The Bay of Pigs

Background

I originally intended to begin this essay by asserting that the fifteen years following World War II were not a particularly good time to be an American.  On further reflection, the statement remains valid, but I’d have to suggest a much extended time period — maybe three decades to around 1980.  Looking back upon the post-World War II period, it seems as if the American Republic was suddenly beset with utter morons occupying high government positions when, in fact, they should not have been allowed to work at a car wash.

Following the Second World War, military veterans returned to their homes with the expectation of owning a piece of the good life everyone fought so hard for … that having the tragedies and heartbreaks of war, the inconveniences of rationing, and all the uncertainties behind you, that a new day was coming.  It was dawn in America.  Everyone could smell the Maxwell House Coffee — good to the last drop.

We drank the coffee but didn’t enjoy much of the good life.  The American economy was in flux, but almost everyone expected that sort of thing.  Politicians were telling Americans that we were somehow responsible for putting Europe back together, and yes — Americans would have to pay for it.  Americans would have to pay for the U.S. arms race with the Soviet Union, too — after giving the Russians all of our military technology and secrets to the atomic bomb.  Writer and former socialist George Orwell (real name, Eric Blair) called that period the “Cold War.”  In Orwell’s context, the “cold war” was the threat of nuclear war.  If Orwell was anything at all, he was perceptive.

None of the news was particularly good (for anyone). Almost everyone enjoyed the Cuban Missile Crisis — especially the kids who had to practice getting under their desks at school and the families that began borrowing money for a backyard bomb shelter. Iron curtains, bamboo curtains, and civil wars broke out from Indochina to Greece, Palestine to Iran, China, and Malaya. And then there was a period when it seemed as if every Jew who ever worked for the U.S. government was a spy for the Soviet Union — more than a handful, at any rate.

After John F. Kennedy was elected to the presidency in November 1960, one of his chief concerns was the loss of America’s prestige among world nations and the credibility of its government among the American people.  He was determined to “draw a line in the sand.”  There would be no more stalemates in the containment of global communism.  In a comment made to journalist James Reston of the New York Times, Kennedy said, “Now, we have had a problem making our power credible; Vietnam looks like the place.”

Vietnam was not the place.

After taking office in January 1961, Kennedy was correct to acknowledge a failure in American diplomacy, but he might have given some consideration to the government’s inability to reason.  Given the United States’ long history in Cuba, one wonders what Eisenhower thought when he authorized the CIA to plan a paramilitary invasion there.  Even if it was true that just the mention of Fidel Castro’s name gave Eisenhower gas, what did the United States hope to gain by funding, organizing, and then screwing up an ex-pat invasion of Cuba?

It wasn’t just Eisenhower, his predecessor, or even Kennedy — the deficiency was in the entire body of American policy-makers whose collective brains couldn’t charge a triple-A battery.  The cost of this deficiency was five million in Korea and Vietnam, and only the Almighty knows how many dead we’ve left behind in the Middle East.  Yes, the madness continues —

If one could go back in time and sit with and engage one of the long-dead presidents in conversation, who would that be, and what would one wish to talk about?  There are several presidents that I’d like to speak with.  I might ask Roosevelt, for example, what he thought when he ordered the OSS to create and arm communist guerrillas in Southeast Asia?  I might ask Truman, “What did you think North Korea and the Soviet Union would do after your Secretary of State neglected to include the Korean Peninsula under the umbrella of the United Nation’s defense pact?  I would ask Mr. Eisenhower, given his background as a five-star general, “What was the likely result of invading Cuba with a mere 1,400 irregular Cuban exiles?”  In other words, “What in the hell were you guys thinking?”

Nightmare

Fidel Alejandro Castro-Ruz was born into wealth.  His father was a successful farmer from Galicia, Spain and his mother was the child of a Spanish Canarian.  Fidel Castro was well-educated but an unruly child (typical of the way Hispanic boys are raised).  He turned out just as his parents wished.  Fidel began law studies at the University of Havana in 1945, which became the birthplace of his political activism.  When he failed in his candidacy for class president, he became critical of corrupt politics — defined as anyone who disagreed with Fidel Castrol.  It was an attitude quickly and easily transferred to real Cuban politics.

In college, Castro adopted the political philosophy of Eduardo Chibás, advocating for social justice, honest government, and political freedom.  Ultimately, however — even while still in college — Fidel Castro became a man just like those he claimed to detest.  He hired gangsters to suppress anyone whose views differed from his own, which was problematic because, according to historian John Gaddis, Fidel Castro was a revolutionary without an ideology.  He was a street fighter, guerrilla, assassin, interminable speaker — and a pretty good baseball player, but Castro had only one focus: his lust for power.  Fidel Castro was willing to use any means to obtain it.  If he followed any example, it was that of Joseph Stalin — not Karl Marx.

Until 1898, Cuba was part of the Spanish Empire.  In the preceding thirty years, Cuba was a troubled land with three wars of liberation, which began in 1868.  Liberation finally came to Cuba through the Spanish-American War, but the United States withheld self-rule until 1902 when a Cuban-born American named Tomás Estrada Palma became Cuba’s first president.  Afterward, large numbers of American settlers and businessmen began arriving in Cuba.  Within three years, non-Cuban Americans owned sixty percent of Cuba’s rural properties.  Palma’s growing unpopularity over these conditions prompted the US government to dispatch 5,000 Marines to “police” the island between 1906-1909.  Marines returned for the same purpose in 1912, 1917, and 1921.

