Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs by Richard M. Bissell Jr. Book review by H. Bradford Westerfield
A Key Player Looks Back
Book Review by H. Bradford Westerfield
It is tingling to have available any published memoir--even a near memoir--by a founding father--even a near founding father--of the CIA. At least in the public domain such works are rare. Yet one has to recognize at the outset that there are methodological problems with Richard Bissell's.
Bissell did not begin work on it until 1991, when he was 82, and he died 2 1/2 years later. The actual writing was done by his two collaborators, as they explain with commendable frankness. One, Frances Pudlo, had been his secretary through the final 20 years of Bissell's semiretirement; she calls him her "surrogate father" (p. viii). The other writer, Jonathan Lewis, was one of McGeorge Bundy's history graduate students at New York University; Lewis is now vice-president of an investment management company.
Lewis would do research in primary and secondary sources, including Bissell-assigned interviewing of former colleagues and consultation of some CIA History Staff classified records. He would consolidate a list of questions and talking points on an interrelated set of topics. Bissell would then discuss these on tape, "at great length...three to over six hours [at a time], without fatigue, and with remarkable precision...until he was satisfied that he had nothing more to contribute to the subject. [He] rarely referred to the secondary literature and relied heavily on his own memories." (pp. vii, 247-9). Pudlo transcribed the tapes. Lewis would then draft up the topic area, using the transcripts, personal Bissell papers and files, followup questions from Lewis to Bissell, and Lewis's own research, which continued (such as further interview assignments from Bissell):
Mr. Bissell reviewed each draft with a critical eye. Working with Fran [Pudlo], he eliminated everything he considered too personal or irrelevant, added details from his files, and did general editing. He would dictate changes and fill in gaps in the draft, relying on Fran to ensure that the result was consistently in his own voice and style. (p. 248).
By the time of Bissell's death, "the memoir was virtually complete," and the historical "chapters concerning Mr. Bissell's career with the CIA...were sent to the Agency's Publications Review Board for clearance." Bissell "was pleased with [another one], the Marshall Plan chapter." (pp. 248-9).
After Bissell died, Lewis continued his research, evidently with Mrs. Bissell's blessing, thus creating a more complete and readable book--but one where the posthumous additions (not clearly delineated) obscure throughout what words were ever personally approved by Bissell and what ones were not. For example, a few days after Bissell's death one of his U-2 colleagues was interviewed by Lewis and produced what the book's authors (I think rightly) judge to be "some good points" about short-sighted prioritization in reconnaissance collection tasking. The judgment is presented as if it were Bissell's own. Yet how could Bissell himself have actually shared in it? Besides, Bissell tells us at least twice that he did not much care about collection tasking. (pp. 104, 105, 139-40).
Five additional major interviews, much relied on in the text, occurred after Bissell's demise, as did some presidential library research expeditions. Footnotes do help the reader to source the resulting ideas--but not to judge confidently what Bissell's own view of them would have been. Yet Pudlo blends them, often confusingly, "consistently in [Bissell's] own voice and style." (p. 248). And it was she who wrote the final chapter, on his 20 years of semiretirement, all entirely herself, from his papers and her own memories--but still in the Bissell first-person-singular voice. (p. 249). (CIA's History Staff does not appear to have been accorded another final review, but the authors seem confident that that relationship remains cordial.)
In fairness to Lewis, he does invite readers who may question his sourcing to write him through the Yale University Press. And, in fairness to Pudlo, she has almost nothing really personal to say, because Bissell "did not want [the book] to probe too deeply into his personal life." He wanted it to focus on bureaucratic process; government program management, including systems development and procurement; civilian/military agency relationships; and democracy/secrecy. The book does just that in broadly rewarding fashion, despite the ambiguities of authorship.
Whoever chose the title called it Reflections, and Bissell is indeed reflective. But he is only rarely introspective, except about the Bay of Pigs. We do learn at the end that he considered his career opportunistic:
I had no grand plan for advancing myself or any offices to which I particularly aspired. I did want to lead a challenging life and, if I could, participate in the key issues and events of my time. To attain this end, I seized those opportunities that came my way and made the most of them. Some of my accomplishments I am very proud of, others less so, but I take pride in knowing that I did my best. (p. 245).
