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JFK’s War With the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated, Part 1


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7


I served on the staff of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) from August of 1995 through September of 1998, during the final three years of its limited four-year lifespan — and was promoted from a Senior Analyst position on the Military Records Team, to that of “Chief Analyst for Military Records,” halfway through my tenure at the ARRB.The ARRB was an independent federal agency created by the JFK Records Act of 1992; our mission was to locate any and all records that could “reasonably” be considered related to the assassination of the 35th President, and to ensure their declassification (to the maximum extent possible, as defined within our Congressional mandate), followed by their release and subsequent placement within a special open collection (the “JFK Records Collection”) at the National Archives. The JFK Act required all agencies and branches of the government to transfer assassination records directly to the National Archives (in an “open in full” status), unless there were portions of those records that an agency wanted to redact (or withhold) in part, or in full. It was the ARRB’s job to define what constituted an assassination record; to do all we could to ensure that agencies conducted full and honest searches for assassination records; and to review those records which agencies did NOT want released in full. At the end of the ARRB’s lifespan, we had reviewed about 60,000 records that government agencies wanted partially or fully redacted. Our five VIP Board Members, who served part time, voted on the disposition of these 60,000 records that were under dispute, after first receiving and considering the staff’s recommendations; and their votes essentially determined which portions of those disputed records would see the light of day. [Agencies had to comply with the formal decisions of the ARRB regarding document release, and act accordingly, or else appeal to the President. President Clinton never upheld any agency objection over any of the Review Board’s recommendations; some compromises were reached, at the suggestion of the President’s chief counsel, but no ARRB decision to release information was ever overturned by appeal.] It was a noteworthy exercise in “citizen review,” and the ARRB went into its task with all assassination records benefiting from the presumption of full and immediate disclosure, unless an allowable criterion for redaction (established by the JFK Records Act) was established. The five board members overwhelmingly and routinely voted to release disputed records, whenever presented with a choice, unless stringent conditions for exceptions to this policy, outlined in our legislative charter, were met. As a result of the JFK Records Act and the activities of the ARRB (the “search and enforcement arm” created by the Act), there are now about 6 million pages of records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the JFK Records Collection at the National Archives.

During my three years on the staff of the ARRB, and while subsequently researching the manuscript for my five-volume book, Inside the Assassination Records Review Board, I became increasingly aware of the broad levels of conflict between President Kennedy and his own national security establishment — those officials within the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council (NSC), and the CIA who helped him to formulate and carry out the nation’s foreign and military policy around the world. This internal conflict over just what our nation’s foreign and military policies ought to be, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, commenced early in the first year of JFK’s presidency, and continued to escalate during the 34 months of his administration. Although John F. Kennedy gave a robust inaugural address that seemed in the eyes of many to establish his credentials as a traditional, mainstream Cold Warrior, his ensuing behavior early in 1961, and his increasing and open skepticism, throughout his first year in office, toward the bellicose and inflexible advice he was receiving from within the federal bureaucracy, signaled a growing gulf between the young 35th President and the national security establishment that was supposed to serve him and implement his policy decisions.

