“The assault on a free press …should be recognized for what it is,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich last Sunday. “Another desperate ploy by officials trying to hide their own lethal mistakes in the shadows.”
While the Bush Administration’s war on a free, independent and aggressive media is unparalleled, US government attempts to suppress information are not new. More than forty years ago, for example, the New York Times acceded to the Kennedy Administration’s request that it play down its advance knowledge of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. (In a recent editorial, the Times wrote that “it seems in hindsight that the editors were over-cautious” by not printing what they knew about the invasion.)
In his open letter explaining the decision to publish the banking records story, Executive Editor Bill Keller referred to the Times’ handling of the Bay of Pigs story. “Our biggest failures,” Keller wrote, “have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough. After the Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco.”
What is little known is the role The Nation played in this story. In November 1960, The Nation published the first article on preparations being made for what would become the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to Carey McWilliams, The Nation’s editor at the time, “Ronald Hilton, director of Stanford University’s Institute of Hispanic-American Studies had just returned from Guatemala with reports that it was common knowledge –indeed, it had been reported in La Hora, a leading newspaper, on October 30–that the CIA was training a guerrilla force at a secret base for an early invasion of Cuba.” McWilliams promptly got in touch with Hilton, who confirmed details, and agreed that he could be quoted. McWilliams wrote an article setting forth the facts Hilton had given him, including the location of the base near the mountain town of Retalhulea. If the reports were true, McWilliams wrote, “then public pressure should be brought to bear upon the administration to abandon this dangerous and hare-brained project.” in the meantime, he added, the facts should be checked out immediately “by all US news media with correspondents in Guatemala.” Although a special press release was prepared– to which copies of the article were attached– the wire services ignored the story and only one or two papers mentioned it.