Bissell's disappointments had been severe. He experienced early dissatisfactions with academe and foundation work. He understood until the Bay of Pigs that "it was no great secret that [President Kennedy] viewed me as [Allen] Dulles's successor (p. 192), then afterwards found himself offered only the new Deputy Directorship for Science and Technology. Pride caused Bissell to reject this demotion in favor of what he naively saw as a chance to turn the Institute for Defense Analysis into something about as prestigious as the RAND Corporation. He was soon deserted in this venture, however, by Robert McNamara and Harold Brown--leaving Bissell at age 55 with nothing to do for the rest of his life but nonchallenging work in the world of corporate/private business.
Before this, there had been noble birth, triumph mounting upon triumph, climax--then the denouement: together, all the makings of high tragedy. (Someone should write a comparative "afterlife" biography of Bissell, James Angleton, and Henry Kissinger.)
But there is so little hint of this image in Reflections that I cannot affirm that he himself really saw it overall that way.
Maybe Frances Pudlo could not bring herself to say so. At any rate, the book concentrates overwhelmingly on the triumphs and the climax.
Bissell reluctantly "accepted the fact that his upbringing deserved attention because of the impact it had on the rest of his life." (p. 247). But he provides only the barest outline with virtually no implications explicitly identified, except (tritely) that:
I think there was an Ivy League establishment in the sense of a body of men who had similar backgrounds and knew one another well [hence hired one another], and the existence of that group had a good deal of influence on public affairs, [notably that] the patriotism, the belief in the need for the United States to play an important role in the world had some of their roots in our upbringing and education, and they certainly did affect the atmosphere in the Agency. (p. 7).
Bissell does indulge in much name-dropping of his peers at Groton and Yale who were colleagues later in government--and here I would be tempted to cite some notable omissions as perhaps also revealing. But the Lewis/Pudlo methodology of the book makes that too chancy.
In Chapter Two, the book warms up with World War II, as Bissell, in his early-to-mid-thirties, swiftly rose within the War Shipping Board and the (Anglo-American) Combined Shipping Adjustment Board until "I came to be recognized as the government's preeminent analyst of dry-cargo shipping supply and demand [for the war effort]. That was a heady experience for me." (p. 24). With peace came anti-inflation problems for economic reconversion, and in 1945-46 Bissell moved upward to the number-two role in that effort across the whole American economy.
The European Recovery Program
A subsequent year of academe proved insufficiently appealing. Thereafter, "what followed were perhaps the most worthwhile years of my career...the project of which I am most proud...the hardest work I have ever done." (pp. 29, 41, 45). He is referring to the Marshall Plan (the label Bissell always used).
Bissell liked the chapter on his years as number-two and eventually number-one American chieftain of this vastly important and successful enterprise. The account is crisp, balanced, and reasonably thorough, especially on bureaucracy and management at high levels across the Atlantic. It is not, however, likely to be of special interest to the readers of Studies in Intelligence, so I shall pass it over--except in one respect: the whole huge effort of US intelligence agencies to complement the Marshall Plan in stabilizing the politics of Western Europe glides by in just two paragraphs, with Bissell essentially pleading benign ignorance:
I was very uninformed about covert activities.... Even with my curious nature, I myself was unaware, except in the vaguest terms, what political action projects were going forward and how [Frank Wisner was spending Marshall Plan counterpart funds.] I don't think any of us were worried.... I suspect that had we known more [it would have just made us more appreciative.] It has since become known [that] we in the Marshall Plan were dealing-with quite a number of people who were beneficiaries of the CIA's early covert political action programs, [including] many left-of-center organizations....Vibrant democratic parties, even socialist ones, were preferable to a Communist victory. (pp. 68-9).
But was the contemporary compartmentation really so obscuring? Or is this a veil for perhaps avoiding CIA manuscript review of that chapter?
I pass on, noting only that Bissell concludes it with some conservative views about the inapplicability of Marshall Plan principles to Third World development assistance and whether nonindustrial countries really matter much any more. Even (non-Communist) Russia is seen as a more promising candidate. (pp. 72-3).
Bissell's next triumph was the U-2, at CIA.
