'One of the Most Ridiculous Things That Has Ever Occurred in the History of the United States'

In this excerpt from Red Heat, Alex von Tunzelmann looks at how the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion changed the balance of power during the Cold War.

On 15 March, two days after the Alliance for Progress had been announced, Jack Kennedy was briefed on the new, updated Cuban invasion plan. It was no longer aimed at Trinidad, but at a beach called Playa Girón, sixty miles up the coast, on the outside of an inlet known as the Bay of Pigs. National Security Adviser Mac Bundy, previously skeptical, was impressed. The CIA, he wrote to Kennedy, had “done a remarkable job of reframing the landing so as to make it unspectacular and quiet, and plausibly Cuban in its essentials.” He did point out, though, that there was “unanimous agreement” about the need to take out Fidel Castro’s air force with air cover. “My own belief is that this air battle has to come sooner or later, and that the longer we put it off, the harder it will be,” he wrote. He recommended one strike by six to eight B-26s, “some time before the invasion.”

Dick Bissell afterward maintained that the need for air cover as “an absolute prerequisite for success” was clear to the CIA, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the military commanders of the operation itself, and insisted that this was repeatedly stated to Kennedy. “Kennedy found the new arrangement still too noisy,” he said. “He asked repeatedly whether the air strikes were necessary; in effect, he wouldn’t take yes for an answer.”

The Bay of Pigs was in the Zapata Swamp, a wetland on Cuba’s south coast. There was no significant town closer than Cienfuegos, forty miles away along circuitous roads through dense jungle. The Sierra del Escambray was farther yet, its foothills rising at least ten miles beyond Cienfuegos. Amid the Zapata vegetation, crocodiles and snakes flourished, but humans did not. Those few who lived there worked in the small-scale production of charcoal. The revolutionary government had built roads, provided education, and raised the standard of living of the peasantry. Fidel and Raúl had built personal followings in the Zapata area, each visiting many times. Fidel had even spent Christmas Eve there with local families in 1959.

Within the CIA, there was concern about the refocusing of the operation at the Bay of Pigs. Jake Esterline studied the area on a map. “I thought to myself, it does look very secure,” he remembered, “no one is going to get in there very easily but how are we going to get any more recruits, how are we going to expand this front because there is nobody there except alligators and ducks.” At the beginning of April, David Atlee Phillips entered the war room to see on the map a large red cross over Trinidad, and new markings aimed at the Bay of Pigs. “I thought I was victim of an April Fool trick of the meanest kind,” he said. The new location, he argued, was too far from the Sierra del Escambray, and the swamp too perilous.

“How will the Brigade take the beach, and hold it?” he asked.

“The first ships to land will carry tanks,” said Jack Hawkins, the colonel in charge.

“Tanks!” exclaimed Phillips. “We’re going to mount a secret operation in the Caribbean with tanks?”

“That’s right,” said Hawkins. “A company. Three platoons of five each, and two command tanks.”

Later, Bissell would admit that little thought had been given to how invaders might operate in the swamp, as opposed to the mountains for which they had been trained. If the Castros’ army overwhelmed the beachhead, it was, he said, “rather lightheartedly assumed” that they would still be able to escape, turn guerrilla, and retreat into the Sierra del Escambray—at least fifty miles away, through difficult terrain teeming with Castro’s fighters. “The president was thus left with an impression that a less than disastrous option would be available in the event of an initial lack of success.”

“I think the reason why we get all this crap from Bissell—melting into the Escambray and all that rubbish—was that Bissell believed the operation would have to succeed, no matter what,” said Arthur Schlesinger, years later. “That is because once the invasion started, if it appeared to be faltering, then Kennedy would send in the marines. But Kennedy had no such intention. Kennedy would go to great lengths to avoid escalation of a crisis, especially a military crisis.”

By the end of March, operational security had fallen apart. Schlesinger told the president that he had just spoken to a journalist who had spent ten days in Miami. The Cuban exiles there told him they had been “systematically hopped up” over the preceding weeks by their American contacts, in preparation for an invasion of Cuba. “I listened to all this deadpan,” Schlesinger wrote to Kennedy. “Obviously if an enterprising magazine writer could pick all this up in Miami in a couple of weeks, Habana must be well posted on developments.”

On the same day, Chet Bowles found out what was going on, and wrote to Dean Rusk, outlining the illegality of an invasion and dire risks to American prestige. He pleaded with Rusk to persuade Kennedy to call it off. “Those most familiar with the Cuban operation seem to agree that as the venture is now planned, the chances of success are not greater than one out of three,” he wrote. “I realize that this operation has been put together over a period of months. A great deal of time and money has been spent and many individuals have become emotionally involved in its success. We should not, however, proceed with the adventure simply because we are wound up and cannot stop.” From the other political wing of the Democrats, Bill Fulbright agreed, writing to Kennedy that the invasion “is in violation of the spirit and probably the letter as well, of treaties to which the United States is a party and of U.S. domestic legislation.” He continued: “To give this activity even covert support is of a piece with the hypocrisy and cynicism for which the United States is constantly denouncing the Soviet Union in the United Nations and elsewhere. This point will not be lost on the rest of the world—nor on our own consciences for that matter.”

“We believe that the Central Intelligence Agency has no intelligence at all,” Fidel told a group of workers preparing for Havana’s May Day celebrations on 8 April. “They should be called the Central Agency of Yankee Cretins.” When they had finished laughing, he confirmed that the Central Agency of Yankee Cretins was about to mount an invasion of Cuba. He did not know exactly where, when, or how it would strike, but would prepare for any eventuality. His most reliable commanders were sent out to the provinces: Raúl to Oriente, Che to Pinar del Rio, and Juan Almeida to Santa Clara.