By the end of November 1961, profoundly dissatisfied with his own national security advisory apparatus, President Kennedy had firmly pushed back against the national security establishment (in this case the NSC, the State Department, and the CIA) by purging and/or reshuffling many of the civilian hawks in his own administration into other positions, and by placing officials more in line with his own views into key positions. [A change in the top leadership at the Pentagon was to come later, in 1962.] Throughout 1961, the new President had painfully but quickly learned to be quite skeptical of the advice he was receiving, pertaining to matters of war and peace, from his hawkish advisors; and as 1961 progressed, John F. Kennedy repeatedly demonstrated what the hawks in government (the majority) no doubt considered a disturbingly independent (and increasingly all-too-predictable) frame of mind in regard to the national security recommendations he was receiving from the “sacred cows” and “wise men” in Washington, D.C. As I shall demonstrate in this essay, by the end of 1962, the national security establishment in Washington D.C., which had quickly come to know JFK as a skeptic during 1961, had come to view him as a heretic; and by November of 1963, the month he was assassinated, they no doubt considered him an apostate, for he no longer supported most of the so-called “orthodox” views of the Cold War priesthood. Increasingly alone in his foreign policy judgments as 1963 progressed, JFK was nevertheless proceeding boldly to end our “Holy War” against Communism, instead of trying to win it. In retrospect it is clear that the national security establishment wanted to win our own particular “jihad” of the post-WW II era by turning the Cold War against the USSR into a “hot war,” so that we could inflict punishing and fatal blows upon our Communist adversaries (and any other forces we equated with them) on the battlefield. It was this desire for “hot war” by so many within the establishment — their belief that conventional “proxy wars” with the Soviet Bloc were an urgent necessity, and that nuclear war with the USSR was probably inevitable — to which President Kennedy was so adamantly opposed. And it was JFK’s profound determination to avoid nuclear war by miscalculation, and to eschew combat with conventional arms unless it was truly necessary, that separated him from almost everyone else in his administration from 1961 throughout 1963, as events have shown us.

This essay will explore, one year at a time, the seminal events in JFK’s ongoing and escalating conflicts with the national security hard-liners in his own administration. At the essay’s end, I will address the inevitable question that arises today, fifty years after his death: Did these internal conflicts over the conduct and very future of the Cold War with the USSR lead to JFK’s death? Did powerful forces and individuals within his own administration cast a veto on his presidency, and his life, over reasons of state policy at the height of the Cold War? These are the questions the reader should keep in mind while reading this essay.


Early 1961: The Bay of Pigs Provides a Rocky Beginning for the Kennedy Administration, and a Tough Lesson — Be Careful About Whom You Trust

The Inaugural Address

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1961, intentionally sent mixed messages to many audiences. The Democratic Party’s nominee for President during the previous two elections, liberal Adlai Stevenson, had badly lost two consecutive elections (in 1952 and 1956) to a national hero, the iconic General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the Supreme Allied Commander on the Western Front in Europe during the last two years of World War II (in 1944 and 1945). Eisenhower was twice entrusted by the electorate to safeguard the nation, because of his military experience on the winning side in World War II. Kennedy therefore ran as a centrist, not a liberal, and advocated a strong national defense, second to none, during the campaign in 1960. (His strong advocacy in closing what was perceived as a “missile gap” between the U.S. and the USSR — a supposed gap in which the prevailing fears in 1960 were that the USA was behind in this area of strategic weaponry, and therefore vulnerable — was not the cynical manipulation of a fearful public by a politician who knew otherwise, as JFK’s detractors have claimed. The 1957 Gaither Report, leading journalists, and Air Force intelligence had all declared that the missile gap was real — and that we lagged far behind the Soviets in this crucial mode of delivering nuclear warheads to the target — and JFK did not find out that the reverse was true until after he had been elected.)

As Jack Kennedy began to formulate his inaugural speech, he was presented with a problem. Not only had Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a bellicose speech on January 6, 1961, supporting foreign wars of liberation from colonialism (which some had interpreted as a call for worldwide Communist revolution), but Jack Kennedy’s father (President Franklin Roosevelt’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom) had been discredited in 1940 and 1941 as a defeatist and an appeaser — Joe Kennedy had cozied up to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and supported his attempt to appease Hitler at Munich in 1938, and then, after appeasement had failed and Great Britain and France had gone to war with Germany, had wrongly predicted England’s quick defeat. FDR had lost patience and had finally, in 1941, replaced Joe Kennedy with another ambassador more interested in supporting Prime Minister Churchill than in opposing him. Old Joe Kennedy knew a lot about business and making money, but almost nothing about politics or international relations; his political instincts were non-existent. Although Joe Kennedy’s political career had ended in 1941 with him discredited, his second son had now been elected President of the United States — the job old Joe had always coveted — and many of the insiders in Washington D.C. were nervously wondering if Jack Kennedy, the son, was going to be an “appeaser” like his father had been.

