RICHARD M. BISSELL   (Bissell Bridge)






Richard Bissell, Oral History Interview – JFK#1, 4/25/1967


Administrative Information


Creator: Richard Bissell

Interviewer: Joseph E. O’Connor

Date of Interview: April 25, 1967

Location: East Hartford, C.T.

Length: 31 pages


Biographical Note


Bissell, Deputy Director of Plans for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1959 to 1962,

discusses the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion, including the timing of when John F.

Kennedy learned of the plans, the Joint Chiefs of Staffs’ involvement in the planning, and

the possibility for alternate outcomes, among other issues.






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Transcript of Oral History Interview


These electronic documents were created from transcripts available in the research room

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Suggested Citation

Richard Bissell, recorded interview by Joseph E. O’Connor, April 25, 1967, (page

number), John F. Kennedy Library Oral History Program.




Richard Bissell—JFK #1

Table of Contents

Page Topic

1 Contacts with John F. Kennedy (JFK) during 1960

3, 24 Planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion

10 Role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in planning the Bay of Pigs

20 War in Laos

22 JFK’s changes to intelligence communication structures

26 Support for and objections to the Bay of Pigs plan by specific people

28 Possibility of setting up a network of guerillas within Cuba




First of Two Oral History Interviews


Richard Bissell

East Hartford, Connecticut



April 25, 1967

By Joseph E. O'Connor

For the John F. Kennedy Library



O’CONNOR: Mr. Bissell, I wanted to begin this by asking you if you had any

contacts with John Kennedy [John F. Kennedy] before he became


BISSELL: Yes, I had rather occasional and fleeting comments. I think the first

time I actually met him, under circumstances where I sat down and

talked to him, was when I went up to see him in his office in the


Capitol. This was at a fairly early stage in his campaign, and it was for the purpose of—he

invited me to contribute, in writing, any ideas that I might have that could be fed into the

campaign that would be valuable to him in the campaign. I was eager to do so, but the press

of business kept me fairly busy, and I think as it turned out, I never did make such

contributions. I may have seen him once or twice more during the campaign, but really very

little until after the election.



Did he have any things particularly in mind when he asked you for








I had the impression that he didn't have, at that point, anything much in

mind having to do with the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], where I

was, of course, then working and had been for about six years. I'm


inclined to think he was more interested in economic policy, but we didn't really bring it to

the point or sharply defining a field. I think there's one more reason that may have influenced

him to make the suggestion, which is that I was one individual known to him and known

quite well to a number of his close associates as being a Democrat, a professed Democrat,

and also being interested in his candidacy. I was one such person who was active in the

executive branch of the government and at a fairly senior civil service level. I don't mean for

one moment that there was any intimation that he wanted to use me to find out what was

going on in the inner councils of the administration; that was not the thrust at all. It is simply

that I was an individual who had had, and was still having, current experience inside the

executive branch. I think he was well aware that many problems of government inevitably

looked differently from inside than from outside, even where that difference doesn't have

anything to do with privileged information or classified information.



Okay, then I would presume your next contact with him would have

come, well, perhaps just during the campaign. Were you involved at

all in the briefing that he received?



I really wasn't very much involved in that, and I was a little reticent to

be. I don't remember any specific suggestion to that effect being made,

but I would have been a bit reticent simply because of my position in


the government.





But I thought specifically of the briefing that he received regarding—

well, various matters, undoubtedly—but regarding the Bay of Pigs.

There was, as you're well aware, a controversy over whether or not


he had known anything about the invasion, about the plans for infiltration or invasion of

Cuba before the election was actually held.



My impression is that he didn't know anything about those plans

before the election. The next time that I remember seeing him at any

length was an occasion that has been widely reported when Allen


Dulles [Allen W. Dulles] and I went down just after Thanksgiving, after the election, and

gave him a pretty extensive briefing on the Bay of Pigs and on many other things as well. I

think he probably had intelligence briefings during the campaign; that is to say, briefings in

which he was appraised of the latest intelligence on the state of the world. But I took no

part in those, that wouldn't have been a part of my job in the CIA, anyway, and I would be

fairly surprised if those had covered the Bay of Pigs at all.



Well, when the briefing with you and Allen Dulles took place at

Thanksgiving time, had the decision been made at that time to advance




the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban operation from infiltration, perhaps, to a

modified invasion? Had this decision taken place yet?



I would say that the decision had taken place because the plan as we

outlined it to him did contemplate some form of landing of a

significant force to act as a catalyst in inducing, ultimately, a


revolutionary situation in Cuba. It's difficult to answer the question, however, because that

decision as to the character of the operation was rather gradually modified during the late

autumn, and it's very difficult even for someone who was close to those developments, to put

a finger on the exact moment when a clear decision was made or the circumstances or, really,

the people who made it. It was a




decision rather forced by circumstances.



Well, much has been made of the pressure on the President-elect and

President from the fact that a body of men was training for this

operation. Was this pressure much, was this pressure very great


before the Inauguration? Are you aware of this…



I don't believe it was because I don't think that before the

Inauguration he tried to concern himself in any detail with this

activity. My impression was that this was a period when his efforts


were overwhelmingly directed to the selection and choice of people for various positions

and in which he really didn't have very much time to spend on the Bay of Pigs.



Well, when does this become a major factor? Or did it ever, the

pressure of…



Oh, it did become so. Yes, it did become so later; I think the pressure

began to be felt, as such, perhaps as much as a month after the

Inauguration. I say that as much time as that elapsed simply because


my recollection is that it was possible and logical to allow the preparatory phase to go

forward for at least that period of time before the ultimate decisions began to seem

imminent and had to be faced very seriously. Of course, the pressure in the first month of a

new administration of the decisions that have to be made is so intense— I think in some

ways more so than in any subsequent period except the most extreme crises—that anything

that doesn't absolutely demand attention is bound to be here pushed off.





