Front Door to Cuba

Dean Rusk (54th US Secretary of State) reflects on the Invasion at Bay of Pigs

Brief Excerpts From: As I Saw It, Dean Rusk
As Told to Richard Rusk
WW Norton & Company, New York
© 1990 Richard Rusk

Pg 208-210:

On January 22 (1960) I found out about the Cuban exile brigade training for an invasion of Cuba. I later found learned Kennedy had received a briefing on the brigade in November, but I doubt he ever endorsed it or opposed it. He and I never discussed it before our January 22 meeting.

In subsequent briefings I discovered that the CIA had begun to train the Cuban exiles in Guatemala in 1960. They planned to launch a conventional assault and establish a foothold close to main population centers. The exile group was described as having a broad political base made up of liberal democrats, not just Batista followers. The CIA also believed that defectors from Castro's armed forces and other anti Castro Cubans would join the brigade after it landed and trigger a popular uprising to overthrow the Castro regime. If the brigade did not succeed in the invasion, it would fall back into the hills and conduct guerrilla operations.

CIA planners may have remembered that Castro's own movement started small but eventually overthrew Batista. We had heard of widespread disillusionment in Cuba and had seen a steady stream of refugees fleeing he island. This gave us the impression that many Cubans did not like Castro and would do something about him if the opportunity arose.

Within his own administration President Kennedy received divided advice. White House aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a stiff letter of opposition, and Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles strongly opposed it as well. I reported Bowles's opposition to Kennedy, but I did not give him the memorandum Bowles gave me since Kennedy had let us all know he didn't like having a bunch of memos shoved at him. Vice President Lyndon Johnson appeared skeptical about the operation, but he didn't attend many of our meetings on it; he seemed to think the invasion was a harebrained scheme that could not succeed. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also opposed the invasion and told the president so. But other key congressional leaders were not consulted because we feared leaks. Ironically, more congressional consultation might have helped Kennedy avoid a serious mistake.

President Kennedy nevertheless decided to proceed, primarily on the advice of Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell at the CIA. The Joint Chiefs of Staff also supported the operation, but I am convinced they never looked at the plan as professional soldiers. They figured that since the whole show was a CIA operation, they would just approve it and wash their hands of it. Had the Joint Chiefs been responsible for the operation, my guess is they would have expressed serious reservations; for example, they would have spotted the great gap between the brigade's small size and its large objectives.

I myself did not serve President Kennedy very well. Personally I was skeptical about the Bay of Pigs plan from the beginning. Most simply, the operation violated international law. There was no way to make a good legal case for an American-supported landing in Cuba. Also, I felt that an operation of this scale could not be conducted covertly. The landing and our involvement would become publicly known the moment the brigade started for the beach. We didn't grapple with that reality at all. Finally, having never seen actual evidence that Cuba was ripe for another revolution, I doubted that an uprising would spring up in support of this operation.

But I never expressed my doubts explicitly in our planning sessions. With large numbers of people sitting around the cabinet room talking with the president, I felt that my role was to penetrate weak points and raise searching questions about assumptions taken for granted. Although I expressed my opposition privately to President Kennedy, I should have made my opposition clear in the meetings themselves because he was under pressure from those who wanted to proceed.

I should have pressed Kennedy to ask the Joint Chiefs a question that was never asked. Kennedy should have told the chiefs, "I may want to invade with American forces. How many men would we need to conduct the operation ourselves?" I am sure that the chiefs would have insisted upon sustained preliminary bombing and at least two divisions going ashore in the initial landings, with full backup by the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. In looking at the chief's total bill, Kennedy also would have noted the extraordinary contrast between what our professional military thought was needed and the puny resources of the Cuban brigade.

Having been both a colonel of infantry and chief of war plans in the China-Burma-India theater in World War II, I knew that this thin brigade of Cuban exiles did not stand a snowball's chance in hell of success. I didn't relay this military judgment to President Kennedy because I was no longer in the military.

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