“The minute I land one marine, we’re in this thing up to our necks. I can’t get the United States into a war and then lose it, no matter what it takes. I’m not going to risk an American Hungary. And that’s what it could be, a fucking slaughter.”

Meanwhile, the CIA’s last-ditch plan to kill Fidel before the invasion collapsed. A date had been picked at the beginning of April, when Fidel was supposed to attend a boxing match at Havana’s Sports Palace. The CIA station in Coral Gables, Florida, had planned to supply a bazooka to one of the groups of Cuban exiles. The exiles would sneak back into Cuba. During the fight, the bazooka would be used to knock out the tall, bearded figure just outside the ring. As it happened, there was such bitter political infighting between the Cubans in Miami that the CIA could not work out to whom the bazooka should be given. It stayed in the box, and the attempt was canceled.

On 7 April, Adlai Stevenson had been briefed in the sketchiest possible terms by the CIA’s Tracy Barnes. Barnes told him only that the United States had given some training and financing to a Cuban-run clandestine operation—indicating nothing about an invasion. Even so: “Look, I don’t like this,” Stevenson told Schlesinger the following day. “If I were calling the shots, I wouldn’t do it. But this is Kennedy’s show.” The White House counsel, Ted Sorensen, raised his concerns with Kennedy. He remembered the president’s response: “‘I know,’ [Kennedy] replied with some irritation, ‘that everyone is worrying about getting hurt (he used a more vulgar term).’ Then he went on to indicate that he felt it was now impossible to release the army that had been built up and have them spreading word of his action or inaction through the country.”

Gerry Droller, a CIA agent who went by the pseudonym Frank Bender, was busy reassuring the Cuban brigade that the United States had their back. “Frank told Pepe [San Román, the brigade commander] and me,” remembered Erneido Oliva, one of the invaders, “that the Marines were not going with us to invade Cuba, but they would be close to us when we needed them.” Meanwhile, in Washington, Kennedy was insisting on the opposite. On 12 April, he lost his cool in a meeting with his advisers over the question of the marines backing up the Cuban brigade. “The minute I land one marine, we’re in this thing up to our necks,” he shouted. “I can’t get the United States into a war and then lose it, no matter what it takes. I’m not going to risk an American Hungary. And that’s what it could be, a fucking slaughter.” Still, though, he did not reach for the brakes.


On 8 April, François Duvalier held another of his democratic elections. This one merged the houses of parliament into a single fifty-seven-member National Assembly. It had not been touted as a presidential election, and most voters thought nothing of the fact that at the top of every ballot paper were the words République d’Haïti, Dr. François Duvalier, Président de la République. There was no box to cross next to the name.

Out of an estimated 1 million voters, 1,320,748 votes were cast, despite a low turnout. When the results were announced, it would be announced with them that, following an overwhelming result of 1,320,748 votes to zero, Duvalier would remain president for a second term, from 1963 to 1969. The act of returning the ballot paper with Duvalier’s name still on it had, according to the government, constituted a vote for him. “My enemies can only reproach me with one crime—of loving my people too much,” remarked Duvalier. “As a revolutionary, I have no right to disregard the voice of the people.”

No one could be in any doubt that the Haitian election was a travesty. But the United States would continue to recognize Duvalier as Haiti’s president, and to support him with military assistance, aid, and loans. The whole world’s eyes were about to turn to Cuba.

On 11 April, Dean Rusk seemed confident. He returned from a meeting, and told Chet Bowles, “Don’t worry about this. It isn’t going to amount to anything.”

“What do you mean, ‘amount to anything’?” asked Bowles. “Well, it just won’t amount to anything,” Rusk repeated. “Will it make the front page of the New York Times?” asked Bowles. “I wouldn’t think so,” said Rusk. On 14 April, the day before the first strike was due, Kennedy told Bissell to cut the number of planes involved. Bissell had planned on using sixteen B-26s. Kennedy told him to make it “minimal,” so he halved that. It was decided at the very last minute that it would be best if these looked like spontaneous defectors from inside Cuba, and so the B-26s were painted to look like those of the Cuban air force. David Atlee Phillips found himself sending a series of cables to the air base in Nicaragua, telling the “flying actors,” as he called them, what to wear and say, and how to make their planes look realistically combat-damaged. The strike was said to have been triggered by a mysterious radio message: “Alert, alert! Look well at the rainbow! The fish will be running very soon!” This was no code, but a piece of nonsense made up by Phillips as a cover.

The next morning, a Saturday, the operation began. Eight planes were sent to attack three Cuban airfields. The raids caused some damage, and killed a few people on the ground; but their main achievement was to warn Fidel Castro that the invasion was about to start. Afterward, one plane landed in Miami. Its pilot—impersonating a member of the Cuban air force—claimed that he was a “defector,” covering his face from the cameras with a baseball cap. The cap was not a regulation piece of a Cuban pilot’s uniform. Nor had the machine guns on his plane been fired. Unlike Castro’s B-26s, which had plastic noses, his had a solid metal nose.

Adlai Stevenson, the American ambassador to the United Nations, was immediately called upon to explain the air strike. David Atlee Phillips watched Stevenson on television, showing pictures of the “defecting” plane in Miami, and claiming that its Cuban air force markings proved the United States was not involved. Phillips was impressed by Stevenson’s acting, until “a chill moved through my body,” he wrote. “What had we done? Adlai Stevenson had been taken in by the hoax! Had no one bothered to tell our Ambassador at the United Nations of the deception involved in the air strike?” The full details of the operation had been kept away from both Stevenson and Dean Rusk on Kennedy’s orders. “I was taken by surprise when I learned that these were not genuine defections but were feigned, that they were, in fact, a part of the Bay of Pigs operation,” said Rusk. By Sunday morning, the press had noticed the problems with the pilot’s clothes, his plane, and his story, and worked out that the “defector” was lying.