Much has been made of this pressure, and the defenders of John


F. Kennedy have said, in effect, that he was presented almost with a



fait accompli, that it was very, very difficult to reverse this measure

once it had begun rolling. Now, do you agree with that or not? How strong do you feel the

pressure was, or what chance—what opportunity do you feel the President had to reverse the

decision? I know he legally always had the chance up until the move was actually taken.



Yes. Well, I think I would agree that the pressure—which I'll for


the moment call the pressure of circumstances, but also a


pressure applied through people, including myself—was very

strong. By the time this began to be a serious issue requiring major decisions, there

was a significant military force; it was in training under circumstances that could not

be maintained for very long. There were a variety of circumstances: the impending

arrival of the rainy season, the inadequacy of the facilities of the training camp in

Guatemala, the increasingly precarious political position of this venture vis-à-vis

Ydigoras [Ydigoras Fuentes Miguel], the President of Guatemala, the impossibility of

maintaining the Cubans as a force and maintaining their morale and discipline if they

weren't committed to action fairly soon.


There were many circumstances, of which I have perhaps enumerated the

principal ones, which made some action to change radically the location, status,

and role of that military force absolutely essential and urgent. So the alternative

was not, as I'm sure has been said many times, that of continuing to train and

prepare a military force or else to commit it to action. The alternative to

committing it to action would have been to move it back to the U.S. or to break it

up and disperse it, or both. This would have been a very difficult and messy

operation. It not only would have been difficult and messy at the level of the

Cubans themselves and the Cuban force, but as we all know it had domestic

political overtones that were pretty serious. Because of what would have had to

have been done, the action would have been widely publicized, and there would

have been a great many Cubans expressing their




view that here they were ready to recapture their homeland by their own efforts and the


U.S. government was actively preventing it.

The President, therefore, within a couple of months of corning into office, would have

been open to the accusation that he was dismantling the government's major effort to unseat

Castro [Fidel Castro]. Castro was extremely unpopular then. The whole issue of relations

with him was much more exacerbated at that point than it is now. I think, therefore, that the

pressures—ultimately built up by the circumstances in being, but expressed as potential

political pressures and a very real concern about the wisdom of breaking up the only

effective anti-Castro force—I think these pressures became very powerful indeed.



Because of these pressures, this force of circumstance, to an outsider

there seems to be a sort of inevitability about the Bay of Pigs




 operation. I don't know whether you'd agree with that or not, but I

would like to ask you if or when consideration was given to alternatives. What would be

done with the men training if it was decided to call off the operation?



Well, consideration was given to that off and on all through those

early months—really, from the beginning in February until the

operation was actually mounted—because we had to face this


possibility a number of times. The plan, as I remember it, that was ultimately adopted as a

fallback plan, was that they would be embarked on the vessels that had been chartered for

the invasion, but those vessels would have been taken into convoy by American Naval

vessels and brought to a U.S. port or to Guantanamo or to the Marine station on Vieques

or some place of this kind. As far as it went, that was feasible. I don't think anyone had

tried to think through all the details of then disarming and demobilizing these people and

actually returning them to the U.S., although that part would not have been too difficult.





Frankly, I thought that would be the most difficult part. I think that's

what everyone was worried about, the problem of disarming the force

and returning it to…



What I really mean is that if they'd been under U.S. Naval escort,

they would really have had no choice. If they'd been taken first to

some port other than in the continental U.S., let us say some military


base in the Caribbean, and they had there been disembarked and disarmed, perhaps that's

when the political and similar difficulties would have stared, but the military problem, I

think, would have been under control by that time.



Okay. There is a controversy over what the role of the Joint Chiefs of

Staff was, or the military in the United States.



Could I go back and add a little to your preceding question because

one is bound to speculate about might-have-beens of all kinds. As I

look back, I think one of our failures, collectively, in the course of


the decision-making process, one of the respects in which that process was, with hindsight,

unsatisfactory, is that some other alternatives were not considered, perhaps because some

of the basic underlying assumptions of the operation were not brought out and reviewed.


Let me expand on this point and make a little clearer what I'm driving at. A

decision that was at no point questioned during the period we're talking about, the early

months of the new Administration, was that if this operation were to be carried forward at

all, it would be so as, ostensibly, an activity of the Cubans; one which was certain to be

suspected of receiving some support from the U.S. government, but nevertheless,

basically undertaken and carried forward on Cuban initiative with the possibility of a

plausible disclaimer of support by the U.S. government. This was the concept of this as an




operation, and of course this is the reason that the CIA rather than the Pentagon was in

charge of it.




I think one simple failure of observation on the part of really all of us who were

involved, including the President and Rusk [Dean Rusk] and very definitely all of us in the

CIA was that, despite reading the daily papers and listening to the radio, we didn't really

grasp the extent to which it was believed by everyone else that whatever operation was in

preparation was very much on the initiative of the U.S. government and under the direction

of the U.S. government rather than on Cuban initiative and under effective Cuban control.

In the public discussion it was more and more taken for granted that this was, in effect, an

activity of the U.S. government, which, to be sure, was using Cubans, but really only using



Therefore, I believe that, just as a matter of fact, the concept of this as an

operation, responsibility for which could be plausibly disclaimed by the U.S.

government, had lost its validity many weeks before the invasion itself took place. It

was this fact, as I now believe it to have been, that really, it seems to me, was never

faced by those of us in the CIA who were advocating the operation and deeply

committed to it emotionally, or by someone like Rusk, who was on the whole opposed

to it, or by the President or others in the circle of advisors. The one thing that seemed

to be taken sort of for granted throughout was that if anything was going to be done, it

would be done within this original concept.


