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The Two Stories About the Bay of Pigs You Never Heard

At the end of the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a priceless ark which once held the Ten Commandments has been found by a Nazi-fighting U.S. agent, and is brought to the United States. Rather than being publicly displayed, however, it is placed in a crate labeled “Top Secret Army Intel 9906753” and put on a government warehouse shelf. As the camera reveals in the closing scene, the warehouse is vast, and viewers understand that the ark is effectively being lost again.  

In 1974, Jack Pfeiffer of the Central Intelligence Agency’s history office was authorized to research and write a comprehensive history of the infamous, failed operation known as Bay of Pigs. As all Americans of a certain age know, this was the attempt planned during the late stages of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency and refined and authorized by President John F. Kennedy to have the CIA use invading Cuban exiles to overthrow of the government of Fidel Castro.

Pfeiffer, who became Chief Historian at CIA in 1976, had access to more Bay of Pigs participants and probably more documents than any others in or out of the government who wrote about the event. Agency leaders made no commitment to publicize the work any time soon, though. Indeed, as Pfeiffer reached retirement in 1984, he tried but failed to persuade his superiors to declassify at least sanitized portions of what had become a massive, multi-volume history. He would be rebuffed again in the 1990s when he sued CIA over the dispute. Pfeiffer went to his grave without a page of his work being released.1

Records at the National Archives do not agree as to how many volumes Pfeiffer wrote in his “Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation” series; there are references to four, five, and even seven volumes. It is clear, though, that there are three main volumes and at least two auxiliary ones (the latter responding to earlier critiques of Bay of Pigs, one by CIA’s Inspector General and the other by a committee chaired by retired General Maxwell Taylor).

The first of the main volumes has the brief, suggestive title of “Air Operations.” Historians and former government officials have long debated whether President Kennedy’s decision to limit air support of those who went ashore in Cuba was a fatal mistake. No doubt Pfeiffer’s volume has innumerable and perhaps important details to tell us about that process, but it remains classified “Top Secret.” Similarly, Volume II (“Participation in the Conduct of Foreign Policy”) must have much to say about CIA leaders’ interactions with other shapers of foreign policy, but remains unavailable.

In keeping these volumes secret, the Central Intelligence Agency is almost certainly violating the JFK Assassinations Records Act of 1992, which states that “all government records concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy should carry a presumption of immediate disclosure.” Congress explicitly intended the phrase “records concerning the assassination” to be broadly applied. Since the U. S. government tried to kill and overthrow Castro during the Kennedy era, and because some suspect that Castro or his supporters were behind the JFK assassination, documents on covert action against Castro clearly come under the Act’s language. CIA has declassified many such documents, but far from all. Even though its Operations Directorate (which does covert action) agreed in writing in the late 1990s to the declassification of all the Pfeiffer volumes, it did not happen.

Instead, the Agency declassified Volume III (“Evolution of CIA’s Anti-Castro Policies, 1951-January 1961”) around 1998, but did not publicize that decision. The 300 page history, which closely chronicles the last two years of the Eisenhower era and the transition to the Kennedy presidency, was placed in an obscure collection called “CIA Miscellaneous” at National Archives.2

When I came across the volume in June 2005, I was initially annoyed at myself for not having known it was available. I had just completed a lengthy book dealing largely with CIA and the U.S. Congress during the Eisenhower era. Soon, I learned that no one seemed to know that Pfeiffer’s volume was declassified. Upon reading it, I decided that the history deserved wide attention, so I posted it on the Internet.3

What Is Significant in Pfeiffer’s Volume III?

Bay of Pigs has been so extensively chronicled over the past 44 years that one might assume that there are no more shocking stories to be told about it. Pfeiffer has some, though, and I nominate these two as the most surprising:

(1) In November 1960, top aides briefed Richard Bissell, head of CIA’s covert action bureaucracy, about anti-Castro plans that had been developed that year. The session was intended to prepare Bissell for a briefing that he and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles would give President-elect Kennedy two days later in Palm Beach, Florida. Remarkably, Bissell’s aides told him that CIA’s plan to overthrow Castro would not work.

The aides noted that an earlier plan--relying on “the use of small teams infiltrating Cuba and working with the dissident elements located within the country”--had gone by the board earlier in 1960. The latest plan developed by CIA under Eisenhower White House guidance--“an amphibious assault in strength…with concomitant requirement for heavy air support for resupply and possibly for military support, as well”—called for well over a thousand men to storm Cuba’s shores. But the goal of overthrowing Castro was “unachievable” under either plan, Bissell’s aides said.

There is no evidence that Bissell informed the President-elect of this judgment. Their meeting has been written about over the years by many, including Bissell in his memoirs. But nowhere in the Bay of Pigs literature or documentation have I found any indication that Bissell shared the pessimistic analysis with JFK. As Don Bohning, former reporter for the Miami Herald, has said, “Bissell seems to have had a habit of not telling people things they needed to know.”4

Notably, in looking back on the Bissell aides’ assessment and what followed in the Kennedy presidency, a perplexed Pfeiffer writes, “How, if in mid-November 1960 the concept…was ‘unachievable’…did it become ‘achievable’ in March 1961?” It is a question he cannot answer.5

(2) Days before Christmas 1960, DCI Allen Dulles held an important, and I would say scandalous, meeting in New York. In attendance, Pfeiffer writes, “were the Vice President for Latin America of Standard Oil of New Jersey, the Chairman of the Cuban-American Sugar Company, the President of the American Sugar Domino Refining Company, the President of the American & Foreign Power Company, the Chairman of the Freeport Sulphur Company, and representatives from Texaco, International Telephone and Telegraph, and other American companies with business interests in Cuba. The tenor of the conversation was that it was time for the U.S. to get off dead center and take some direct action against Castro.”