In 1952, Cuban general Fulgencio Batista seized power and proclaimed himself president.  After consolidating his power, Batista canceled planned elections and introduced a new form of democracy to the Cuban people.  He called it “disciplined democracy.” Until the appearance of Fidel Castro, the US Ambassador to Cuba was the second-most popular (the second most powerful) man in Cuba.[1]

Batista’s tyranny resulted in an armed rebellion with several groups competing for domination.  College professor Rafael G. Barcena headed the National Revolutionary Movement, University Student President Antonio Echevarria led the Revolutionary Student Union, and Fidel Castro led the 26 July Movement (M-26-7).  Castro also led his guerrilla army against the Batistas from 1956 to 1959.  The more Batista tried to repress Castro, the less popular he became.  By mid-1958, when his army was in full retreat, Batista resigned the presidency in December and went into exile.  Before he departed Cuba, Batista liberated $ 300 million US dollars.  One can live comfortably in Malaga, Spain, on that money.

Cuban attorney Manuel Urrutia Lleo replaced Batista as president.  Castro approved of Lleo, particularly since most of Manuel’s cabinet were members of M-26-7.  Lleo appointed Castro to serve as prime minister.  Dismissing the need for new elections, Castro proclaimed the new administration a “direct democracy,” in which the Cuban people would assemble en masse and express their democratic will.

Yet, despite Castro’s political success and relative popularity, not every Cuban was happy — so the revolution continued for several years.  It’s how Latino politics is done.  The Escambray Rebellion (which lasted for six years) had the support of Cuban exiles, the American CIA, and Rafael Trujillo’s regime in the Dominican Republic.  As rebellions go, it was a bloody mess.  There were explosions, arsons, assassinations, firefights in downtown areas, and a few melees in outlying areas.  A few revolutionaries even hijacked an airline and ordered it flown to Jacksonville, Florida.  By May 1961, Castro decided he’d had enough “revolution” and started getting serious about cracking down on all political opposition.  Castro-friendly police officials began arresting hundreds of the usual suspects.

In public, Castro objected to the torture and torment Batista inflicted on the Cuban people, but Castrol increased the amount of suffering forced on Cuban dissidents.  Reacting to stories of widespread prison torture and assassination, Cubans demanded fair trials for those accused of crimes.  At first, Castro appeared as a moderating force and helped set up public trials, but a responsible American press openly challenged  Castro’s claims, accusing those efforts of a sham.  They reported that Castro’s “fair trials” always ended with execution.  The American press was right about Castro.  Behind the scenes, press members daring to criticize Castro for any alleged atrocities found themselves at odds with media union members.  In 1960, a government edict mandated that every news article criticizing government policy contain a “clarification” by a printer’s union representative attesting to the truth of the article.  It was the beginning of government censorship in Cuba.

Castro’s reaction to allegations in the press was vociferous.  “Revolutionary justice,” he said, “is not based on legal precepts but moral conviction.”  As a demonstration of his support for revolutionary justice, Castrol organized the first Havana trial in front of an audience of 17,000 onlookers.  When a revolutionary jury found a group of former Cuban pilots “not guilty” of intentionally bombing a Cuban village, Castro ordered a retrial.  At the second trial, the jury found all of the accused “guilty as charged.”  Revolutionary justice also saw the execution of former Castro ally William A. Morgan.[2]

In 1960, the U.S. government wasn’t happy with the direction of Castro’s government.

Fiasco

In 1960, the US and Cuba entered into a period of quid-pro-quo diplomacy.  Castro ordered the country’s oil refineries (then controlled by Exxon, Standard Oil, and Shell) to process crude oil purchased from the Soviet Union.  The US government ordered the companies to refuse.  Castro then nationalized the refineries.  The US canceled all sugar imports from Cuba.  Castro responded by nationalizing all US banks, sugar mills, and other holdings.  The US imposed an embargo on all American-made exports (except medicines and certain foods).  Castro seized over 500 American-owned businesses, including Coca-Cola and Sears Roebuck.

At a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), the US Secretary of the State accused Castro of being a Bolshevik, a Stalinist, and a tool for global communism.  Secretary Christian Herter urged the OAS to denounce the Castro regime.  Castro pointed to the plight of American blacks, suggesting that the United States might consider getting its own house in order before criticizing others. At the meeting, the US pledged not to interfere in the domestic affairs of the Cuban government — but, of course, the pledge was a major fib because, by the time of the OAS meeting, the American CIA was already passing around its catalog of dirty tricks for comments and recommendations.

The idea of overthrowing the Castro regime took root early in 1960.  As the threat of global communism grew larger, the CIA increased its effort to undermine communist countries, organizations, and activities — even if that meant supporting brutal neo-fascist dictatorships.

Heading this effort was CIA Director Allen Dulles, a former member of the OSS.  Recognizing that the Castro regime was becoming openly hostile toward the US, Dulles urged President Eisenhower to authorize a para-military invasion of the island.  Eisenhower wasn’t convinced an attack was a good idea, but based on developing options, the president permitted Dulles to “begin planning.”  Richard M. Bissell, Jr., one of the “Georgetown set” insiders, was in charge of this effort.[3]

On 17 March 1960, the CIA submitted its plan to overthrow Fidel Castro to the National Security Staff.  President Eisenhower suggested that he might be able to support it, and then he approved $13 million to explore further options.  The plan’s first objective was to replace Castro with someone more devoted to the interests of the Cuban people and the United States — and of course, in a manner that would not implicate the United States.

In August 1960, the CIA contacted the Cosa Nostra mob in Chicago, offering them a contract to assassinate Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and Revolutionary Che Guevara.[4]  If the mob’s operation should prove successful, the CIA promised to reward them with a monopoly on gaming, prostitution, and drugs inside Cuba.  [Morality is only an 8-letter word].

