WHY DID THE CIA PROCEED WITH A BROKEN PLAN?
The Cold War was fully underway. The two great superpowers were in a military standoff, but surrogate forces were in conflict in various parts of the world.
The Western Hemisphere was considered to be inviolable by overseas powers, a U.S. tradition dating back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.
Then a left-leaning regime won power in Guatemala in 1950. Concerned over what it perceived as a potential communist base, the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, through the CIA, organized, trained and armed an exile force in Honduras. It invaded Guatemala in 1954 and soon overthrew the government.
Fast forward to Cuba 1959. A middle-class revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista had been successful. A young hothead named Fidel Castro, who had been leading a guerrilla group in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, descended from there and soon maneuvered himself into control of the country.
CASTRO LAUNCHES “SOCIALISM”
Then, egged on by his communist younger brother Raúl and an Argentine adventurer who liked to be called Che, Castro began leading the country into “socialism” and a virtual alliance with the Soviet Union. Castro saw the Cuban revolution as the vanguard of a socialist wave that would sweep over Latin America.
He figured he could ride this wave to become what placards in Havana proclaimed him to be: “Líder de las Americas.“ No one ever accused Fidel Castro of modesty. Again General Eisenhower was unhappy. Again he instructed the CIA to move, this time against Castro. A plan was developed and put into motion. It consisted of two basic elements:
1. An exile army would be organized and launched against Castro.
2. A powerful clandestine movement would be built inside Cuba to support an invasion by the exile force.
Eager young—and some not so young—exiles were recruited in Miami. They were flown from an airfield at the adjoining town of Opa-locka to Guatemala and a camp at a private farm. The pretense was that this was being done not by the United States but by private capitalists who wanted to combat communism.
The recruits were given military training by American officers.
FROM GUERRILLA OPS TO INVASION
The initial plan called for the exiles, once inserted into Cuba, to begin guerrilla operations in the Escambray Mountains or to join guerrillas already there. Later, because Castro had been adept at fighting guerrillas, Washington changed the plan to an all-out invasion. The White House set major policy; the Central Intelligence Agency was in charge of the exiles and the operations.
The CIA was busy inside Cuba too. To lead a developing clandestine movement the CIA selected a young Cuban engineer, Rafael Díaz Hanscomb. He received training in the U.S. from Frank Belsito, a veteran CIA operative who had been at the station in Havana and was now with the huge Miami station. Dissident clandestine groups were pulled together into a single umbrella organization, Unidad Revolucionaria (UR). Infiltration teams, also composed of trained exiles, were inserted into Cuba to work with the underground and to receive smuggled weapons and explosives.
(Hanscomb’s nom de guerre was “Rafael.” He told me he figured that in seeking “Rafael,” the underground leader, the police would not look for someone actually named “Rafael.”)
BOMBS AND SABOTAGE
Unrest spread in Cuba, encouraged by the expectation the U.S. would send the exile force to fight in Cuba. Bombs exploded; sabotage increased. A spectacular fire leveled Havana’s best known department store, El Encanto. Castro was seen in a rage at the scene. Cubans were aware that the country’s last two dictators, Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista, had been brought down at least partially because of civic revolutions.
Plans for internal insurrection led by the growing UR network were broad. These included increasing terrorism and sabotage in urban areas. In the countryside existing guerrilla groups would be provided with recruits and weapons. The men in Guatemala, many believed, would be used to reinforce existing guerrilla groups as well as start new operations.
Also, contacts were made within the military.
PLANS TAKE SHAPE
The UR leadership was developing plans, including working with other underground groups. Among these was the Movimiento de Recuperación Revolucionaria, headed by a psychiatrist turned politician, Manuel Artime. Artime would be picked by the CIA to head the invasion force.
In coordination with the invasion, the UR planned the following support activities:
• An air base was to be seized by rebel air force officers.
• The University of Havana was to be taken over.
• The crews of navy ships were to mutiny, seize the ships and sail from their ports, presumably joining the invading fleet.
• Radio stations and other key positions were to be seized.
• Rebel police officers were to take command of several police stations.
• When a landing occurred, roads would be blocked to prevent Castro’s troops from reaching the site.
• Communications across the island would be disrupted.
• Calls would be made to the populace to rise up.
RKB WEIGHS IN
The potential importance of the underground has been illustrated by SOF Editor/Publisher Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown (ret.) with an historic parallel: “The maquis in France supported the Alllied invasion during WW II. They were worth 20 divisions.”
On the afternoon of 18 March, 1961, nine key figures in the underground gathered at the home of a machine shop owner in the Alturas de Biltmore suburb of Havana. The owner, a lesser individual in the rebel movement, was not present. A tenth person came, saw how many men had gathered, and figured this was a dangerous situation for clandestine leaders. He departed. Among those who were present were Díaz Hanscomb and a well-known political figure, Humberto Sorí Marín, former agriculture minister under Castro.