That same weekend, in Ciudad Trujillo, the American diplomat Bob Murphy arrived on Kennedy’s orders for a secret meeting with Rafael Trujillo. The meeting had been arranged by Porfirio Rubirosa, and Murphy was accompanied by Igor Cassini. Kennedy, it seemed, still hoped to talk Trujillo down. For his part, Trujillo saw the meeting as a prelude to further negotiations with Jack, or at least Joe, Kennedy in person.

Amory came in to work, still seething with irritation over being sidelined. He opened a few cables; then, according to his own recollection, “I said, ‘Screw ’em.’ ” He went home, and played five sets of tennis. On the day Kennedy canceled the air strikes, the CIA had almost no hands on deck.

As usual, Trujillo insisted that he was not a dictator. He reassured Murphy that it was his intention to step back in line with American interests, but insisted that the State Department was out to get him. He believed this was because he had been trying to tell them for many years about Fidel Castro’s communist links, and the department had refused to listen. Now, he had been proven right. “They will never forgive me for that,” he told Murphy.

Murphy recommended to the State Department that it take Trujillo back under its wing and restore full American support. Mac Bundy put a stop to that idea, pointing out to Kennedy that it would undermine the Alliance for Progress. On the day Murphy left the Dominican Republic, 16 April, Trujillo emphasized to him again that the United States needed all its allies in Latin America to come together to combat the Cuban problem.

“Well, pretty soon there won’t be any Cuban problem,” Murphy replied. “Castro is a dead duck.”

On the contrary, this particular duck was still quacking. That day, Fidel held a ceremony to honor those killed by the first strike. He gave a mocking speech, full of spitting rage about “miserable gringo imperialists” and “millionaire parasites.” He read out some of the Associated Press’s dispatches, implying that the attacking planes were spontaneous defectors from the Cuban air force, and mocked them, too. “They [the Americans] have fabricated a complete story, with details and names, scheming up everything,” he said. “Hollywood would never have come up with something like this, ladies and gentlemen!” He continued, alleging that the United States “organized the attack, planned the attack, trained the mercenaries, supplied the planes, supplied the bombs, prepared the airports— everyone knows it.”

Castro was right. But the most significant point in his speech came a minute or two later. “What they cannot forgive,” he said, “is that we have made a socialist revolution right under the very nose of the United States!” There was riotous applause. For the first time, Fidel had publicly described his revolution as socialist.

Meanwhile, in Washington, there was a final meeting, which included Kennedy, Dulles, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer, Rusk, Berle, Fulbright, and the assistant secretary of state Tom Mann. Only Fulbright expressed any reservations. It was agreed that the landing would go ahead.

Though the operation was now in motion, the debate about the second air strike—planned for dawn the next morning—continued. Adlai Stevenson, already shamed at the United Nations, insisted that another strike would make his position impossible. Rusk had never wanted air strikes anyway, and now Mac Bundy agreed with him that another round would be a political disaster. At nine o’clock that night, Rusk telephoned Kennedy to persuade him to call off the next strike. It would be obvious to all, Rusk said, that the second strike would not have come from Cuban defectors, but had taken off from Nicaragua, where the dictator Luis Somoza had allowed them the use of an airfield. This had not occurred to Kennedy, who had somehow formed the false impression the second strike would be launched from the beachhead in the Bay of Pigs. “I’m not signed on to this!” he shouted into the telephone. He called the strike off, hung up, and paced around his bedroom, with a rising sense of horror that he was not in control.

Charles Pearre Cabell, deputy director of the CIA, insisted “that it was now physically impossible to stop the over-all landing operation,” and pointed out that the cancellation of air strikes would have a serious effect. Rusk called Kennedy again at four thirty in the morning with Cabell’s final request to get the strikes back on, supported by Bissell. Kennedy refused. Afterward, he could not sleep. He and Jackie sat up until the sun rose.

Bissell admitted that neither he nor Cabell was firm enough with Kennedy about the danger posed to the operation if the second strike were canceled. When they informed the planners of the president’s decision, tempers were lost. “Goddamn it, this is criminal negligence,” yelled Jack Hawkins, slamming his hand into the table. Jake Esterline added, “This is the goddamnest thing I have ever heard of.” In the command tent on the Nicaraguan airstrip, the American general in charge of the second strike threw his cap on the ground, shouting, “There goes the whole fuckin’ war!”

Dulles later took the blame: “I should have said, “Mr. President, if you’re not willing to permit us to ... substantially immobilize the Cuban air force (which was a very small and crotchety and defective air force at that time), the plan to get this brigade ashore with its equipment and supplies is a faulty one.” But Dulles was not even there. Some months before, he had accepted an invitation to the convention of the Young Presidents’ Organization in Puerto Rico that weekend. He argued, limply, that canceling this engagement would look suspicious, and to the golf courses of Puerto Rico he went. Before he left, he established a telephone code. If he called and said that he had caught “three marlin today,” the officer in Washington was to reply with congratulations to confirm that it was going well. No code was set for the eventuality that it was not going well.

In his stead, Robert Amory, the CIA’s head of intelligence analysis, was left on duty in the CIA offices. He had not been involved in the operation’s planning and was not officially supposed to know about it—though he did, through office gossip. Before Dulles departed, Amory asked what he should do if anything came up with the operation.