After this 1960 CIA-Mob meeting, planning for Fidel Castrol’s assassination began in earnest.[5]  Some of the CIA and Chicago mob’s methods were creative in the same way as James Bond’s awesome gadgets: poison pills, exploding seashells, and clothing coated with toxins.  The CIA also considered the usual methods of murder: snipers, ambuscades, and explosives.  No Aston Martin was ever mentioned.  Later, in 1961, when President Kennedy was making secret overtures to Castro, CIA officer Desmond Fitzgerald assigned CIA agent Rolando Cubela to murder Castro.  Fitzgerald told Cubela that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had sanctioned the kill.

Bissell assembled agents to help him put the plan together, several of whom had participated in the coup d’état in Guatemala in 1954 — including David Philips, Gerry Droller, G. Gordon Liddy, and E. Howard Hunt.[6]  Droller was placed in charge of rounding up anti-Castro Cuban ex-pats living in the United States.  Hunt helped fashion a government in exile (which the CIA would control) and then traveled to Havana to meet with people from various backgrounds.  When Hunt returned to the United States, the State Department denied the CIA’s request to conduct irregular military training on U. S. soil.  Cuban exiles were afterward informed that they would have to travel to Mexico for their training.

The plan involved four elements: propaganda, covert operations inside Cuba, assembling paramilitary forces outside of Cuba, and providing naval gunfire, air, and logistical support for the ground forces once the invasion occurred.  At this point, however, it was only a planning session.  Contrary to what many people now claim, there is no evidence that Eisenhower ever approved a final plan or gave his final approval for “launch.”

On 20 October 1960, presidential candidate John Kennedy released a scathing criticism of Eisenhower’s Cuba policy which stated, in part, “We must attempt to strengthen the non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces … who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro.”  At this point, Castro must have had a good inkling about U. S. intentions toward Cuba. 

By 31 October, in addition to John Kennedy’s “heads up” to Castro, the CIA had already experienced several “war stoppers.”  In fact, it almost couldn’t get any worse.  The Cubans intercepted every attempt to infiltrate covert agents, and the CIA’s aerial supply drops all fell into the hands of the Cuban military.  Fidel Castro would have had to have been the deaf, dumb, and blind kid not to suspect something “big” was about to happen.  Bissell began to re-think his game plan.  His best new idea was an amphibious assault involving some 1,500 men.  Note to clarify: that would be fifteen-hundred lightly armed men opposing around 89,000 well-armed home guards.

John Kennedy’s election in early November 1960 re-energized CIA operatives.  Dulles and Bissell provided a general outline of their plan to president-elect Kennedy on 18 November 1960.  Dulles voiced confidence that the CIA was capable of overthrowing the Cuban government.  On 29 November 1960, President Eisenhower met with the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Treasury Department, and CIA to discuss Bissell’s amphibious raid idea.  No one expressed any objection, and Eisenhower gave his tentative approval subject to the preferences and prerogatives of president-Elect Kennedy.

Bissell presented his outline to the CIA’s “special group” on 8 December 1960.  Of course, he would not commit any details to written records because if there was ever a time for “plausible deniability,” this operation was it.  The planning continued until 4 January 1961.  Bissell added a “lodgment” of about 750 men at an undisclosed location in Cuba.

Following the election of 1960, President Eisenhower conducted two meetings with president-elect Kennedy at the White House.  Eisenhower informed Kennedy that since the previous March, the CIA had managed to train several small units of Cuban ex-pats in Guatemala, Panama, and Florida, but it was nothing of significant consequence.  President Eisenhower emphasized that despite the Cuban ex-pats’ stated preferences, he was not in favor of returning Batista to power at the head of an American-funded foreign militia.

Going Rogue

On 28 January 1961, CIA officials briefed President Kennedy together with key members of his cabinet.  The plan was code-named Operation Pluto, which called for a 1,000-man amphibious landing at Trinidad, Cuba, 170 miles southeast of Havana, near the foothills of the Escambray Mountains.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk offered a few embarrassing observations.  He didn’t understand, for example, why the CIA was talking about airfields and B-26 aircraft.  If this was a covert operation if the United States intended to blame everything on Cuban ex-pats, where would such men come up with the B-26 Marauder?  Kennedy wasn’t pleased with Trinidad; he wanted a less likely landing site.  After the meeting, the unenthusiastic new president authorized planning to continue but directed additional briefings with progress.

In March, CIA officers helped Cuban exiles in Miami create the Cuban Revolutionary Council.  The CIA ensured that the Revolutionary Council approved former Cuban prime minister José Miró Cardona as Cuba’s new head of state.

CIA planners divided its fifteen-hundred-man paramilitary force into six battalions (five infantry and one paratroop).  According to the plan, these men would assemble in Guatemala on 17 April and launch their assault from that location.

Despite the deep reservations of Secretary Rusk and U.S. Army General Lyman Lemnitzer, JCS Chairman, President Kennedy approved the CIA’s plan, now known as Operation Zapata, on 4 April 1961.[7]  The Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) in Las Villas Province was chosen as the point of assault because it was relatively isolated and had a sufficiently long airfield.  Also, its location would make it easier for the United States to deny direct involvement.  Bissell designated three landing sites (Blue Beach, Red Beach, and Green Beach).

On 15 April, eight CIA-owned B-26 bombers attacked Cuban airfields and returned to their South Florida base.  On 17 April, the main invasion force landed at Blue Beach and quickly overwhelmed a local militia.