John F. Kennedy not only had to reassure a nation that no longer had the revered General Eisenhower as President that its defense was still in good hands, but he also had to assure those who distrusted his father’s judgment that he was not going to simply be a mouthpiece for old Joe Kennedy — that he would not be an “appeaser” like his father had been in supporting the 1938 Munich Pact.

Thus, we find some stirring and staunchly “orthodox” Cold War expressions in the inaugural address, such as this famous excerpt early in the speech:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and success of liberty.

With the above remarks JFK sought to respond to both Nikita Khrushchev and to critics of his father — as well as to reassure the nation that even though Eisenhower was no longer President, that the nation and its role as “leader of the free world” during the Cold War was in safe hands.

And yet, lest one-sided historians or superficial mainstream journalists tell you that JFK had made a “bellicose speech,” consider these other, balancing concepts in the additional excerpts printed below. (As above, I have italicized what seem to me to be the most significant phrases.)

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.


To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support — to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective — to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak  — and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.


Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction. We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that that they will never be employed. But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course  — both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter the uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war. So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.


Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.


Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but as a call to bear the burden of a long, twilight struggle, year in and year out…a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

As the year 1961 began, the JFK of the opening segments of the inaugural seemed to predominate: after much discussion, he approved the pre-existing Cuban-exile invasion concept presented to him by the CIA (while insisting upon a few modifications), and sought an increase in overall defense spending. But as the year progressed, President Kennedy was confronted by duplicity and incompetence from within the U.S. government, from both the CIA and the Pentagon, during the searing crucible of the Bay of Pigs fiasco; he received flawed and dubious advice on several occasions from the Pentagon, the National Security Council (NSC), and from Cold War hawks in the State Department about both Laos and Vietnam; and he was directly confronted by the USSR with a serious international challenge over the future of Berlin (which tested the integrity of the NATO alliance, and threatened to escalate to nuclear war, if not managed properly).

Because of the unsound and bellicose recommendations he received repeatedly that year from within the nation’s national security establishment, John F. Kennedy became quite openly skeptical of “expert advice,” and distrustful of the knee-jerk, mainstream, orthodox Cold War mind sets of the majority of the “wise men” in Washington D.C. By the end of the year, JFK had emerged as the supreme skeptic of all conventional wisdom in Washington; and insiders felt he had already betrayed his promises in the inaugural to “pay any price, bear any burden … support any friend, oppose any foe.” By year’s end, the orthodox, hard-line Cold Warriors in the national security establishment were convinced that they were working for a weak President who didn’t have what it would take to win the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Here is how the initial estrangement between JFK and his own bureaucracy came about.


The Bay of Pigs Fiasco and the “Lessons Learned”

In March of 1960 President Eisenhower directed the CIA to take down the Castro regime in Cuba; the CIA’s plan to assassinate Castro using Mafia assets proceeded at the same time that the CIA was simultaneously planning for the covert infiltration into Cuba of anti-Castro guerillas. This infiltration plan soon morphed into a proposed invasion of Cuban exiles, sponsored by the CIA, using U.S. logistic assets. In November of 1960 President Eisenhower, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer, “ordered that everything feasible be done to assist the project with all possible urgency.” Never mind that Castro, the revolutionary, had turned to the Soviet Union for economic and military support because he had first been rebuffed by the United States; he had been declared a Communist as soon as Cuba became an economic client state of the USSR, and so Cuba had become an important chess piece on the Cold War game board. On January 3, 1961, Eisenhower terminated diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, setting the stage for the paramilitary invasion. President-elect Kennedy had learned of the proposed invasion (by about 1400 Cuban exiles training in Guatemala) on November 17, 1960, after his election. Eisenhower left the invasion to his successor to implement.