“You have nothing to do with that at all,” Dulles snapped. “General Cabell will take care of anything.”

On 16 April, Amory came in to work, still seething with irritation over being sidelined. He opened a few cables; then, according to his own recollection, “I said, ‘Screw ’em.’ ” He went home, and played five sets of tennis. On the day Kennedy canceled the air strikes, the CIA had almost no hands on deck.


The fourteen hundred counterrevolutionaries who approached the Bay of Pigs in the early hours of 17 April believed that they were acting with the support of the United States—and of a higher power yet. “There was also a very strong Catholic undertone to the whole brigade,” remembered Alfredo Durán, one of its members. “So much so, that our emblem was a cross surrounded by a Cuban flag. The brigade was a crusade.”

It was around midnight when three Cuban militia groups, at Playa Girón, Playa Larga, and Punta Perdiz, each noticed lights out to sea. Seven ships were approaching. The map on which Esterline and Hawkins had replanned the operation had not indicated coral reefs, and analysts had concluded that the shadows on aerial photographs were clouds or seaweed. But beneath the smooth, dark sea, coral reefs there were. The first landing craft ran aground on them, eighty yards offshore. One of its red marker lights accidentally started flashing. As the men onboard climbed out and waded toward the beach, a Cuban jeep drove up to meet them. Alerted by the red light, the local militia thought it was dealing with a lost fishing boat, and had come to warn it to avoid the reefs. As it turned to park, the jeep’s headlamps illuminated the school of frogmen approaching the soft white sand. The leader of the invading group, the CIA’s David Gray, opened fire. For all Kennedy’s emphasis on plausible deniability, the first man to engage Castro’s troops at the Bay of Pigs was an American.

Though Castro’s 339th Militia Battalion, stationed inland at the Australia Sugar Mill, comprised only five hundred men, there were troops all over the Zapata area. When the fighting began, local militia units radioed to the 339th. The 339th relayed the news to Point One, Fidel’s command base in Havana.

The first wave of Brigade 2506 began to make its way inland. Meanwhile, one of the ships, the Houston, was sunk by one of Fidel’s jets just inside the bay. This rendered an entire battalion useless, along with its cargo—which, according to Cuban reports, included food and drinking water, gasoline, light arms ammunition, explosives, and one and a half tons of white phosphorus. Many of its 130 men seemed to be paralyzed with shock. A CIA officer paddled up to the Houston in a dinghy, shouting, “Get off, you bastards, it’s your fucking war!” Soon afterward, the Cuban air force also sank the Rio Escondido, a freighter that carried most of the invaders’ fuel and all of their signaling equipment. Two further ships turned back, insisting they would only continue with American naval and air support.

Early that morning, Fidel telephoned his local commander, José Ramón Fernández, to mobilize the defense. Fernández called for his jeep to be filled up and summoned four officers to accompany him. Minutes later, the telephone rang again.

It was Fidel. “What are you doing?”

“I’m just finishing getting dressed, Commander,” replied Fernández. Fidel hung up, and Fernández began to assemble everything he needed. Ten minutes later, Fidel rang again.

“Why are you still there?”

As Fernández headed south, Fidel continued to call the field telephone in his jeep every ten minutes. Finally, when Fernández reached the Australia mill, Fidel told him to take the village of Pálpite, on the only road out of the Bay of Pigs toward Havana. Fernández scanned his map.

“Commander, there’s no Pálpite on my map.” “Look more carefully. It has to be there.” “Commander, it’s not here.” Finally, a militiaman standing next to Fernández pointed to a spot on his map marked Párrite.

“OK, where is this Pálpite?” Fernández said to Fidel. “Is it between where I am now and Playa Larga?”

“That’s the one. Take it!”

A battalion from the Matanzas Militia Leadership School arrived at the mill shortly afterward. Fernández sent it straight on to Pálpite, through the swamp. Many of the troops had not completed the necessary training to use their weapons. Some were taught how to fire their arms while in trucks on the road to Pálpite. Fidel sent a fighter plane to cover the battalion as it made its way through the trees. In a matter of hours, Fernández took Pálpite. He called Fidel back with the news.

“Wonderful!” crowed the irrepressible commander in chief. “They may not realize it, but they’ve lost the war.”

The Cuban troops attempted and failed to take Playa Larga, and had regrouped in Pálpite when Fidel himself arrived. He ordered a second attack on Playa Larga that evening, which was also beaten back. During the fighting at the Rotunda, a traffic circle just outside Playa Larga, Erneido Oliva ordered his men to fire white phosphorus grenades from their mortars at Fidel’s troops. White phosphorus sticks to human skin, causing swift, deep burns. “The shouting of the enemy at that moment was just like hell,” he remembered. “Everything was on fire. . . . It was like a curtain, completely covered with white phosphorus.”

By this point, reports were coming in about a second landing near Havana, at the old American base of Bahía Honda. Fidel could not risk a direct attack on the capital, and so he went himself. But it was a diversionary attack—eight ships manned by the CIA, filled with a cargo of special effects equipment. They set off a sound and light show and a sequence of electronic signals, designed to make this look like a second invasion.

Fidel had claimed the bombing raids on Cuba from Florida, and the Coubre explosion, as examples of covert action on the part of the United States. In both cases, there had been doubt on the part of the international community that he was right. The Bay of Pigs invasion, on the other hand, had been preceded by months of news reports in Spanish, English, and Russian that suggested the CIA was planning just such a thing. The Soviets had not yet committed large-scale military aid to Cuba, but they were watching the Bay of Pigs closely. During the invasion, Nikolai Leonov was in Moscow, liaising with Vladimir Semichastny of the KGB. The two discussed what was happening every two to three hours, and maintained on the wall of Semichastny’s office two maps of Cuba. One showed the course of events from American newspapers, radio, and television, the other from Soviet agents in Cuba. The results would have appeared to confirm that the Cuban government was a more reliable source than the Americans.