Initially, José Ramon Fernandez led the Cuban army’s counter-attack.  Later, Fidel Castro took control of the Cuban force.  The Cubans quickly publicized the event as a U. S. invasion.  For whatever reason, the invaders lost their initiative and faltered in the face of Castro’s overwhelming response.  Back in Washington, President Kennedy chickened out and withheld the CIA’s promised naval and air support, without which the CIA plan could not — and did not succeed.

The Cuban exiles surrendered to Castro’s forces on 20 April.  More than an overwhelming defeat for the Cuban invaders, it was an unmitigated disaster for American foreign policy and CIA whizbangmanship — even worse than that, the invasion elevated Fidel Castro to the position of a national hero, solidified his place in Cuba, and pushed Cuba toward closer ties with the Soviet Union.  The stage was thus set for the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Debrief

In the history of American clandestine operations, there may not have been a less covert operation than the Bay of Pigs invasion.  To begin with, all the Cubans had to do to achieve a forewarning of the invasion was read the American newspapers.  The Cuban invaders themselves openly bragged about what they were up to throughout the entire training period.  Loose lips sink ships.

In addition to this lack of security, the CIA’s covert operators initiated several acts of sabotage before the landing, such as setting fire to government buildings and department stores, a robust propaganda effort, and of course, Castro was receiving regular reports on the CIA’s activities, courtesy of his new best friends, the Soviet KGB.  Everyone who was anyone knew all about the CIA’s top-secret Cuban invasion plan.[8]

Despite all the Navy’s efforts to mask their role in support of the invading force, Cuban-flown Soviet MiG-15’s kept regular tabs on the position of naval support platforms beginning on 14 April 1961.  More than this, the Cuban aircraft wanted the navy to know that the Cuban air force was keeping an eye on them.  A planned diversionary amphibious assault on the night of 14/15 April turned back mid-way to shore when Cuban defense forces opened fire.  Later that morning, the CIA dispatched a T-33 reconnaissance sortie over the diversionary site, which the Cuban defense force promptly shot down.  The plane crashed into the sea, and its pilot, Orestes Acosta, did not survive.

Also, on 15 April, eight B-26 aircraft with Cuban air force markings attacked three Cuban airbases (two near Havana and one close to Santiago).  The strike intended to cripple the Cuban air force, and while a few Cuban military aircraft were destroyed, most casualties were civilian airframes.  However, this was not the story told to CIA handlers by the pilots during their post-mission debrief.  The CIA didn’t know the truth of these strikes until after reviewing aerial films taken by a U-2 overflight on 16 April.  It was based on this U-2 film and President Kennedy’s intention to continue his (worst-ever) deception that he canceled all future air support missions.

At mid-day on 15 April, Cuba’s UN ambassador began screaming bloody murder about a U. S. invasion of his country.  Much earlier in the year, CIA operatives approached Cuba’s UN ambassador, Señor Raúl Roa, attempting to encourage his defection.  It was an effort, Roa, no doubt reported to this foreign minister — and this would have been another piece in the puzzle for the Castro government.

Responding to Roa’s accusations, America’s UN ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, denied US involvement in the reported incident.  President Kennedy’s statement to the press was, “I have emphasized before that this was a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator.  While we could not be expected to hide our sympathies, we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not intervene in any way.”

Castro’s government knew better.  Before the end of the day on 15 April, the head of Cuba’s National Police, Efigenio Amerijeiras, began rounding up all the usual suspects.  The National Police would eventually arrest upwards of 100,000 Cuban citizens.  They would become the hapless casualties in the CIA’s war against Fidel Castro.  In all likelihood, probably no more than a handful of Cubans living in Cuba at the time had any knowledge of the invasion.

The Scoundrels

Bissell’s numerous assistants included Tracey Barnes, Allen Dulles, a training cadre from the U. S. Army Special Forces Group, members of the U. S. Air Force and Air National Guard, and CIA officers David Atlee Philips, E. Howard Hunt, David Morales, Gary Droller, Jacob Esterline, Colonel Jack Hawkins, Colonel Stanley Beerli, and Felix Rodriguez.[9]

According to Allen Dulles, CIA planners always believed that once the invasion force went ashore, President Kennedy would authorize any action required to prevent mission failure (which is what Eisenhower did in 1954 in Guatemala).  Kennedy would not pursue that path, but the mission’s failure depressed the president and, in fits of anger, indicated to a confidante that he wanted to splinter the CIA “into a thousand pieces.”[10]

After Kennedy’s assassination, investigators considered (very briefly) whether the threat might have been connected to his untimely death.  Splintering the CIA did not occur, but from that moment forward, Kennedy had little confidence in the advice of the CIA or senior officers inside the Pentagon.  According to Kennedy’s friend Ben Bradlee, the president told him, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”

Political Fallout

The Kennedy administration didn’t mind playing fast and loose with international law or ignoring gentlemanly behavior, but it was mightily embarrassed when the secret invasion plan turned into a well-publicized failure.  During a State Department press conference on 21 April, John Kennedy issued his often quoted statement, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers — and defeat is an orphan.”  He then accepted responsibility for the shenanigans, even though Secretary Adlai Stevenson denied involvement with the United Nations.  A few months later, revolutionary and mass murderer Che Guevara sent a note to President Kennedy thanking him for the invasion, saying, “Before the invasion, the revolution [in Cuba] was weak.  Now it’s stronger than ever.”

