Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story, by Peter Wyden, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, 325 pp., $12.95.
Peter Wyden's book is a welcome addition to Haynes Johnson's 1964 Bay of Pigs, written in collaboration with the Brigade leaders. Wyden's advantage is that he was able to interview not only the Brigade members but also the CIA personnel, as well as members of Castro's armed forces. He was even able to interview the Lider Maximo himself!
Playa Girón (Girón Beach), as all Cubans refer to the expedition, must stand among the annals of military history as a unique case. As rare as a military operation carried out flawlessly is one that turns out a complete disaster. Most operations have certain aspects that are executed smoothly as planned and other aspects that come up against unexpected obstacles. Playa Girón is one of those rare instances when everything—literally everything—that could conceivably go wrong did. If somebody had written the scenario as a work of fiction, people would have said, "No, this is too fantastic."
For example, some of the CIA operators dealing directly with the Cuban exiles knew nothing of Latin America. One, a German, could not be understood by either the Americans or the Cubans. The recruiters actually thought they would be believed if they said that they were not from the government. At first, training was public in Florida, then it was moved to the Guatemalan forest, where there were no medical supplies and overall living conditions were miserable. There was social segregation between the Cubans and the Americans. The CIA recruited both Batistianos and anti-Batistianos, which resulted in chaos during training and promoted the Cubans' unlimited ability for petty factionalism.
The original plan had been to land near Trinidad at the foot of the Escambray Mountains; this would have meshed nicely with the expected popular uprising against Castro. Instead, it was shifted to the isolated Zapata Swamps. Unknown to anyone, Castro frequently fished in the area and so was well acquainted with it. The Pentagon directly and indirectly was against the plan for tactical reasons but was ignored; even the obvious advice of a marine not to stock the gasoline and the ammunition together was ignored.
A back-up plan should the expedition fail was for the Brigade to go to the Escambray Mountains and engage in guerrilla warfare—but the landing took place in Zapata. U-2 photographs of the beach were identified by exiles as reefs; their debriefing officers insisted it was seaweed; the landing crafts ran aground. Lifeboats were rotten. Diversions elsewhere did not take place.
The landing was supposed to be unnoticed; it was met by militiamen and a radio station. The invaders were to be protected by an air "umbrella"; half the air strikes were called off by President Kennedy. Planes strafed both sides. The ships carrying fuel (in 400-pound barrels to be handled by hand!) and the ammunition were sitting ducks. When the Brigade started to run out of ammunition, Kennedy vetoed a resupply. And so on, ad nauseam.
In addition to recounting all this, Wyden has done a good job of expressing the emotions of all parties concerned, so that the book is not just a dry tome on logistics.
Some information is revealed also for the first time. One of the keys to the plan was the underground, which was fairly well supplied, but they learned of the invasion from the radio and watched helplessly as truckload after truckload of reinforcements drove over the bridge they were supposed to blow up. It is well known that during the expedition the underground was totally decimated as Castro's G-2 rounded up dissidents. The exact number of members was unknown; we finally learn from Wyden that over 100,000 persons were executed.
We also learn that Castro had plans covering the eventuality of a successful invasion—plans that would have resulted in a war of attrition. From what I remember of children being trained with weapons, there is no doubt that Castro would have turned Cuba into an even bigger slaughterhouse than it has been. We must not forget that the Nazis and the Viet Cong threw children into battle.
The book has some minor defects. They stem primarily from the author's viewpoint and personal biases. Thus, E. Howard Hunt is portrayed as the devil, but we are not really given reasons for the portrayal. One detects that Wyden also wants to pour abuse onto Nixon, but, because the latter had relatively little to do with the invasion, he cannot. In contrast, he wants to salvage Kennedy's image, despite JFK's repeatedly mediocre performance. Again, these defects are minor. Indeed, by pointing out the various personalities in the agency, the CIA's faceless visage disappears, and instead we see people and what those people did to bring about a fiasco: the ambitious and brilliant Bissell, the incompetent Cabell, etc.
Lastly, his generalizations are too reminiscent of the mindless cliches of the riotous '60s. While he keeps harping about the moral issues of overthrowing a (totalitarian!) government, he never really states those issues. Furthermore, Wyden seems to believe that the Cubans did not rise up against the Communists because they supported Castro. Quite a few did indeed. The rest, however, were terrorized by the G-2 and the "neighborhood committees."
The Bay of Pigs was the first of a number of betrayals by the American government of its allies—betrayal is the proper word. The Bay of Pigs was also the most noticeable, and the apparent beginning, of a series of humiliations of the United States. It was soon followed by Pueblo, Vietnam, the Tehran hostages, the nuclear submarines in Cuba, and others. You would think we would have learned by now.
Armando Simón is a trilingual native of Cuba, now living and teaching in the United States.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Bumbling and Betrayal".