From seventy thousand feet in the air, the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs looked flat and lovely

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2024

Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen After Gary Powers was shot down, President Eisenhower had promised the world there would be no spy missions over Russia, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), but that promise did not include Soviet proxies:

In his new position as deputy director of plans, Bissell had used the U-2 to gather intelligence before. Its photographs had been helpful in planning paramilitary operations in Laos and the Dominican Republic. And in Cuba, overhead photographs taken by the Agency’s U-2s revealed important details regarding the terrain just up the beach from the Bay of Pigs beach. Photo interpreters determined that the swampland in the area would be hard to run in unless the commandos familiarized themselves with preexisting trails. As for the water landing itself, from seventy thousand feet in the air, the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs looked flat and lovely. But because cameras could not photograph what lay underwater, Bissell had no idea that just beneath the surface of the sea there was a deadly coral reef that would later greatly impede the water landing by commandos.


When the Bay of Pigs operation was over, more than one hundred CIA-trained, anti-Castro Cuban exiles were killed on approach or left to die on the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs. Those that lived to surrender were imprisoned and later ransomed back to the United States. When the story became public, so did brigade commander Pepe San Roman’s last words before his capture: “Must have air support in the next few hours or we will be wiped out. Under heavy attacks by MiG jets and heavy tanks.” Pepe San Roman begged Richard Bissell for help. “All groups demoralized… They consider themselves deceived.”


There was plenty of blame to go around but almost all of it fell at the feet of the CIA. In the years since, it has become clear that equal blame should be imputed to the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and President Kennedy. Shortly before he died, Richard Bissell blamed the mission’s failure on his old rival General Curtis LeMay. Bissell lamented that if LeMay had provided adequate air cover as he had promised, the mission would most likely have been a success. The Pentagon has historically attributed LeMay’s failure to send B-26 bombers to the Bay of Pigs to a “time zone confusion.” Bissell saw the mix-up as personal, believing that LeMay had been motivated by revenge. That he’d harbored a grudge against Bissell for the U-2 and Area 51. Whatever the reason, more than three hundred people were dead and 1,189 anti-Castro guerrillas, left high and dry, had been imprisoned. The rivalry between Bissell and LeMay was over, and the Bay of Pigs would force Richard Bissell to leave government service in February of 1962.

There were many government backlashes as a result of the fiasco. One has been kept secret until now, namely that President Kennedy sent the CIA’s inspector general at the time, Lyman B. Kirkpatrick Jr., out to Area 51 to write up a report on the base. More specifically, the president wanted to assess what other Richard Bissell disasters in the making might be coming down the pipeline at Area 51.

Adding friction to an already charged situation was the fact that by some accounts, Kirkpatrick held a grudge. Before the Bay of Pigs, Richard Bissell was in line to succeed Allen Dulles as director of the CIA, and eight years earlier, Lyman Kirkpatrick had worn those coveted shoes. But like Bissell, Kirkpatrick was cut down in his prime. Kirkpatrick’s loss came not by his own actions but by a tragic blow beyond his control. On an Agency mission to Asia in 1952, Lyman Kirkpatrick contracted polio and became paralyzed from the waist down. Confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Kirkpatrick was relegated to the role of second-tier bureaucrat.

In a world of gentlemen spy craft and high-technology espionage, bureaucracy was considered glorified janitorial work. But when Kirkpatrick was dispatched to Area 51 by JFK, the fate and future of the secret base Richard Bissell had built in the Nevada desert lay in Lyman Kirkpatrick’s hands.


  1. Roo_ster says:

    “The map is not the territory.” Same for photographs. I wonder how difficult would it have been to get somebody to actually walk the beaches? Things were still pretty spicy on the island, but Castro was also promoting Cuba as a tourist destination.

  2. Bruce says:

    Christopher Hitchens liked to quote an Assistant Secretary of State who said, too bad Bay of Pigs happened, but at least it failed. Doesn’t take a lot of those guys at that level before operations fail.

  3. Michael van der Riet says:

    JFK’s share of the blame for the failure of Bay of Pigs was limited to his decision to withhold further air support following Kruschchev’s threat of nuclear war. The CIA successfully bullshat the new president into believing that the operation would be a walkover.

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