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JFK Revisited

A noted historian and Kennedy Administration insider refutes the revisionist version of JFK's legacy.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 3)

The Bay of Pigs is one of the celebrated disasters of American history. One scholar called it "the perfect failure." In their last meeting, the day before Kennedy's inauguration, Eisenhower urged the president-elect to go full speed ahead against Cuba. Allen Dulles, then head of the CIA, told Kennedy that he was much more confident about success than he had been about the CIA overthrow of the Arbenz regime in Guatemala seven years earlier.

When Dulles detected inadequate enthusiasm on Kennedy's part, he emphasized what he called "the disposal problem." What would happen to the 1,200 Cubans whom the CIA had been training for months in Central America? They would wander about the hemisphere, saying that the great United States, after preparing an expedition against Castro, had lost its nerve under a new president. Kennedy well understood that Dulles was warning him against the political fallout in the United States as well should a former naval lieutenant j.g. dare to veto an operation organized and recommended by the supreme commander of the greatest amphibious landing in history.

Kennedy was trapped. He also may have felt, after his recent victory, that he was on a roll. If brave Cuban exiles wanted to free their land from a dictator, why not give them the means to try their luck? Allen Dulles had assured him that the invasion would set off uprisings behind the line and defections from Castro's militia and that, if things went badly, the invaders could easily escape into the Escambray Mountains. Kennedy made it clear, however, that the Cuban brigade could not expect the Marines to intervene if the invasion faltered.

Much has been made of Kennedy's cancellation of a second air strike--too much; for a second strike would still have left 1,200 anti-Castro Cubans facing 200,000 of Castro's men. Richard Bissell, the CIA planner, later wrote that "even in the best scenario"--even if the second strike had not been canceled and Castro's planes had not been free to sink the supply ships--"the brigade might not necessarily have established and held the beachhead." There were none of Dulles's uprisings or defections, and impassable swamps and jungles, it turned out, cut off the Escambray Mountains from the beachhead.

The Bay of Pigs was indeed a perfect failure. It was also an effective, if expensive, education. Having supposed that the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff knew their business, the president now understood that they didn't. Thereafter he had no hesitation in rejecting their advice. "If it hadn't been for Cuba," Kennedy told me a month after the Bay of Pigs, "we might be about to intervene in Laos." Flourishing a sheaf of cables that the JCS chairman had sent from Laos, he added, "I might have taken this advice seriously."

"The first advice I'm going to give my successor," he told Ben Bradlee, "is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn."

Far from being reckless in foreign affairs, Kennedy was a cautious president, notable for his capacity to refuse escalation. When the Bay of Pigs invasion appeared to be failing, though under pressure from the military and the CIA to send in American forces, Kennedy declined to do so--as he later declined escalation in the Berlin crisis of 1961, the missile crisis of 1962 and the Vietnam crisis of 1963.

The missile crisis was the hour of maximum danger in the Cold War. Confronted by the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Joint Chiefs advocated a sneak air strike to be followed by an invasion. We know now that the Soviet forces on the island had tactical missiles equipped with nuclear warheads and the authority to use them in case of an American invasion. Had Kennedy taken the advice of the hawks, the result would probably have been nuclear war. Instead he pursued--and achieved--a diplomatic solution.

Last year, two books came out unveiling the secrets of the Cuban missile crisis. Alexsandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali's One Hell of a Gamble is the Soviet record, hitherto undisclosed, of the deliberations leading Nikita Khrushchev first to send and then to withdraw the nuclear missiles. The Kennedy Tapes by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow is the American record, hitherto undisclosed, of the debates in the White House following the discovery of the missiles. The nearly universal reaction has been praise for Kennedy's cool, sober and effective leadership in expelling the missiles without going to war.

There are those who claim that the Kennedys had an "obsession" with Castro and Cuba. They cite the assassination plots, though they were inherited from the Eisenhower administration, and they cite the Kennedy administration's own Operation Mongoose. But there is no direct evidence that either Eisenhower or Kennedy authorized or knew of the assassination plots. CIA officials testified that they had not even informed John McCone, the man Kennedy brought in to clean up the agency after the Bay of Pigs. If they informed Kennedy, they would have had to stipulate, "But you can't mention this to McCone."--a bureaucratic improbability.

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