“Disclaimability, in a technical sense meaning the suppression of hard evidence of U.S. government sponsorship, was taken seriously by all concerned and insisted upon as a policy at a significant cost in operational effectiveness,” Dick Bissell admitted years later. “It was not appreciated that the operation was bound to be universally attributed to the U.S. government, regardless of hard evidence, and that all efforts to maintain technical disclaimability would buy little or nothing in the form of political advantage or more favorable world opinion. . . . Anyone reading the New York Times should have known better.” Washington’s denials only made matters worse. It was obvious that the American government was lying. This lent credibility to everything Fidel had previously claimed about the machinations of yanqui imperialism.

“Let us answer with fire and sword the barbarians who scorn us and seek to return us to slavery,” Fidel told the nation. “They come to take away the land that the revolution gave to the peasants and cooperativists; we fight to defend the land of the peasants and cooperativists. They come to take away the people’s factories, the people’s sugar mills, the people’s mines; we fight to defend our factories, our sugar mills, our mines. They come to take away from our children and from our peasant women the schools that the revolution has opened up for them everywhere; we defend the schools of our children and of the peasantry. They come to take away from black men and women the dignity that the revolution has returned to them; we fight to maintain the supreme dignity of each and every human being.

“Viva Cuba libre! Patria o muerte! Venceremos!” (Long live free Cuba! Homeland or death! We will win!)


At eight o’clock on the morning of 18 April, Fidel’s troops retook Playa Larga. The invaders were being forced back to a small area between San Blas and Playa Girón. The American carrier Essex was nearby in international waters, with two thousand marines aboard. It was not there on Kennedy’s direction. According to the CIA’s Jake Esterline and Sam Halpern, the order to have the marines stand by was given on his own authority by the chief of naval operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke. The Pentagon, like the CIA and the members of Brigade 2506 themselves, assumed that Kennedy would not allow the operation to fail.

Back in Washington, Mac Bundy wrote to Kennedy, “I think you will find at noon that the situation in Cuba is not a bit good.” He recommended that Castro’s air force be eliminated, “by neutrally-painted U.S. planes if necessary.” Soon afterward, Kennedy received a message from Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet premier wrote that it was “a secret to no one” that the United States was behind the invasion of Cuba. “We will render the Cuban people and their government all necessary help to repel armed attack on Cuba.” Kennedy’s reply accused Khrushchev of being “under a serious misapprehension in regard to events in Cuba,” and restated boldly what was by now a glaring lie: “the United States intends no military intervention in Cuba.”

As the full extent of the failure became apparent in the CIA’s war room, David Atlee Phillips observed the agency men around him. One was “white with remorse and fatigue,” one “held one hand across his face, as if hiding,” one “scratched his wrists viciously; blood stained his cuffs and darkened his fingernails,” and one simply “vomited in a wastebasket.”

That evening, Kennedy held a congressional ball at the White House. During the dinner, Admiral Burke met with representatives of the CIA. It was a memorable sight: a roomful of men done out in white tie and tails, or full dress uniforms, and amid all this finery a collection of dejected faces. “They are in a real bad hole because they had the hell cut out of them,” remembered Burke. “They were reporting, devising and talking and I kept quiet because I didn’t know the general score. Once in a while I did make a little remark like ‘balls.’” The president arrived. Both Bissell for the intelligence agency, and Burke for the Pentagon, begged him to commit American forces. Kennedy insisted that he did not want the United States involved.

“Hell, Mr. President, but we are involved,” Burke rejoined. “Can I not send in an air strike?”

“No,” replied Kennedy. “Can we send a few planes?” “No, because they could be identified as United States.” “Can we paint out their numbers or any of this?” “No.” “. . . if you’ll let me have two destroyers, we’ll give gunfire support and we can hold that beachhead with two ships forever.” “No.” “One destroyer, Mr. President?” “No.”

Two hours later, Kennedy was still in the Oval Office, along with his advisers Arthur Schlesinger, Mac Bundy, Dick Goodwin, and Pierre Salinger. The men, subdued, talked gloomily of the options available to mitigate their failure. Kennedy read a message received from Pepe San Román, the brigade commander, who had sailed ten miles out to sea to radio for help: “Do you people realize how desperate this situation is? Do you back us up or quit? All we want is low jet cover and jet close support. . . . I will not be evacuated. Will fight to the end if we have to.”

Something about these words finally changed the president’s mind. At three o’clock in the morning, Kennedy agreed to send six unmarked planes to provide cover for the brigade’s B-26s. Suddenly and without warning, the president, in his shirt sleeves, stood up and walked out of the doors into the night, alone, tears streaming down his face. “We could see him occasionally passing by the windows,” Salinger remembered. “It was a picture of loneliness.”

When Kennedy awoke the next morning, he was informed that the air cover had been sent—but the military planners had forgotten the one-hour time difference between Cuba and Nicaragua. When the brigade’s B-26s arrived, the unmarked American planes were still sitting on the aircraft carrier.

On the morning of 19 April, Fidel Castro’s local militia commander José Ramón Fernández was about a mile from Playa Girón when he spotted two American destroyers moving toward the coast. According to Fernández, they stopped in Cuban waters, and one began to lower boats.

