Crisis management at the dead center: the 1960-1961 presidential transition and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Author:Friedman, Rebecca R.

It was D-Day, April 16, 1961: the landing of Brigade 2506 was hours away, and their ships were in sight of the Cuban shore. At his weekend retreat in Virginia, President Kennedy was under pressure to call off the invasion. The day before, eight B-26 bombers had attacked the main air base of the Cuban Air Force. Though implausibly staged as the action of a single Cuban defector, the cover story quickly collapsed, and the world press screamed of an American-backed invasion of Fidel Castro's Cuba. In New York, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, was furious: the previous day he had been duped into assuring the General Assembly that the United States had nothing to do with the rogue Cuban pilot who had landed in Florida. At 9:30 P.M., the president's assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy, called General Charles Cabell, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to inform him that the air strikes scheduled for the next day would be postponed until Brigade 2506 had landed and secured an airstrip at the Bay of Pigs, from where planes could launch and provide air support (Bissell, Lewis, and Pudlo 1996, 184). CIA appeals for more air support, directed through Secretary of State Dean Rusk, were denied by President Kennedy. Within four days, 89 members of the Brigade were killed and 1,197 taken prisoner.

President Kennedy's decision to cancel the second air strike against Castro's air force was likely the mistake that doomed the invasion. However, while the proximate cause of the operation's failure was military, the more telling explanation lies with the decision-making process that led up to the operation. Scholars, historians, and participants agree that the Kennedy administration's greatest mistake lay in its inadequate examination of the assumptions undergirding the operation, though disagreement remains over the cause of this failure. (1)

The most common explanations fall roughly into four groups: unfamiliarity, secrecy, decision-making structures, and perverse bureaucratic dynamics. First, unfamiliarity: several participants viewed the lack of familiarity among Kennedy and his advisors-primarily manifest in overdeference to the president and the president's uncertainty about how to evaluate different advisors' opinions--as a strong contributor to his poor decision making (Schlesinger 1965, 258-59, 297; Sorensen 1965, 304, 307). Second, secrecy: many studies of the Bay of Pigs emphasize the deleterious effect of extreme covertness, as the CIA, concerned with preserving secrecy, shielded operational plans from scrutiny by relevant experts (Neustadt 1980, 222-23; Sorensen 1965, 304; Wilensky 1967, 66-67). (2) Third, faulty decision-making structures: when Kennedy dismantled President Dwight D. Eisenhower's national security decision-making structures, a disorganized and collegial system remained; this prevented policy from the rigorous analysis institutionalized by Eisenhower's procedures (Bissell, Lewis, and Pudlo 1996, 197-98; Bose 1998, 100; Bowie and Immerman 1998, 6; Rothkopf 2005, 84-86). (3) Fourth, perverse bureaucratic dynamics: Janis presents this argument most convincingly in his analysis of the Bay of Pigs episode in Groupthink, where he argues that Kennedy's team was blinded by five common illusions that elevated unanimity over truth-seeking (1972, 14-49).

While each of these explanations acknowledges the early days of the Kennedy presidency as context, they neglect the transition itself as an explanatory variable. Although scholars of presidential transitions have noted the Bay of Pigs invasion as a cautionary tale, none have adequately examined the causal relationship between transition dynamics and President Kennedy's decision making. Historians, for their part, have examined the Bay of Pigs without the analytical framework necessary for transition studies. This article suggests the best lens of analysis for the Bay of Pigs invasion is the 1960-1961 presidential transition. (4)

Drawing upon newly declassified documents--many unredacted versions released within the past decade--from the Dwight D. Eisenhower and John E Kennedy Libraries, this article demonstrates that the Bay of Pigs operation's failure was primarily a transition failure. Having done so, this article offers an analytical framework for evaluating success and failure of executive national security decision making during presidential transitions.

