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.  


America’s OSS — Part 1

INTRODUCTION

The fascinating story of the United States Office of Strategic Services would not have been possible without the one man who was capable of creating it.  Given all of its accomplishments within three years, we should not only remember William Joseph Donovan as the force behind the OSS but also as one of our country’s most interesting servants.  This is a thumbnail summary of the Office of Strategic Services and the man who created and led it during a period of global calamity.

DONOVAN THE MAN

Bill Donovan was a second-generation Irish-American, born and raised in Buffalo, New York.  Raised a Catholic, he attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and later graduated from Niagara University, where he majored in pre-law studies.  Bill transferred to Columbia University, where he participated in football, competitive rowing, and oratory in addition to rigorous studies.  He attended law school with Franklin D. Roosevelt.  After graduating, he returned to Buffalo to practice law.

In 1912, Donovan helped form a cavalry troop within the New York National Guard.  He married Ruth Rumsey in 1914, the daughter of a prominent Buffalo businessman.  In 1916, the Rockefeller Foundation hired Donovan’s law firm to help persuade the Imperial German government to allow shipments of food and clothing into Belgium, Serbia, and Poland.  In this role, he was an unofficial ambassador of the foundation.  Later that year, the State Department requested that he return to the United States — apparently believing that his “meddling” was working against the interests of the United States.

Upon his return to the United States, his New York cavalry troop activated for service along the US-Mexico border.  While serving under Brigadier General Pershing, the National Guard promoted Donovan to major.  When he returned to New York, he transferred to the New York 69th Infantry Regiment (later redesignated as the U.S. 165th Infantry Regiment), which was training for service in World War I.  The regiment became part of the U.S. 42nd Infantry Division (Rainbow Division) after transfer to France.  Colonel Douglas MacArthur served as the division’s chief of staff at that time.

During World War I, Major Bill Donovan served as Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 165th.  Early in the war, Donovan received a shrapnel wound to his leg, and at another time, he was nearly blinded by a German gas attack.  Donovan continually exhibited valorous behavior on the field of battle.  After taking part in rescuing fellow soldiers while under fire, military commanders sought to recognize his efforts by awarding him the Croix de Guerre.  When Donovan learned that another soldier who participated in the rescue, a Jewish-American, was refused such recognition, Donovan declined to accept the award.  He eventually accepted the award only after the French government similarly recognized the Jewish soldier.

In late May 1918, during the Aisne-Marne offensive, Major Donovan led his battalion in an assault in which hundreds of the regiment were killed, including Donovan’s adjutant, the poet Joyce Kilmer.  In recognition of his leadership during this engagement, the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross.[1]  Donovan’s reputation for courage under fire rivaled his extraordinary physical and mental endurance.  During this period in his life, people affectionately nicknamed him “Wild Bill” Donovan.

Later assigned to command the regiment, Donovan led the 165th in the Landres-et-Saint-Georges Campaign in October 1918.  During this fight, Donovan ignored the custom of covering up his rank insignia to motivate his men.  He not only wore his rank insignia, thus becoming a target for German snipers, but he also wore all his medals so that there could be no mistaking the fact that he was a regimental officer.  In this fight, Donovan was wounded by a bullet in the knee, but he refused evacuation until all his men had been safely withdrawn.  The Army later awarded Donovan his second DSC.

Lieutenant Colonel Donovan remained in Europe after the war as part of the occupation forces, returning home in April 1919.  After returning home, he resumed his law practice.  Recalling Donovan’s previous efforts on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation, several American corporations hired Donovan as their advisor on matters pertaining to post-war European powers.  In this connection, Donovan and his wife traveled to Japan, China, and Korea.  He afterward traveled alone to Russia during its revolution, gathering information about the international communist movement.

Between 1922-24, Donovan served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York.  He quickly earned a reputation as a crime fighter, particularly in prohibition-related matters.  He received several assassination threats and warnings about his family’s safety, but he never relented in his pursuit of law-breakers.  Donovan may have become a prohibition zealot, but if not that, he certainly did lose a lot of “society” friends when he decided to raid his own country club for violating prohibition laws — and he ended up losing his law partner, as well.

