W. Joseph Campbell

No one-off story: Reporting the run-up to Bay of Pigs

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on April 7, 2011 at 7:46 am

The tenacious New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth centers around a single story that the Times supposedly bungled or censored in its issue 50 years ago today.

But reporting about the pending assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuba went beyond a single story. The Times and other U.S. news outlets reported frequently —  if not always accurately — about the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was launched April 17, 1961, and was rolled up within three days.

The suppression myth has it that at President John F. Kennedy’s behest, the Times spiked or emasculated a story telling of preparations by U.S.-trained Cuban exiles to attack Cuba.

The suppression tale is untrue, however. The Times of April 7, 1961, was no artifact of censorship: It reported what it knew about the unfolding invasion preparations.

Szulc, undated photo (Courtesy Anthony Szulc)

Best testimony to that comes from reading what was published: Doing so reveals that the news report at heart of the myth appeared beneath the byline of a veteran correspondent named Tad Szulc; the article was displayed above the newspaper’s front-page fold.

The Times, didn’t thereafter drop the invasion-preparations story, either. Szulc’s report of 50 years ago was no one-off effort.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year:

“The suppression myth fails to recognize or acknowledge that the Times coverage was not confined to Szulc’s article ten days before the invasion. It ignores that several follow-up stories and commentaries appeared in the Times during the run-up to the invasion.”

Reporting by Szulc and others for the Times after April 7, 1961, “kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro,” I write.

For example, on April 8, 1961, the Times published a front-page article about the Cuban exiles and their eagerness to toppled Castro.

That report, which appeared beneath the headline, “Castro Foe Says Uprising Is Near,” quoted the president of the U.S.-based umbrella group of exiles, the Cuban Revolutionary Council, as saying that a revolt against the Castro regime was “imminent.”

The following day, the Times published two articles about Cuba on its front page. One of them was the lead story, which appeared beneath the headline, “Castro Foes Call Cubans To Arms; Predict Uprising,” and discussed the vow of the exiled Cuban Revolutionary Council to topple Castro.

“Duty calls us to the war against the executioners of our Cuban brethren,” the Revolutionary Council declared. “Cubans! To victory! For democracy! For the Constitution! For social justice! For liberty!”

The Times front page of April 9, 1961, also carried a report by Szulc, who described how the exile leaders were attempting to cover over rivalries and divisions in advance of what Szulc termed the coming “thrust against Premier Fidel Castro.”

The “first assumption” of the leaders’ plans, Szulc wrote, “is that an invasion by a ‘liberation army,’ now in the final stages of training in Central America and Louisiana, will succeed with the aid of internal uprising in Cuba. It is also assumed that a provisional ‘government in arms’ will be established promptly on the island.”

With those sentences, Szulc effectively summarized the strategic objectives of what became the Bay of Pigs invasion.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, none of the Times’ pre-invasion reports included a prospective date for the invasion. But they unmistakably signaled that something was afoot, that an attempt to oust Castro by arms was forthcoming.

Moreover, on April 11, 1961, James Reston, the Washington bureau chief, reported on the Times’ front page that Kennedy administration officials were divided “about how far to go in helping the Cuban refugees to overthrow the Castro Government.”

Reston described in detail how the president had been receiving conflicting counsel from advisers at the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the State and Defense departments. Reston also identified the time pressures confronting the president, writing:

“It is feared that unless something is done fairly soon nothing short of direct military intervention by United States forces will be enough to shake the Castro Government’s hold over the Cuban people.”

Reston, I note in Getting It Wrong, “followed that report the next day with a commentary that addressed the moral dimensions of an armed attempt to topple Castro. His column noted that ‘while the papers have been full of reports of U.S. aid to overthrow Castro, the moral and legal aspects of the question have scarcely been mentioned.'”

Nor was the Times alone in reporting about invasion preparations. Its competition on the pre-invasion story included the Miami Herald, the New York Herald Tribune, and Time magazine.

According to a critique published in May 1961 in The Reporter, a journalists’ trade publication, the pre-invasion story “was covered heavily if not always well.” The Reporter added:

“Remarkably detailed reports were published and broadcast describing the stepped-up preparations” for the assault on Cuba.

Indeed, reporting and commentary about invasion plans reached such  intensity that according to Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, the president complained a week before the invasion, saying:

“I can’t believe what I’m reading! Castro doesn’t need agents over here. All he has to do is read our papers. It’s all laid out for him.”

The CIA’s planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion was cloaked in secrecy of the skimpiest kind. In the days and weeks before the assault, the Cuban exile community in Miami teemed with talk about an invasion.

“It was,” Szulc recalled about two months later, in testimony before a closed session of a Senate Foreign Relation subcommittee,  “the most open operation which you can imagine.”


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