After a brief, unsatisfying interlude at the Ford Foundation, Allen Dulles had taken Bissell on as a personal "apprentice" (p. 78) and "troubleshooter" (p. 90). Right away, about Guatemala, Bissell's prep-school buddy Tracy Barnes taught him to be "gung ho" and "aggressive...lessons that [longterm] were perhaps unwise." (p. 84). Bissell soon saw himself as less willing even than Wisner to accept "the possibility of failure," more like Dulles who would not and who "felt that the Agency's reputation and his own were at stake and intended to fight for both with all his ability and determination." (p. 87). All the way to short-term success--but with a sobering absence of long-term followthrough for Guatemala. (pp. 90-91). A model, nonetheless, for the Bay of Pigs several years later.
Troubleshooting was soon overshadowed by grand-scale bureaucratic entrepreneurship: wartime shipping, European recovery, now the U-2--handed unawares to him by Dulles, just eight months after Bissell had arrived at CIA (and five months after Guatemala).
Bissell's account highlights his reliance on his Lockheed contractors ("I had no previous experience in avionics"--p. 99); his autonomy ("the entire project became the most compartmented and self-contained activity within the Agency"--p. 105); his fluctuating competitive collaboration with diverse elements of the US Air Force; his foreign liaison connections (ups and downs, including a personal caper attempting to engage de Gaulle--no one else favored this, including de Gaulle); the U-2 shootdown; and Bissell's experience with the follow-ons, the A-12/SR-71/Blackbird planes and the Corona satellites. Interestingly, Bissell's heart was in the U-2 and the A-12 more than in the satellites, even though:
There is no doubt that satellites came to be the more important of the two, if only because from the start the Soviets did not choose to regard satellite overflights as the infringements of their sovereignty that manned reconnaissance flights were-[But] I was less concerned with what the planes and satellites might bring back than with the process of getting it; [and] I had complete control of [the A-12] program [somewhat less of Corona]. (pp. 139-40).
Bissell had little to contribute about the U-2 shootdown besides arguing that the flight had been compromised during its layover in Peshawar. He refused to make the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, a scapegoat: "Those of us who were close to the project felt that in all probability Powers had behaved perfectly correctly." (pp. 126, 129). In assuming that any downed pilot would be dead, "we had not given sufficient weight to the possibility that a near miss might incapacitate the aircraft but leave the pilot uninjured and able to bail out [not in time to also press the destruct button]." (pp. 121-2, 129).
Overall, unlike the Marshall Plan chapter, the one on overhead reconnaissance cannot be regarded as a rounded capsule history of those early years but rather as a linked set of important vignettes, yet valuable as such. (And Bissell may have broken some taboo in alluding twice to US SIGINT, in the form of ELINT--pp. 108, 121.)
His retrospective conclusion is blunt:
Like the Marshall Plan's Economic Cooperation Administration, the U-2 program was given the authority, the freedom of action, and the best people available to achieve an important national objective. It is not a coincidence that these programs were highly successful and contributed greatly to national security. Later, with the Bay of Pigs, what is noteworthy was the lack of a similar delegation of authority. (p. 131).
In 1959, under circumstances about which Bissell has nothing to say, except that they left Richard Helms disaffected, Bissell was made Deputy Director for Plans (DDP), the most prestigious role in the Agency short of Dulles's. Salient to Bissell in his new capacity, pursued in tandem with the old, were Congo (Zaire), Laos, and Cuba. The first two get only sketchy coverage in this book. Cuba gets major coverage, including much introspection and self-criticism, but the whole account is less conclusively integrated than one would desire.
Bissell's retrospections on a few personalities are striking. (I arrange them here for expository convenience, not from Bissell's own relative emphasis.)
Helms's circumspect opposition, and Bissell's own responsibility for having disregarded it, is highlighted:
One of my major mistakes as Deputy Director for Plans, particularly in the Bay of Pigs incident, was not finding a way to make an ally of Dick Helms. In the years that followed, we made our peace, and I have high regard for his work in the Clandestine Service and for him personally. I thought he made an excellent Director of Central Intelligence. (p. 178).
Conversely, Bissell concludes that he himself may have been relying too heavily on his prep-school buddy, the aggressive Tracy Barnes, whom he depicts as his alter ego for the Bay of Pigs. (pp. 179-80).
Allen Dulles's role is virtually ignored, except for a full-page quotation from a letter by his successor John McCone, written to Bissell in 1986. The burden of the letter is that Dulles should have stayed in Washington, instead of Puerto Rico, during the final invasion. He then might have had a better chance than the younger officials to have persuaded Kennedy not to reduce the bombing runs or else, "quite possibly," might have stopped the Brigade from trying to land at all. "I found [McCone's] comments revealing," observes Bissell. Period. (p. 196).
Secretary of State Dean Rusk is depicted as having much more influence on Kennedy than I would suppose--and as using it to oppose the noisy bombing as undiplomatic and unnecessary, inasmuch as Rusk himself had gotten along "quietly" as a guerrilla in Burma in World War II.
Elements of the US Air Force may have found back doors to the White House with a similar message in retaliation for Bissell's skirmishes with them over control of overhead reconnaissance. This amounts to a grave accusation, but Bissell leaves it as just a broad hint. (pp. 175-7, 181-4).
Other personalities figure prominently in Bissell's rendition of the Bay of Pigs, but more conventionally.
Bissell's overall message, repeatedly advanced (and further highlighted in a subsequent chapter he calls "A Philosophy of Covert Action") is that disclaimability--except in the narrowest sense that interests only some lawyers and diplomats--cannot be maintained by concentrating on just details. (Could such-and-such equipment have been purchased on the black market?). It depends rather on the overall situation (could anyone be made to believe that thousands of men could be invading Cuba without US Government support?). To impair operational prospects by restrictions tailored to plausible deniability is utterly, futilely counterproductive whenever the denials could not be plausible to reasonable ears. The true choice then is to bull ahead or else to abort.
But Bissell acknowledges apologetically that, again and again (even back in Eisenhower's days) he would avoid putting it that way to higher authority. And once he acknowledges why:
Fear of cancellation became-absorbing.... It is-possible that we in the Agency were not as frank with the President about-deficiencies as we could have been. As an advocate for maintaining the President's authorization, I was very much afraid of what might happen if I said, "Mr. President, this operation might as well be made open because the role of the United States certainly cannot be hidden." (p. 173).
Yet Bissell, though still fairly new to paramilitary action, was certainly not new to major US Government projects. They were what had deservedly made his fine reputation. How could he have imagined that he could get away with this ambiguity all the way to final success?
First, because his grand experiences had been ones of autonomy, not delegated authority.
Second, because as he himself emphasizes in his "Bay of Pigs" chapter, apologetically and repeatedly, his own juices were overflowing:
So emotionally involved was I that I may have let my desire to proceed override my good judgment on several matters. Each new restraint or restriction or cutback was disturbing, but I [like the direct commander Jack Hawkins] was deeply committed to the plan and eager to have a go at it. I think I retained too much confidence in the whole operation up to the end, more than was rational-but that is the way it was. (p. 185).
Third, it is easy to suppose that in this "state of mind" (Bissell's words) he would have anticipated that Kennedy would eventually catch the fever too, or at least get caught up in the momentum of a huge operation he would not as President have the will to stop. Yet Bissell does not come close to saying that. Scattered sentences, retrospective and including Operation Mongoose thereafter, yield not much clarification. "Documentary evidence and my own experience suggest [that Kennedy's] attitude toward Cuba changed remarkably little, if at all." (p. 199). "Kennedy was incapable of making [a] final decision to send in US troops." (p. 202). Even ("to my great disappointment") US planes, as the mission foundered on the beachhead. (p. 189):
[Throughout], I suspect that, if Kennedy were alive today, he would admit to having vacillated. [Far from getting caught up in fevered momentum], I think that, as he got further into the Bay of Pigs operation and closer to D day or D [sic] hour, he had growing doubts. [But now notice Bissell's unkindest cut: ] I do not believe these doubts really had to do with an assessment of the chances of success. If they had, they would perhaps have been quite rational. Instead, though, I think they had to do with political consequences reinforced by Stevenson's strong views and by Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Goodwin, and, to a degree [for a while] Thomas Mann. (pp. 186-7-emphasis added).
From a cold warrior like Bissell, who held to his death the faith that, in foreign affairs, "authority should always rest with the executive branch" (pp. 205-6), these are strong words. But Bissell goes no further. He does not depict the planning at any stage about the postlanding period (be that period short or long) as having relied on US forces--even though he does now emphasize that, even if more Brigade planes or flights had ever been permitted, there never would have been enough competent, recruitable non-US pilots for probable success (pp. 170, 173, 187-8, 194-5).
The Assassination Aspect
One may still believe that there is some truth in the argument that Bissell had to have anticipated Kennedy's getting somewhat caught up by momentum (whether or not this would include a fevering of Kennedy's cool). And Bissell himself was surely fevered. And he was accustomed to autonomy, to Eisenhower, and to succeeding.
But there may be one more reason why Bissell thought he could finally get away with his venture despite White House uneasiness. The reason is a dog that almost never barks in accounts of the Bay of Pigs, because they are almost all based on the parade of horrors about it that did promptly leak during the 1960s.
Not until the various Church committee investigations of the mid-1970s would it have been at all possible for outsiders to have noticed barking amid all that hubbub--specifically, any barking about the plans for Castro's assassination, plans which Bissell finally discussed with the Church committee in 1975 and summed up in a scholarly interview in 1984, confirming that "the plotting against Castro's life was 'intended to parallel' the Cuban invasion project.'' According to Bissell, ''Assassination was intended to reinforce the plan. There was the thought that Castro would be dead before the landing. Very few, however, knew of this aspect of the plan.'' Bissell read the scholar's article and wrote his own commentary on it, published in tandem, raising no objection (or endorsement) about this point. 1
Furthermore, Bissell's testimony before the Church committee had been lengthy about CIA assassination plotting, including Castro. But not, as reported, was it precisely to the point I want to make. Nor, regrettably, are his memoirs now. Assassinations, like Bissell's personal life, were declared off bounds: "Certain topics...receive cursory treatment....'' For example [as the writers of Bissell's Reflections found], "he wished to discuss the assassination plots against foreign leaders and the development of an executive action capability [the related euphemism] as little as possible."(p. 247).
"Little" meant essentially this, regarding Castro:
[The Mafia-connection aspect] did not originate with me-and I had no desire to become personally involved in its implementation, mainly because I was not competent to handle relations with the Mafia. It is true, however, that, when the idea was presented to me, I supported it, and as Deputy Director for Plans I was responsible for the necessary decisions.... Sheffield Edwards, the director of the Agency's Office of Security-and his deputy became the case officers for the Agency's relations with the Mafia. Edwards was frank with me about his efforts, and I authorized him to continue.... I do not recall any specific contact with the Mafia, but Doris Mirage, my secretary at the time, does. (p. 157).
The book proceeds to quote her at some length about Mafia phone calls coming in on Agency private lines but being refused by Bissell himself, and about his keeping "in the bottom of his box...a yellow legal pad...paper [that ] someone had delivered [but] he just wouldn't touch. [It was a written offer by] Joe Bonano...to assassinate Castro. [Bissell] just didn't want to have any part of it." (p. 157). But this may be somewhat misleading; Bonano himself was not one of the Mafia dons that the Church committee identified as part of the action. Bissell himself continues with somewhat less reticence:
No doubt as I moved forward with plans for the Brigade, I hoped the Mafia would achieve success. My philosophy during my last two or three years in the Agency was very definitely that the end justified the means, and I was not going to be held back. Shortly after I left the CIA, however, I came to believe that it had been a mistake to involve the Mafia in an assassination attempt. This is partly a moral judgment, but I must admit it is also partly a pragmatic judgment [from compartmentation concerns.] (pp. 157-8).
No more from Bissell (in Reflections) about assassinations.
Why, then, harp on it?
Because the Church committee had found that "the earliest concrete [confirmed] evidence of the operation" was a request from Bissell to Edwards, August or September 1960, "to find someone to assassinate Castro," as "one phase of a larger project to invade Cuba," and that a climax came in Miami, most likely on or close to 12 March 1961, when CIA poison was transferred from CIA's agent and his Mafia-boss contacts to the Cuban who was agreeing to administer it to Castro at a restaurant on the island, knowing that the stuff "couldn't last forever.... It had to be done as quickly as possible." There may possibly have been "a go signal [that] still had to be received before [the poison] was in fact administered"; if so, it never came. For that or some other reason, the Cuban backed out.