New to office, and perhaps overly solicitous toward the CIA (which planned the invasion, and had never yet failed to take down a target regime) and the Pentagon (which appeared to have approved it, after reviewing the CIA plan), President Kennedy had many questions about the invasion, but never directed that planning stop, or that the invasion should not take place; and no one in President Kennedy’s new cabinet recommended to him that he not conduct the invasion. Secretary of Defense McNamara and Secretary of State Rusk later claimed to have had private reservations, but neither man raised them in any planning meetings, nor did they speak to the President privately to express their concerns. (Only Senator William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had opposed it.) JFK was concerned that the operation was becoming too big — resembling a big World War II amphibious invasion — so big that it would be almost impossible to mask U.S. sponsorship; so he himself scaled down some of the invasion plans, and changed the invasion site from Trinidad, a large town situated in the middle of Cuba’s southern coast, to the more isolated Bay of Pigs (also on the southern coast, but a little closer to Havana), in the hope that “plausible deniability” could be maintained.

“Plausible deniability” — the authorized telling of lies by government officials, i.e., the ability to convincingly deny official involvement in sensitive or illegal covert operations — was an integral part of the secret game plan for the Cold War, and had been sanctioned by the National Security Council in 1948 as a routine way of conducting covert operations against our Cold War adversaries. While the CIA (and President Kennedy) hoped that the U.S. role in sponsoring the exile invasion could remain a secret, the Cuban exiles in training could not keep any secrets whatsoever, and Castro received firm intelligence that there was a U.S. sponsored, planned exile invasion weeks before it occurred. He began to complain loudly and publicly that he was about to be invaded by the United States. This foreknowledge on his part ruined any chances that the exile invasion would stimulate a “spontaneous uprising” that would topple his regime (as the CIA had predicted); indeed, after the Cuban exile air force (eight World War II vintage B-26 medium bombers) launched its first air strike against the Cuban Air Force on April 15, Castro immediately jailed twenty thousand people, and then rushed his forces to the small beachhead at the isolated swamp called the Bay of Pigs, as soon as the invasion began on April 17.

President Kennedy, extremely concerned to counter Castro’s claims of an impending U.S. invasion, declared publicly, shortly before the invasion began, that no U.S. military forces would be used in any Cuban invasion. He had never approved the direct use of any U.S. military forces anyway, and had only approved providing logistic support for an invasion of Cuban exiles, who were attempting to retake their own country from a revolutionary regime that had solicited, and then accepted, economic and military support from America’s Cold War adversary, the USSR. So by publicly denying that there would be any U.S. military involvement, Kennedy was not changing any of the current plans for the paramilitary operation, but hoped to maintain plausible deniability. Once he made this public announcement — reinforcing instructions given in many classified planning meetings — President Kennedy was henceforth (as the paramilitary invasion began to collapse) determined that he would rather be criticized as a warmonger and aggressor, than destroy the credibility of the presidency by being a liar. It is for this reason that the subsequent attempts by the military leadership, during the crisis, to persuade Kennedy to escalate, and intervene with overwhelming U.S. military forces, fell on deaf ears.

For numerous reasons, the exile invasion that began at Playa Giron in the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, was (as the CIA later called it) “a perfectly executed failure,” in which almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. JFK did indeed cancel a second air strike by the small Cuban exile air force the night before the invasion (following the advice of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in an attempt to maintain “plausible deniability”). But the invasion was doomed to fail anyway, for numerous reasons. One primary reason was inadequate logistics to support the beachhead for very long, and the other was inadequate force levels. With Castro having jailed about 20,000 Cubans suspected of possibly being in sympathy with the invading exiles, there was no spontaneous uprising possible. The CIA’s assassination attempts against Castro had fizzled long before the invasion. Castro’s army and militia, a combined force some 200,000 strong, with vehicles and tanks provided by the Soviet Union, quickly overcame the small invading force of 1,400 exiles and the paltry five light tanks that had been landed as part of the CIA invasion. Because a beachhead was never secured, the “government in exile” that the CIA had assembled in Florida was never landed in Cuba. Because they were never landed, they could not claim even partial success, nor could they formally get on the air, via radio, and publicly ask for assistance from the United States. Eventually, and with great difficulty, the Joint Chiefs obtained permission from President Kennedy to launch one flight of unmarked A-4 fighter-bombers from the USS Essex to provide combat air patrol over the landing zone — they were authorized only to harass Cuban aircraft, but not to engage in acts of war — but because of a time zone screw-up, the flight arrived one hour too late to do any good anyway.

Of the 1400 Cuban exiles who had landed at the Bay of Pigs, 114 were killed and 1,189 were captured; about 100 were not accounted for and are presumed to have escaped. (The exile brigade and its B-26 aircraft killed 1,250 members of Castro’s forces and wounded more than 2,000, but never came close to accomplishing its mission of toppling the Castro regime.) Many of the Brigade’s CIA trainers had improperly promised them U.S. air support from the carrier USS Essex during training in Guatemala, and had told them that U.S. Marines would be standing by to assist; these false promises did not represent the official policy of the commander-in-chief, but the exiles believed them, so great bitterness ensued after the debacle and still exists today in the Cuban exile community. The debacle was a major international embarrassment for the United States. U.S. foreign policy in its own hemisphere had suffered an egregious defeat due to poor planning, bungled execution, lousy intelligence, wishful thinking, and poor political judgment. Eventually, in December of 1962, the Kennedy administration finally succeeded in ransoming the captured brigade prisoners, using 62 million dollars worth of food and medicines from the United States, arranged through intermediaries. (President Kennedy and the first lady showed considerable courage by personally meeting the returned prisoners at a public ceremony in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, after working for their release for a year and a half.)

Once it became apparent that the invasion had been a total failure with no real chance of success, President Kennedy was furious and humiliated, but publicly took all the blame on himself, saying on April 21 at a press conference, “I am the responsible officer of the government,” and then shutting down public discussion of what had happened. His most commonly heard remarks by his aides afterward were, “How could I have been so stupid? How could any of us have believed that this would work?” Privately, he launched an intense investigation of what had gone wrong, headed by retired General Maxwell Taylor, an urbane and scholarly World War II hero who had once been President Eisenhower’s army chief of staff. The results of the post mortem were stunning.

President Kennedy, who had openly advocated more support for “Cuban freedom fighters” during his election campaign — and who therefore seemed very unlikely to disapprove or cancel the operation — had been very poorly served by the CIA (which had dreamed up the invasion), and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who had approved it). On January 11, 1961, the Pentagon had been fully briefed on the Cuban paramilitary invasion plans by the CIA, and the Joint Staff concluded in a report that only overt U.S. military intervention, either unilaterally, or in concert with the Cuban exile invasion, would guarantee success. This was never communicated to either the outgoing President Eisenhower, or to the new President, John F. Kennedy. In late January of 1961, after JFK had assumed office, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer was given an internal military assessment that belied the claims of CIA Director Allen Dulles that there had recently been an upsurge in popular opposition to Castro within Cuba. The report given to Lemnitzer stated: “In view of the rapid buildup of the Castro government’s military and militia capability and the lack of predictable future mass discontent, the possible success of the [CIA’s] paramilitary plan appears very doubtful.” He never relayed this information to President Kennedy at a subsequent key meeting late in January, or at any other time.

On February 3, 1961, as requested by President Kennedy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a Top Secret report to the Secretary of Defense evaluating the chances for success of the CIA’s invasion plans, and stated: “Despite the shortcomings pointed out in the assessment, the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that timely execution of this plan has a fair chance of ultimate success and, even if it does not achieve immediately the full results desired, could contribute to the eventual overthrow of the Castro regime.” General Earle Wheeler, then director of the Joint Staff (soon to become army chief of staff and later, chairman of the JCS) inserted the words “fair chance of success” even though he knew from the Pentagon’s personal liaison with the CIA’s invasion planners, General Gray, that the true chances of success were only about 30 per cent, and the chances of failure were 70 per cent. (The use of the word “fair” would only have been appropriate if the chances had been reversed, with a 70 per cent chance of success and a 30 per cent chance of failure.) Maxwell Taylor was told by one officer who had been sent to Guatemala to assess the Cuban Brigade in person that he had gauged the chances of success at only 15 per cent, prior to the invasion. After the invasion site was changed from Trinidad to the Bay of Pigs, General Gray, the Pentagon’s expert on the CIA plan, estimated the chance of its success had fallen from 30 percent, to only 20 per cent. This information also never reached President Kennedy. Prior to an April 4 planning meeting presided over by the President, Lemnitzer “argued vigorously” against the planned exile invasion with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Mann, and yet kept silent during the meeting presided over by JFK. Unaccountably, Lemnitzer later wrote in his own hand, in an unpublished hand-written account of the debacle, speaking of himself in the third person, “General Lemnitzer then refrained from raising this issue with the Chief Executive.”