In 1924, Donovan received a presidential appointment to serve as Assistant Attorney General of the United States under his old law school professor, Harlan Stone.  Throughout his government service, Donovan continued to direct his Buffalo law firm.  Today, we credit Donovan as the first Assistant Attorney General to prioritize the hiring of women.  In this capacity, however, Donovan was highly critical of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.  Donovan’s friction with Hoover lasted throughout his life.  In 1925, when Stone took a seat on the Supreme Court, Donovan became the de facto Attorney General of the United States.[2]

In 1929, Donovan resigned from the Justice Department and moved his family to New York City, where he started a new law firm, which despite the stock market crash, became a successful business handling mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies.  Donovan ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor to succeed Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

Between 1920-1940, Donovan was part of an informal network of businessmen and lawyers who carefully collected and analyzed “foreign intelligence.”  It was an activity that prompted Donovan to take frequent trips to Europe and Asia.  His business success and political connections enabled him to meet with foreign leaders of both Italy and Germany.  His analysis of events in Europe and Asia made him no friend of fascists or communist dictators, but his meetings with them did help him to better advise his clients, notably Jewish clients with business interests in Germany.  He was convinced that another war was inevitable.

As previously noted, Donovan had known Franklin Roosevelt since law school — but while he respected Roosevelt for his political savvy and manipulative ability, he shared none of Roosevelt’s ideas about social policy.  Roosevelt, in return, respected Donovan for his experience, war record, and realism.  What helped to make Donovan politically popular in 1940 was actor George Brent’s portrayal of him in the Cagney film, The Fighting 69th.  It occurred to Roosevelt that Donovan might be useful to him as an ally and policy advisor — particularly after Germany and Russia invaded Poland in 1939.

Donovan predicted the evolution of warring nations in Europe and was able to explain why.  On this basis, Roosevelt began giving Donovan various assignments.  In 1940, Donovan traveled as an informal emissary to Britain, during which time Donovan offered his assessment of Britain’s ability to withstand German aggression.  He met with Winston Churchill, the directors of the British Intelligence Services, and lunched with King George VI.  Churchill liked Donovan personally and granted him unfettered access to classified information.  For his part, Donovan was impressed by the way the British organized their intelligence agencies.  Donovan was so well-liked by the British that the foreign minister requested that the State Department consider him a replacement for U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy.

Donovan also evaluated U.S. Naval bases and installations in the Pacific (none of which impressed him) and served as an unofficial envoy of both Roosevelt and Churchill in the Mediterranean and Middle East.  He frequently met with British MI-6 operative William Stephenson, code name “Intrepid,” with whom he shared his analyses.  Stephenson would later become vital to Donovan as he began to organize the OSS.

U.S. INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES

Before the 1880s, intelligence activities were devoted almost exclusively to the support of military operations, either to support deployed forces or to obtain information on enemy-nation intentions.  In March 1882, however, the U.S. Navy established the nation’s first permanent intelligence organization — the Office of Naval Intelligence — whose mission was to collect intelligence on foreign navies in peacetime and war.  Three years later, a similar organization — the Military Intelligence Division, U.S. Army — began collecting foreign and domestic information for the War Department.

Military intelligence operations were somewhat monotonous until Theodore Roosevelt became president.  Under Roosevelt, military and naval intelligence operatives incited a revolution in Panama and then used that excitement as an excuse to annex the Panama Canal.  Military intelligence also monitored Japan’s military and naval buildup, inspiring Roosevelt’s launch of the “Great White Fleet.”

In the early part of the twentieth century, U.S. Intelligence was notable for its expansion of domestic spying.  In 1908, the Justice Department created its Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI) out of concern that members of the Secret Service were engaged in spying on members of Congress.  Within ten years, the BOI grew from 34 to 300 agents, expanding their interests from banking to internal security, Mexican border smuggling, and unrest in Central America.  After the start of the First World War, the BOI turned its attention to the activities of German and British nationals within U.S. borders.

Still, when the U.S. entered the world war, there was no coordinated intelligence effort.  Woodrow Wilson detested the use of spies; he tended not to believe “intelligence information” until he developed a close association with the British Intelligence Chief in Washington.

Did President Wilson become a willing dupe to British foreign policy?  In fact, British intelligence played a significant role in bringing the United States into World War I.  The American people had little interest in the European war until after British Intelligence (and Wilson) made public Germany’s attempt to disrupt U.S. industry and the financial sector.  Moreover, British Intelligence revealed Germany’s efforts to entice the Mexican government into joining the war against the United States.  When the American people learned of these efforts, there were fewer objections to Wilson’s declaration of war.

America’s first “signals intelligence” agency was formed within the Military Intelligence Division, the eighth directorate (MI-8).  This agency was responsible for decoding military communication and managing codes for use by the U.S. military.  At the end of the war, the War Department transferred MI-8 to the Department of State, where it was known as the “black chamber.”  The black chamber focused more on diplomatic rather than military traffic.  In 1921, the black chamber decrypted Japanese diplomatic traffic revealing their positions at the Washington Conference on Naval Disarmament.  It was an “intelligence coup” — but one in which American President Coolidge failed to act.  During the Hoover administration, the state department transferred signals intelligence back to the War Department and assigned it to the Army Signal Corps.

