Breaking a 35-year silence, the chief of the CIA's planning staff for military aspects of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion says the effort was doomed from the day, a month before the operation, when President Kennedy ordered the landing site changed to one that would attract less attention.
Jack Hawkins, a retired Marine Corps colonel, said in an interview that after he and his staff drafted the new plan, shifting the landing from the city of Trinidad, on Cuba's south coast, about 80 miles westward to the Bay of Pigs, he had "decided this plan has no chance. It is going to fail.'' He said efforts to convince superiors of that were of no avail.
What eventually became known as the Bay of Pigs began in January 1960 when the Eisenhower administration decided that Cuban leader Fidel Castro should be ousted, an effort Kennedy continued after becoming president. It evolved from sending in teams of agents to develop resistance, into a small guerrilla-type infiltration of 200 to 300 men to join existing guerrillas, and, finally, into a full-scale landing at the Bay of Pigs by a CIA-sponsored Cuban exile brigade of about 1,500 on April 15, 1961.
The hope was not for Castro's immediate overthrow but to seize a beachhead, generate morale problems and defections within the Castro forces and eventually provoke a general uprising.
Instead, the landing ended in disaster when B-26 air strikes reduced by Kennedy failed to knock out Castro's air force. Castro forces captured 1,189 exile invaders, 114 others died and 150 were unable to land or never shipped out. The captured invaders were ransomed by the Kennedy administration for $53 million in food and medicine. They returned to Miami on Dec. 23, 1962.
The paramilitary staff, which Hawkins headed, was responsible for organizing, training and equipping the Cuban exile brigade and preparing the plans for its landing in Cuba. Although staff personnel changed at times, said Hawkins, they averaged six U.S military and 18 CIA officers. Hawkins reported directly to Jake Esterline, the CIA's project chief for the invasion.
The interview with The Herald was the first Hawkins has given to a daily newspaper journalist since the Bay of Pigs, although he wrote a first-person article in the year-end edition of The National Review, a conservative journal published by William Buckley.
In the wide-ranging December interview at his home in Fredericksburg, Va., Hawkins also:
* Questioned Kennedy's commitment to the Cuba project initiated under President Eisenhower, based in part on Hawkins' own observations at Oval Office meetings.
* Speculated that the lack of commitment may have been partially due to parallel assassination plots against Castro, utilizing the Mafia, that had been undertaken by the CIA in 1960 separately from the Bay of Pigs and accelerated by the Kennedy administration. Bay of Pigs planners - with the exception of the late Richard Bissell, the CIA's director of clandestine services and the man in charge of the invasion - were unaware of the plots until they became public knowledge years later.
* Said that he and project director Esterline learned only recently from declassified documents that Bissell had agreed with Kennedy to cut the number of CIA-supplied B-26 planes from 16 - considered the minimum necessary to knock out Castro's air force on the ground - to eight, but he did not tell them of the decision until days later, on the eve of the first air attack before the landing.
* Placed the primary fault for the effort's failure "at Bissell's door.... It was really Bissell's operation.''
* Said that the State Department and Secretary of State Dean Rusk never received their share of the blame for failure of the operation by its continued obstruction.
* Noted that he wrote a still-classified May 1961 "after-action'' report on the Bay of Pigs failure in which he recommended against any further covert efforts against Castro because the Cuban leader was "now already too strong to be overthrown by paramilitary operations.''
Hawkins said he had remained silent all these years in part because "I was obligated by my oath of secrecy to the Defense Department and the CIA,'' and also out of concern about Castro retaliation against him.
"I didn't know what Castro's attitude might be, and I was wary of that,'' he said.
In addition, said Hawkins, "I was really disgusted. I thought the United States had acted in an almost contemptible way about this whole thing..I just sort of washed my hands of it and put it behind me, went on with my life and tried not to think about it. It was one of the most disappointing things that I ever had to do with in my life, professionally.''
He said he decided to speak out when the CIA's Esterline "got in touch with me (early last year) and said he thought it was time that we told the truth about some of these things''...
There were, he said, several "critical junctures'' in the operation when a "change of course by the decision-making authority at the CIA was called for if the Bay of Pigs disaster was to be avoided.''
Among them, he cites the change in the landing site and the reduction in the number of B-26 aircraft participating in the initial attack in advance of the landing - intended to knock out Castro's planes on the ground - either of which should have aborted the operation.
Hawkins has praise, however, for the brigade members, who he says "fought hard and well and inflicted terrible casualties on their opponents. They were not defeated. They simply ran out of ammunition and had no choice but to surrender. And that was not their fault.''
While Hawkins considers the air support critical to any chance of success at the Bay of Pigs, he believes failure became virtually inevitable a month earlier when Kennedy, acting on the advice of Secretary of State Rusk, rejected the Trinidad landing as too "noisy,'' one that would attract too much attention to the United States.
The initial plan, beginning in 1960, had been to introduce trained paramilitary teams, of a few men with special capabilities, into every Cuban province, which was done. Their purpose was to develop armed resistance wherever they could and engage in sabotage and propaganda operations.
Simultaneously, it was planned to organize a small infantry force of 200 to 300 men to be infiltrated in and join 800 to 1,000 guerrillas already operating in the Escambray Mountains of Central Cuba above Trinidad.
But, said Hawkins, as the Soviets increased their shipments of arms and military equipment and Castro began to create a large militia force, Bissell decided in the fall of 1960 "that he should have a larger force to get in there, and he hit on the figure of 1,500.''
It was not until early spring of 1961 that the brigade got up to 1,500 men, according to Hawkins, with Trinidad still the targeted landing site.
Word came March 11 that the president wanted a new, less "noisy'' landing site and a night instead of a dawn landing, as originally planned.