My feeling is that if the breakdown of that concept had been faced, some other

possible courses of action would have been considered. One was to decide that the

Administration would go forward with the operation but would do so in ways that took full

advantage of the fact that it was going to be attributed to the U.S. government no matter

what denials and what official positions were taken. And there are quite a few things that

could have been done to enhance the chances of success of this operation if it was once

admitted that U.S. government responsibility was going to be established in the public

mind beyond any possibility of doubt. For instance, using U.S. volunteers as pilots would

have made a significant difference. If this decision had been made some weeks in advance,

the whole scale of the




operation could have been different. Probably more sophisticated weaponry could have been

used. Even without committing any U.S. citizens or any but a handful of volunteers to action

on the ground, it still would have been possible to make it a more militarily effective



Alternatively, if the complete breakdown of that concept had been faced, I am

inclined to think Dean Rusk would have argued even harder than he did, and he might

very well have won the day in favor of complete cancellation of the operation. But, as I

look back on it, almost everybody continued, really without much debating of this point,

to believe that the fig leaf was still in place. And that belief, the deep reluctance of Rusk




to drop the fig leaf if the operation was going to be done at all, the President's own

reluctance to drop the fig leaf, these, I think, in the final weeks did contribute to the

ultimate failure of the operation.


O'CONNOR: Well, do you think sufficient attention also was paid to the domestic


 political consequences early enough in the operation, early enough in


 the planning?


BISSELL: You mean the U.S. domestic political consequences? I think


probably not, because certainly the people who were concerned,


like myself, with the conduct of the operation simply weren't

spending any time on the domestic political complications. We were very concerned with

the political platform, as it were, of the Council [Cuban Revolutionary Council], which

was the political arm of the invasion. A lot of nonsense has been written about the degree

to which this was a conservative group and the degree to which the U.S. government's influence

was in the direction of conservative doctrines. This is just plain false; it was quite

the other way. But I don't think much attention was paid to the political implications or

possible repercussions in the U.S.




O'CONNOR: Okay. I started to ask you a little bit ago about the role that the Joint


Chiefs of Staff played in this. There's been much question about this,


 much has been written about this. Can you tell me at what point the

Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Pentagon became involved? In other words, was it ever strictly

a CIA operation?


BISSELL: Let me answer in these phases: for the first eight months or so of the


whole activity, which took it up almost to the change of


administration, the military had been involved as they are or have

been in a number of CIA operations. There were military personnel assigned to the CIA to

work as part of the CIA staff. This was the source of the men who did most of the military

training, of course. The principal military officer in charge of the planning and finally the

military conduct of the operation was a very fine Marine colonel, an outstanding officer.

Then we had made some use of various military facilities: we got our B-26's, as I

remember it, by release from the National Guard; we got some National Guard pilots or air

crews to volunteer primarily for training purposes; we used the ex-military base at Miami

as a logistics base; we undoubtedly—and I don't know the details of this—used other

military installations on occasion for loading ships and doing things of this sort. All of this

involvement, however, was at a relatively low level, and it comes under the heading of

support by the Department of Defense to CIA activities.


I would say that the most decisive change in the role of the Joint Chiefs came

early in the Administration. I can't remember just how soon, but I do know that the very

first time this was discussed in a policy meeting in the White House, the President said,




“Have the Joint Chiefs done a careful evaluation of this operation?” The answer was

negative. And he said, “I want that done as the very next step.”




One reason that the subject was then fairly quiescent at the policy level in

Washington, at least through February, was that the Joint Chiefs formed a committee, a

senior officer from each of the three services chaired by an Army brigadier general, to carry

out an evaluation. This committee, first of all, came and reviewed the provisional operational

plans. They then went down to Central America and elsewhere, wherever we had operational

activities, and looked them over. My recollection is they got back to Washington and finished

their appraisal in the latter part of February, then made a report in the first instance to the

Joint Chiefs. The Joint Chiefs accepted their conclusions. Their report was then, in effect,

presented either by General Gray [David W. Gray], who was the chairman of that group, or

else by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the President in one of those policy meetings.


From that point on, the involvement of the Joint Chiefs was very much more intimate

because that review committee remained in existence to review variations in and new

versions of the military plan, also to keep an eye on the implementation of these plans. That

committee of three military officers worked very very closely with us, and they spent, I think,

as much time in the office where this project was quartered in Washington as they did over in

the Pentagon. Theoretically, they were a committee to oversee and report to the Joint Chiefs.

They had no authority, and in the CIA no one had any authority over them. In practice,

however, they worked very closely with the senior military commander, the Marine colonel I

spoke of, who was on assignment to the CIA and in the line of command reported to me.


O'CONNOR: Well, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff first became involved, or this


committee selected by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was it understood by


them that they could reject this operation, or was it simply the feeling

that they were to implement…


BISSELL: No, very definitely, in that first month, the question was whether the


operation should go forward. What they were invited to do at that


point had nothing to do with implementation. They were acting, at

that point, very clearly and explicitly in their




role as the President's advisors and not in the role of an implementing or directing body.


O'CONNOR: It seems to me from what little I know about the operation, that


the plan tended to have a series of weak points, or at least from an


overall military standpoint it was a rather fragile plan. It depended

on the perfect execution of various things. Did you ever feel that the Joint Chiefs of

Staff or that the committee, the military committee, did not emphasize sufficiently to you

or to the President the fragility of the plan?




BISSELL: The answer to that is affirmative. I did have that feeling on several


specific occasions. I suppose the reason I felt it, however, was that it


affected the President's attitude toward the form and implementation of

the plan. I had great confidence in the Marine officer who was directing the military side of

this operation. He was trained and experienced in amphibious warfare. From the moment

when it began to appear that this would involve the landing of a significant body of troops—

now we were first talking of four or five hundred as against three times that number that

eventually went in—he emphasized that if the group were large enough so they couldn't

make what would amount to a completely clandestine entry into Cuba, then air cover of the

operation was absolutely essential, and if the air cover was not fully effective, the operation

wouldn't succeed. He said flatly, “This is accepted doctrine. And every military officer who

knows anything about amphibious operations knows that unless you can count on solid air

cover, the chances of success are small.”


