Editor's Notebook: Ivy League hubris led America into a blind alley called the Bay of Pigs

<p>Steve Forrester</p>

In a corner of Havana’s Museo de la Revolution, a wall is reserved for the nation’s enemies.

It is called Rincon de los Cretinos (Corner of the Cretins).

Among those depicted are three American presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

What’s surprising is that this rogue’s gallery omits Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

Eisenhower and Kennedy belong in the Cuban dunk tank for one of the biggest follies of American foreign policy: the Bay of Pigs invasion. If the Cubans’ selective memory has omitted Ike’s and JFK’s fiasco, their costly mistake should not be forgotten in America.

Of the failed operation, Kennedy said: “How could I?have been so stupid?”

Peter Wyden’s Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story is essential reading. It contains many lessons – including the enormous culpability of the Central Intelligence Agency as well as the peril of vague presidential decision-making.

After traveling to Cuba in April, I sought an authoritative history of the Cuban Revolution. What I found is Wyden’s book. And, yes, Peter Wyden is the father of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. Peter was a successful writer of serious nonfiction, which is a very hard business.

Bay of Pigs (1979) and David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) are part of the same piece. The essence of both books is the hubris of presidentially anointed smart guys. That myopia, born of intellectual conceit, created a huge death toll in the Vietnam War and mortgaged American credibility in Cuba and Southeast Asia.

Ivy Leaguers are major players in both books. They lacked appreciation for what they didn’t know. As Peter Wyden concludes: “Two types of leadership were working against each other: the Yale brand versus the Sierra Maestra brand. .... The Yale intellectual mind-set did sell the Sierra Maestra guerilla mind-set short.”

In other words, the Ivy Leaguers and even the battle-hardened Gen. Eisenhower were blind to Castro’s military smarts.

Philip W. Bonsal, the last American ambassador to Havana, was most damning. He told Wyden that Kennedy and his CIA operatives “underestimated the fanaticism and combative spirit of those who supported Castro unconditionally. The notion that this support would melt away and that tens of thousands of Cubans would defect or refuse to fight if the hundreds of Castro’s opponents, whom the United States had armed and trained, obtained an initial success, was simply wishful thinking.”

Sen. Wyden says that, “One of the key problems at the heart of the Bay of Pigs episode was that the Kennedy administration didn’t ask the tough questions that needed to be asked of the national security establishment. There were serious flaws at the heart of the invasion plan, but policymakers deferred to the military and intelligence agencies without giving the plan the close scrutiny that it needed. This lesson is still very relevant today.”

Not too many months after Kennedy’s death, my Grandmother Aldrich said that JFK was fortunate to have died when he did. He could become a legend before history caught up with his record.

Even at the moment of his death, it was clear that Congress was turning against him, as Robert Caro documents in Passage of Power. It remained for Lyndon Johnson to do something JFK never would have managed – pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Thirty-four years after Kennedy’s assassination, the president’s recklessness became clear in works like Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot. If you read Peter Wyden’s book with knowledge of Hersh’s work as well as Peter Evans’ Nemesis (2004), you see a strange and dangerous conjunction of the CIA doing business with the mafia in a plot to kill Castro at the same time JFK was sleeping with Judith Exner, the girlfriend of one of those mobsters, Sam Giancana.

Besotted with the Mob, the CIA in 1960 was not sufficiently clear-headed to realize that Fidel Castro had made himself a hero by booting the Mafia out of Cuba, which it effectively co-ruled with the torturer Fulgencio Batista. What Castro himself has become is another matter, and the subject of other books. But U.S. policymakers seem to have failed to reckon with Cuban reality for decade after decade.

Americans of the Ivy League have often failed to understand people unlike themselves. Peter Wyden extrapolates that blindness when he concludes: “The final arrogance, the failure to inform themselves about Castro’s strength and his people’s spirit or even to inform their own infiltration teams, I attribute to the gook syndrome. America’s policymakers suffer from it chronically. They tend to underestimate grossly the capabilities and determination of people who committed the sin of not having been born American, especially ‘gooks’ whose skins are less than white.”

— S.A.F.


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