JFK’s Cold War Calculations

ar206454-bOn April 20, 1961, exactly three months after his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) regarding the Bay of Pigs invasion. In his speech, Kennedy addressed one of the most crucial decisions of his presidency—his choice not to provide air cover for the 1,400 men of the Cuban exile brigade at the Bay of Pigs.


Although planning for the invasion began under the Eisenhower administration, President Kennedy opted to approve the operation upon taking office. But the invasion was doomed as soon as the CIA-trained exiles landed ashore in Cuba. The Soviet-supplied Cuban military was well equipped and had overwhelming resources in terms of manpower.


Once failure appeared imminent, military personnel and CIA officials scrambled to persuade Kennedy to deploy U.S. air cover in hopes of salvaging the operation. The President, however, refused to approve the direct military intervention sought by the advisors who had fully endorsed the invasion’s initial provisions.


In the end, Cuban forces easily defeated the undermanned exile brigade within three days. To make matters worse for Kennedy, U.S. involvement was undeniable and media coverage made the failure a highly publicized national issue.


In the aftermath of the invasion, the President moved quickly to justify his decision to approve the invasion but not to provide air cover. Speaking before the ASNE, Kennedy revealed his adherence to democratic principle by stating:


The President of a great democracy such as ours, and the editors of great newspapers such as yours, owe a common obligation to the people: an obligation to present the facts, to present them with candor, and to present them in perspective…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…Any unilateral American intervention, in the absence of an external attack upon ourselves or an ally, would have been contrary to our traditions and to our international obligations.”


For both President Kennedy and the United States, the Bay of Pigs was an undeniable loss on the battlefield of the Cold War. But history has shown Kennedy’s political sagacity during the invasion’s failure. The president understood that if the U.S. intervened militarily in Cuba, that the Soviet Union was likely to retaliate against Berlin or another high value target.

2 thoughts on “JFK’s Cold War Calculations

  1. While it is true that JFK did not provide US military air support after Brigade 2506 was already trapped on the beach, it is misleading to fail to mention that such air support was never considered an option going into the operation as it would have been in direct violation of international law. The report of the Cuban Study Group (General Maxwell Taylor, DCI Allen Dulles, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Burke and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother) cited the cancellation (by McGeorge Bundy) of the pre-dawn anti-Castro Cuban piloted B-29 air strikes from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua as the immediate cause of failure of the invasion. This is important history. JFK’s Special Advisor on National Security, McGeorge Bundy, cancelled JFK’s last standing order, which was to neutralize the remainder of Castro’s small air force while it was still on the ground BEFORE the invasion brigade had reached the beach. This was to be accomplished by anti-Castro Cuban pilots who were flying ex-US aircraft (modified B-29 bombers) out of Nicaragua to perform pre-dawn air strikes on the small Castro air force. The failure had nothing to do with JFK’s refusal to break international law by launching an air strike from the USS Essex after the brigade was already in trouble, as has been suggested elsewhere. The failure occurred long before then and was unrelated to JFK’s subsequent decision to avoid an international incident potentially much larger and more dangerous than what we already were facing. McGeorge Bundy placed a call to General Charles Cabell of the CIA instructing him to cancel JFK’s pre-dawn air strikes. Without Castro’s T-33 “trainers” having been destroyed on the ground, the B-29’s would be sitting ducks as the T-33’s are “jet aircraft” and are highly maneuverable compared to the lumbering B-29 bombers. It appears to be the case that had JFK’s orders been followed and Castro’s planes had been neutralized on the ground, Brigade 2506 would have stood a fair chance of success. As it is, they were doomed, but not because of JFK’s decision–because of McGeorge Bundy’s. In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, JFK fired from the CIA: Allen Dulles, Dick Bissel and General Charles Cabell for their part in the failure. Why he chose to keep McGeorge Bundy in place is perhaps the biggest mystery that remains.

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