O'CONNOR: This he was saying to you.




BISSELL: To me and to Allen Dulles, and to Cabell [Charles Pearre


Cabell], Allen's deputy, my boss. And we, all of us, accepted


this position. The feeling I had then, and I have never changed

this in any degree, is that as a piece of military doctrine it was surprising and later

horrifying to me that the Joint Chiefs did not emphasize this point nearly as strongly

as the colonel who was in charge of the operation himself did.


There was one interesting and alarming occasion at one of the sequence of

policy meetings in the White House. Before the meeting started, those of us who were

to participate in it were talking outside the Cabinet Room, which was still occupied

by a preceding meeting. I was told, I think it was by General Gray (the chairman of

this Joint Chiefs review committee), who shared, I may say, our view on the

essentiality of air cover, something of a discussion that had taken place the preceding

day in the meeting of the Joint Chiefs. In that discussion, two of the three Chiefs

present had said that they weren't at all sure the operation really had to have air cover,

that it had a good chance of success without air cover.


I relayed this view to the military director of the operation, who was also there

in the group; he had heard something of the same thing and was, again, absolutely

horrified. He said that if the Commandant of the Marine Corps had been at that

particular meeting of the Joint Chiefs, he felt sure there would have been a rather

different tone taken.


Let me make clear, in none of those meetings did Lemnitzer [Lyman L. Lemnitzer]

or Arleigh Burke [Arleigh Albert Burke], who was acting Chief whenever Lemnitzer was

away, nor did the chairman of the JCS review group, General Gray, say to the President,

“We don't believe that air cover is absolutely vital for this operation.” As to General Gray, I

don't think he believed any such thing, and of course the Joint Chiefs, I'm sure, would all

have agreed that effective air cover enhanced the chances of success. Nevertheless, I don't




exclude the possibility that the President became aware, one way or another, that the Chiefs

placed less emphasis on pre-invasion air strikes to knock out the Castro air force than did

those in charge of planning the operation. And I may




say that as a civilian with no military experience, I was put in a very odd position to know

that at the level of the Chiefs themselves there was real question about the doctrine that the

colonel reporting to me regarded as so essential.


I think it has to be said that if there's anything hindsight tends to prove, it is that the

colonel was right. With hindsight, I think one is not justified in saying that given adequate air

cover the operation would surely have been a success. I've never thought that one could be at

all certain of that. I do think you could pretty well say, however, that without air cover it

didn't have a chance.


O'CONNOR: This apparently wasn't brought out very strongly in the meetings with

the President in discussion.

BISSELL: No. Particularly, the representatives of the Chiefs there didn't take this

position strongly. You see, a great many of the policy questions that

kept arising in those planning meetings with the President had to do


with whether “you really have to have these air strikes?” I'm sure that in advance of the event

both he and Secretary Rusk were more worried about the effect on world opinion of the air

operations than they were about the landing itself. They were eager to see the landing done as

unobtrusively as possible—indeed, we all were—and hence their desire, which was, of

course, what was done, to trim back the preparatory air operations.





Well, the thing that Arthur Schlesinger [Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.]

brought out in his book was that the military men who were involved

in this, the Joint Chiefs’ committee or the Joint Chiefs themselves,


never really had an opportunity—now this is what he says, I believe—never really had an

opportunity to make their views known effectively because there was no agenda to meetings,

things kept changing, and by the time they realized the change had taken place, the planning

was already past that. Do you agree or disagree with that?



By and large, I disagree with that, although I think you can shade this

one way or the other. It is perfectly true that there were no agendas

for the policy meetings with the President. It is not true that as the


military plan changed in certain respects, major respects, the Chiefs did not have an

opportunity themselves to consider and then to make known their views on such a revision

of the plan as, for instance, the much discussed shift from a plan for a landing at Trinidad to

a landing at the Bay of Pigs.




The Chiefs always knew in what respects the plan was being revised or reconsidered

because their review committee under General Gray, as I have said, was in daily intimate

touch with the planners and, in a sense, were helping with the planning of the operation.

Furthermore, the chairman of that committee reported to the Chiefs, I believe at every

meeting of the Joint Chiefs during all of this period. So the Joint Chiefs were up to date on

what was happening in the planning.




Now in the case of that major change of locale from Trinidad to the Bay of

Pigs, the Chiefs—as again I'm sure has been said in the books—not only knew of it,

but they had a chance to consider it, and they did have a written comment on that. In

the last rather hectic days, that was not true. After all, the famous decision to cancel

an air strike scheduled for Monday morning wasn't made until six o'clock Sunday

evening. It was made, to the best of my knowledge and belief, without consultation

with the Chiefs. The Chiefs were not consulted on a decision that the air strike that

was made on the Saturday morning would be cut to about half strength or less. And

indeed, the way that decision was made was rather odd because I was simply

instructed by the President to reduce the scale of the strike and make it “minimal.”

No figure was set; and that was a decision that I made myself. The Chiefs weren't

consulted on that. So there is some truth in Arthur's contention in these cases, but I

rather doubt if this is what he had mainly in mind.


In any case, without trying to guess what he did have in mind, I would say this: that

although the Chiefs did receive orderly reports from their Joint Staff committee, although

they did discuss the operation—and by the way, with nobody from CIA or from the project

office present—and although they did express views, only on two occasions that I'm aware

of were these views reduced to writing. Moreover, so far as I'm aware, it was not the

practice, either in the meetings which I attended or in other private meetings, for the

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to give the President an orderly account of the Joint Chiefs’

most recent deliberations on this matter. If the Joint Chiefs met on a Tuesday and spent half

an hour on this and then passed on to other business, I very much doubt whether anyone

that afternoon or the next day saw the President and said this was discussed in the Joint

Chiefs. There was no action item before the Joint Chiefs. So I think I would agree with

Arthur that the way the system worked, the President was not exposed to a kind of orderly

reporting of the Joint Chiefs’ deliberations.