The corporate leaders had many ideas along these lines for Dulles. They included burning sugar cane fields, ruining refineries, interrupting electric power supplies, and putting an embargo on food and medicines going into Cuba. Dulles opposed the embargo idea and told the corporate leaders that he was not in business of policy planning. That, he probably added, was the job of “Higher Authority,” i.e, the United States president. He did comment (Pfeiffer writes) that “what he was interested in was getting rid of Castro as quickly as possible, and in this field, he had direct responsibility and would welcome any ideas or suggestions on how this might be achieved.”

The timing of this meeting was highly sensitive. Republican Eisenhower was soon to exit the presidency, so there was little chance that he would have CIA dislodge Castro (though, as Pfeiffer writes, Ike had insisted that CIA develop effective plans and forces to do so). It was Democrat Kennedy, a proponent of action against Castro during his presidential campaign, who would have to decide whether or not to authorize some version of what CIA had planned. By blabbing to the corporate leaders about wanting to get rid of Castro as soon as possible, Dulles did a disservice to Kennedy. If JFK had chosen in the spring of 1961 not to authorize CIA to invade Cuba, it wouldn’t have been just those thousand-plus Cuban exiles who would have charged Kennedy with a cowardly abandonment; some of the corporate leaders surely would have leaked word of the new president’s “weakness.”

Furthermore, Dulles had endangered CIA’s reputation—if critics of the Agency had known of this meeting, they would have charged that CIA was (in the words of Dulles’ own underling, Tracy Barnes) “protecting economic royalists.” At a minimum, as Pfeiffer writes, corporate interests played a “sometimes overactive” role in support of the anti-Castro efforts.6

Beyond that, the word “covert” means secret. At a time when Eisenhower and Kennedy fervently believed (and told Dulles) that secrecy should shroud CIA’s Cuba plans, the DCI had been horribly indiscreet.

There is much more in Pfeiffer’s history. “Numerous wild haired proposals…were being put forward [in CIA and elsewhere in the government] during the months under study—proposals which never should have been offered, let along given any serious consideration.”7 Also, a CIA-funded survey of public opinion in Cuba in summer 1960 showed that, overwhelmingly, Cubans were glad to be rid of the dictator Fulgencia Batista, and were hopeful about Cuba’s future under Castro. This “could have (and should have) caused CIA planners to re-think the whole anti-Castro effort.”8

Briefly, Pfeiffer writes that, two weeks before the Kennedy inauguration, Dulles gave members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on CIA a “fairly detailed” description of plans to overthrow Castro. If the legislators posed any objection, Pfeiffer does not say so. It is unlikely that they did, as most Congress members viewed Cuba hawkishly in 1960.9

Finally, Pfeiffer labels as “convenient” but inaccurate Dwight Eisenhower’s claim after Bay of Pigs that only a “training program” occurred during his presidency and that “there was no tactical or operational plan even discussed.” Pfeiffer says there had been a “drastic change of concept of the operation between spring and fall of 1960” from “infiltration into Cuba of small teams” to “an amphibious landing with armor and combat air support.”10

On the whole, Pfeiffer—a CIA officer since 1955--was about as critical of CIA leaders as was Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick in his controversial 1961 Inspector General’s Report. Kirkpatrick confined his report to CIA’s performance, while Pfeiffer gave serious attention to the entire executive branch. As with the Taylor Committee Report, few bureaucracies or leaders come off well. Taylor did not evaluate the performance of Presidents Eisenhower or Kennedy, though, while Pfeiffer implies that neither was shrewd regarding Cuba. Ike alternately seems passive-ignorant and a hawkish hands-on manager of Cuba planning.11

While not gracefully written, Pfeiffer’s “Volume III” is a landmark history, given the author’s access to people and documents (many still not declassified). Surely, it merits publication. I suspect that “Air Operations” and “Participation in the Conduct of Foreign Policy” are even more significant. CIA should comply with the JFK Assassination Records Act and declassify them and the auxiliary volumes. When the Agency does so, it should also issue a press release.

1 See Public Citizen’s website: www.citizen.org/litigation/briefs/FOIAGovtSec/articles.cfm?ID=890

2 The volume is in Box 1, CIA Miscellaneous, JFK Assassination Records Collection, National Archives, College Park, MD.

3 See www.homepage.villanova.edu/david.barrett/

4 Bissell, Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 160. Bohning, quoted in Carol Rosenberg, “Mission Impossible,” Miami Herald, 8-11-05, p. 1 (available at www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/12354497.htm)

5 Pfeiffer, Volume III, p. 149.

6 Pfeiffer, pp. 182-84, 253.

7 Pfeiffer, p. 81.

8 Pfeiffer, pp. 48, 223-24.

9 Pfeiffer, pp. 194-95.

10 Pfeiffer, pp. iv, 200-02.

11 Pfeiffer, chapter 4.