Subsequently, the Castro regime became (understandably) paranoid about US intentions, particularly after Kennedy imposed trade sanctions, which he followed with a formal embargo.  The invasion didn’t work out, but that didn’t stop Kennedy from doubling his efforts to depose Fidel Castro.  A short time later, Kennedy ordered the Pentagon to design a secret plan to overthrow Castro.  The plan, codenamed Operation Mongoose, included sabotage and assassination.[11]

Sources:

  1. Ambrose, S. E.  Eisenhower: Soldier and President.  American Biography Press, 2007.
  2. Anderson, J. L.  Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.  Grove/Atlantic Press, 1997.
  3. Bathell, L.  Cuba.  Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  4. Bohning, D.  The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1965.  Potomac Books, 2005.
  5. Lynch, G. L.  Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs.  Brassy Publishing, 1998.
  6. Schlesinger, A. M. Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Houghton-Mifflin, 1965, 2002.

Endnotes:

[1] Disciplined democracy is somewhat like compassionate conservatism.  It may be disciplined, but it isn’t democracy, and it might be compassionate, but it isn’t conservatism. 

[2] Morgan (1928 – 1961) was a U.S. citizen who fought in the Cuban Revolution as a commandante instrumental in helping Castro’s forces achieve victory.  Morgan was one of about two dozen U.S. citizens to fight in the revolution and one of only three foreign nationals to hold high rank.  Following the revolution, Morgan became disenchanted with Castro’s turn to communism.  When Castro discovered that Morgan was one of the CIA operatives in the Escambray rebellion, Cuban authorities arrested, tried, and executed him in the presence of Fidel and Raul Castro.

[3] Including a number of former OSS officers, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Desmond Fitzgerald, Clark Clifford, Eugene Rostow, Cord Meyer, William Averell Harriman, Felix Frankfurter, James Reston, Allen Dulles, and Paul Nitze.

[4] If verifiably true, then there is a justifiable reason to corollate the relationship between the CIA and the plot to assassinate South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem (2 Nov 1963) and the CIA, American mafia, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 Nov 1963.    

[5] The American people never knew about this, of course, until the Church Committee Hearings in 1975.  The Church Committee investigated CIA abuses, such as the assassination of foreign leaders.  Since most of these were never proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the committee labeled them “Alleged Assassination Plots.” 

[6] Later, Liddy and Hunt were both convicted of illegal activity involving the White House Plumbers. 

[7] Both Kennedy brothers appeared enthusiastic about the operation, and both seemed to play down any hesitation from cabinet advisors.  They had made a campaign promise to rid Cuba of Castro, and that’s what they intended to do.

[8] It was later learned that the CIA knew that the KGB knew about the invasion plan and that the KGB had likely informed Castro, but it was something the CIA never shared with President Kennedy.  The CIA was also informed by British Intelligence that, according to their sources, the Cuban population was overwhelmingly behind Fidel Castro.  There would likely be no groundswell of support for the ex-pat invaders.

[9] Colonel Hawkins, a Marine Corps Officer, was assigned to the CIA to assist in planning for amphibious operations.  After completing basic officer’s school in 1939, Hawkins served with the 4th Marines in Shanghai, China, and later moved with that regiment to the Philippine Islands.  Captured on Bataan, the Japanese interned him at a POW camp on Mindanao.  He and several others escaped, eventually making their way to Colonel Wendell Fertig’s guerrilla band.  Hawkins led several guerrilla raids against the Japanese until evacuated by submarine to Australia.  He later authored a book about his Philippine experiences, titled Never Say Die.

[10] Quick review: a new president who wants to split his spy agency into a thousand pieces could become a primary target for assassination. If the CIA had a hand in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was very likely the only project they undertook in the 1960s that worked out as planned.

[11] An extensive campaign of terrorist attacks against Cuban (civilian) government officials, led by Edward Lansdale and William K. Harvey.  


That Splendid Little War

The seeds of the Spanish-American War

Background to the Modern Navy

There are naval historians who will tell you that the United States Navy never shined so brightly as it did during the American Civil War.  There may not be a better example of Navy innovation than its advancements in ship design, technology, medicine, and expeditionary (brown water) operations.  These innovations convince some that the Civil War must be regarded as the world’s first modern conflict.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy had 6,700 officers, and around 52,000 enlisted men serving aboard 670 ships.  The Navy Department consisted of 89 individuals, including the Secretary of the Navy.  But for the twenty following years, the U.S. Navy entered a period of steady decline.  The Navy’s decline was not due to the inattention of any naval officer or senior official; it was simply the result of a Congress that did not believe the nation could afford a standing navy.  Within a decade following the Civil war, all but a few navy ships had been sold off, scrapped, or mothballed for some future crisis.

In February 1880, the U.S. Navy had 65 operating steam vessels, 22 ships under sail, and 26 old ironclad vessels.  Five years later Admiral David D. Porter noted, “It would be much better to have no navy at all than one like the present, half-armed with only half-speed unless we inform the world that our establishment is only intended for times of peace, and to protect missionaries against the South Sea savages and eastern fanatics.  One such ship as the British ironclad Invincible could put our fleet ‘hor de combat’ in a short time.”

The concept of a peacetime navy was finally embraced with Congressional approval for new battleships in 1890.  Within four years, the United States Navy ranked sixth in naval power behind Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and Germany.  Both political parties may claim credit for restoring the U.S. Navy, but in reality, it was all due to the attention and diligence of one man: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.

Background to Cuba and the Spanish Empire

Cuba, derived from the native Taino word Coabaña (Great Land), had been part of the Spanish Empire since 1494 when Columbus landed to carry out the Papal Bull of 1493, to conquer and convert West Indies pagans to Catholicism.

Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, the early 19th century witnessed three movements in Cuba: reformation, annexation, and independence.  After the removal of Ferdinand VII from the Spanish throne in 1808, Cuban creoles rebelled against Spanish authority and declared Cuba a sovereign state.  It was a brief period of independence because everyone involved was either executed or sent to prison in Spain.  The effects of Spanish authoritarianism were the development of several secret societies, all of which sought independence from Spain and all of whom became the focus of brutal suppression by Spain’s executive military commission.

 In 1868, Cuba was one of the few remaining locations of legalized slavery in the Western Hemisphere.  Cuban intellectuals felt terrible about that, of course.  Still, slavery was how Cubans achieved and maintained their vast wealth from sugar production, which explains slavery in Cuba.

The Plot to Aid Cubans

On 10 October 1868, certain landowners rallied the Cuban people to demand their independence from Spain; it later began the Ten Year’s War.  True to form, Spain employed its military to suppress the movement.  In the United States, President Ulysses S. Grant wondered if the United States should intervene; Secretary of State Hamilton Fish urged Grant to pursue a hands-off policy with Cuba.

As the insurrection continued, however, there developed an international sympathy for the Cuban people — including the empathy of the American press.  The American people responded to these press reports by actively supporting the Cuban people by purchasing bonds to help raise money for Cuban insurgents.  One patron of the Cuban insurgency was John F. Patterson, who was acting on behalf of the rebels when he purchased the former Confederate ship Virgin, lying idle in the Washington Navy Yard.  The ship was a side-wheeler designed as a blockade runner.  Patterson registered the ship in New York and renamed her Virginius.

At the same time, the United States had a vibrant business arrangement with Cuba, the consequence of which was the presence of U.S. Navy vessels charged with ensuring the protection of American citizens (and their business interests).  While in Cuban waters, the USS Kansas and USS Canandaigua protected Virginius, an American-flagged ship, from Spanish seizure. The ship operated for three years, funneling weapons, munitions, and men into Cuba.

In 1873, Patterson hired Joseph Fry as Master of Virginius.[1] Fry was an experienced seaman with fifteen years of service in the U.S. Navy before resigning in 1861 to join the Confederate States Navy.  After the war, Commodore Fry struggled to find worthwhile employment, so he understandably jumped at the opportunity to serve as the ships’ captain.

At the time Fry accepted his appointment, Virginius was moored in Kingston, Jamaica undergoing repairs.  Virginius was a tired ship in need of substantial rework, but Patterson and his Cuban allies could only afford to maintain essential seaworthiness.  The boilers were shot, but those repairs were far too expensive.  Fry discovered that most of the crew had deserted upon arriving in Jamaica, so he initiated a recruiting effort.

Of the 52 men hired, most were either American or British.  Many of these men were inexperienced seamen; most did not realize that the ship supported the Cuban rebellion.  Some of the crew were still boys, aged 13 and 14.  In those days, child labor was not an issue, and no one gave a second thought to youngsters taking on dangerous work.  While in Jamaica, the U.S. Consul met with Fry and warned him that if Spanish authorities ever captured him,  they would very likely have him executed.  Captain Fry did not believe the Spanish would execute a mere blockade runner and dismissed the warning out of hand.

The Executions

In mid-October 1873, Captain Fry and four mercenaries took the ship to Haiti, where Fry loaded ammunition and around 100 Cuban nationals.  A spy informed the Spanish when Virginius left port, and Spanish authorities dispatched the warship Tornado to capture her.  On 30 October, Tornado spotted Virginius approximately six miles off the Cuban coast and gave chase.  Virginius was heavily laden; the stress applied to barely adequate boilers made the vessel sluggish, and the ship began taking on water.  Tornado was a much faster ship — and heavily armed.  After sustaining some damage from Tornado’s guns, Fry surrendered the ship.  Spanish officers apprehended Fry, his crew, and all other passengers and transported them to Santiago de Cuba, where the Spanish military governor ordered them court-martialed for piracy.  The four mercenaries were put to death immediately, without trial.

The Executions

The Spanish court-martial found Fry and his crewmen guilty as charged.  Every man received a death sentence. U.S. Consul to Cuba, Henry C. Hall, protested the court-martial and imposed sentence, but the Spanish military authority ignored him.  As it happened, one of these condemned men claimed British citizenship.  Upon learning this, the British Consul to Cuba wired Jamaica and asked for the assistance of the Royal Navy to intervene in the scheduled executions.

The execution of Captain Fry and 37 of his crewman took place on 7 November.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the Spanish mutilated their remains and decapitated them to warn others.  An additional eight men were executed on 8 November.  However, the executions came to a halt when HMS Noble arrived and threatened to bombard Santiago — by this time, the Spanish had executed 53 men.

Until this time, the American press was reasonably conservative in reporting the Virginius incident, but when news of the executions became common knowledge, the press became aggressive in promoting the Cuban rebel’s position.  The New York Times, and other newspapers, urged war and demanded an end to Spanish colonies in the Americas.  Protests broke out all across the United States, with people demanding vengeance on Spain.  The British Ambassador to the United States even publicly opined that the American public was ready for war with Spain (which is by itself thought-provoking) and may suggest a British interest in such a confrontation.

The United States’ Response

After Consul Hall notified the State Department of Captain Fry’s arrest and court-martial on 4 November, Secretary Fish believed that it was simply another ship captured while aiding the Cuban rebellion, but at a cabinet meeting with the President on 7 November, the execution of the four mercenaries headed the agenda.  Present Grant determined that the United States would regard these executions as “an inhuman act not in accordance with the spirit of civilization of the nineteenth century.”  On the following day, Secretary Fish met with Spanish Ambassador Don José Polo de Barnabé to discuss the legality of Spain’s capture of a US-flagged ship.