O'CONNOR: Well, I have the impression that you, as a civilian, and the President


 were dependent on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to point out deficiencies


 in the planning and operation.


BISSELL: Yes, that's true.


O'CONNOR: Military deficiencies.





Right. I think that's correct. But also very heavily dependent on

the two senior military officers who worked for me. One is the

Marine colonel I talked of, another was an Air Force colonel, also


on assignment to CIA, who had not been brought into it for that purpose, but really had

been in charge of the U-2 operation and of the Agency's air operations generally.



Well, did they ever specifically object to a portion of the plan, or

were any objections ever effectively presented by the Joint Chiefs of

Staff or by the military?



My recollection is that in their original review, when their review

committee of the Joint Staff visited the installations, I think they did

point to some fairly minor specific deficiencies, but I think they


were satisfied that action was taken on those deficiencies in due time. There's no doubt

that, well…. I do not recollect any points on which the Chiefs expressed definite

dissatisfaction, although they made it clear that they thought the Trinidad plan would

have had a better chance of success than the Bay of Pigs plan.





In hindsight we can see many aspects of the plan, I think, that could

very well have been strengthened by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I

wondered if there were any specific instances that you could recall





Remember that the curtailment of strategic air strikes, pre-invasion air

strikes designed to knock out the Castro air force, were something that

they really didn't ever have much opportunity to express an opinion


on. I am confident that they would have opposed that, but I'm not at all sure they would have

opposed it in terribly strong terms to the President for the reason that I've indicated to you.

As to other deficiencies, well, I think with hindsight there are some that the Chiefs and

indeed the military officers who were working for me, should have foreseen and exposed. As

a matter of fact, I came to feel immediately after the event that in straight military terms,

aside from curtailing the air strikes, the worst mistake by all odds was that the air force we'd

assembled wasn't big enough to begin with. I feel very guilty on this point because I think I

could have foreseen the deficiency, but I think that our military people had, if I may say so, a

greater responsibility for this. We had something like seventeen aircraft and aircrews. A

single sortie required about ten hours in the air for about an hour and a half to two hours over






If you'll just do the arithmetic on the back of an envelope, it's clear that

you can't turn one aircraft around more than twice a day, and you




probably can't turn an aircrew around more than one and a half times a

day. That means that the most you can get is three hours a day over the target area per aircraft

and maybe two hours a day per aircrew. Well, this means that if you did all your scheduling

perfectly and if you had no attrition, you could have about one and a half aircraft over the

target area all the time.




Now this, as I feel with hindsight, was very definitely insufficient. We were

counting on our aircraft not only for the strategic role before the invasion to knock out

Castro's aircraft on the ground, but we were also counting on it very heavily as, in effect,

the artillery of the ground forces. No one ever thought that the Brigade [Cuban Brigade]

could hold Castro's armies off unless you had favorable terrain, which we did, and unless

you could call in very strong air support. It's been clear to me ever since that this was a

serious miscalculation. And I think that I should have foreseen this, and I think others

should have foreseen it. It is for this reason, among others, that I have always been

unwilling to say that if the President hadn't called off that air strike, the operation would

surely have been a success. I'm about 90 percent certain that the Joint Chiefs never

commented on this inadequacy. Indeed, I don't remember the Joint Chiefs ever making this

simple analysis.


O'CONNOR: Okay. I had come in here, frankly, with the impression that there must


have been—from earlier conversations I got this impression—that there


must have been perhaps an institutional lack of communications

between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA. I don't get that impression now from talking

with you.



No, I think that is incorrect. I think the communication in the last two


 months before the operation and during it was excellent, was very


 good. I think the Chiefs had the mechanism as a result of Kennedy's

action, I may say. This had not been the case previously. But with that review committee

under General Gray, they had the means of keeping themselves continuously informed, and

yet, just as a comment on government procedures, they were able to do so without any

improper interference, with the activity of the people who had the line responsibility. I also

feel that they had every opportunity to state specific objections because they could either

make any objections or comments directly to us through General Clay [Lucius Dubignon

Clay, Sr.] or, if they'd wished to do so, face to face, or the chairman could have made any

objections that he thought it important to make directly to the President and the whole

circle of the President's advisors.





One of the reasons I had this impression was because President

Kennedy has been criticized for disrupting older channels of




 communication and, during the first six months, not instituting new

channels to replace them. And again, because of the appointing of Chester Cooper as a

sort of liaison man between McGeorge Bundy's group in the White House and

intelligence groups in various other places, I thought—well, evidently there was a lack of

communication during the time of the Bay of Pigs. But apparently, this lack, if it did

exist, wasn't relevant to the Bay of Pigs operation.


BISSELL: I don't believe it was relevant to the Bay of Pigs, no, because that


received so much attention that the communications were really very


good on that. I would like to make a comment on the general point

though. I think one thing that happened during these first few months of the President's

term, as others have remarked, is that he largely lost confidence in his senior professional

military advisors. That was certainly due in part to the Bay of Pigs, and I've always

assumed, rather than actually learned from the President himself, that he felt the Joint

Chiefs, in their capacity as his advisors, should have been more vigilant in pointing out

shortcomings or causing shortcomings to be corrected, one of the two.


However, I think it's a mistake to assign the major role to the Cuban experience

in explaining his at least temporarily reduced confidence in the Joint Chiefs because I

also saw very intimately during these months what was going on in Laos and the

decisions that were being made there. One reason that the Bay of Pigs operation didn't

have much attention for the first few weeks after the Inauguration was that the Laotian

war was in a state of acute crisis as he assumed office. The first meeting I attended

with members of the new Administration—Paul Nitze [[Paul Henry Nitze] for one,

McNamara [Robert S. McNamara] for part of the time, Dean Rusk for part of the

time—was one of a series of meetings in the State Department on Laos. I was present

at most of these informal policy meetings that were the successor to the formal NSC

[National Security Council] that dealt with Laos. Now there was a case where I think

the communication certainly didn't work, although it wasn't, I think, because of

institutional changes that he made or procedural changes.