THE RECRUITS ACTIVATE
On 10 April, 1961, the men in the Guatemalan camp were assembled. They climbed into trucks and were taken to an airfield, from which they were flown to Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua. There they and their equipment went aboard five transport vessels and two landing craft.
At sea, heading for their homeland, the Cubans were heartened by the sight of American warships on the horizon—the carrier Essex and seven destroyers.
The expedition arrived off the southern shore of Cuba Sunday night, 16 April. Frogmen went ashore first and then the invaders hit the town of Girón and nearby Playa Larga (beach). Paratroops were dropped inland. What then followed, however, was a heroic and unmitigated debacle. The men did not know that their fate had just about been decided by an occurrence outside Havana a few weeks previously.
The tenth person who walked away from the gathering of rebel leaders was correct. The rebels had violated a basic tenet of clandestine warfare: never should chiefs meet in a vulnerable location. Police surrounded the house. They had been tipped by an informant or someone had spotted an unusual number of men going into the house. Another version is that the police were raiding an adjoining house. The leaders thought it was they who were being raided and tried to flee, thus alerting the police to the gathering. The leaders were captured. Sorí Marín was shot and wounded as he attempted to escape.
The fate of Cuba was sealed.
A STRANGER AT MY DOOR
Nothing was reported about the affair. A day or two later, late at night, a man appeared at my apartment in the Vedado suburb. He was short and heavy set. He wore a coat and tie. I was living alone. My wife and son had gone to Coral Gables, Florida, for safety. I had never seen my visitor before.
He knew me. He told me the underground leaders had been captured. He asked me to get word to the States. Then he left, and I never saw him again.
I was in a quandary. If it was true, the information he had given me was highly important. If my visitor was with the CIA, why didn’t he have means to get the news to the CIA? Or was he a Cuban government agent, and Castro’s security apparatus wanted to see what I would do, and how I would do it?
The next morning I called my wife and in as guarded a manner as I could I informed her of what had happened. I asked her to “pass it on.” She understood.
HISTORY IS MADE
Even with the information in hand, I did not have any idea of the repercussions that would spread out in the weeks ahead. History had just been made; ensuing events in the next year and a half would nearly lead to a superpower nuclear conflagration.
Within the CIA there was dissension. Legendary intelligence operative Jake Esterline, who was the project chief, wanted to call off the impending invasion. He was overruled by superiors, and presumably by the White House, too. The attack would go ahead, even though the vital clandestine support apparatus had been decapitated.
The landing of about 1,200 rebels to fight 20,000 troops mobilized by Castro; Castro leading a counterattack, the bombing of the main rebel arms ship; President Kennedy limiting rebel air operations; the pilots of the U.S. carrier eager to assist the invaders; the invaders running out of food, water and ammunition; the destruction of the expeditionary force—the story of the Bay of Pigs has been told in countless articles, every biography of Castro and at least three military books: Haynes Johnson’s The Bay of Pigs, Peter Wyden’s Bay of Pigs, and this writer’s History of the Cuban Armed Forces.
Why did the U.S. government proceed with the invasion after the key support factor was destroyed? Did the CIA believe the attack would succeed anyway? Or perhaps, did Kennedy not want more than 1,000 resentful, weapons-savvy Cuban exiles running around loose in Miami, perhaps causing trouble by doing such things as launching freelance air and sea attacks against Cuba?
In the hours following the invasion there was still a window in which the underground could have gone into action. But the men now in charge were uncertain as to what to do. They were not even sure an invasion had actually taken place; that this was not a ploy by Castro to draw out the underground. The rebels did make contact with a CIA radio. The Agency added to the confusion by ordering: “Don’t do anything. Wait for news. Maintain your positions.”
Maintain positions? Castro’s police and militia rounded up some 250,000 persons and put them in theaters, stadiums, and police stations. The underground was smashed, never again to rise up. The nine leaders? They were executed within hours of the landing.
Too late, the CIA broadcast instructions to commence sabotage. There no longer was an organization to do this. The conventional historical view is that Fidel Castro was saved because the Bay of Pigs failed. Not generally recognized is that the invasion actually saved Castro. It gave him an excuse for the massive roundup that destroyed the resistance movement. The momentum of the movement, if not interrupted, would almost certainly have overthrown Castro, as similar movements had brought down Cuba’s previous dictators.
Because the underground leadership was destroyed, the invasion failed. Because the invasion failed, the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev saw President Kennedy as weak. Because Khrushchev thought Kennedy weak, he decided to place ICBMs in Cuba. And then ...
A butterfly flutters its wings; soon a hurricane forms halfway around the globe.