By Howard Jones
As we recall the “crime of the century” in Dallas a half century ago, it seems appropriate to ponder some thoughts perhaps relevant to that terrible event. I make no claims to having inside information on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but I am aware of several theories that range from the lone gunman to any number of conspiracies involving any number of conspirators.
The starting place is the Bay of Pigs debacle of 17-19 April 1961. From this event sprang the suspicion that Kennedy’s assassination was the work of either the CIA, the Mafia, or Fidel Castro — or any combination of the three.
This story seems star-crossed in that it originated in the closing days of the oldest person to hold the presidency to that point — Dwight D. Eisenhower; and it ended in the closing days of the youngest person ever elected to that office — John F. Kennedy.
President Eisenhower approved a CIA-engineered attempt to overthrow Castro that started as an infiltration (within the CIA’s expertise) but soon evolved into an amphibious landing (outside the CIA’s expertise). Spearheading the operation were 1500 Cuban exiles in the 2506 Brigade, accompanied by two Americans contracted by the CIA who were not officially there.
Richard Bissell, the CIA’s Deputy Director of Operations, was the architect of the plan. Widely regarded as the “most brilliant man in Washington,” he held a Yale PhD in economics, had wide experience with the Marshall Plan in Europe, and had deeply impressed CIA Director Allen Dulles by making the U-2 reconnaissance plane a reality. According to those in the know, Dulles’s heir apparent was Bissell — which made the Cuba project an important addition to his resumé.
To plan the operation, Bissell relied on two military veterans — Jacob Esterline as project chief and guerrilla expert, and Jack Hawkins, a specialist in paramilitary training.
They selected the town of Trinidad for the invasion. Located on the southern side of Cuba, it had a population of 18,000, many of them anti-Castro and perhaps the seedbed for a popular insurrection. Trinidad also had excellent docks and beaches to facilitate the landing, and nearby were the Escambray Mountains that headquartered a thousand anti-Castro guerrillas who could provide refuge for the exiles and a home for a provisional government seeking American military assistance.
Esterline and Hawkins considered air cover crucial to the amphibious operation.
But Bissell had more in mind: the assassination of Castro — with the help of the Mafia. He had decided in August 1960 (with White House concurrence) that the Cuban chieftain’s death on the eve of the invasion would incite an island-wide uprising.
Why the Mafia? Its luminaries had long controlled Cuba’s thriving nightlife — the casinos, brothels, and drug business — but had lost everything when Castro seized power in July 1959 and booted the crime lords off the island. Their interest in regaining these holdings provided the CIA with plausible deniability — and they were familiar with the island’s network and could find an assassin.
To contact the Mafia, Bissell turned to legendary “cutout” for the CIA, Robert Maheu.
Former FBI agent and now private investigator, Maheu had compiled an impressive portfolio of contract jobs for the CIA, but his real attraction was his social connection with “Uncle Johnny” Roselli, a sort of roving ambassador for the Mafia. Roselli was a close protégé of Sam Giancana, the psychopathic godfather of Chicago. Both Mafia figures had honed their craft under the tutelage of Al Capone.
To complete this nefarious triad, the two Mafiosos added the godfather of the South in Tampa, Santos Trafficante.
Not long afterward, Giancana and Roselli met with Maheu in the swank Fontainebleu Hotel in Miami Beach, where the two underworld figures dismissed the CIA’s idea of killing Castro gangland style and recommended a slow acting poison. They soon found a potential assassin, Castro’s disgruntled private secretary.
After Kennedy’s election victory in November 1960, he learned of the plan to overthrow Castro (and perhaps the assassination effort as well) at the pre-presidential briefing in West Palm Beach. Also at this gathering was the president-elect’s wife Jacqueline, who distributed copies of Ian Fleming’s recent novel, From Russia with Love, to her husband, his brother Robert, and Allen Dulles. Its central character was James Bond — the British spy licensed to kill.
Two days after JFK’s inauguration, Bissell received two phone calls from the White House, instructing him to establish within the CIA an executive action capability — a euphemism for the assassination of foreign state leaders. The calls had come from Bissell’s longtime acquaintance, McGeorge Bundy, head of national security affairs and liaison with the CIA, who could have acted only at the president’s direction.
At the top of the CIA’s hit list was Fidel Castro.
President Kennedy’s primary concern about the Cuba plan was to preserve plausible deniability. Toward that end, he ordered two changes: an alternative location for the invasion that was less populated and would not take on the appearance of Normandy; and the cancellation of air cover.
In four days, Bissell recommended the Bay of Pigs, located alongside the Zapata Peninsula. The Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed no opposition to these changes. The result was a fiasco that shook the Kennedy White House to its foundations.
And, of course, everybody blamed everybody else.
JFK blamed the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was fair, and the CIA and Joint Chiefs blamed the president, which was not fair.
In advocating the Zapata plan, Bissell failed to inform the president of its shortcomings. The “Great Swamp of the Caribbean,” as the area was known, housed nearly every deadly creature conceivable — including both alligators and crocodiles, as well as the ferocious pigs encountered by Christopher Columbus some years earlier. Furthermore, the Zapata Peninsula lay more than eighty miles of treacherous terrain from the Escambrays, which eliminated those mountains as a refuge and governmental base.
The Joint Chiefs also failed the president by not warning him of the plan’s flaws. They remained miffed over the CIA’s heavy-handed insistence on controlling an operation beyond its competence, and sulked in silence.
JFK paid the price.
His decision to approve the Bay of Pigs operation had severe repercussions. Both the Mafia and the Cuban exiles deeply resented his refusal to take military action. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev exploited Kennedy’s humiliating position by making brusque demands that heightened the Cold War. The president had to take a stand against communism somewhere, and chose Vietnam. He and his brother Robert remained determined to eliminate Castro, either by invasion or assassination. The administration imposed an economic embargo on Cuba that still stands today. And Khrushchev authorized the construction of missile sites in Cuba for the purpose, he said, of protecting his new ally. Only at the eleventh hour did the two superpowers avert a potential nuclear war.
Castro meanwhile seethed over the Kennedy administration’s efforts to assassinate him. At a party in the Brazilian Embassy in Havana in September 1963, he angrily told an AP journalist: “Let Kennedy and his brother Robert take care of themselves since they too can be the victims of an attempt which will cause their death.”
In a devil’s coincidence, a CIA agent was meeting with a potential Cuban assassin in Paris on November 22, 1963, when the streets rang out with the news from Dallas.
The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, offered his take on the “crime of the century”: “Kennedy tried to kill Castro, but Castro got Kennedy first.”
Ironically, the sole survivor of these turbulent events is Fidel Castro.
Howard Jones is University Research Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Alabama, and author of The Bay of Pigs and Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War, both published by Oxford University Press. He can be found online through Facebook and LinkedIn.