What would happen at successive meetings was that the President would be

briefed either by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs personally or, as is more apt to be the

habit, a more junior officer would actually do the briefing of the whole group in the

presence of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and with the Chairman's comments from

time to time. I still remember very clearly the occasion when the long planned major

offensive by the Royal Laotian Army against the Nationalists under Kong Le and

communists in the Plaine des Jarres was outlined.


Well, it was a nice piece of planning to have been carried out in a military college

as an exercise in how you would dispose troops, given the terrain and the dispositions of

the enemy. It predicted that the Plaine des Jarres would be seized on the tenth day of the

operation, or something of this kind by parachute troops. All of this, you understand, was

to be done by the Royal Laotian forces. I left this briefing with a sense of complete

unreality. I had been close for a year and a half, I guess, to the goings on in Laos, and it just




never occurred to me that the Royal Laotian could, or would, carry out any such elegant.

military operation of this sort, and of course they didn't.


It really didn't occur to me until after that whole event that the President had taken

this plan seriously. And why shouldn't he? He assumed, correctly, I believe, that when he

was given a briefing by the Joint Chiefs on the plans of the Laotian Army, plans formulated

with U.S. military advisors at every level, that the Joint Chiefs endorsed the plan and

thought it would work. I'm sure that if he'd asked the Chairman, the Chairman would have

said, “Yes, we think there's a pretty good chance this will work.”




On that occasion there were a lot of others of us civilians in the room who would

have expressed extreme surprise at the notion that this was going to work out the way it was

planned because a number of us had had much more intimate experience than the members

of the Joint Chiefs, individually, of observing the imperfections of military execution in a

tiny, backward, backwoods Asian country. It is no particular criticism of the Joint Chiefs,

perhaps, that they had no feel for that, but it is a grave criticism of the way the system

worked. Either because the Joint Chiefs were permitted to be quite unrealistic about what

the Laotians could accomplish or because they assumed the President would do his own

discounting, he was given, I believe, a completely false picture about what was going to

happen in that little war. And I think this was disillusioning to him.


Well, then that was followed by the Bay of Pigs, and I'm sure he felt that here

again the Chiefs had given a kind of formal comment on a plan, a superficial comment

that did not reflect the results of probing deeply, and that this was another example of

the same thing. Nevertheless, I am suggesting that in the Cuban case they certainly

were better informed, or at least as well informed, and they certainly had every

opportunity to probe deeply and had certainly made an effort through a Joint Staff

group to do so.


O'CONNOR: Well, we're getting a little bit away from the Bay of Pigs, but I'd like


to get just a little bit farther away before we get back to it at all. As I


mentioned, before I came in here I was under the impression that

Chester Cooper's appointment as a sort of liaison man—and I assume I'm correct in

thinking he was—was a result of the Bay of Pigs, or at least partially the result of the Bay

of Pigs. I now see that that is probably not so. Was it the result at all of the difficulties

encountered in the Laotian situation, or would you express an opinion or explain what

precipitated this?




BISSELL: I don't really know what precipitated it. I will only say that at the time


it never particularly occurred to me that it was a result of the Bay of


Pigs. I can only surmise that after the President had been in office two

or three months, and McGeorge Bundy had been there and functioning, they came to feel

that the flow of intelligence had to be systematized and rendered more orderly without,




however, in any sense being straitjacketed or impeded or sifted. I strongly suspect the

feeling was that we have to be sure that any new intelligence that is urgent can get to the

President's attention promptly; we must be sure that all of the intelligence that is

important gets to him systematically with at least some indication of which items he

simply must be aware of and which ones are of lesser importance. And I suspect the

feeling was that you couldn't accomplish this result simply by the format of a written

report with its underlinings, asterisks, omissions, and compressions; that it was very

important to put an effective intelligence analyst in a position where he could reach at

least McGeorge Bundy and through McGeorge Bundy, the President, any time he deemed

this essential, and could say, “These are some things the President really ought to know.

And here are some other things in the daily bulletin, and they're not as important.”



You mentioned that the Marine Corps colonel who served as an

advisor, in effect, and a trainer of men had had experience in

amphibious operations, and I know for a fact that he did have


experience in Iwo Jima.








But I've at the same time, heard the criticism made of the operation

that not enough people with experience in amphibious operations were

involved, and that particularly within the CIA organization itself,


among civilians in the CIA, there were men—and I'm thinking offhand of Robert Amory

[Robert Amory, Jr.]—who had had experience in amphibious operations whose experience

was not drawn upon.



Well, there's no doubt that the last is true. There were civilians whose

experience wasn't drawn upon, and this is because of their place in the

Agency. Perhaps, with hindsight, that was a mistake. I don't feel this in


itself was a serious source of inadequacy in the plan or in its execution. The marine colonel

had also, as you probably know, been a year and half behind the lines in the Philippines, so

he'd had extensive guerrilla experience as well as amphibious. I think some of the usual

mistakes that seem to be made in any amphibious landing were made in this case, but not

really by want of foresight. I'm thinking of the fact that we did find a reef where we didn't

expect one. And this is despite the fact that we had really looked very hard for that with

reconnaissance photography.