The question is, WHY? Consider this: Lyman Lemnitzer, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and Richard Bissell (Deputy Director of Plans at CIA, or Director of Covert Operations) were all close associates; Lemnitzer and Dulles from as long ago as the end of World War II, and Lemnitzer and Bissell throughout much of the 1950s. The Bay of Pigs operation was Richard Bissell’s project. Was Lemnitzer trying to keep secret from the President information that might have invited cancellation of the pet project of his close associates at the CIA?

Veteran newsman Daniel Schorr provided his answer to this question in March 2001 on the NPR radio program All Things Considered, after attending a conference on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, almost 40 years after the event:

…the CIA overlords of the invasion, director Allen Dulles and deputy Richard Bissell, had their own plan of how to bring the United States into the conflict. It appears they never really expected an uprising against Castro when the liberators landed, as described in their memos to the White House. What they did expect was that the invaders would establish and secure a beachhead, announce the creation of a counterrevolutionary government, and appeal for aid from the United States and Organization of American States. The assumption was that President Kennedy, who had emphatically banned direct American involvement, would be forced by public opinion to come to the aid of the returning patriots…In effect, President Kennedy was the target of a CIA covert operation that collapsed when the invasion collapsed. [author’s emphasis]

Historian Jim Douglass confirmed this interpretation by quoting the unpublished draft of an article written by former CIA Director Allen Dulles, in his book JFK and the Unspeakable:

The major players in deceiving Kennedy were his CIA advisors, especially Director Allen Dulles. As Arthur M. Schelsinger, Jr. [an historian and a former JFK aide] observed, “the Joint Chiefs of Staff had only approved the Bay of Pigs. The CIA had invented it.”

At his death Allen Dulles left the unpublished drafts of an article that scholar Lucien S. Vandenbroucke has titled “The ‘Confessions’ of Allen Dulles.” In these handwritten, coffee-stained notes, Dulles explained how CIA advisors who knew better drew John F. Kennedy into a plan whose prerequisites for success contradicted the President’s own rules for engagement, that precluded any combat action by U.S. military forces. Although Dulles and his advisors knew that this condition conflicted with the plan they were foisting on Kennedy, they discreetly kept silent in the belief, Dulles wrote, that “the realities of the situation” would force the President to carry through to the end they wished:

“[We] did not want to raise these issues — in an [undecipherable word] discussion — which might only harden the decision against the type of action we required. We felt that when the chips were downwhen the crisis arose in reality, any action required for success would be authorized rather than permit the enterprise to fail.” [author’s emphasis]

JFK’s private  opinion about what had really happened was expressed to his old Navy buddy, ‘Red’ Fay, who was serving as Under Secretary of the Navy in his administration. ‘Red’ Fay quoted JFK’s heated remarks about the Bay of Pigs fiasco in his book, The Pleasure of His Company:

Nobody is going to force me to do anything I don’t think is in the best interests of the country,” he [President Kennedy] said. “I will never compromise the principles upon which this country is built, but we’re not going to plunge into irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in the country puts so-called national pride above national reason.… Do you think I’m going to cause a nuclear exchange — for what? Because I was forced into doing something that I didn’t think was proper and right? Well, if you or anybody else thinks I am, he’s crazy…. By God, there will be no avoiding responsibility nor will there be any irresponsibility. When the time comes, action will be taken.

Action was indeed taken. Within one year, JFK had fired CIA Director Allen Dulles, CIA Deputy Director Charles Cabell, and Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell. Dulles and Bissell were officially “retired” in face-saving public ceremonies (and received medals as fig leafs), and USAF General Cabell was sent packing back to the Pentagon. It was nearly a wholesale housecleaning at the upper levels of the CIA. And henceforth, the President’s brother Robert, nominally the attorney general of the United States, would — unknown to the public — spend about half of each workday at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, deeply involved in the agency’s Cuba business, serving as an unofficial “shadow director” and direct presidential representative in matters involving covert operations against Cuba.

