A study into how much John F. Kennedy was responsible for the failure of the Bay of Pigs and the influence it had on him in future crises.

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John F. Kennedy endured arguably the most highly pressurised start to his Presidency than any preceding President. The expectations Kennedy brought with him into office were ones of hope and prosperity for the American public all wanting to be part of the American Dream. The new decade of the 1960’s offered a great deal to the average American, consumerism was continuously growing, and unemployment was low. However issues such as equality for black American’s would be turned into a civil rights movement that dominated domestic affairs for the entire decade. The immediate concern for President Kennedy when he took office was the suddenly growing Cuba problem, and was seen as the priority over all things for Kennedy.

Entering office at a time when the world was waiting to see who would come out on top in the on-going Cold War, Kennedy had to tread a fine line of being strong, but not to robust in his policies so as to antagonise the Soviets to the point of armed conflict. The American publics’ concern over the ‘Red Scare’ that had dominated the 1950’s, continued into the new era under Kennedy, with close neighbour Cuba having a large part to play in ensuring that fear persisted. The threat of a Communist fifth column infiltrating American society on all levels from social to political was now starting to feel very real. This fear was also heightened because, although not as influential as it was in the 1950’s, McCarthyism still had a strong grasp on many American citizens and many viewed Fidel Castro as a direct threat to America.

This study sets out to examine John Kennedy’s handling of the military, the decision making of Kennedy throughout the planning of the Bay of Pigs, as it was the nadir of his presidency. The first chapter focuses on investigating Kennedys options - whether to, and if so how, when and where go on with the invasion, by looking at whether pre-set expectations had too much of a part to play in John Kennedy’s decision making. Along with pre-set expectations, the chapter also argues that Kennedy himself had done himself no favours by proclaiming action should be taken to remove Castro throughout his own election campaign. The second chapter analyses the incoherent decision making process Kennedy went through in how best to utilise the military for the planned invasion of Cuba. It also builds an argument that Kennedy lacked the necessary leadership skills and experience to carry out an operation of this scale as his first major foray into foreign policy. The CIA also played a significant role; it could be argued that President Kennedy was actually influenced far too easily by the agency and the chapter investigates that argument. In the third chapter The Joint Chiefs of Staff role is examined and its contribution to the planning and input it offered to President Kennedy during the planning phase, and whether it is right for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to have been blamed for the subsequent disastrous failure of the operation. Kennedy was renowned for distrust and largely he distrusted his Joint Chiefs, the argument is made against Kennedy that his lack of trust, contributed to the failure of the invasion and it not being a case of the Joint Chiefs failing Kennedy. The fourth and final chapter looks at the consequences the Kennedy administration faced in the wake of the failed invasion. The struggle Kennedy faced to restore his own reputation along with administrations. The link between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis is examined, with the argument being made that the Bay of Pigs failure led to Kennedy maturation as a president resulting in him finding a solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is regarded as John Kennedys finest moment as President, as he is viewed to have saved the world from all out nuclear warfare. However it is often forgotten that after the failed invasion of Cuba, led to the Kennedy having to commit more soldiers to Vietnam as the struggle to prevent Communist expansion was continuously proving more difficult.

The material available on the Cold War is extensive; however the primary source material available on the Bay of Pigs is elusive. Throughout this study the primary source material will come from those involved in the Kennedy administration at the time of the Bay of Pigs. The primary sources that will be cited are Arthur M. Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, Maxwell D. Taylor’s Swords and Plowshares and Raymond L.Garthoff’s Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis. All three of the above authors served in Kennedy’s administration and in their books when examining Kennedy the word about him are laudable. However Peter Wyden’s book Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story is a primary source that is not exclusively biased towards Kennedy. Other primary source material comes from the John F. Kennedy online archives, and throughout this study memorandums that were sent to John Kennedy, that have been declassified are also used in this study.

Chapter 1

As every American president comes into office, they do so riding a wave of positive momentum from there election campaign, with visions of fulfilling their campaign promises. John F. Kennedy came into office in an era, it could be argued, was one of the most challenging in American and World politics. The ‘space race’ and the ‘arms race’ were intensifying and the fear of Communist infiltration had gripped the American public. This fear had been fuelled throughout the 1950s by Senator Joseph McCarthy and what became known as ‘McCarthyism’. During his election campaign Kennedy concentrated his attention on the “Missile gap” which, he alleged, left the United States far behind the Soviet Union in terms of missile production. The National Intelligence Estimate report came to conclude that the Soviet Union possessed ‘the technical and industrial capability… to have an operational capability with 100 ICBMs, in 1960 and perhaps 500 ICBMs some time in 1961, or at the latest in 1962.’ This information caused immediate alarm when it reached John Kennedy in 1958; conveniently this was the year of his re-election to the Senate. This report provided him with plenty of ammunition to attack the Republicans at a time of near social hysteria over what was feared to be wide spread communist infiltration of American Society. He seized on the ‘missile gap’ issue and played to the public. He first used the alleged ‘missile gap’ against the Republicans in a speech in 1958 in which he stated ‘Our Nation could have afforded, and can afford now, the steps necessary to close the missile gap. This infuriated Eisenhower as he knew that no such missile gap existed, however he could not publicly refute the claim, ‘fearing that public disclosure of this evidence would jeopardize the secret U-2 spy plane flights’ that the government knew were in operation. This gave Kennedy a head start in the 1960 presidential election; knowing he could use the alleged ‘missile gap’ to attack the Republicans as being weak on defence, thereby letting the Soviets get ahead in the arms race.

