How the worst blot on JFK's presidency happened

Was Allen Dulles' early dementia to blame for the Bay of Pigs?

November 23, 2013 6:00AM ET
Sen. John F. Kennedy, (left), and Allen W. Dulles, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, walks towards newsmen on the lawn of the Democratic presidential candidates in Hyannis Port, MA., home on July 23, 1960.

Before dawn on April 17, 1961, a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles landed in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's new regime. History has recorded the disaster that befell them. "How could I have been so stupid?" President John F. Kennedy shouted after the scope of the failure became clear.

Soon afterward, Kennedy fired his CIA director, Allen Dulles. "In a parliamentary system of government, it is I who would be leaving office," he told Dulles. "But under our system, it is you who must go."

Historians often call the Bay of Pigs failure the worst moment of Kennedy's presidency. Historian Michael Beschloss has called it Kennedy's "first enormous defeat" and said Kennedy felt he had "blotted his copy book forever." What has not been understood, however, is that this failure may have been in part the result of dementia that was beginning to affect Dulles.

Listening to baseball

Planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion began under President Dwight Eisenhower. As soon as Dulles was given the assignment, he did something he had never done before in his eight years as CIA director: He turned over a vital assignment to another officer and stopped paying attention to it.

The person Dulles chose, Richard Bissell, did almost all the talking every time the two of them went to the White House to brief Eisenhower on the plot. When Bissell briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dulles did not even attend.

Stories of Dulles' increasingly distracted behavior had already begun to circulate quietly at the CIA. One day in 1958, an analyst took him a batch of surveillance photos taken by a U-2 reconnaissance plane but found him unwilling to switch off the baseball game he was listening to. He paid little attention to the photos and remained absorbed in the game, muttering comments like, "He couldn't hit a bull in the ass with a banjo." With the same extreme inattention, he absented himself from planning for the Bay of Pigs.

In the weeks before the invasion, secrecy was broken by reporters from Time, The New York Times and other news outlets. The landing spot was changed to a beach, from which the invaders would have no chance to reach mountain hideouts. Kennedy, eager to limit U.S. involvement in the plot, made clear that he would allow only eight planes to provide air cover — not enough to knock out Castro's air force — and would under no circumstances order U.S. Air Force planes to support them.

These changes convinced the two men Bissell had chosen to direct the invasion — CIA officer Jacob Esterline and Col. Jack Hawkins of the Marine Corps — to conclude that it would fail. On Sunday morning, April 9, they went to Bissell's home, evidently distraught, and told him the plot was certain to end in "terrible disaster." He told them it was too far advanced to be called off and persuaded them to go back to work.

On the day of the operation, Dulles was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, joining Margaret Mead and Dr. Benjamin Spock as speakers at a convention of young businessmen.

Under other circumstances, these two men might have appealed to Dulles himself. They did not because they understood that Dulles did not know much about the plan, had delegated everything to Bissell and would have nothing to say.

On the day of the invasion, Dulles was not even in Washington. Instead he was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, joining Margaret Mead and Dr. Benjamin Spock as speakers at a convention of young businessmen. He returned late at night.

"Well, how is it going?" he asked the aide who met his plane in Baltimore. "Not very well, sir," the aide said. Dulles' only reply was, "Oh, is that so?"

The two men chatted on the ride to Dulles' home in Georgetown. After they arrived, Dulles invited his aide in for a drink. Over whiskey, he shifted the subject away from Cuba and began rambling aimlessly. The aide later described this conversation as "unreal."

Sobering lessons

After the invasion failed, Dulles fell into a period of shock. Then–Attorney General Robert Kennedy later wrote that he "looked like living death" and "was always putting his head in his hands." John Kennedy dismissed him a few months later.

The declassified transcript of a closed hearing that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held two weeks after the invasion shows that some of Kennedy's advisers attributed the fiasco to Dulles' dreamy absentmindedness. "He showed up at meetings and sat there smoking his pipe," said Admiral Arleigh Burke, chief of naval operations. "I blame him for not being there."

Years later, in an oral history now available at the Dulles family archives at Princeton University, another witness to the disaster, William Bundy, made a similar judgment.

"I had the feeling that by then, he was slowing down a bit," said Bundy, who at that time worked under Paul Nitze, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security Affairs. "He hadn't been quite the man I had known. All through, he hadn't been as much on top of the operation as I expected."

Several years after his forced retirement, Dulles wrote rambling notes for an essay defending his performance, but his sister, Eleanor Dulles, persuaded him not to publish it because "he had already begun to lose his command over his memory and ideas." In retirement, he began losing his way on the streets of Georgetown.

"Perhaps it was what we call Alzheimer's disease today," a cousin, Eleanor Elliot, who cared for him later suggested. She recognized what no one at the White House or CIA had seen — or dared to mention — in the weeks leading up to the Bay of Pigs invasion.

When Allen Dulles died in 1969, obituaries focused on his responsibility for what one called "the greatest U.S. intelligence blunder." His appalling performance may be explained at least in part by the onset of dementia. It taught Kennedy what he called "sobering lessons," but it remains the low point of his presidency.

Stephen Kinzer is a former New York Times foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. He is the author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq” and “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War.” He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where he teaches international relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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