"We were very surprised when we got word that the president had vetoed the Trinidad plan, which we thought was the best and probably only place in Cuba where we had a chance to pull this thing off,'' Hawkins said. "It was a good plan, I thought, and we had no idea that it was going to be rejected because it had been discussed right on up to that time.''
Bissell, he said, advised him as they were standing in the corridor that the president had given four days to come up with a "quieter operation. He said this one is too noisy, too much like an invasion. Of course, it was an invasion.''
Working around the clock, Hawkins and the paramilitary staff pored over maps and intelligence reports, determining that the Bay of Pigs was the only alternate place an airfield could be seized that would support B-26s, a requirement.
Hawkins said he reported this verbally to Bissell, at the same time telling him what was wrong with the site, including its isolation and relative inaccessibility.
"Bissell said right then and there on the spot, without consulting anybody else, since this is the only place that satisfies the president's requirements, then we'll go ahead with it on that basis. You draw up a plan immediately, and we'll present it to the president.''
A sketch of the new plan was drafted, presented to Kennedy and approved March 15, a month before the landing took place.
"After we got to drawing the detailed plan,'' Hawkins said, ``I had time to do some careful thinking about the thing. Before, I had just been doing what I was told - get a plan. So we got it. But then I decided this plan has no chance. It's going to fail.''
Hawkins said he discussed his concerns with Esterline, the CIA's project director for the invasion, who said, "That's exactly what I think. It can't work. It's not going to work.''
He said they met with Bissell at his home in Georgetown the following Sunday and expressed their reservations.
Hawkins said the main purpose of the meeting was to insist that "if you want to go ahead with this operation at the Bay of Pigs, we want out. We just don't want to be part of a disaster, and that's just what it's going to be."
"We told him in no uncertain terms... He didn't give any indication at all that he was willing to give up the landing at the Bay of Pigs. He says, 'Look, you just can't desert me at this point. I won't be able to carry on without you.' Well, we di dn't like it, but we agreed.. we won't quit - not now, anyway. We left there thinking that we were headed for trouble, headed for disaster.
"But,'' said Hawkins, "it's a difficult thing for a Marine officer or a CIA officer to ask to be relieved of his duty. It's a serious thing to do and you don't like to do it, so we stuck with him, and the results you know.''
"The change of site was the critical thing that made it unlikely of causing the overthrow of Castro,'' Hawkins believes. "I always thought that it was going to take some time. If we got the brigade up into the Escambray (Mountains) and they could coordinate the other guerrillas up there and maybe get new forces, new people, out of Trinidad into the Escambray and then continue the air operations with Castro having no air, they could stay up there a long time.''
Hawkins' account differs somewhat from Bissell's, as recounted in his memoirs, Reflections of a Cold Warrior, published posthumously last year.
Bissell wrote that he remembered "meeting with Hawkins at the headquarters after a long weekend and his saying, Well, we have developed an alternative plan to meet the president's desire for a quieter landing and we think that you will like it and approve of it. We do, and I think in some ways it's better than the original.''
Hawkins says "that's a lie, absolutely false. Jake and I told him that the plan could not succeed, landing at the Bay of Pigs could not possibly succeed and was going to end in disaster. That's the word I used.'' Esterline recalls the meeting the same way.
Bissell did not mention the Sunday afternoon meeting at his home with Hawkins and Esterline, which most Bay of Pigs historians now consider a key event.
Bissell acknowledged in his memoirs, however, that ``there is no doubt that failure to question the viability of the move (from Trinidad) had serious repercussions.''
"They had no chance to escape out of the Bay of Pigs,'' Hawkins said. "We told Bissell that. I told him that. They can't get out of there. Maybe a handful or a few individuals could get out of there and sneak away, but the bulk of them were trapped there. They can't get out.''
As for Hawkins, the change in landing sites was just one more indication of Kennedy's lack of commitment to the entire project.
"I felt that he was not strongly committed to the operation at all. When he first was briefed about it and I began to observe him when I went to these meetings, he didn't seem enthusiastic about it, but he seemed interested.''
Hawkins describes the weekly White House meetings with Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs as "essentially discussions'' that "did not resolve questions of policy... As policy questions arise, they should be resolved decisively and quickly. This was not done for the Cuba Project.''
Much later, Hawkins said, when he learned "about the efforts that (Kennedy) and his brother (Attorney General Robert Kennedy) were making to assassinate Castro... it has occurred to me that Kennedy thought he was going to solve the problem by this method, disposing of Castro through the Mafia. And that would make the Cuban operation unnecessary, he thought.
"That's just a surmise on my part. That could have influenced him to delay. In fact, I have heard since, I don't know how reliable the information is, that the assassination was supposed to come off not long before the invasion.''
He also believes that Kennedy was unduly influenced by Rusk and the State Department.
"The first time I ever saw him (Rusk) at one of the presidential meetings, he made it abundantly clear that he was opposed to the operation completely. And he didn't want any air operations whatsoever.''
"I always felt that the Department of State came away from this thing without being blamed as much as they should have been blamed for what happened,'' Hawkins says now.
All of that said, Hawkins still places primary responsibility for failure with Bissell.
"I think that the primary fault must be placed at Bissell's door. It really was Bissell's operation. Mr. Dulles was just sort of on the fringes of this thing. He gave Bissell free hand to do what he wanted throughout this operation.''
The landing went ahead, and the invasion failed. Hawkins went back to the Marine Corps, but not before drafting an "after-action'' report on the operation that remains classified.
"It was very comprehensive, included everything that I knew about that was done, and drew some conclusions about it,'' Hawkins remembers. "I recommended among many other things that no further effort should be made to overthrow Castro in this manner, by these covert means, because he is now already too strong to be overthrown by paramilitary operations.''