“We are out of ammo and fighting on the beach. Please send help. We cannot hold,” the Cuban exile commander begged in broken English over the radio.
The date was April 16, 1961. Cuban dissidents, organized by the CIA, landed at the Bahia de los Cochinos on the southern coast of Cuba. The Cubans were to execute an ill-fated coup against Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
Experts call “Bay of Pigs,” as the operation came to be known, the “perfect failure,” the king of all foreign policy debacles. One hundred and fourteen rebels died and 1,200 more were captured by Castro’s forces, largely on account of poor planning and communication within the CIA and Kennedy’s White House.
Recently, GW’s National Security Archive, a foreign policy documentation center, went to court to demand a key document in the history of the covert operation. The Archive spent two years fighting under the Freedom of Information Act.
Today, after 37 years under lock and key, the CIA’s 150-page report entitled “The Inspector General’s Survey of the Cuban Operation” is stashed away in the National Security Archive on Gelman Library’s seventh floor. The top-secret report is tucked among 1.7 million pages of declassified national security material.
The “highly critical” report, written by CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick in October, 1961, caused such a stir at the Agency that then-CIA Director John McCone ordered all but one copy burned. The original report, along with angry rebuttals penned by CIA officials in charge of the invasion, spent the Cold War locked in a safe in the director’s office.
“In the name of protecting the institutional future of covert operations, the Bay of Pigs report simply vanished into the thin air of secrecy,” said Peter Kornbluh, the director of the Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project in a recent press release.
Kornbluh speculated that, had Kirkpatrick’s findings been declassified years ago, they would have changed the public debate about covert operations – against Cuba and other countries.
“For years, (the report) has been something of a Holy Grail for historians, students and those who participated in the still-controversial effort to overthrow Fidel Castro,” Kornbluh said.
Kirkpatrick’s report berated the CIA for “misinforming Kennedy administration officials, bad planning, inadequate intelligence, treating rebel leaders as `puppets,’ and conducting an overt military operation beyond `Agency responsibility as well as Agency capability,’ ” according to a press release from the National Security Archive.
But a lengthy and heated rebuttal written by CIA Deputy Director Richard Bissell blamed the “political requirement of deniability” for the invasion’s failure and held “senior policy makers” – probably, historians speculate, a veiled reference to Kennedy’s administration – responsible for decisions that undermined the operation.
“Inherent in this situation was a clear conflict between two goals, a conflict of the sort familiar with recent American history. One objective was that . the Castro regime should be overthrown. The other was that the political and moral posture of the United States before the world at large should not be impaired. The basic method of resolving this conflict . was attempting to carry out actions against Castro in such a manner that the official responsibility of the U.S. government could be disclaimed,” wrote Bissell.
In 1960, President Eisenhower approved a CIA plan entitled “A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime” and authorized the Agency to prepare to overthrow Castro’s government, which was seen as a launching pad for Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere.
The project called for the “formation of a Cuban exile organization to attract . a propaganda offensive . the creation of a clandestine intelligence force inside Cuba . and the development of a small paramilitary force to organize, train and lead resistance groups.”
But between the formulation of that plan and Kennedy’s inauguration, the Agency altered its view of the situation in Cuba, saying it had become “militarily infeasible to overthrow the Castro regime except by the commitment to combat of a sizable organized military force.”
On April 16, 1961, eight U.S. B-26 bombers, disguised as defectors from Castro’s own air force, attacked Cuban airfields. The air raids decimated half of Castro’s air force. But instead of finishing off the rest of the Cuban planes, Kennedy called off the raids.
Meanwhile, a brigade of 1,511 men steamed forward. The invasion forces were laden with machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers, flame-throwers, five tanks, 12 heavy trucks, an aviation fuel tank truck, a bulldozer and numerous other trucks and tractors.
The CIA stockpiled additional arms and equipment at an Anniston, Alabama military base to furnish some 30,000 dissidents who were expected to rally to the invading rebels.
After two days of fighting, the invading soldiers were vanquished. American frogmen picked 26 survivors off the beach, but the rest of the force had either been killed or captured.
Kornbluh says the shortcomings of the Cuban project are underscored in Kirkpatrick’s report.
“The operation . was originally conceived as a `clandestine build-up of guerrilla forces that would cost $4 million, (but) the project ballooned into an overt paramilitary assault costing $46 million,” he wrote. The CIA overestimated Cuban willingness to join with the invaders and overthrow Castro, Kirkpatrick added, and the Agency misinformed the White House.
According to Kirkpatrick, the Agency failed to warn Kennedy “that success had become dubious and to recommend that the operation be therefore canceled.”
But the press widely reported that military preparations for a Cuban insurrection were underway in southern Florida. The CIA would have faced enormous embarrassment if it had ended the project.
In the end, Kirkpatrick wrote, “the choice was between retreat without honor and a gamble between ignominious defeat and dubious victory.”