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Unfair Play for Cuba

The Bay of Pigs

by Haynes Johnson
Norton, 368 pp., $5.95

Mr. Haynes Johnson’s The Bay of Pigs is the story of “Brigade 2506,” the CIA-trained task force of Cuban exiles which was sacrificed in April 1961 in a futile attempt to invade the island and overthrow the Castro regime. The book is based on extensive interviews with four leaders of the Brigade: Manuel Artime, who had been hand-picked by the CIA as the political leader of the venture, José San Roman, the Brigade’s military commander, Erneido Oliva, his second-in-command, and Enrique Ruiz-Williams, an artillery officer. Mr. Johnson also interviewed numerous other members of the Brigade and managed to obtain highly interesting inside information from Washington sources which, in his own words, “cannot be revealed, but…are irrefutable.”

The Bay of Pigs is not, and does not purport to be, a complete history of the invasion and of the events that led up to it. Mr. Johnson deliberately steers clear of the subject of émigré politics; the reader is mercifully spared an account of the various political groups in Miami, their complicated maneuvers and intrigues, their combinations and internal disputes. Of course this also means that one of the main charges against the CIA, that they picked the wrong leaders for the invasion, is not discussed. Mr. Johnson’s opinion of these leaders is far more favorable than that of other authors who have dealt with the subject. Nevertheless, his picture of Manuel Artime clearly shows up the political immaturity of the man.

It is one of the great virtues of Mr. Johnson’s book that although he does not hesitate to express very definite opinions and judgments, he does not force them on the reader by twisting and suppressing evidence. He presents the facts in such a way as to enable the reader to form an opinion independent of, and sometimes contradictory to, his own. Thus he compares the men of Brigade 2506 to the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956, but his own account does not bear out this comparison. The Hungarians, armed only with submachineguns, rifles, and home-made Molotov cocktails, first drove the Russian occupiers out of their capital city and then fought stubbornly for six days, from November 4th to November 8th, against a superbly equipped invading army of Soviet élite troops. They expected nothing more than Western diplomatic pressure to dissuade the Soviets from coming back, and only in their death-struggle did they appeal for armed help.

The men of Brigade 2506, on the other hand, volunteered to fight on the assumption that a foreign power, the United States, would give them all the help they needed. Mr. Johnson makes this very clear, and indeed, one of his main points is that they were promised full backing, and were then let down. Again and again he quotes them as saying: “We thought Uncle Sam was behind us” (p. 37); “Everybody was convinced that the United States was behind us” (p. 42); or, “Most of the Cubans…just trusted the Americans so they were going to fight because they knew the United States was backing them” (p. 76).

To us, this appears to have been a basic weakness in the whole enterprise. It is true that the great majority of the Brigaders were patriots who wanted to liberate their country from an oppressor. But they were trained, and lavishly equipped, and sent in to fight against the government of their own country by the agency of a foreign power. By this they laid themselves open to the charge of being mercenaries, and enabled Castro to mobilize patriotic sentiment against them. That is why Manuel Ray was against an invasion, and insisted that Cuba must be liberated from within. Mr. Johnson does not think much of this resistance leader and believes his importance to have been exaggerated by other writers. But my own impression, when I arrived in Havana some weeks after the invasion, was that, of all the exile leaders, Ray was the only one who was widely respected by that part of the population which opposed the regime.

Nevertheless, Mr. Johnson’s account does greatly increase one’s respect for the men of the Brigade, whose performance at first glance seemed to have been unimpressive. His vivid and completely convincing description of the battle, with all its horror and confusion, shows that they fought well and bravely under competent leadership and only gave in when their supply of ammunition was exhausted.

Afterwards, the defeated and understandably demoralized men were herded into the Sports Palace in Havana for a television show. There were confessions and recantations, and cheers for Castro when he appeared in person to harangue the prisoners. But Mr. Johnson relates that only carefully selected men were brought before the TV cameras, and that only some 10 per cent of the prisoners signed letters condemning the United States—a small proportion indeed, under the circumstances.

What happened after this, in the long months of imprisonment, was truly amazing. Under harsh treatment and appalling living conditions, morale picked up, discipline was restored, and the men were once more voluntarily welded into a military unit under the command of the officers who had led them in battle. When their jailers finally prepared a show trial, the attitude of the prisoners was so firmly defiant that the TV cameras were not employed and the proceedings were not publicized in the regime press.

But the most important aspect of Mr. Johnson’s book is certainly his contribution to the debate about the ultimate responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He adheres to the orthodox view that the final responsibility rests with the CIA, but the facts which he relates tell a somewhat different story.