That's something I never did understand. I couldn't understand how…



And I, frankly, never understood that to this day. But again, no amount

of added experience in CIA headquarters or at the project office would

have made any difference in that because the need for accurate


knowledge of the landing area was very clearly recognized. I think an argument could be




made that there hadn't ever been an opportunity to train the senior Cuban officers in the

brigade in amphibious warfare. After all, their total training was fairly brief; most of it, I

think, was in straight infantry tactics. It would have been very desirable to have been able to

take a group of them and perhaps send them down to the jungle warfare training center and

get a little amphibious training. There were a lot of reasons, however, why it was quite

unfeasible to take the responsible officers away from the unit. It was hard enough to keep the

Brigade together, anyway, in terms of discipline




and morale. Also, it was really quite out of the question to proceed so openly about the

training of Cubans as that would have implied. There was a grave political objection by the

State Department to doing any of the training or any significant amount of it on U.S.

territory. Again, the insistence on a plausible disclaimer limited what could be done. So it

just wasn't feasible to do that. My own hunch is that if more experience in amphibious

warfare would have helped, it would have helped really in the officers of the brigade itself

rather than in headquarters' planning.


O'CONNOR: Okay. There is also an important question about the plan or the


possibility that these invaders or infiltrators might be able to escape


into the Escambray Mountains and become guerrillas. Was Kennedy

actually told this very, very strongly? Was this very definitely a part of the final plan?


BISSELL: No. I think it is certainly true that it was in the minds of everyone


concerned with the final plan that, given the Bay of Pigs location,


 there was little likelihood they could make an escape to the

Escambray. We did feel there was some chance that guerrilla activity could be continued in

the marshes around and especially to the north and west of the Bay of Pigs. Classically and

historically that's been an area that's supported guerrilla operations. I do feel the impression

we attempted to give the President was just that—that the chances of a retreat to the

Escambray from the Bay of Pigs, by contrast with a landing around Trinidad which is right

next to the Escambray, those chances were very poor, but that there would be some chance

of organizing effective guerrilla activities right around the Bay of Pigs. I feel myself that

this is a respect in which all of us were derelict. The President was given, or was allowed to

form, a much too optimistic impression of this as a possibility, as a fallback in the Bay of

Pigs case.




O'CONNOR: Well, there is, in connection with this same problem, a conflict over


whether or not the Cubans themselves understood that this was a


possible fallback. The Cubans have testified that they were not told,

and yet other people have maintained that they were told, or that this was, at least, a part of

the plan.





I can't throw very much light on that. My own belief is that in the last

month or so of their training the emphasis was so heavily on more or

less conventional infantry tactics and fire power that I doubt if their


trainers, let alone the Cubans themselves, faced at all clearly this contingency that they might

have to break up and as many of them as possible function as guerrillas. I also don't think that

they were well equipped; I don't think we had researched water sources and that kind of thing

well enough.



There was a very famous April 4 meeting, among many meetings, in

which it is said the President asked various people to stand up and give

their opinions. Apparently he never got around to the whole group, but


at least he did ask various members. And at this meeting, it is said or has been said, that

Senator Fulbright [J. William Fulbright] voiced objection to the plan. And yet I've heard

from other people that he did not. Now, what was your recollection of that? Do you recall

Senator Fulbright's opinions outstanding at all?



Yes, my impression is that he did voice some objection.



Well, we're dealing with impressions here all around because…





Yes. That is my impression. By the way, the President did get around

to almost everybody in that meeting.



I wasn't aware of that. I was under the impression that…



If that's the meeting I have in mind. There was one where he went

around, and he asked everyone for their votes. One reason I

remember this quite clearly, he came to Adolf Berle [Aolf A. Berle,


Jr.]. Adolf gave a rather long reply, which was, well, the alternatives aren't very good, and

it has dangers, but if it succeeded, it would be effective, and so on. Finally, when he was

through, the President said, “Well, Adolf, you haven't voted.” And Berle said, “I'd say, let

her rip.”



I've heard that “Let her rip” a number of times, but I didn't know who

it came from, actually. That was one of the things he...



That's it. Several of the people gave, ultimately, inconclusive

comments, sort of no objection comments. I remember particularly,

that pro votes were given specifically by Nitze, however, who was


there, McNamara, Berle in the terms I've spoken of, Tom Mann [Thomas Clifton Mann], I

think, when finally pinned down in somewhat the same way. Well, these are the people

whom I remember, and I don't know who was there for the Joint Chiefs. I don't know

whether it was Lemnitzer or Burke, but I suspect that whoever it was gave an affirmative




reaction. And I know that also the Marine colonel was there in that room. No, I guess he

wasn't in that room because he was at that point down at the embarkation. He had been at

an earlier session. He may have been there, I'm not sure of that. I think General Gray was

there for the Joint Chiefs committee and so on. But it was a pretty complete canvass.





Another controversy involves what was expected of the dissident

elements in Cuba. Would you comment on that? What exactly did

you expect from the dissident elements, and when?



I thought we'd get nothing. Oh, possibly a few sporadic incidents, but

nothing of significance until a beachhead was consolidated and had

been held for three or four days. By that time, if we had had aircraft


operating out of the beachhead and had, in effect, demonstrated that the Castro forces could

not successfully attack and destroy the beachhead, if we'd had aircraft able to attack

communications and the railroad and targets of this kind, then I thought there was a very

real possibility that you'd begin to get significant action.



One of the criticisms that is made in connection with the dissident

elements is that, number one, they were not told satisfactorily or in

time that their cooperation was to be expected eventually, and that


this led to their being defenseless when Castro moved effectively against them.



Yes, right.



How did that come about? Can you explain that at all?



Yes. I think that the second half of that criticism especially has

some validity. It came about as the final climax of one of the

developments in the whole course of the operation that had a lot to


do with its ultimate failure. This was the complete failure of the effort to organize a

disciplined underground in Cuba. As you remember, of course, when the operation was

started a year before the Bay of Pigs, it was intended in the first instance as an operation

involving the training of guerrilla leaders and organizers, radio operators, and a few

technicians, the infiltration of these men and their subsequent resupply by air. It wasn't

until months after the operation had been initiated that the concept was evolved of a small

landing force to detonate, as it were, an internal revolt




that would have been already organized. It wasn't until the latter part of the preceding

autumn with the complete failure of the effort to organize a disciplined underground that

the whole emphasis shifted to the landing force, to the invasion.




