The Phone Call that Kept the Castro Brothers in Power for Decades
Don Bohning, a former Miami Herald Latin America editor, is the author of The Castro Obsession: US Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1965.A single 9:30 p.m. telephone call on April 16, 1961, forty-eight years ago this month, could well have assured what was to become a half-century rule of Cuba by Fidel and Raul Castro.
The call from McGeorge Bundy, special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, went to General Charles Cabell, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who at the time was at CIA headquarters for Operation Zapata, more commonly known today as the Bay of Pigs.
The CIA organized and trained Cuban exile Brigade 2506 was to land on a Cuban beach at dawn the next morning, April 17, 1961, to begin the assault it was hoped would free Cuba from more than two years of Castro’s increasingly dictatorial and Communist-oriented rule.
As Cabell was to testify later, Bundy “notified me that we would not be permitted to launch air strikes the next morning until they could be conducted from a strip within the beachhead. Any further consultation regarding the matter should be with the Secretary of State.” (1) It was a decision that by many accounts - including members of the CIA task force who planned the operation - doomed it to failure.
In the wake of the disastrous April 1961 attempt to overthrow Castro, President Kennedy named Gen. Maxwell Taylor, his military aide, to head a commission of inquiry to determine the cause of the failure. Cabell recounted the sequence of events beginning with the Bundy phone call in a May 5, 1961, memorandum addressed to Taylor as part of the inquiry.
Parts of the Taylor Commission’s report were released in 1987 and 1981. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that the full report – including Cabell’s memo - were declassified, largely through the efforts of a non-profit--the National Security Archive--that the full details became known from the testimony of those involved. The report received only minimal attention at the time, given the lapse of four decades between the Bay of Pigs and its full declassification.
After hanging up with Bundy, Cabell said he quickly called Secretary of State Dean Rusk and asked if he could come to the State Department immediately to discuss the decision to revoke the D-Day air strikes. Rusk said yes. Cabell and Richard Bissell, the CIA’s head of clandestine operations, rushed to the State Department, arriving about 10:15 p.m., the night before the dawn assault at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s south coast, was to begin.
Their effort, according to Cabell, was to no avail. Rusk informed them “that political requirements at the present time were overriding. The main consideration involved the situation at the United Nations.”
There U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson “insisted…that the air strikes would make it absolutely impossible for the U.S. position to be sustained. The Secretary stated that such a result was unacceptable.”
Rusk, said Cabell, asked “if I would like to speak to the President. Mr. Bissell and I were impressed with the extremely delicate situation with Ambassador Stevenson and the United Nations and the risk to the entire political position of the United States, and the firm opposition of the Secretary. We saw no point in my speaking personally to the President and so informed the Secretary.”
By then there was minimal time to get the order calling off the air strikes to the pilots who were waiting to depart from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. “This was barely accomplished as the order to cancel caught some of the crews in their cockpits,” wrote Cabell.
After returning to Quarters Eye, then the CIA headquarters on the Washington Mall, Cabell wrote that the
next task was to try and compensate for the loss of effective air strikes. In order to protect the shipping as it withdrew from the beachhead, I arranged with the Navy to stand by pending authority to give fighter cover.
At 4:30 a.m., April 17 (D-Day), I called on the Secretary of State at his home and reiterated the need to protect the shipping. The Secretary called the President and put me on the phone. After I made the request the President asked that the Secretary be put back on. After conversation with the President, the Secretary informed me that the request for air cover was disapproved.
When Cabell returned to Quarters Eye after the visit with Rusk at the State Department and delivered the message that the President would not re-instate the air strikes, he was greeted with a barrage of outrage.
According to Bissell’s memoirs, Colonel Jack Hawkins, the Marine officer detached to the project as its paramilitary chief, yelled, “Goddamn it, this is criminal negligence,” to which Jake Esterline, the CIA’s project director for the operation, added: “This is the goddamndest thing I ever heard of.” Bissell, who did not return to Quarters Eye after the meeting with Rusk, acknowledged in his memoirs that it was “probably out of cowardice,” that he let Cabell face the music alone at Quarters Eye by “delivering the bad news.” (2)
Esterline, in an interview years later, described the evening in painful and lengthy detail, saying what he found “most unacceptable is that they [Bissell and Cabell] were offered the opportunity to speak with the President and they elected not to…. Bissell knew damn well what we were saying [about the need for air cover] had to be right.” Esterline noted that only a week before he and Hawkins had visited Bissell at his home “where he solemnly pledged that … he would go to the President and explain why it simply had to be … that we could get the total number of planes we had to have before the task force got too close to Cuba to be recalled. Of course the rest is painful history ….” (3)
Without air cover for them on the morning of the Brigade’s landing, Cuban aircraft sank the Rio Escondido and Houston freighters carrying ammunition and other supplies for the invasion. The air attack on the two freighters prompted two other supply freighters, the Atlantico and Caribe, to head back out to see.
Esterline, in May 22, 1961, testimony to the Taylor Commission, noted that “beginning with the 16th [April], General Cabell or one of the other senior officers were in constant contact with the White House during the period of the operation. I can’t say specifically at what moment the White House was notified of the criticality of the situation, but I know that they were notified of the criticality by either Mr. Bissell or General Cabell, and I can tell you that there’s nothing we failed to transmit in terms of criticality because, frankly, I decided the operation was lost at midnight the 16th.”
1. Memorandum 5 May 1961, from General Charles Cabell to General Maxwell Taylor. Subject: Cuban Operation.
2. Richard M. Bissell Jr., Jonathan E. Lewis, and Francis T. Publo, Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), p156-157.
3. Don Bohning, The Castro Obsession: U.S Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1965, (Potomac Books, Dulles, Va.), p48.
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Jules R. Benjamin - 4/29/2009
Lorraine brings up an alternate way of viewing Kennedy's "failure." Another perspective would be that of anti-imperialism. Regardless of who "lost" the Bay of Pigs battle in 1961, the American people would have been shocked to learn that their leaders in Washington and at the U.N. were lying about American non-involvement. Today few would be surprised.
Lorraine Paul - 4/21/2009
It could also be said that the will of the Cuban people repulsed the Bay of Pigs invaders and that the outcome of that concerted effort was what kept the sovereignity of Cuba.