 The ‘missile gap’ is critical in relation to Kennedy’s decision making process and mind set during the first months of his presidency. It was revealed to Kennedys Staff by CIA Director Allen Dulles, shortly after Kennedy took office, that in fact no ‘missile gap’ existed, or ever had existed. Due to great public interest, ironically partly generated by Kennedys own campaign; it forced Kennedys new Secretary of State for Defence Robert McNamara to issue a statement from the Pentagon, confirming no such missile gap existed. Newly in office, this announcement undermined the credibility of Kennedys Administration, and raised questions about his authority. While trying to regain credibility, Kennedy was dealing with excess baggage left over from the Eisenhower administration foreign policy, especially regarding Cuba. The plans on how to over throw Castro were ever changing, but despite this it was planned for the Director of Central-Intelligence and the Deputy Director of Plans scheduled to brief President- elect John F. Kennedy in November of 1961.

Along with this, before taking office, Kennedy had been invited to a private meeting with Eisenhower in the Oval Office. During the course of this meeting, Eisenhower laid out what he felt should be Kennedys immediate priorities, firstly ‘the containment of Communist expansionism—specifically in Laos, which would give the Soviets a base from which to expand into Southeast Asia and into the western pacific; and, more importantly, into Cuba.’ Eisenhower’s second opinion; ‘it was the President’s responsibility to overthrow Fidel Castro by whatever means necessary.’ This expectation came as no surprise to Kennedy, and with the ‘missile gap’ now backfiring on him, he accelerated his plans to take action against Castro, in an attempt to regain his credibility with the voting public.  

Before Kennedy entered office originally Eisenhower hoped his last months in office would go by without having to impose new legislation or initiatives. Rather he hoped to ‘maintain as many options as possible so as not to tie the hands of the incoming president.’ Also making assurances to Kennedy personally that he had no intention of ‘turning over the government in the midst of a developing emergency.’  With reassurances being made to in the incoming president elect, it would be fair to assume Kennedy thought he would be given ample time to act on Cuba. However such luxury would not be available to Kennedy as the smooth hand-over of the Presidential Office Eisenhower had hoped for was put to an end by Castro on January 2nd 1961 when Fidel Castro accused ‘American Embassy staff members of being spies, and ordered eighty percent of them to leave the country within twenty four hours.’ Though only days away from handing over the Presidency to Kennedy, he felt the USA could not afford to be seen as weak towards Castro, so without consulting president elect Kennedy, Eisenhower severed diplomatic ties with Cuba. Along with severing ties he also declared ‘our successors should continue to improve and intensify the training and undertake planning when the Cubans are themselves properly organized.’

The sudden change in stance by Eisenhower left Kennedy entering the Oval office in the midst of a crisis concerning Cuba. Having cut ties with Cuba it effectively made the decision for Castro, if he had not already made it, to ally Cuba with the Soviets. The environment in which Kennedy was entering office had become more complicated, before the severing of diplomatic ties the choice was either trying to repair the relationship between Cuba and the United States or taking some other form of action. Kennedy now had little choice but to address the issue thus; his first press conference after his inauguration he stated the ‘United States had no plans to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba.’ In essence, acknowledging this for the first time to the public, Kennedy had already made his mind up that intervention in Cuba was inevitable. Furthermore in his state of the union message Kennedy made it clear that ‘Communist domination in this hemisphere can never be negotiated.’ This was yet another obvious indication that an American military intervention in Cuba was inevitable, with Cuba being only ninety miles off the coast of Florida, Kennedy also emphasised that the communists had ‘established a base on Cuba.’ Needless to say this did anything but calm the fears of the American public about possible communist infiltration; instead it furthered the support Kennedy would need to take action.

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Kennedy inherited a military that was weak as a result of neglect from Eisenhower, as he favoured massive retaliation. Eisenhower believed the threat of using nuclear strike capability as a first response was economically more convenient than a large conventional force that was not needed. Kennedy however wanted a more dynamic policy and ended up formulating his “flexible strategy.” This strategy as it suggests, was designed to give Kennedy various options in a situation that required the military, as he felt a ‘nuclear retaliatory power is not enough’ along with realising that  massive retaliation alone ‘cannot deter Communist aggression which is ...

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