The Legacies of Fateful Decisions
While we digest the news coming out of the VI Party Congress, Larry Wilkerson has provided us with a fascinating commentary on the Bay of Pigs invasion, the 50th anniversary of which was marked several days ago. - LL
In my graduate class at the College of William and Mary two weeks ago, one of my student teams presented to our seminar, “Case Studies in Power”, its analysis of the U.S. “covert” operation to invade Cuba in 1961, usually referred to by the name of the location where the heart of the invasion was attempted, the Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos). “Covert” because almost everyone remotely involved, including the Cuban-American community in Dade County, Florida and Fidel Castro and his army and militia on Cuba, knew the invasion was pending. They did not know the exact date or time or the exact location. But, like the CIA on 10 September 2001 with respect to the next-day attacks by al Qa’ida, they all knew the attacks were being planned, trained for, and would likely happen.
Because of this extensive foreknowledge, plus several other important reasons, the members of the presentation team had no answer to the question looming in every seminar member’s mind as the presentation closed: why on earth did President Kennedy order the invasion in the first place?
That important question is given even more depth when one considers how articulate Kennedy would become after the Cuban Missile Crisis, just a year and a half later, with respect to the U.S.-Cuba relationship. His understanding of that complicated relationship becomes so profound that one must assume that some of it, at least, predated his arrival in the Oval Office and thus was a part of his thinking at the time of his decision to execute the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
How profound was JFK’s appreciation of the relationship? Here is what JFK said to an “unofficial” envoy, French journalist Jean Daniel, who was going to Cuba in late 1963 to meet with Castro:
I believe that there is no country in the world, including all the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime….I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will go even further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement withthe first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.
If JFK knew these fundamental truths about the history of the U.S.-Cuba relationship, then he should never have made the fateful decision he made to launchthe Bay of Pigs invasion. If for no other reason, Kennedy would have known that the supposition of the CIA leadership, that the Cuban people would rise up massively and assist the rather small invasion force in overthrowing Castro, was not only unlikely, it was preposterous.
How do we reconcile such an understanding as Kennedy must have had with his decision to approve the invasion?
I would offer that we reconcile it the same way we today reconcile our pre-election views of President Obama (if they were reasonably positive) with our views of him in April 2011 (if they have changed with regard to war).
Both Kennedy and Obama are captives of their generals and their spies and all that lurks behind them, from the military-industrial-congressional complex to the narrowly-defined but awesomely powerful special interests groups, both corporate and otherwise, who make money from war, even failure in war as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An American president simply cannot escape the bureaucracy and its supporters in which he (or she some day) is enmeshed. And, when the politics of fear are fully exploited, the most powerful elements of that bureaucracy are the Pentagon and the CIA. General George Marshall’s warning to President Truman was very prescient. When Truman signed the National Security Act in July 1947, Marshall told him that he feared what the president was doing was militarizing the national security decision-making process. Indeed he was.
Moreover, acting upon both Kennedy and Obama were the politics of fear. Kennedy was ensnared by the politics of fear produced by the Cold War; Obama by the politics of fear produced by terrorism.
So long as there is an “other” for politicians to point at and from which they can generate deep fear among the general public, there will be a vast maneuver space for the military and CIA leaderships.
In JFK’s case, the military leadership secretly scorned the CIA plan for the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, and rightfully so because the CIA’s plan had no chance of working without Pentagon assistance. That assistance would at a minimum be U.S. air power and at a maximum a full-scale U.S. invasion, once the CIA-trained Cuban force had failed spectacularly.
The CIA leadership believed their plan had a limited chance of success as well—though the leadership there put the odds at better than zero (as they had in Guatemala in 1954)—and felt that it did not really matter because the U.S. military would step in and ensure the overall invasion succeeded. As events would turn out, neither was right in this dangerous game of bureaucratic derring-do.
To be sure, JFK was trapped by his own campaign rhetoric as well. Though he knew differently, he had accused his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, of not having a plan for Cuba, a communist enclave 90 miles off the coast of Florida. He knew Eisenhower and Nixon had a plan—while a candidate he had been briefed on its general outline—but because the plan was highly classified he also knew they could not admit it. Once JFK was in office and Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, approached him with the plan, he could hardly send him packing.
Similarly, Obama campaigned on Afghanistan’s being “the right war” and Iraq the wrong one. Like JFK, once in office, he could hardly reverse himself and refuse to escalate in Afghanistan when his generals asked him to do so.
But both men were ensnared by the CIA and Pentagon bureaucracies as well. And by both’s respective power, grown immense during the Cold War for JFK and even more so as the so-called “Global War on Terror” unfolded under Dick Cheney and George Bush and was inherited by President Obama.
Both JFK and Obama were caught up in and forced to deal with the politics of fear that had been so carefully generated around their two conflicts—a politics readily and expertly exploited by the CIA and the military leadership in both cases. So expertly in Eisenhower’s eight years, for example, that the former five-star general would exclaim “God help this nation if anyone ever sits in this chair [the Oval Office] who doesn’t understand the military the way I do.” So expertly by the time Obama arrived in the Oval Office, that private military contractors such as Blackwater constituted another military division or two when presidents wanted to go to war.
Neither JFK nor Obama, therefore, could escape fully the clutches of their CIAs or Pentagons. Both had to answer to them—and did, with the Bay of Pigs in JFK’s case and with the surge in Afghanistan in Obama’s.
But once JFK saw the invasion unfolding in all its incompetence, lack of sound planning, and utter disregard for basic facts on the ground, in the air, and at sea, he called in his bet, defied the CIA and the Pentagon and called off the entire affair. Later, he fired Allen Dulles and the Bay of Pigs principal planner, Richard Bissell, and he moved Maxwell Taylor—his military man in the White House—formally into the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all actions that aimed at getting control over the power of both the CIA and the Pentagon. Later, of course, in the dramatic hours of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK would defy the more vociferous members of his Pentagon yet again.
These are a few of the realities with regard to the Bay of Pigs and to President Obama’s war-making today.
But the Bay of Pigs was an abject failure. Today, we live with the legacy of that failure in ways most Americans do not realize.
First, many of the men who were trained for the invasion remained a paramilitary force working on the overthrow of Fidel Castro. Small arms and explosives were hoarded in Florida in preparation for the “second invasion” and clandestine attacks were carried out against Cuba from time to time from U.S. soil. This is a clear violation of both U.S. law and international law.
Second, the hardline Cuban-Americans who supported the invasion and were bitter over JFK’s failure to support it to a successful end, maintained a stranglehold on U.S. Cuba policy, even after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, even to this day.
Third, the Cuban leadership and a sizeable majority of the Cuban people remember the attempted invasion, the former with fear of a repetition and the latter with the idea that they love the American people but despise their government.
Fourth, every Latin American government—some such as Guatemala, Chile, and Nicaragua, with more reason than others—realizes that U.S. policy always keeps in hand the resort to intervention, clandestine or otherwise, with regard to their countries.
Such is the legacy of the Bay of Pigs.
What would destroy that legacy to the benefit of the U.S. and Latin America, and most of all Cuba, would be a new and forward-looking U.S. policy vis-a-vis Cuba. Normal relations, such as the U.S. now has with Vietnam, would open the door to such a policy. It is time. The Bay of Pigs, after all, was a half-century ago Sunday.
Now, what will be the legacy of President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan?
- Lawrence Wilkerson
(Kennedy photo- by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston; 08/23/1962; Obama photo - courtesy of The White House, 01/21/2009)
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