Other intelligence entities remained in existence after the end of the world war, but their parent agencies cut funds and diminished their capabilities.  One exception was the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, which expanded its intelligence gathering activities.  In 1924, BOI was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), with J. Edgar Hoover appointed its first director.  In the years leading up to World War II, the FBI investigated espionage, counter-espionage, sabotage, and violations of neutrality laws.

It was also during the 1920s that efforts were made to coordinate the activities of various intelligence agencies.  An Interdepartmental Intelligence Coordinating Committee took on this task, with its chair rotating among the multiple agencies.  Without a permanent chairperson and a mandate to share information, U.S. intelligence efforts were inefficient and, worse, criminally malfeasant.  The Department of State, Treasury, War, and Navy had their intelligence operations.  There was no coordination or central direction, and the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army maintained their own code-breaking centers.  The State Department, under Henry Stimpson, shut down the State Department’s intelligence gathering apparatus because … “gentlemen shouldn’t read other people’s mail.”

CRISIS LOOMS

Roosevelt, pleased with Bill Donovan’s contribution to his understanding of global intelligence concerns, appointed him as the Coordinator of Information in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  In 1942, no one had any idea what the OSS was, and no one was quite certain what a Coordinator of Information did for a living.  It was the perfect cover for Roosevelt’s spy network.

Typical of Roosevelt, however — at least initially, he handed Bill Donovan the responsibility for a massive undertaking without giving him any authority over it.  Donovan was constantly traveling back and forth between his office and the White House to obtain Roosevelt’s permission to proceed with the next step.  Eventually, this problem worked itself out — no doubt at Donovan’s insistence.

Meanwhile, as the heads of the various U. S. intelligence agencies became more aware of Donovan’s activities, they began to resent his “interference” in their internal intelligence operations.  They not only resisted cooperating with Donovan, but they also tried to turn Roosevelt against him.  Nothing amused Roosevelt more than watching his subordinates flay each other.

Lacking any cooperation from the intelligence agencies, Donovan organized the OSS with the principal assistance of experienced British intelligence officers.  Most of the early information “collected” by Donovan originated with and was provided by MI-6.[3]

Initially, British intelligence experts trained OSS operatives in Canada — until Donovan could establish sufficient training facilities in the United States.  The British also introduced Americans to their short-wave broadcasting system (with capabilities in Europe, Africa, and the Far East).

On 13 June 1942, President Roosevelt officially created the OSS by executive order.  The mission assigned to OSS was to collect and analyze the information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, when needed, conduct special (intelligence) operations not assigned to other agencies.  As an agency subordinate to the OJCS, OSS never had the overall authority of U. S. intelligence collection activities or functions, but they did provide policymakers with facts and estimates associated with enemy capabilities.  The FBI retained its control over domestic intelligence-gathering operations and those in Latin America, and the Army and Navy continued to develop and rely on their sources of intelligence unique to their missions.

(Continued next week)

Sources:

  1. Aldrich, R. J.  Intelligence and the War Against Japan: Britain, America, and the Politics of Secret Service.  Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  2. Bartholomew-Feis, D. R.  The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan.  University of Kansas Press, 2006.
  3. Brown, A. C.  The Last American Hero:  Wild Bill Donovan.  New York Times Press, 1982.
  4. Chalou, G. C.  The Secrets War: The Office of Strategic Services in World War II.  National Archives and Records Administration, 1991.
  5. Dulles, A.  The Secret Surrender.  Harper & Row, 1966.
  6. Dunlop, R.  Donovan: America’s Master Spy.  Rand-McNally, 1982.
  7. Smith, B. F.  The Shadow Warriors: OSS and the Origins of the CIA.  Basic Press, 1983.
  8. Yu, M.  OSS in China: Prelude to Cold War.  Yale University Press, 1996

Endnotes:

[1] Actor George Brent portrayed Donovan in a 1940 James Cagney film titled The Fighting 69th.

[2] Donovan experienced anti-Irish Catholic treatment at several junctions in his career, but most notably when Hoover promised Donovan the post of Attorney General and later recanted when Hoover’s southern backers balked at this nomination.  Instead, Hoover offered him the governorship of the Philippines.  Donovan turned down the appointment.

[3] One of Donovan’s political enemies was Douglas MacArthur, a former Army Chief of Staff who at one time was Donovan’s peer.  Some say that MacArthur “craved” the Medal of Honor, so MacArthur may have resented Donovan who was the recipient of all three of the Army’s top medals for bravery: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, and Distinguished Service Medal.  Donovan was subsequently awarded a second DSM, a Silver Star Medal, and three Purple Heart medals.