Thursday, July 24, 2008

Howard Jones' "The Bay of Pigs"

Howard Jones is University Research Professor of History at the University of Alabama. His books include Mutiny on the Amistad and Death of a Generation.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Bay of Pigs, and reported the following:
On April 17, 1961, a small band of 1500 Cuban exiles invaded their former homeland at the Bay of Pigs in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. The amphibious operation had been the brainchild of the CIA, which had assumed an aura of invincibility after its covert successes in Iran and Guatemala. The agency had planned the entire operation—a path-breaking venture that hinged on covert action, a preemptive strike, and, incredibly, an arrangement with the Mafia to assassinate Castro and set off a popular insurrection. In approving the invasion, the Kennedy administration had taken a new direction in foreign policy, one that rested on assassination and military force.

The landing, as is well known, was a spectacular failure. Castro not only survived the invasion but outlasted ten presidents despite every effort to force him from office—including at least six attempts at assassination.

This fiasco—a word that has become synonymous with Bay of Pigs—provided ample warning of the unpredictable dangers inherent in an interventionist foreign policy. Yet the warning remains unheeded—as shown in Vietnam and Iraq.

When I applied the “Page 99 Test” to my work, I was amazed at how much that excerpt revealed about the Cuban operation. Despite President Kennedy’s stipulations, the first invaders to hit the Cuban beaches were Americans. The CIA ignored his directive, believing that only Americans could do the job right and that military considerations must have priority over White House concerns regarding plausible deniability. So sure of itself, the agency had gone beyond its expertise in covert action to engineer a military operation that, by all measures, belonged to the Joint Chiefs of Staff but seemed certain of success because of its belief that the White House would resort to U.S. military intervention if necessary. The initial events on the Cuban beaches highlighted on this page starkly exposed the deficiencies in the CIA’s intelligence gathering apparatus that suggested further flaws in the plan—a chilling portent of the disaster to come:

… Just before midnight preceding the landing, the operation began as two small underwater demolition teams in rubber rafts stealthily motored toward shore, each group—one of five Cubans, the other with three—led by an American and hence in violation of President Kennedy’s directive against U.S. participation. With blackened faces and wearing black outfits and rubber sandals, the larger UDT team headed to Blue Beach, the other to Red Beach, their missions the same: Mark the best channels for the ships’ approach with red and white lights visible only from the sea and turned on when the vessels came within a half mile of shore.

The two Americans were vocal and highly visible. At Blue Beach was Grayston Lynch (known as Gray), a muscular, wide-bodied former member of the Special Forces in Laos who had twice been wounded in World War II, during the Normandy invasion and at the Battle of the Bulge, and again in the Korean War at Heartbreak Ridge. And at Red Beach was William “Rip” Robertson, called by the Cubans “the Alligator” because of his rough and scaly sun-dried skin. A flamboyant and irreverent battle-hardened marine in World War II, he had had paramilitary experience with the CIA in Korea and Guatemala and later became a close friend of Somoza. Both Americans were CIA case officers, Gray on the Blagar and Robertson on the Barbara J.

As Gray’s frogman team eased toward Blue Beach, the men gawked in disbelief at the tall lights beaming onto the beach from Playa Girón. It “was lit up like Coney Island,” Gray sputtered. Didn’t the CIA’s home office assure them that no one inhabited the resort houses? Indeed, the agency had failed to note the construction workers and their families living in Playa Girón while building the new vacation mecca scheduled to open in less than a month—nearly 200 buildings similar to motels in the United States. And of all things, they were having a party that had spilled onto the beach. No turning back now. The team drifted a short distance from the original landing site. From a thousand yards out, Gray scanned the beach with his binoculars, spotting six figures standing outside the buildings and peering toward the water. He quieted his boat’s engine, trying to determine whether they had been seen. Everything remained still and black in the moonless night. …
Learn more about The Bay of Pigs and its author at the Oxford University Press website and Howard Jones' faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue