I have been arguing against the ideas of wunderkind economist Jeffrey Sachs since his ruthless shock therapy advice in Latin America a quarter-century ago. Now he has written some JFK hagiography which contains both errors of fact and interpretation. We read:
Worse still, tensions intensified in the months between JFK’s election victory in November 1960 and his assumption of office on 20 January 1961. A long-awaited Khrushchev-Eisenhower summit failed when a CIA spy-plane was shot down in Soviet airspace just weeks before the scheduled meeting. This was par for the course: no agency did more damage more consistently to the cause of peace than the malign and bungling CIA. But Eisenhower compounded the CIA’s damage by brazenly denying the spy mission, only to have the Soviets produce both the plane’s wreckage and the captured US pilot for a global audience.
Kennedy came into office in 1961 hoping to reach a series of arms-control treaties with the Soviet Union, specifically a ban on nuclear arms testing to be followed by a nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Yet as an initially inexperienced leader, JFK drifted with events instead of leading them. The CIA reprised its spy plane bungling in a far larger and more dangerous debacle, by staging an invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles. When the attempt immediately collapsed on the beach of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy repeated Eisenhower’s blunder by brazenly (and ridiculously) lying to Khrushchev about the US role in the attempted invasion.”
Although planning for the Bay of Pigs operation began before Kennedy became President, he had had plently of time to cancel it. Moreover, the White House – and he, JFK!, himself personally – interfered in its planning right up to the actual event. Indeed, the specific site in Cuba of the invasion was changed – at JFK’s order, and despite CIA’s great reluctance – just 4 days before the scheduled date. Afterwards, JFK knew that he was the one ultimately responsible for its failure – responsible not merely in a hierarchical or legal sense, but actually, morally and operationally, responsible, and to his credit he took public responsibility for the operation. He did still later sack the leadership of CIA, though, since somebody needed to be punished for his failure. But his hagiographers and those who wish to attack CIA continue to put all the blame on “CIA bungling”, while the anti-Kennedy right usually blame the failure of the operation on Kennedy’s repeated refusal to provide USAF air cover for the invaders as they fought on the beach.
The chief problem of the Bay of Pigs, as I have remarked before (here and here), was not poor planning or ineffective operations or betrayal by JFK, but was existential: the operation’s aim was to convince the Castro regime that Cuba was being invaded by the full overhwelming might of the USA military and to thus scare them into running away, without actual US forces invading anything. To have used actual US military forces (including USAF airplanes) would have risked the operation escalating into a major conflagration with the USSR, Cuba’s supporters. A similar bluffing game had worked for CIA in Guatamela in 1954, but Fidel Castro was made of sterner stuff than Jacobo Arbenz, and he called the US’s bluff. To say the failure was merely due to “bungling” by CIA betrays both a lack of knowledge of the facts of the operation, and a lack of understanding of its Cold War context, when small events in far-away places often had global ramifications.
And the shooting-down of the U2 spy plane? Another bungle? “no agency did more damage more consistently to the cause of peace than the malign and bungling CIA”? I’ve not done a survey of the activities US Government agencies in the Cold War period, so I could not possibly argue that there were not other US government agencies with worse records of damage to peace than that of CIA. However, I’m sure Sachs hasn’t done a survey either, so I will take this statement as exaggerated for rhetorical effect. But even excluding the comparison, did CIA’s activies consistently damage the cause of peace? In a war, it is vital for each side to understand the enemy’s plans and intentions. This is even more so in a cold war, when much offensive and defensive activity may be undertaken indirectly or through proxies or be part of some long-term game of influence. For the West, spy agencies such as CIA played the major part in understanding the enemy’s motivating beliefs and their plans and intentions. (The same role was played by KGB and its sister agencies for the Eastern bloc.) The U2 plane shot down was part of a long-term, high-altitude espionage program that provided the West with valuable information about Soviet activities not otherwise obtainable. U2 spy planes run by CIA, for instance, first told the US Government in September and October 1962 that there were Soviet long-range missiles being installed in Cuba.
Again, to ignore or overlook this function betrays a lack of understanding of the nature of the Cold War context, when knowledge about the enemy and their actual, true, beliefs and intentions was hard to come by – for both sides. Arguably, no agencies did more to advance the cause of peace, and to prevent the Cold War escalating into a hot one, than CIA and KGB.