JFK later said to ‘Red’ Fay:

Looking back on the whole Cuban mess, one of the things that appalled me the most was the lack of broad judgment by some of the heads of the military services. When you think of the long competitive selection process that they have to weather to end up the number one man of their particular service, it is certainly not unreasonable to expect that they would also be bright, with good broad judgment. For years I’ve been looking at those rows of ribbons and those four stars, and conceding a certain higher qualification not obtained in civilian life. Well, if [Lemnitzer] and [Burke] are the best the services can produce, a lot more attention is going to be given their advice in the future before any action is taken as a result of it. They wanted a fight and probably calculated that if we committed ourselves part way and started to lose, I would give the OK to pour in whatever was needed. I found out among other things that when it comes to making decisions I want facts more than advice…. I can see now why McNamara wants to get some new faces over there in the Pentagon. [Lyman Lemnitzer and Arleigh Burke are my presumed — and the only obvious — candidates for the names that “Red” Fay elected not to publish in his memoir.]

In their book Johnny, We hardly Knew Ye, authors Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Powers (both close aides to the President) wrote this about the Bay of Pigs:

“I’ll take the defeat,” he [President Kennedy] said that night to the generals and admirals, “and I’ll take all of the blame for it.”

…The President said … that the plan was so far advanced when he came into office in January that that it seemed almost impossible to cancel it…. The government of Guatemala had asked President Kennedy to get the Cubans out of his republic before the end of April, which was less than two weeks away…. The rebels had to stage their attacks before the Russian planes [MiG jets with Cuban pilots trained in Czechoslovakia] were available for duty in Cuba. The President said he had finally agreed with some reluctance to approve the plan and the date of the landings, Monday, April 17th, after the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff accepted his strict stipulation that no American forces could take part in the invasion…all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Allen Dulles were in favor of the expedition. Dulles was a legendary figure in government, never known to have made a mistake…Soon after the collapse of the invasion attempt, when he began to find out about the details, the President was shocked to discover that there had been no plans for a coordinated revolt in Cuba. The leaders of the organized anti-Castro underground movement in Havana did not even know the date of the landings. “Everybody in Miami knew exactly when those poor fellows were going to hit the beaches,” President Kennedy said to us, “but the only people in Cuba who knew about it were the ones working in Castro’s office.”

…The absence of any preparations for an organized uprising in Cuba, and the assurances of military support given to the rebels of the landing force, led President Kennedy to a bitter conclusion: the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA must have been assuming all along that President would become so worried at the last minute about the loss of his own prestige that he would drop his restriction against the use of U.S. forces and send the Marines and the Navy jets into the action.

How else, the President asked us, could the Joint Chiefs approve such a plan? “They were sure I’d give in to them and send the go-ahead order to the Essex,” he said one day to Dave Powers. “They couldn’t believe that a new President like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face. Well, they had me figured all wrong.”

As General Douglas MacArthur remarked privately to the President, he was lucky to have learned so much about the value of his military advice from an operation like the Bay of Pigs disaster, where the strategic cost was so small.

At his press conference on April 21, 1961 in which President Kennedy accepted sole public blame for the debacle, he said: “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” The President told special assistant Arthur Schlesinger it was just an old saying, but subsequent research showed no evidence that the saying had ever been said or written by anyone before JFK. President Kennedy was a much wiser chief executive and commander-in-chief after the Bay of Pigs, but he had made serious enemies. Another famous JFK quote emanating from the Bay of Pigs episode was his vehement aside to an aide that he wanted “to splinter the CIA in[to] a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” The top three men in the CIA were headed toward the exit door, and they knew it; and JFK’s initial tendency to trust the Joint Chiefs had been transformed into deep skepticism, possibly even mistrust. By year’s end his relationship with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer would degenerate to the point where they both were barely able to conceal their mutual distrust and contempt for each other.

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