These facts, I think, are pretty well known, but they need a little more explanation.

The key to what I mean by a disciplined underground is perhaps not quite accurately

described by this term because its essential feature is a secure command and control and

communications net. What I mean by a command and control and communications net is

not a large body of men. Perhaps in the whole of a country the size of Cuba it could be one

or two hundred people, but people who were highly disciplined, would obey orders, who

were compartmented so they knew one another, for instance, only by code name and

pseudonyms, who had means of communicating with one another in such a fashion that if

one man was apprehended, he would not be able to give away the identity of many others

in the net. And to be effective, the individuals who constitute a communications net of this

kind must have radios. Quite possibly, these would serve as a major means of internal

communication, and certainly they have to be in a position to receive communications from

outside and to send them by radio.


Given a command and control net that is secure, it then becomes possible to have

guerrilla groups which by their very nature are more numerous, less well trained, therefore,

less susceptible to tight discipline, and much less able to be secure than those who

comprise the “net.” If there's a guerrilla band of twenty men, it's just inevitable that if one

of them is picked up, he knows the identities of the other twenty. But if your basic

communication with actual groups of dissidents and also with all kinds of groups of would-

be dissidents inside the country. Furthermore, there's no need for one group of dissidents to

know the identity of another group. There can be some university students in a cell, and

there can be some guys in the Escambray, and there can be some industrial workers who

are still at their jobs, and they don't need to know one another.




It's in this way that something that can be called a controllable and reasonably

disciplined resistance movement can be, and has to be, built up. A resistance that is held

together by this kind of net, then, becomes a collection of forces from which operational

intelligence can be quickly obtained and to which information and instructions can be

given. For instance, if you have an organization of this kind, a group that wants and needs

an air drop of supplies, and is in a place in the country where it can receive it, can communicate

(a)its needs, and (b)where it is and when it will be there and what the recognition

signal will be, and you can organize these things.


In the course of the autumn I don't know how many air drops were made, and

I think one was reasonably successful, but only one of the entire series. For the most

part, after an air drop had been carried out in response to a request that had been

forwarded in a cumbersome chain through Havana and the U.S. Embassy, we never

knew whether the recipients had been anywhere near the drop zone and they never

knew whether the aircraft had been anywhere near what they thought was the drop

zone. I certainly felt that I received a liberal education in the fact that what I've called

a communications and command and control net of some sort, an underground, is

doomed to ineffectiveness.


Well, for a whole lot of reasons—and some of them, I'm sure, reasons that I have

never understood—the efforts during the late summer and autumn to build an underground




of this sort, specifically to establish contact with guerrilla groups, to send in a radio

operator and technician to each so that they'd communicate to the outside, to identify and

recruit agents in fishing villages who were reliable people with whom communications

would be possible for infiltration by small boats, all of these efforts failed abysmally. In

late autumn we had a number of very successful small boat infiltrations of supplies and

people, but as a general rule, the people were picked up within forty-eight hours and the

supplies immediately thereafter. Why? Because when you land guys on a beach at night,

even if it's completely secure and they're completely safe and, after all, are of the

nationality of the country and all the rest of it, there has to be a house in a village nearby

where they can go and sleep and get a meal. Then there has to be another place to




pass them along to. This simply was not accomplished. That being the case, the dissidents

inside Cuba at the time of the Castro uprising were a very diverse group, or set of groups of

people. Mainly, the dissidents were people who were emotionally in opposition to Castro,

but not in any kind of organizational framework. And short of a broadcast on the radio,

there wasn't any way to communicate with these people. There was still a few with whom

we could communicate but very, very few. The whole effort, of course, was to make this

invasion a tactical surprise, which it was. To that end it, of course, was quite out of the

question to warn Castro semi-publicly by broadcasting to the dissidents that something was

going to happen on such and such a day.


One of the myths of the discussions of that operation, a myth that's uttered by many

Cubans, too, is to the effect that there was an organized underground with which

communication was possible, which could have been warned to get out of the way on a

certain date so as to avoid arrest without giving the date away to Castro. That is a myth.

There probably weren't more than a dozen people, if that many, inside of Cuba to whom it

was possible, with any security what ever, to communicate let alone given an order and

expect to have it carried out.


One of the lessons that can be drawn from this is that the whole thing should have

been aborted, not just after Kennedy came into office but way back in November when it

was pretty clear that the effort to build an underground wasn't working. Here again this is

where one, both at the time and looking back on it, has a feeling of inevitability. A great

effort had been mounted, let us say, by November, and there seemed to be really no

pressing reason then for giving it up. What I think we did not foresee as early even as

December is that there plainly wasn't going to be time to start all over again at the building

of an underground and have that job done before the rainy season. Because it seemed that

there wasn't time to do that job and because we were quite aware that it had not been a

success, everyone concerned began to pay more and more attention gradually to the other









Richard Bissel Oral History Transcript – JFK #1

Name Index




Amory, Robert, Jr., 24 Rusk, Dean, 8, 9, 14, 20


Berle, Adolf A., Jr., 27 Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., 15, 16

Bundy, McGeorge, 20, 23

Burke, Arleigh Albert, 13, 27


Cabell, Charles Pearre, 13

Castro, Fidel, 6, 13, 18, 19, 28, 31

Clay, Lucius Dubignon, Sr., 20

Cooper, Chester, 20, 22


Dulles, Allen W., 3, 13


Fulbright, J. William, 26


Gray, David W., 11, 13, 15, 19, 27


Kennedy, John F., 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14,

15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27,



Lemnitzer, Lyman L., 13, 27


Mann, Thomas Clifton, 27

McNamara, Robert S., 20, 27

Miguel, Ydigoras Fuentes, 5


Nitze, Paul Henry, 20, 27