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Peter Wyden was like Henry Kissinger German-born, but a naturalized American who settled into journalism in his new country. His 1979 book The Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story must be considered one of the best accounts of the CIA disaster that befell John Kennedy’s new administration in 1961.

It was a shocking defeat because, quite simply stated, America up until then did not do defeat. Many felt that President Harry Truman had snatched loss from the jaws of victory after General Douglas MacArthur’s superhuman achievement at Inchon, but Korea ended in an armistice with a free South Korea, the original goal of the conflict.

Under President Dwight Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles, it seemed the U.S. had perfected a marvelous new way of warfare in which our political aims could be attained without losing massive numbers of men. The CIA among other shining successes had orchestrated coup d’etats upending Socialism in Iran and Guatemala. Of course, the Guatemala operation succeeded with luck against all odds after it seemed the gamble would fail, and we would not learn the full blowback in Iran until 1979.

But considering the United States had recently defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan while maintaining a stock market, Hollywood, college football, big league baseball, and our general way of life, we could be excused for exuding a little hubris.

Wyden starts with the great boogeyman of Cuba, Fidel Castro. Cuba was largely mob-controlled with tacit cooperation from the U.S. government and business interests. Beautiful women in Cuba – of which there were plenty – found that prostitution and pornography were their main sources of advancement. Against a backdrop of Latino resentment, Castro fought his way through the Sierra Maestra and surprisingly took Cuba from the Fulgencio Batista government in early 1959.

At first Castro pretended to be a friend to the U.S. He did a triumphal tour of the States, lauded by liberal political interests. But he knew that conservative politicians in the United States – the dominant force of the 1950s and promising to stay that way – were arrayed against him. This included Republican President Eisenhower and his rabidly anti-Communist V.P., Richard Nixon, not to mention equally rabid anti-Communist elements in the Central Intelligence Agency. The Cold War was still a kind of game, and the CIA believed they were better chess masters.

The Soviets had managed to get a satellite into space, but by 1961 America was ascending back on top in the “space race,” launching the Mercury Program. Ike, famed for protecting the lives of his men, reached out to the CIA to get rid of Castro. Castro got wind of it and threw in with the Communists. Now it was on. Plans were laid to assassinate Castro as Patrice Lumumba had been in the Belgian Congo.

Nixon, the 1960 Republican candidate for President, enthusiastically backed the CIA coup. He fully expected to win election and oversee the operation in 1961. But perhaps the most important element were the Cuban ex-patriates themselves. Cuba is not like other Latin American countries. It was a de facto American colony since the Spanish-American War of 1898, with a highly educated middle class and thriving business and real estate interests. Those interest were stolen by Castro in the blink of an eye.

Cubans more than most Latin Americans are European in nature. It does not have a large mestizo population of indigenous peoples. Their citizenry think of themselves as superior Spanish. Blacks were (and still are) looked down upon as slaves. It has a strong macho fighting spirit which was fired up to gain revenge against Fidel Castro.

Many Cubans – mainly the ones who opposed Castro – settled in Miami, instantly changing the nature of this once-sleepy Southern town. Recruiting and organizing them into a fighting force, backed by the U.S., and re-taking their homeland was an easy sell, filled with great patriotic fervor and sense of adventure.

But Wyden points out a small flaw in their training. Many of the American soldiers and pilots tasked with preparing the Cubans for invasion were Southern, with a strong element of the Alabama Air Guard. There was prejudice against the Latinos, and resentment from the proud Cubans. The Americans acted in a superior way. One Cuban said they seemed “like supermen.”

Wyden’s book shows that despite its great reputation, both the CIA and the military tasked with training the Cubans and planning the invasion, were over-confident and sloppy. Many of the Cubans became disenchanted. There was plenty of drinking. Many Cubans went AWOL. Some returned, some did not. Many were tired of living in stir. Rather than let a lot of Spanish-speaking mercenaries loose on small Southern towns and their womenfolk, hookers were brought in to take care of their “needs.” Discipline was not the order of the day.

Right from the beginning, somehow none of this seemed to matter. Hey, it’s America! It’s the CIA! We can do it with it our hands tied behind our backs.

Wyden does an excellent job describing the unique Yalie mindset of the 1950s Central Intelligence Agency. This had existed since the OSS had been formed by “Wild Bill” Donovan during World War II. Many of its core were legends of Burma, China, and Europe, where they had engaged in mind-boggling acts of bravery and derring-do. It was as if the fact many Americans died in the war had been lost to history, replaced by a John Wayne-style approach, more great adventure than tempting death. This was actually how these men thought in those days. America was untouchable.

Donovan chose men from Yale’s “Skull and Bones” secret fraternity, the most prestigious frat in the world. “Skull and Bonesmen” were loyal and secretive beyond anything else. But Donovan also wanted highly educated young men from very good families. He felt that when the “fit hit the shan,” only those with the most to lose would have the gumption to go all the way to protect their homeland. Jews, Catholics and blacks were considered loyalty risks, unpatriotic, easy prey to Communism, and not generally considered for the agency. It was anti-Semitic and racist but this attitude was still in place by 1960.

The architect of the operation was Richard Bissell, a well regarded planner. General Charles Cabell was the main military point man. CIA Director Dulles was not closely associated with the planning, but backed it all the way as had Eisenhower, his patron. Again, if Ike and Dulles had their hands on it, it could not fail.

It was also in 1960 that a major change occurred in the planning of the coup. John F. Kennedy defeated Vice-President Nixon. He was considered a “rookie,” by the Soviets as well as by the military and the CIA. Nixon had been well-respected by these elements, but more important, he had been instrumental in planning the operation with his enthusiastic support.

