W. Joseph Campbell

Fast and loose: ‘Kennedys’ miniseries and Bay of Pigs history

In Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on April 10, 2011 at 7:35 am

I suspected it would be dreadful, but I was still curious about how the Bay of Pigs invasion of 50 years ago would be treated. So I tuned in yesterday afternoon to part of a marathon showing of the Reelz television miniseries, The Kennedys.

I watched the Bay of Pigs installment, a turgidly acted episode that played fast and loose with the historical record.

Blessedly, the episode did not take up the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth, as I thought it might.

That topic no doubt was too intricate for set-piece drama that depicts President John F. Kennedy as mirthless and insecure; his wife as clueless, and his father as domineering and routinely intrusive.

Only the president’s brother, Robert (played by Barry Pepper), put in a strong performance in the Bay of Pigs episode, dressing down an insolent Air Force general and lording it over J. Edgar Hoover.

But surely no one turned to The Kennedys miniseries for historical insight; it’s no documentary and its inaccuracies came as little surprise. Still, they were striking — and deserve to be called out.

The president was depicted as upset that Fidel Castro’s military was not caught unawares when U.S.-trained Cuban exiles came ashore at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961.

In reality, preparations for the invasion were much an open secret, especially in Miami, where the Cuban exile community had buzzed for weeks about a pending assault on Castro’s regime. And Kennedy knew that very well.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, pre-invasion news coverage reached a point where Kennedy, a week before the assault, told his press secretary, Pierre Salinger:

“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.”

Salinger, himself, noted: “To declare in mid-April of 1961 that  I knew nothing of the impending military action against Cuba except what I read in the newspapers or heard on the air was to claim an enormous amount of knowledge.”

Tad Szulc, a veteran New York Times reporter who covered the invasion and its run-up, recalled in June 1961 that it had been “the most open operation which you can imagine.”

A surprise the invasion was not.

The Reelz episode also claimed a full moon helped Castro’s forces thwart the ill-fated landings at the Bay of Pigs.

That’s a nice bit of detail.

But it’s pure invention.

There was no full moon the day of the invasion. The lunar phase on April 17, 1961, was waxing crescent. The next full moon was on April 30, 1961.

The Reelz episode also depicted Kennedy as a stand-up guy, bravely taking blame at a news conference for an assault that had failed.

Kennedy in fact did no such thing.

Took no questions on Cuba

He declined to take questions about Cuba at his news conference that followed invasion. He told newsmen:

“I know that many of you have further questions about Cuba. I made a statement on that subject yesterday afternoon. … I do not think that any useful national purpose would be served by my going further into the Cuban question this morning. I prefer to let my statement of yesterday suffice for the present.”

That news conference was on April 21, 1961, four days after the invasion was launched and two days after the assault had been rolled up by Castro’s forces.

Kennedy did talk at length about Cuba the day before, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

But he was hardly penitent or conciliatory. The transcript of his speech makes clear that Kennedy that day was in full Cold Warrior mode.

He didn’t apologize for the failed the invasion. He said the United States did “not intend to be lectured on ‘intervention’ by those whose character was stamped for all time on the bloody streets of Budapest” — a reference to the Soviet-backed crackdown in Hungary in 1956.

Kennedy said the Bay of Pigs invasion was “not the first time that Communist tanks have rolled over gallant men and women fighting to redeem the independence of their homeland. Nor is it by any means the final episode in the eternal struggle against tyranny anywhere on the face of the globe, including Cuba itself.”

The president was emphatic about the communist threat in the Western Hemisphere, asserting: “We and our Latin friends will have to face the fact that we cannot postpone any longer the real issue of survival of freedom in this hemisphere itself.”

So Kennedy was scarcely apologetic in the invasion’s aftermath. He wasn’t the wounded, wimpish, repentant character depicted in the mind-numbing miniseries.


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