Rusk reflects on Bay of Pigs
by Marc Rice
ATHENS, Ga. - Newly installed as secretary of state, Dean Rusk did not feel it was his place to intrude in discussions about military details of the proposed Bay of Pigs invasion, even though his own experience as a soldier convinced him the plan was doomed.
"As a colonel of infantry I knew it wouldn't work," Rusk said. "But in the spring of 1961 I was not a colonel, I was secretary of state."
Rusk, interviewed recently in his office at the University of Georgia, where he is a professor of international law, refused to discuss private conversations he had with President John F. Kennedy as the invasion of Cuba, designed to oust Fidel Castro, was planned 25 years ago.
Once Kennedy made his decision to go ahead with the operation, Rusk sad he gave the president his full support.
The resulting invasion was a disaster. On April 17, less than three months after Kennedy had taken office, about 1,400 anti-Castro Cuban exiles, recruited and trained by the CIA, invaded Cuba's southern coast. Kennedy approved the invasion on the condition that there be no overt U.S. military aid. The outnumbered invaders were quickly crushed by Castro's troops.
With Kennedy just starting his term, members of the new administration tended to avoid stepping on each others' toes, Rusk said.
"I never met President Kennedy until the day before I was picked [as secretary of state]," Rusk said. "We had not yet begun to work as a team. You tended to sit on your own little post of responsibility."
And because the Bay of Pigs matter was examined by so few people, "the talents and resources of the government were not brought to bear," he said.
However, Rusk, who served as secretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, did not blame the failure on the presidential transition.
"It was not the fault of the system. It was the fault of those within the system," he said. "One of the mistakes was that the [CIA] people proposing the operation were the same people who were providing information on which the judgment was to be made."
The CIA underestimated the strength of Castro's troops and the degree of support he had among his people, Rusk said. The administration was led to believe that once the exiles invaded, elements of the Cuban population would join the insurgents.
Also, it was assumed that the rebels were trained as guerrillas and would melt into the countryside after landing on the beach.
"In retrospect, this information -- or misinformation -- had come from Cuban refugees who were guilty of wishful thinking," Rusk said.
Rusk cited another misunderstanding: some brigade members were led to believe that if they got in trouble after landing in Cuba, American armed forces would provide support.
He stressed that Kennedy never gave serious consideration to overt U.S. military participation in the invasion, and that the president never had second thoughts about that decision.
The Bay of Pigs failure brought about changes in the Kennedy White House, broadening roles for members of the administration that helped bring about a successful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis a year later.
"We all learned to look at problems not in terms of our own particular desk. We learned to look at problems the way the president must look at problems," Rusk said.
After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy publicly took full responsibility for the fiasco. A Gallup poll conducted in May 1961 showed that 61 percent of the American public approved of Kennedy's handling of the matter.
Rusk said he interpreted the support as reflecting disappointment that the invasion failed rather than that it was attempted.
"There was a good deal of sympathy for this young new president who had this problem on his hands," Rusk said. "There was sort of a sense that the United States had made a mistake and had a failure... The feeling was they should rally around."
The failure did not make Kennedy timid, Rusk said, because the president saw the threat of communist aggression as very real.
Castro, in the 25 years since the invasion, has shown that Kennedy was not wrong, Rusk said.
"There are the present allegations about Castro's participation in the Nicaraguan monkey business, in Costa Rica. It has been a continuing problem. Castro has substantial troops in Africa, in Angola, in Ethiopia," Rusk said.
"He's been an active promoter of world revolution," he said.