At the next cabinet meeting on 11 November, President Grant (with the advice of his cabinet) determined that war with Spain was not desirable, but Cuban intervention was possible.  Then, on the following day, Secretary Fish learned that Spanish officials executed Captain Fry and 37 of his crew.  He cabled U.S. Minister Daniel Sickles in Spain, directing that he protest the executions and demand reparations for any American citizen killed.  On 13 November, Fish informed Spanish minister Polo that the United States would exercise a “freehand” in Cuba vis-à-vis the Virginius affair.  On 14 November, Grant’s cabinet agreed to close the Spanish legation unless Spain met U.S. demands for reparations.  Reports of other executions found their way into the White House.

On 15 November, Minister Polo visited Secretary Fish to inform him that Virginius was a pirate ship, that the crew posed a threat to the security of Spanish territory, and assured him that Spain would continue to act in its own national interests in this manner.  On that same day, Fish cabled Sickles again and instructed him as follows: (1) demand the return of Virginius to the United States, (2) release surviving crewmen, (3) offer a salute to the Flag of the United States, (4) punish the perpetrators of the inhuman crimes, and (5) pay an indemnity to the survivors of those killed.

The conversation between Sickles and Spanish Minister of State José Carvajal became testy, and Sickles concluded that an amicable settlement was not likely.  The Spanish press attacked the United States, Mr. Sickles, the British government and urged war with the United States.  Spanish President Emilio Castelar maintained a more relaxed attitude and resolved to settle the matter reasonably.

On 27 November, Minister Polo visited with Secretary Fish and proposed that Spain would relinquish Virginius and the remaining crew if the United States would agree to investigate the legal status of the ship’s ownership.  President Grant directed Fish to accept Spain’s proposals.  Grant suggested that the United States dispense with its demand that Spain render honors to the American flag if investigators determined that Virginius had no legal U.S. ownership.  A formal agreement to this effect was signed on 28 November — both governments would investigate the proprietorship of Virginius and any crimes perpetrated by any Spanish volunteers.

On 5 December, Fish and Polo signed an agreement that Spanish authorities would turn Virginius over to the U.S. Navy, with U.S. flag aloft, effective on 16 December at the port of Bahiá Honda.  Upon learning of this arrangement, Daniel Sickles resigned his post in protest.[2], [3]

Virginius

Virginius was returned to U.S. control as agreed on 17 December.  Spanish vessels towed Virginius to sea and turned her over to the U.S. Navy.  The ship was in complete disrepair and taking on water.  On the same day, U.S. Attorney George H. Williams determined that ownership of Virginius was fraudulent and that she was not entitled to fly the U.S. flag.  He also decided that Spain had every right to capture the ship on the open sea.

In January 1874, Spanish President Castelar was voted out of office and replaced by Francisco Serrano.  Sickle’s replacement was Caleb Cushing, a well-known attorney and Spanish scholar known for his calm demeanor.  Cushing opined that the U.S. was fortunate that Castelar had been Spain’s president up to that time because otherwise, Serrano’s temperament would have led to war between the U.S. and Spain.  Cushing’s primary duty involved obtaining reparations for the families of murdered crewmen and punishment for the official who ordered their executions.  By May 1874, Cushing had established himself with Spanish authorities as a reasonable and respectable man.

In June, Cushing notified Fish that the Spanish had agreed to proceed with negotiations for reparations.  In October, Cushing learned that President Castelar had secretly agreed to pay the British £7,700.  When President Grant learned of this agreement, he demanded $2,500 for each crewman executed. Each crewman not already identified as a British citizen would be regarded as an American.  Minister Polo’s replacement, Antonio Mantilla, agreed to the demand.  However, the actual payment was placed “on hold” when, in December, Spain reverted to a monarchy, and Alfonso XII became King of Spain.

Under an agreement on 7 February 1875, signed on 5 March, Spain paid the United States $80,000.00 for the killing of the American crewmen.  Spain’s case against General Don Juan Burriel, the officer who ordered the executions, which the Spanish government judged illegal, was taken up by the Spanish Tribunal of the Navy in June 1876, but Burriel died in December 1877 before any trial convened.

At the time of the Virginius Affair, the Spanish ironclad Arapiles anchored at New York Harbor for repairs.  During this visitation, the U.S. Navy realized that it had no ship that could defeat Arapiles; it was an awareness that prompted Secretary of War George M. Robeson to urge the modernization of the American fleet.  Congress subsequently authorized the construction of five new ironclad ships — all five of these ships participated in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

War with Spain (1898)

In 1898, the Spanish Empire was in decline.  It had experienced the Peninsular War (1807-1814), the loss of most of its colonies during the independence movements of the early 1800s, and three civil wars between 1832-1876.  Liberal Spanish elites, including Emilio Castelar, undertook efforts to bring the Old Empire into the age of New Nationalism.  Spanish conservatives, on the other hand, a prideful lot, sought to maintain their traditional sense of Spanish Imperial superiority.

In 1823, President James Monroe published his doctrine, which served as notice to European powers that the United States would not tolerate the expansion of European interests in the Western Hemisphere, nor their interference in newly independent states.  The U.S. would, however, respect the status of existing European colonies.  Before the Civil War, certain southern interests encouraged the U.S. government to purchase Cuba from Spain; they envisioned, of course, a slave state.  Known as the Ostend Manifesto, proposed in 1854, anti-slavery interests vigorously opposed it.

After the Civil War, U.S. business interests began monopolizing sugar markets in Cuba.  In 1894, 90% of Cuba’s total exports went to the United States, approximately 12 times its exports to Spain.  Thus, Spain may have exercised suzerainty over Cuba, but economic power fell within the realm of the United States.

