Bay of Pigs Lessons
What have we learned from
what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr dubbed "the perfect failure?" Schlesinger,
who served as a high level adviser to president John F. Kennedy, opposed the CIA
backed invasion of Cuba's
Bay of Pigs by a brigade of anti Castro Cuban exiles. But at last week's Bay of
Pigs conference in Havana, Schlesinger said he had no apologies for his having
written an official and obfuscating White Paper to justify an invasion of Cuba.
It was too interesting to turn down an opportunity to see how history was made
from the inside.
In 1961, Schlesinger, who had achieved well-deserved praise for his scholarship on Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt -- and later for his opus on John F. Kennedy -- had accepted the task of speaking for the provisional government of Cuba, which the CIA had brought to a small hut in the Everglades to ship to Cuba after the invading brigade established its beachhead.
As Schlesinger and his White House partner in this undertaking, Adolph Berle, Chairman of the Board of the American Sugar Company that Castro had recently expropriated, told the media what policies and values the new US-backed government would uphold, TV listeners could hear cries in Spanish from the members of that government inside the hut: "Let us out. Let us out." Schlesinger and Berle, embarrassed, nevertheless continued to speak for the members of the supposedly legitimate government formed by the CIA, who were locked inside the hut because the Agency feared what they might say about Kennedy "betraying the invasion."
C. Wright Mills, the great sociologist, watched the scene on TV, pointed to Berle and Schlesinger and commented: "They are examples of moral schlemiels."
Unfortunately, Schlesinger didn't reflect on his experiences after forty years. What did it mean for example, that US officials conspired to overthrow another government in violation of US laws and treaties, albeit under the sacred aegis of anti-communism?
Some of the Cuban actors at the Bay of Pigs present inquired: "suppose the Bay of Pigs invasion had succeeded: would that not have led to an even greater US disaster?" Had President Kennedy called in US air power and then, presumably, Marines to support the CIA's Cubans, we might well have witnessed a Vietnam-style war 90 miles form US shores.
President Kennedy accepted the blame, publicly. "Victory has a thousand fathers," he said "and defeat is an orphan." But in private, instead of attempting to reach a modus vivendi with the Cuban revolution, Kennedy appointed his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to avenge the "fiasco" by directing the CIA to launch a campaign of state terrorism.
Operation Mongoose was born, a plan to assassinate Castro and other Cuban leaders and to sabotage the Cuban economy. Sam Halpern and Robert Reynolds, CIA officials who helped direct these operations attended the Bay of Pigs meeting. They described these operations as "stupid" and "ineffective," but the Cuban government found them devastatingly punishing. So, in August 1961, Castro sent his most trusted "diplomat" to talk to the Kennedy team.
Richard Goodwin, a top White House adviser, met Guevara in Montevideo, Uruguay. Goodwin said that he listened attentively as Che offered concessions: to pull back from the Soviet Union and especially from its military reach; to repay expropriated US companies for the property the Cuban government had confiscated; and, finally, to discontinue Cuba's hyperactive support for revolution in Latin America.
In return, Che asked that the Kennedys cease and desist from their assassination and terror campaign against Cuban officials and property.
The Kennedys rejected the détente offering and instead "turned up the heat." As we now know, the White House's terrorist campaign against Cuba through 1961 and into 1962 became an important factor in Castro's decision to accept Soviet ballistic missiles – which led to the terrifying Missile Crisis of October 1962. So, the Bay of Pigs and its aftermath, the Missile Crisis, in which the entire world fearfully awaited the outcome, derived from a simple and historic premise of the US government: to break our own laws and elementary morality so as to punish disobedient regimes in "our sphere."
What has Washington learned since then? Just as the Kennedy brothers didn't consider a "worst-case scenario," so does the current Bush team eschew logical policy thinking. They do not consider, apparently, how difficult it will become to reach an understanding in a post Castro Cuba when Fidel will not be around to command consensus. Indeed, the Bush administration threatens the proverbial harder line - but without having clear hard-line policies.
Does Secretary of State Colin Powell have the mental cojones to act before Fidel reaches his 75th birthday (this August) and push to drop the embargo and travel ban? At the Havana meeting, five former members of the invading Cuban exile brigade extended their hands to their former mortal enemies. It only took a few seconds, but it held profound meaning.
Why am I not holding my breath for the Bush gang to take a similarly sensible step toward the Cuban government?