There may possibly have been another separate assassination attempt in April before the Bay of Pigs; if so, another failure. "Bissell testified that the effort against Castro was called off after the Bay of Pigs." 2
I want to underscore the 12 March date and tie it to the 11-16 March interval that Bissell highlights exceptionally in his book as the most crucial period (before the invasion itself) of decisionmaking that crippled the total venture.
Why did Bissell go along at that time? One unmentioned reason may have been new buoyancy about the progress toward assassination. (I will not try to judge the further possibility that President Kennedy, among few others, might have known enough to have analogous sentiments in pressing then for truncation of the invasion plan itself.):
[Kennedy on March 11] gave the Agency four days to rework the plans and come up with a `less spectacular' alternative. It is hard to believe in retrospect that the President and his advisers felt the plans for a large-scale, complicated military operation that had been ongoing for more than a year could be reworked in four days and still offer a high likelihood of success. It is equally amazing that we in the Agency agreed so readily. Perhaps our compliance reflects the degree of pressure felt by everyone involved in resolving the Cuban problem. (p. 169).
The final reference is apparently to the so-called disposal problem: how to get rid of the increasingly impatient Brigade members in Central America unless they were sent to invade Cuba. Troublesome indeed. But even Bissell (if the wording is indeed his own) does not seem to have his heart in it as an adequate explanation for what he acceded to. In just five days, by 16 March, he let Trinidad be switched to the Bay of Pigs, daylight to be switched to nighttime, a contingency option of fallback to any Escambray Mountain refuge be effectively nullified, and the cruciality of the residual bombing (not just for destroying Castro's air force but also his command and control communications links) be insufficiently explained to higher authority.
"One must keep in mind that plans changed fast--from Trinidad on 11 March to Bay of Pigs on 14 March. I have never denied that we were culpable, and I am more than happy to accept the blame personally." (p. 172).
Questions and Speculation
Could it be that Bissell was feeling buoyed up by simultaneous news about the dramatic progress in Miami toward Castro's assassination? Could it even be that Kennedy himself had enough up-to-date information about this development to feel complacent about pressing for less noisy spectacle at the landings (and enough information for either or both Bissell and Kennedy to be less preoccupied with the command and control aspect of the bombing)? Could there have been any other witting leaders? McGeorge Bundy? Bissell depicts him as remarkably swift in certifying to Kennedy that CIA had done an exceptionally fine job of reframing the landing (pp. 169-70).
One could go further if indeed there was a second assassination attempt shortly before, or conceivably in conjunction with, the actual invasion. But Church committee evidence indicates that most likely there was not. In that light, Bissell's account of the final tragic week is essentially a familiar one. Assuming that the original assassination plot would by then have been known to have failed, there remains virtually no opening for suspicion that Bissell's repeated failure to force any final-week showdown ("abandon deniability or cancel the whole operation"), even though his airpower was being fatally whittled away bit by bit by Kennedy, could possibly have resulted from anticipation by either that Castro would soon be dead.
So I confine my curiosity to the fateful decisions of mid-March--and wish that Bissell had been willing to write about assassination enough to have tied his whole account of the Bay of Pigs together somehow.
A Manual for Covert Action
Bissell did leave one more chapter of reflections, partly related to the Bay of Pigs. It is an updated manual for conducting and judging covert action, what he calls "A Philosophy of Covert Action" for the post-Cold War world. With the chief exception that it disdains Congress, I find this manual outstandingly good--knowledgeable, sensible, fluent--the best stand-alone chapter in the whole book, worthy of attention even if one were little interested in the quasi-autobiographical remainder of the volume.
Here we encounter Richard Bissell as mellowed seer.
And it is good to recognize that the swift triumphs, tragic climax, and sadly protracted endgame of his life did not drain him of the acuity that had made him meteorically formidable.
If only he had stayed on at CIA as Deputy Director for Science and Technology...? Could he have accomplished what Albert Wheelon did, and, eventually, even more?
1 Lucien S. Vandenbroucke, "The 'Confessions' of Allen Dulles: New Evidence on the Bay of Pigs," and Richard M. Bissell, Jr., "Response," Diplomatic History, 8:365-80 [Fall 1984], especially p. 374, n.33.
2 Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, Senate Report 94-465, Church Committee, 20 November 1975, pp. 74, 75 [note 1], 79-82--all heavily documented.
H. Bradford Westerfield is Damon Wells Professor of International Studies and Professor of Polital Science at Yale University.