Meanwhile, before he died in 1894, Jose Marti established “Cuba Libre” movement offices in Florida to help influence U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.  The face of Cuban nationalism was vested in Tomas Estrada Palma.  His junta organized fund-raising events in the United States established relationships with the American press and helped organize the smuggling of weapons and munitions into Cuba.  Palma’s propaganda campaign generated enormous support for Cuba’s resistance to Spanish authoritarianism.  No one in the U.S. at the time had any interest in Spain’s other colonies in the Philippines, Guam, or Puerto Rico.  There was also no demand for an American overseas empire.

In 1895, Marti organized an invasion of Cuba from three locations — Costa Rica, Santo Domingo, and the United States.  The latter effort was stopped by U.S. authorities when they became aware of it.  The plan was sound, but its execution failed to deliver the victory promised by Marti.  Revolutionaries settled into another protracted insurrection.

In the minds of Spanish officials, the Cuban insurrection was an assault on Spain because Cuba was an off-shore province of Spain (not a colony), which was why Spanish officials resisted the insurrection with every drop of blood needed to accomplish it.  Spanish General Valeriano Weyler was both clever and ruthless in his efforts to contain the rebellion.  President McKinley regarded Weyler’s efforts as a campaign of human extermination.

No one was more effective in promoting Cuban nationalism than Joseph Pulitzer (New York Post) and William Randolph Hearts (New York Journal).  They became the face of America’s “yellow journalism.”[4]  Both papers regularly denounced Spain but had little influence outside New York.  As Cuban insurrection and suppression continued, American business interests suffered to such an extent that they petitioned President McKinley to end the revolt.  Concurrently, European businessmen petitioned Spain to restore order.

The American people overwhelmingly supported Cuban rebels.  For his part, McKinley wanted to end the insurrection peacefully — and opened negotiations with the Spanish government to accomplish it.  Initially, Spanish authorities dismissed McKinley’s efforts but offered the possibility of negotiation at some unspecified future date.

As a demonstration of the United States’ guarantee for the safety of Americans living in Cuba, President McKinley ordered the USS Maine to Havana Harbor.  Less visible to the American people, McKinley also directed additional ships of the Atlantic Squadron to take up station in Key West, Florida.  Other U.S. Navy ships quietly moved to Lisbon, Portugal, and Hong Kong.

At around 21:40 on 15 February 1898, USS Maine blew up and sank.  Two hundred fifty sailors and Marines lost their lives.  Yellow journalists told the American people that the Spanish destroyed Maine while at anchor — an overt act of war.  All Spain could do was deny the allegation, but the more they denied any involvement, the less anyone in the United States believed them.  Somewhat panicked, the Spanish government turned to other European powers to intercede with the United States.  Most of these European powers advised the Spanish government to accept U.S. conditions for Cuba.  Only Germany urged a united European confrontation with the United States.

The U. S. Navy’s investigation of the sinking of the Maine concluded that the ship’s powder magazines ignited under the ship’s hull.  No one was interested in this finding, however, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.

So, America went to war.

Sources:

  1. Allin, L. C.  The First Cubic War: The Virginius Affair.  American Neptune, 1978.
  2. Auxier, G. W.  The Propaganda Activities of the Cuban Junta in Precipitating the Spanish American War 1895-1898.  Hispanic American Historical Review, 1939.
  3. Bradford, R. H.  The Virginius Affair.  Colorado Associate University Press, 1980.
  4. Calhoun, C. W.  The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace.  University Press of Kansas, 2017.
  5. Campbell, W. J.  Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.  Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
  6. Carr, R.  Spain: 1808-1975.  Clarendon Press, 1982.
  7. Hudson, R. A.  Cuba: A Country Study.  Library of Congress, 2001.
  8. Karnow, St.  In our Image.  Century Publishing, 1990.
  9. Nofi, A. A.  The Spanish-American War, 1898.  Combined Books, 1998.
  10. Soodalter, R.  To the Brink in Cuba, 1873.  Military History Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] While we do not hear much about Joseph Fry (1826-1873) in history, this Florida-born lad graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1846.  In 1841, the 15-year old Fry traveled to Washington, made a call on the President of the United States (John Tyler), and asked for his patronage for admission to the US Naval Academy.  Tyler granted the appointment and Fry entered the Academy on 15 September 1841.  Fry had a distinguished career in the Navy, attaining the rank of Captain before 1861.  He resigned from the Navy to serve the state of Florida.  During the Civil War, while serving as a Commodore, Fry earned an exceptional reputation for his fighting spirit and combat seamanship.

[2] Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819-1914) was a member of the US House of Representatives, served as a New York State Senator, a Civil War major general, and was the recipient of the Medal of Honor.  He served as US Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874.  While serving in the New York Assembly, Sickles received a reprimand for escorting a prostitute, one Miss Fanny White, into its chambers.  He also reportedly took her to England in 1853 while serving as a secretary to the US Legation in London and upon introducing her to Queen Victoria, used the name of one of his New York political opponents.

[3] In February 1859, when Sickles discovered that his wife, Teresa Bagioli (aged 21, half her husband’s age) was having an affair with Washington DC district attorney Philip Barton Key III, Sickles shot Key dead in the street across from the White House.  Philip Key was the son of Francis Scott Key.  Authorities charged Sickles with premeditated murder.  His attorney, Edwin M. Stanton (later, Secretary of War Stanton) won an acquittal on the basis of Sickles’ “temporary insanity.”  The plea was the first time it was used in an American courtroom.

[4] Journalism that was based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration, which continues to characterize the American media today.