Fernández sent a message to Fidel, telling him another landing was under way and he needed two more battalions of infantry and tanks. Meanwhile, his troops gathered along the shore, watching the destroyers with a growing sense of belligerence. “Everyone wanted to fire,” Fernández remembered.

Fernández had been given no orders in the event he encounter the United States Navy. Carefully, he lined up his artillery, and ordered his men to fire only on the small boats. It was a wise decision. Had he fired on American ships—even in Cuban waters—the conflict would doubtless have escalated, complete with all the air strikes and marine support that the Pentagon was bursting to unleash. As Fidel immediately realized when he was told about the destroyers’ approach, they had been sent to evacuate the men of Brigade 2506.

Thanks to Fernández’s restraint, an all-out war was avoided. The ground fighting finished that afternoon. Almost the entire brigade—around twelve hundred men—was taken prisoner alive by Cuban troops.

Fidel Castro had returned to the Bay of Pigs, and was touring the houses serving as field hospitals for the invaders. In one lay Enrique Ruiz-Williams, one of the brigade’s commanders, on the edge of delirium with almost seventy wounds on his body. Even through his haze, Williams recognized Fidel. He had stowed a pistol under his mattress. He reached for it, though neither he nor those around him could remember later whether he had managed to draw the gun and it failed to go off when he pulled the trigger, or whether he had simply made the gesture.

Fidel did not flinch. “What are you trying to do,” he said, “kill me?”

“That’s what I came here for,” replied Williams. “We’ve been trying to do that for three days.”

Fidel took the news with equanimity. A militia police captain gave Williams a friendly pat. “Take it easy. Take it easy. You’re in bad shape.”

The door of the house had been blown out during the bombing. Fidel reached down to pick it up, and uncovered the body of one of Williams’s comrades. “This man is dead,” Fidel observed. He indicated the rest of the prisoners. “These men can’t stay here,” he said. “Take them to Covadonga and put them in the hospital.”

Fidel had survived yet again. Che Guevara almost did not. In distant Pinar del Rio, he was hiding out in a cabin near the coast, awaiting another fight. A shot rang out close by, and Che tasted blood in his mouth. “Get him!” he yelled. “But no,” he remembered later, “it was my own pistol. It had dropped to the floor cocked, along with the double belt I’ve always worn loosely. It went off when it struck the ground. The bullet hit my cheek, but if it had strayed one centimeter, it would have torn into the base of my brain.” But for one centimeter of a bullet’s trajectory, the CIA might have had something to celebrate following the Bay of Pigs operation after all.

The atmosphere back in Washington was grim. Jack and Bobby Kennedy spent much of the day on the telephone to their father. When Rose Kennedy asked Joe how he was feeling, Joe replied that he felt he was “dying.” Dick Nixon saw Allen Dulles, who had returned from Puerto Rico and looked so careworn that Nixon asked if he would like a drink. “I certainly would—I really need one. This is the worst day of my life!” said Dulles. “Everything is lost. The Cuban invasion is a total failure.” As the full extent of the failure became apparent in the CIA’s war room, David Atlee Phillips observed the agency men around him. One was “white with remorse and fatigue,” one “held one hand across his face, as if hiding,” one “scratched his wrists viciously; blood stained his cuffs and darkened his fingernails,” and one simply “vomited in a wastebasket.” It had been, as the president had so succinctly predicted on 12 April, “a fucking slaughter.”

“I was assured by every son of a bitch I checked with—all the military experts and the CIA—that the plan would succeed,” Kennedy told Nixon, who came to see him in the Oval Office on 20 April. The president paced around the Oval Office, cursing the CIA, the Joint Chiefs, and members of the White House staff. Nixon advised him to invade Cuba. At this, Kennedy demurred, pointing out that Khrushchev might attack in Berlin if he did. “It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a President to handle, isn’t it?” Kennedy remarked. “I mean, who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?”

That same day, Kennedy also attended a cabinet meeting, which descended into recriminations. Bobby Kennedy was, by all reports, the angriest, though Chet Bowles reported that the president, too, was in “what I felt was a dangerous mood.” The Washington journalist David Halberstam reported the rumor of the day: afterward, Bobby had “jammed his fingers into Bowles’s stomach and told him, that he, Bowles, was for the invasion, remember that, he was for it, they were all for it (the story did not originate with the Bowles people, either).” The story did not, and Bowles deliberately covered it up in his mild-mannered memoirs. “They felt badly hurt, they wanted to retaliate, they wanted to strike back,” he remembered in a 1970 interview, still reluctant to talk. “I don’t want to mention anybody by name, like Bobby.” But he did, in his own notes, record his serious concern about the vulnerability of Bobby and other members of the administration to the influence of the military and the CIA. “What worries me is that two of the most powerful people in this administration—Lyndon Johnson and Bob Kennedy—have no experience in foreign affairs, and they both realize that this is the central question of this period and are determined to be experts at it,” he wrote. “The problems of foreign affairs are complex, involving politics, economics and social questions that require both understanding of history and various world cultures.” Without these tools, Johnson and Bobby were ill equipped to make decisions—but they would be doing so anyway.

Bobby Kennedy had not been closely involved in the planning of the Bay of Pigs. As soon as the beachhead fell, though, he wrote a memorandum to his brother, emphasizing that they must not go soft on Cuba. Some Soviet arms were already on the island, and he stressed the need to get these out, urgently. The best way to do so would be to convince other Latin American nations that Cuba threatened their security: for instance, “if it was reported that one or two of Castro’s MIGs attacked Guantanamo Bay and the United States made noises like this was an act of war.” The situation might get worse, he added. “If we don’t want Russia to set up missile bases in Cuba, we had better decide now what we are willing to do to stop it.”