JKF, on the other hand, was a Democrat and therefore, by post-Blacklist standards, considered suspect, although his father was a well known anti-Communist. At least Kennedy had not backed Soviet spy and fellow Harvard man Alger Hiss as most of the Left had. Kennedy was not briefed on the operation until shortly before his famous TV debates with Nixon. It was agreed for national security purposes that the operation would not be revealed during the campaign. JFK, fearing he was losing to Nixon, broke protocol and urged just such an invasion during a debate. Nixon, forced to stay silent, said such a plan was not in place.

Of course, this was something of a joke, Everybody, including Castro, knew what was going on. Thousands of Cubans in fatigues were shooting up the swamps of Florida and Louisiana. Military planes filled the air. The question was not whether a Cuba invasion was being planned, but rather when it would occur, or whether it might be called off.

But such an operation carries a life of its own. Ike himself had warned of such rampant military spending and the desire to see that spending come to fruition in a successful war. History tells us strange forces of fate and ironic, mysterious powers propel these events, going back to Julius Caesar, to the works of William Shakespeare and Sun Tzu, often with tragic consequence as in Vietnam and the modern Middle East.

Kennedy won the closest election in history and inherited an operation with Dwight Eisenhower’s and Allen Dulles’s name on it. Who was he to say no? But whether JFK said yes or no, it had like all big, bureaucratic missions, a life of its own. It was a creature, a thing. It could not be stopped. Could it be controlled?

Unless Wyden’s reporting is inaccurate, and there is no reason to believe so, it moved forward, from Inauguration Day into April, with lax discipline; with sketchy planning; and with a vague “assurance” that the U.S. was behind it. After all, they had stormed Omaha Beach, piece of cake. Yet, as the launch day approached, many of the top planners literally and actually gave it a 10 percent or 20 percent chance of success. Amazingly, nobody it seems paid much attention to that. It would figure it out on the go, no worries.

Veteran spy Richard Helms called it “barebrained.” E. Howard Hunt, one of the key operatives, was just plain incompetent, as he would prove to be when he helped botch Watergate. His specialty was propaganda, writing spy novels as a CIA front, not infiltration or extraction, two keys of the op.

Col. (later General) Edward Lansdale said the planning was inadequate. General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was shocked by the disorganization. U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright (D.-Arkansas), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it a “terrible idea.” White House advisor Walt Rostow thought it the “most screwed-up operation” he ever saw. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera, barely confirmed by the Senate at the time, was too absorbed in technical details, of course. He had run the Army Air Corps’ bombing campaign over Europe strictly by the numbers. In an operation that big, in which the only calculus was to kill so many of the enemy they could not fight back, it worked. He had used these same methods at Ford Motor Company, and despite being the father of the Edesel was picked by Kennedy to run the Pentagon. He was in over his head and remained so for eight years.

The Cubans were dismayed by the seeming incompetence of their handlers, but were always mollified with platitudes: “It worked at Normandy.” There was never, at any time, assurance that the U.S. would provide air support, namely actual combat use of our most sophisticated aircraft, yet when they asked they were always assured that at the last minute, sure, of course, you have nothing to worry about, we’ll have planes for you . . .

What they got were obsolete World War II B-26 bombers. The U.S. used VA-35 “blue blasters” as reconnaissance, but they were never allowed to engage.

Many of the Cubans were aristocrats, as were so many of the Yalies in the CIA. They trusted the Americans. Instead, they were abandoned. The battle centered around Bahia de cochinos, the “bay of pigs.” The main battle was at Blue Beach, Giron, which became a famous name in Cuba after the battle, as Wyden wrote, like Valley Forge in Americana.

One of the keys to success was the belief that ordinary Cubans would rise up and join the cause against Castro. Perhaps had the operation looked at any time like a success, they would have, but there was no big civilian uprising. Most true Cuban patriots had either escaped to Miami, been murdered by Castro, or were imprisoned/tortured in Havana.

The greatest indictment of all is left for President Kennedy. Sainted, believed a great President by many, anybody who reads Wyden’s book would be ashamed to have ever voted for him. He was timid, scared, afraid, disloyal; in no way a leader of men. When the operation started he was at some political event with wife Jackie. He was helpless throughout, ringing his hands, unable to make a decision or see things clearly. The commanders were often eight hours behind events on the ground. In the end, the operation, for all its faults in planning, disorganization or incompetence, probably would have succeeded had Kennedy allowed the U.S. to utilize its air power. He did not, fearing the world would know it was a U.S. operation, which the world already knew! He sacrificed thousands.

To the credit of the Cubans, Castro on the other hand was a great military leader who knew the terrain well. There were many brave Cubans who defended Castro’s country, some of whom had been trained by the Americans. Despite inferior air power, Cuban pilots flew with bravery and success.

The aftermath of course was disaster, disaster, disaster. Castro was elevated in the world Both the Americans and Cubans on the ground hated JFK with a passion for being abandoned. It turned Miami Cubans into the most reliable, anti-Communist Republican voting bloc. It led to the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis. Those events never would have happened had the Communists not been convinced that Kennedy was a mere boy, ill-suited for command, or if Nixon had been President. They were right.

JFK tried his best to save face. With Jackie looking beautiful and speaking Spanish at the Orange Bowl, he praised the survivors of the brigade, traded back to the U.S. for huge shipments of food and medicine.

Wyden did his homework, which included interviews with most of the key people involved from both sides, including Castro. Some of the Americans refused to talk, mostly out of embarrassment.

JFK’s and his brother’s assassinations, mixed with the future fate of Nixon, are Shakespearean tragedy for the ages.

Steven Travers is a former Hollywood screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at or on Twitter @STWRITES.