that were supposed to take off from the air field, then turn around and bomb it, and then fly off to other places, so the story that this was a Cuban operation would have some plausibility. Of course that never happened, and I don’t know if that was ever a serious possibility or not, but it was touted as a possibility. The decision was made to go ahead and go without the people from Cuba, so I think maybe they had a plane that had been in Cuba at one point. I’m recalling now that Stevenson was very much embarrassed in the UN because he made statements which later turned out to be not correct. I also remember that what had happened is that the initial raids did not achieve their purpose; they were only partially successful, but the decision then was to go ahead anyway.…
There were a lot of stories around that at the last minute President Kennedy held back the participation of U.S. forces. My recollection is that that clearly was not the case. President Kennedy at all times made very clear at all discussions that I heard about and certainly in the other discussions, that there was to be no U.S. involvement. This was one of the things that Mann was saying, that if we do this we shouldn’t fail but it was very clear that the President made up his mind ahead of time that there would be no U.S. participation.
What happened was when the invasion was in trouble, the President did relent to the point of allowing an air cover to cover the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs so that the people there would not be pounded by Cuban air. An air cover was authorized but never a U.S. attack. I’ve heard pilots talk about it: “I was up there and we were ready to go.” I think that probably lower in the chain of command maybe our U.S. military wanted to go, but there was never, to my knowledge, ever, any thought that U.S. forces would be directly involved. President Kennedy never called anybody off. He basically refused to have involvement as he always said he would.…
I should also say one other thing. I remember that at one point…there was a thought that the military said that they never really had a chance to look at the plan, that JCS never had a chance to look at the plan. I recollect that there was a plan which was signed off on by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now what happened was they didn’t vet it through the normal process, so you could say in a sense that the Joint Chiefs had not looked at it in the normal process. But there was a small group of people that did look at it. They said that there was a reasonable chance of success, again assuming they had the air superiority. This estimate, which was cautious, nevertheless was seen by the Joint Chiefs and was signed, as I remember correctly, and I think I do, by the Joint Chiefs. So they were certainly aware.…
He [JFK] accepted full responsibility. He was, I think, very courageous to do that, because he certainly was handed an ongoing process which had been authorized by President Eisenhower and there was a certain inertia there…. Clearly the President was fully briefed, but there was a certain pressure to go forward with the plan….
[The reaction to the failed invasion was] that it was an unfortunate event and that it obviously damaged our prestige to be involved. Some people felt that we should have been involved in such a venture but the greater feeling was that if we were involved, we should have won, we should have made it work. So there is a combination of people feeling this is intervention, and that certainly was the public position by most countries, that the United States should not intervene in situations like this. A lot of private opinion was that you guys, the United States, if you did something like this you should have made it work, you should have gone all the way, you should have eliminated Castro.