Mr. Johnson points out that the CIA was entrusted with the day-to-day operations of the Cuban counterrevolutionary force, but that overall planning “was debated in Washington by…a group of top officials of the State Department, Pentagon, CIA, and White House who met periodically about Cuba.” It was this body which, early in November 1960, made the fateful decision to launch an invasion in strength instead of landing small guerrilla groups. Mr. Johnson also reveals that soon after his inauguration, President Kennedy began meeting with his advisors on the Cuban problem. The decision to select the Bay of Pigs area as the landing place was worked out at a meeting of the National Security Council on March 11th, and at “other high-level administration conferences in the middle of March.” In all, from November 1960 to April 1961, more than a dozen meetings, conferences and briefings on the Cuban invasion were held in Washington, and all the meetings with the President were attended by one or more members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. Johnson cites some instances in which, according to him, the President was misinformed on various details by the CIA. He also reports that according to statements by the military and political leaders of the Brigade, a CIA man told them to proceed with the invasion. This has been denied by the agent in question, and even if it were true, it could hardly have been anything other than irresponsible talk by an individual. The basic fact is that all the important decisions concerning the invasion were made by the top policy-makers of two administrations, and not by the CIA. The CIA was entrusted with the execution of these decisions. In Guatemala, in 1954, it had staged a successful movement against the pro-Communist regime of President Arbenz. According to one of the participants in this movement, whom I happened to meet some weeks later, the actual invading force organized and armed by the CIA had consisted of a mere forty men. The CIA was well aware that Cuba was a much tougher proposition. It therefore set up a force nearly forty times stronger, complete with bazookas, artillery, tanks, and even an air force. It was not the CIA’s fault that the air force was composed of obsolete bombers without fighter protection; this was imposed by the top policy-makers who thereby wanted to conceal the extent of the American military commitment.

No less than 45 million dollars were spent on the Cuban venture. The sheer size of the operation proved to be the CIA’s undoing. A civilian agency may be able to send a few dozen gunmen over a Central American mountain range in order to topple a petty dictator, but to organize a landing by a force of 1500 men is a full-scale military operation requiring expert leadership. Military advisors to the civilian leadership of the enterprise were not enough. Mr. Johnson’s account of the actual invasion gives clear evidence of bungling by the civilians in charge. If a professional military commander with World War II landing operation experience had been in command of the entire operation, the supplies of ammunition and food would hardly have been concentrated on one vulnerable ship, which was sunk in the first hours of the engagement. Nor would the surviving ships have been permitted to flee in panic, instead of standing by in case they were needed for an evacuation.

A unified military command of the operation would probably have assured an orderly withdrawal of the invasion force, but not victory. Mr. Johnson states that since Castro’s army was far stronger and fought more fiercely than anticipated, ten thousand or even twenty thousand men might have been needed for victory. My own impression, based on conversations with anti-Castro Cubans in Havana in the weeks after the invasion, is that even twenty thousand men might have failed.

Not only the CIA, but also the top policy-makers had evidently expected the Castro forces to melt away after offering token resistance. This erroneous view was of course based on a completely false assessment of the Cuban situation. It had apparently been assumed the Castro was just another one of those unpopular Latin American dictators so easy to topple by a determined push. And so it was decided to give what seemed to be a very determined push: fifteen hundred men and 45 million dollars worth of equipment. The decisionmakers failed to understand that Cuba was in the midst of a real revolution, which could not be overcome by the classic Latin American method of the pronunciamento.

The decision to invade was apparently made on the basis of intelligence reports, culled mainly from refugee sources in Miami, that the situation in Cuba was ripe for revolt. But the political judgment of intelligence agencies is notoriously inadequate not only in the United States, but all over the world. That is why governments rarely if ever base their overall assessments of the political conditions in a foreign country on such reports alone, but also take the opinions of diplomats, journalists and other politically trained observers into account. If the information available from such sources had been duly considered by the Washington policy-makers, the Bay of Pigs adventure would probably have been avoided.

The responsibility for the disaster therefore lies with those who first based a major policy decision on inadequate intelligence reports, and then entrusted the CIA with military and political tasks which were quite beyond it. The CIA chiefs were to blame for their uncritical attitude towards their own sources of information, and for a dangerous lack of political judgment, but they can hardly be accused of having willfully arrogated powers and dictated policies. Nobody forced the policy-makers to rely so completely on the services and the advice of this agency. Their fatal error of judgment can only be explained by the lack of experience of a new administration—perhaps an inevitable concomitant of the American political system.

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