Bobby’s style did not sit easily with his colleagues. He was, said Mac Bundy, “not always constructive, and sometimes ferocious. I mean, Bobby is capable of dealing with bureaucrats in a way that you wouldn’t deal with a dog.” But the president felt that aggression was exactly what was needed to reassert his control. “I made a mistake in putting Bobby in the Justice Department,” Jack told Arthur Schlesinger. “He is wasted there. . . . Bobby should be in CIA. . . . It’s a hell of a way to learn things, but I have learned one thing from this business—that is, we will have to deal with CIA.” Jack did ask Bobby to take over the CIA, but, according to Bobby’s recollection, he turned the job down on the grounds that as a Democrat and the president’s brother it would not look good. Sam Halpern, a CIA agent closely connected with the Bay of Pigs operation who would remain on the Cuba team afterward, later argued that Bobby assumed the role unofficially anyway. “Bobby took a real close look at CIA,” he said. “He decided that the best way to handle the CIA was not to destroy it, but for him to take it over and run it and use it as his own facility. And this is what actually happened.”

On 21 April, Jack Kennedy abandoned plausible deniability at last, and took the blame. “There is an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” he told a press conference. “I am the responsible officer of this government.” For this he received much credit, in the press and from the public. In a meeting at the White House, Lyndon Johnson blamed the CIA. “Lyndon, you’ve got to remember that we’re all in this, and that when I accepted responsibility for this operation, I took the entire responsibility on myself,” replied the president. “We should have no sort of passing of the buck or backbiting, however justified.” As one biographer pointed out, those last two words reveal something of Kennedy’s real feelings.

Taking responsibility, for Kennedy, did not involve resignation. “If this were a parliamentary government, I would have to resign and you, a civil servant, would stay on,” Kennedy told Bissell. “But being the system of government it is, a presidential government, you will have to resign.” The career of Allen Dulles was similarly ended. In 1965, Dulles wrote an article for Harper’s magazine, titled “My Answer to the Bay of Pigs,” arguing that the CIA had not misled Kennedy, and it was the White House’s hesitation that was responsible for the disaster. To the magazine’s disappointment, he pulled it just before publication. His wife explained that he did so “because there was so much more in his favor he could have said, if he had been at liberty to do so, that the material [in the article] was inadequate.”

Taking responsibility did not involve changing policy, either. On 22 April, Bobby Kennedy was at a cabinet meeting, “slamming into anyone who suggested that we go slowly and try to move calmly and not repeat previous mistakes,” remembered Bowles. Bobby insisted that the harassment of Fidel Castro must be stepped up, not down. Bowles would soon be fired. The Kennedy administration closed its ranks. As for the CIA itself, just a fortnight after the failure at the Bay of Pigs, it commissioned a new plan for covert action against Cuba.

Meanwhile, the Cuban government gleefully released details of the invading force: “194 ex-military personnel and henchmen; 100 owners of large landed estates; 24 large property owners; 67 landlords of buildings; 112 large merchants; 179 idle rich; 35 industrial capitalists; and 112 lumpens.” As one Cuban exile snarled to Arturo Espaillat, “Did the U.S. Government really expect to get rid of Castro with those yacht club boys?” Espaillat noted respectfully that this was unfair to Brigade 2506. But the exile was right that Washington had underestimated Fidel Castro.

In addition to the men of the brigade, the Cuban government arrested thousands of people in the days just before and after the invasion. Some estimates have gone as high as 100,000, though, if it were so many, most must have been released almost immediately. About 100 were eventually executed. This crackdown helped break the back of the domestic Cuban opposition. “If the Bay of Pigs fiasco had any lasting result,” said Wayne Smith, formerly of the American embassy in Havana, “it was the destruction of the anti-Castro underground, which never recovered from the blows it received in April 1961.” The captured invaders were taken to a sports stadium, where Fidel spent four days shouting at them live on television. Such was the power of his performance that, during a high point, one of the prisoners forgot himself and applauded. The footage was rebroadcast around the world.

The fate of the prisoners would take almost two years to resolve. Initially, Fidel offered to trade them for five hundred tractors and $30 million in capital relief. The United States refused, and the prisoners stayed in Cuba. “We were not mistreated; we were not tortured; we were not beaten,” remembered Alfredo Durán, one of the captured invaders, of the first few months in Fidel’s custody. “We were fed and those who needed medical treatment were given medical treatment.” Later, conditions deteriorated. The men were given little food, and kept in overcrowded huts. Sometimes, when there was particular tension between Cuba and the United States, they would be taken out and harassed. Nonetheless, “I expected worse treatment than I received,” said Durán. “I was pleasantly surprised that we were really not beaten up, or worse.” Neither Trujillo nor Duvalier was ever so hospitable to invaders. In a halfhearted attempt to curry favor with the Kennedy administration, Trujillo did offer Delio Gómez Ochoa and Pablito Mirabal, the only veterans of the Cuban-supported invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1959 whom he had not yet tortured to death, in exchange for Bay of Pigs prisoners. Fidel declined.

Meanwhile, the men of Brigade 2506 themselves felt betrayed by everyone. Fidel went on several occasions to visit Pepe San Román, the brigade commander. Fidel was sometimes friendly, sometimes angry.

“San Román, what kind of guy are you?” he asked, tugging his own beard. “I don’t understand you. I don’t understand what kind of people you are.” He said he had always tried to be friendly, and offered a compliment: he believed, he said, that some of the invading brigade had fought valiantly. San Román asked why he had not said that during their trial, and the two were soon embroiled in a furious argument.

