1998 (2) Winter

Lessons Unlearned: The CIA's Internal Probe of the Bay of Pigs Affair

By Michael Warner


The Bay of Pigs invasion met its ignominious end on the afternoon of 19 April 1961. Three days after the force of Cuban émigrés had hit the beach, the CIA officers who planned the assault gathered around a radio in their Washington war room while the Cuban Brigade’s commander transmitted his last signal. He had been pleading all day for supplies and air cover, but nothing could be done for him and his men. Now he could see Fidel Castro’s tanks approaching. “I have nothing left to fight with,” he shouted. “Am taking to the woods. I can’t wait for you.” Then the radio went dead, leaving the drained and horrified CIA men holding back nausea.

Within days the postmortems began. President Kennedy assigned Gen. Maxwell Taylor to head the main inquiry into the government’s handling of the operation.  Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Allen Dulles asked the CIA’s Inspector General (IG), Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, Jr., to conduct an internal audit. A humiliated President Kennedy did not wait for either report before cleaning house at CIA. He accepted resignations from both Dulles and Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell (although both stayed at their posts until their successors were selected a few months later).

Lyman Kirkpatrick subsequently acknowledged that his Survey of the Cuban Operation had angered the handful of senior Agency officers permitted to read it, particularly in the Directorate for Plans (the Agency’s clandestine service and covert action arm, referred to here as the DDP). The IG’s Survey elicited a formal rejoinder from the DDP, written by one of Bissell’s aides who was closely associated with all phases of the project. These two lengthy briefs, written when the memories and documentation were fresh, were intended to be seen by only a handful of officials within the CIA. They shed light on the ways in which the CIA learned from both success and failure at a milestone in the Cold War.

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