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Back to the Bay of Pigs

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The strongest disagreements at the meeting were among the members of the US delegation over the actions of President Kennedy and his Administration. Kennedy adviser Schlesinger presented a picture of Kennedy as trapped--inheriting an ill-conceived invasion plan from the previous Administration. There was the implication that CIA officials sold Kennedy a bill of goods: Schlesinger said Kennedy consistently refused to approve the direct use of US soldiers, but the CIA strategy seemed premised on the conviction that Kennedy would change his mind in the heat of battle and send in the Marines rather than allow the invasion to go down to ignominious defeat.

About the Author

John Dinges
John Dinges has been writing for many years on Latin America. His latest book is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and...

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There was no disagreement on the US side that the invasion was ill conceived. Brigade member Alfredo Duran said the United States not only failed to invade but also abandoned the troops on the beach when it was clear that the invasion had failed. Duran said privately later that some of the brigade soldiers were so angry they fired their weapons at the US Navyships waiting offshore.

CIA official Halpern vigorously rebutted Schlesinger's scenario. The Kennedys were not so innocent, he insisted. He described a time shortly after the failed invasion when Richard Bissell Jr. was called to a meeting with Robert and John Kennedy. "Get rid of Castro, the Castro regime," Bissell said he was told. Halpern recounted, "I said what does 'get rid of' mean? And [Richard Bissell] said, 'Use your imagination.'" The result, Operation Mongoose, proposed thirty-two different measures, including assassination, to get rid of the regime.

The National Security Archive, a sponsor of the conference, presented a declassified document that refuted the idea that the CIA led Kennedy to believe that all would not be lost if the invasion failed, because the anti-Castro forces could melt into the mountains and continue guerrilla warfare. The document described a meeting in which a CIA official told Kennedy explicitly that in the event of a failure, the only alternative was to evacuate the invasion force.

Perhaps the most bitter exchange came from brigade member Luis Tornes, who said he became convinced that the United States intentionally sent the soldiers to their death in the hope that world opinion would blame Castro for mass murder. But Castro didn't cooperate, and instead took the surviving invaders prisoner and gave them medical treatment. About 120 of the 1,400 troops were killed in battle. Cuba eventually released all the prisoners after long negotiations.

For Castro and his men, Playa Giron (as they prefer to call the battle) was an unalloyed David and Goliath victory. But in the United States the battle is still construed as just another episode in a dictator's undemocratic survival. It is like much else in the tortured conflict between the United States and Cuba. History and common sense point to ending a standoff that has outlasted nine US Presidents and become an increasingly absurd post-cold war footnote. As they did at the meeting, Castro and his men couldn't proclaim more clearly their desire for respect from, if not friendship with, the United States. But it won't happen--not as long as the US Presidents who control the writing of that final chapter remain tangled in a trap of their own making, as was Kennedy when he launched the invasion forty years ago.

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