Eventually, Fidel shouted, “San Román, you don’t deserve to live.”

“Major,” replied Pepe, “that is the only thing that we agree about. I don’t want to live any more. I have been played with by the United States and now you are playing with me here. I am tired of being played with. Kill me, but don’t play with me any more.”

Fidel did not kill him. Eventually, at the end of 1962, the United States accepted a worse deal than the one it had initially rejected, exchanging $53 million in food and medical supplies for the remaining men of Brigade 2506. “I put those men in there,” Jack Kennedy told Dick Goodwin, justifying the payout. “They trusted me. And they’re in prison now because I fucked up. I have to get them out.”

There were those who blamed Eisenhower for allowing a faulty invasion plan to be designed in the first place. At this, according to Dick Nixon, Ike “hit the ceiling.” “I would never have approved a plan without adequate air cover,” he told Nixon. On 22 April, Eisenhower met Kennedy at Camp David, and informed him in short terms that not only had the operation been a military disaster, but it had been worse: it had let Khrushchev see he was weak. “I just took their advice,” Kennedy pleaded, meaning the CIA and the Chiefs of Staff. After leaving the meeting, the new president was visibly shaken.

A few days later, he sought an audience with another five-star general, Douglas MacArthur, at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Towers. MacArthur did blame Ike, his old rival and sometime subordinate officer. “All the chickens are coming home to roost and you are living in the coop,” MacArthur said, gruffly. “Eisenhower should have done something about Cuba sooner.”


Havana’s May Day celebrations, just days after the Bay of Pigs invasion, took the form of a victory party. There was a parade of the 339th Militia Battalion, the Revolutionary National Police, and three tank companies, in addition to marching companies of industrial laborers, health-care workers, shoe shiners, and others the Castro administration considered to be productive and underappreciated. A Cuban band played a jazz version of the “Internationale,” the communist anthem. A sign in the crowd made a mnemonic from the name Kennedy: ku klux klan, engreído, nega- tivo, nocivo, enriquecido, diabólico, y . . . etc., etc. (Ku Klux Klan, Conceited, Negative, Noxious, Rich, Diabolical, And . . . etc., etc.)

Not only had the Bay of Pigs failed to achieve its objectives, it had achieved precisely the opposite of its objectives. It increased the power of Fidel Castro’s government and armed forces, struck a fatal body blow to the Cuban opposition at home and in exile, and, for the first time in history, made aggressive Soviet military involvement in Latin America a fully fledged fact.

“We must talk of a new constitution,” said Fidel. “Yes, a new constitution, but not a bourgeois constitution, not a constitution corresponding to the rule of an exploiting class over other classes. What we need is a constitution corresponding to a new social system, one without the exploitation of man by man. That new social system is called socialism, and this constitution will therefore be a socialist constitution.”

There was applause.

“If Mr. Kennedy does not like socialism, well, we do not like imperialism! We do not like capitalism!”

There were shouts of agreement.

“We have as much right to protest the existence of an imperialist and capitalist system ninety miles from our shore as he feels he has the right to protest over the existence of a socialist system ninety miles from his shore.”

Fidel had abrogated the 1940 constitution. (Though he promised a new one, none was forthcoming. The constitution commission would sit for three years, from 1965 to 1968, with no result.) Cuba was now officially a socialist state. That Cuba would seek an alliance with the Soviet Union was now inevitable. Thanks to the invasion, the United States had made it politically impossible for Fidel to consider rapprochement, even if he wanted to. Since his earliest days of student politics, the only consistent element in his message had been die-hard nationalism. The defense of Cuban sovereignty was the one thing on which he could never compromise.

The invasion had also made it politically impossible for the Soviet Union not to come to the defense of Cuba. Its credibility with the rest of its third-world allies depended on its resolve in the face of what they all saw as American imperialism. Khrushchev realized this and, as a direct consequence of the Bay of Pigs, began plans to arm Cuba. “Although the counterrevolutionaries were defeated in the landing, you would have had to be completely unrealistic to think that everything had ended with that,” he remembered.

Not only had the Bay of Pigs failed to achieve its objectives, it had achieved precisely the opposite of its objectives. It increased the power of Fidel Castro’s government and armed forces, struck a fatal body blow to the Cuban opposition at home and in exile, and, for the first time in history, made aggressive Soviet military involvement in Latin America a fully fledged fact. As Fidel Castro himself put it a few days after the invasion, “It was one of the most ridiculous things that has ever occurred in the history of the United States. And they have only themselves to blame.”

The shock waves created in the Bay of Pigs rolled out across the CIA and the State Department. “As I said to the Attorney General the other day, when you are in a fight and knocked off your feet, the most dangerous thing to do is to come out swinging wildly,” wrote Jack Kennedy’s adviser Walt Rostow to the president on 21 April. “Clearly we must cope with Castro in the next several years. . . . But let us do some fresh homework. . . . Vietnam is the place where—in the Attorney General’s phrase—we must prove that we are not a paper tiger. . . . We have to prove that Vietnam and Southeast Asia can be held.”

In the weeks after the Bay of Pigs, remembered Mac Bundy, Kennedy “did go through a process of saying that there must never be another Cuba.” General Max Taylor made a chart of Cold War strategy, which the president pinned up in his bedroom. In any other form of democratic government, Kennedy reiterated, this time to Mac Bundy, he would have been out of office if he had authorized the Bay of Pigs. No British prime minister, he thought, could have survived such a scandal. Bundy replied that he was not so sure about that.

“Well, at least I’ve got three more years,” said Kennedy. “Nobody can take that away from me.”