In a memorandum to Kennedy soon after the Bay of Pigs disaster, McGeorge Bundy wrote, "The moments of decision were not always isolated and treated with the gravity they deserved. Certain special circumstances contributed to this result, but it remains urgent that both the President and all his advisors watch closely for points of no return--even partial or interim decisions can strongly change the shape of the problem and so became decisive." (5)

This article isolates those "partial or interim decisions" and attempt to understand the "special circumstances"--transition circumstances--that contributed to each. Kennedy failed to manage the decision-making process successfully throughout the transition. The foreign policy-making process--not outcome--is analyzed because, although there is often a correlation between successful policy process and successful outcome, a decision maker cannot control events exogenous to his government. This article focuses on three decisions that occurred prior to Kennedy's April 14 decision to start the Bay of Pigs operation:

1. January 28, 1961: Kennedy receives his first full briefing as president on the CIA's Cuban operation and authorizes continuation and acceleration of planning.

2. March 11, 1961: Kennedy is briefed on the CIA's proposed operation, the "Trinidad plan." Kennedy requests modifications to scale down the plan and make it "quieter."

3. March 16, 1961: Kennedy is briefed on a new invasion plan, Operation ZAPATA. He authorizes continuation of ZAPATA planning and orders limited modifications.

This article uses a process-tracing methodology to analyze and evaluate executive decision making at each of these three decision nodes, within the single case study of the Bay of Pigs Operation. (6)

Treating decision making success as the dependent variable, this article demonstrates the causal role of six independent variables germane to national security transitions:

1. National security decision-making structure

2. Availability of relevant information about the crisis and authoritativeness of the source of that information

3. Focus of time and resources on the policy matters in question

4. Campaign commitments related to the foreign policy area

5. "Newness" of an incoming presidential administration

6. Institutional and policy inertia, or "inheritedness" of a foreign policy

Each variable, and the interactions among them, is necessary, though not sufficient, to explain why presidents succeed or fail in managing foreign policy crises early in their administration.

A successful decision exploits information and resources to set and implement policies that advance the objectives established by the administration. In this case, Kennedy's overarching objectives were to resist Communist encroachment in Latin America and to pursue multilateral cooperation through the Organization of American States (OAS). This strategy led to two main operational requirements: that the United States have plausible deniability of involvement and that it have a high probability of operational success. Kennedy's support for the Bay of Pigs invasion conflicted with these objectives. His decision-making process was, therefore, a failure.

To illuminate each of Kennedy's three decisions, this article begins with a historical narrative of the Cuban operation during the Eisenhower administration and Kennedy's association with and knowledge of the operation prior to his inauguration in January 1961. Next, it analyzes the president's three critical decisions on the Bay of Pigs after he was sworn in as commander in chief. Finally, using the six-variable framework for evaluating successful decision making, the article offers a half dozen overarching recommendations for improving national security decision making during presidential transitions.

Development of a Covert Option under Eisenhower: 1959-1961

Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries of the July 26th Movement overthrew the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. The Eisenhower administration proceeded cautiously with the new Cuban regime, unsure of its political leanings; when Castro visited the United States in April of 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon--not President Eisenhower--met with the Cuban head of state.

Soon the Eisenhower administration changed course. Once the Soviet Union contacted Castro in October 1959 about the possibility of economic cooperation, alarm bells went off in Washington. Deeply uncomfortable with a possible Soviet satellite 90 miles off the coast of Florida, the Eisenhower administration began planning for action. At first, the CIA proposed sabotaging Cuban sugar refineries, but Eisenhower scoffed. Gordon Gray, Eisenhower's special assistant for national security, recalls the president telling CIA Director Allen Dulles, "Well, Allen, this is fine, but if you're going to make any move against Castro, don't just fool around with sugar refineries. Let's get a program which will really do something about Castro." (7) Thus, in December 1959, the CIA began planning for the overthrow and possible assassination of Fidel Castro (Ambrose 1981, 308).

Ad hoc planning continued until February 1960, when Eisenhower requested a formal program and the CIA created a task force headed by Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell (Bissell, Lewis, and Pudlo 1996, 153). Due to its sensitivity, the Cuba program was supervised by the 5412 Committee, named after National Security Council (NSC) Directive 5412/2, which gave this select group--a four-member subcommittee...

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