The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion—a failed US-backed attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro—is often cited as an example of how the New York Times shamefully flinched in the face of pressure from the White House, thus helping to enable a foreign-policy catastrophe.
If only the Times had revealed everything it knew beforehand, so this line of reasoning goes, the Kennedy administration might have backed down from its disastrous scheme. President John F. Kennedy himself contributed to the legend, telling the Times’s managing editor, Turner Catledge, some months later: “If you had printed more about the operation you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.”
The problem with this narrative is that it’s not true—not exactly, anyway. Though the Times did withhold a couple of key details, on April 7 of that year it published a front-page story, above the fold, reporting that US-trained rebels were prepared to invade Cuba, and that the operation could begin at any time. Ten days later, the anti-Castro forces were routed on the beach.
Following the death of Castro over the weekend, I thought I would revisit some research I undertook when I was in graduate school at Boston University in the early 1980s. Although it was a long time ago, I recall that I went into it curious about why the Times had held back—and by the time I was finished, I realized that the Times had done no such thing. I wrote a paper about my findings, which appeared in the academic publication Journalism Quarterly in 1986.
There are myriad aspects to this convoluted tale, but to me the most important is this: Catledge removed two key details from a story filed by reporter Tad Szulc, but he did so for the sound journalistic reason that they couldn’t be verified. One was the involvement of the CIA; the other was an assertion that the invasion was “imminent.” Thus a reference to CIA agents was changed to “United States experts,” and the detail about how soon the operation would begin was removed on the grounds that Szulc wasn’t sure—and that even if he was, the White House could postpone its plans after Szulc’s story had been published.
Now, it’s also true that publisher Orville Dryfoos and James Reston, the dean of the Times’s Washington bureau, were both wary of interfering in national security. In addition, several of Catledge’s underlings were furious with him for shrinking the headline on Szulc’s story from four columns to one—a step Catledge said was warranted once the detail about the invasion’s imminence had been removed.
But I find it hard to disagree with Catledge’s judgment and his assessment of the story’s impact. As he put it years later in his autobiography: “We ran a thousand-word story, starting on Page 1, that made it perfectly clear to any intelligent reader that the US government was training an army of Cuban rebels who intended to invade Cuba.”
Reston—who, according to Catledge, would have preferred that Szulc’s story not be published at all—essentially agreed with Catledge that it was not within the Times’s power to stop the invasion. “It is ridiculous to think that publishing the fact that the invasion was imminent would have avoided this disaster,” he later said. “I am quite sure the operation would have gone forward. The thing had been cranked up too far.”
President Kennedy’s response is perhaps the best gauge as to what was really going on. His initial reaction was one of fury. “I can’t believe what I’m reading!” he exclaimed to his press secretary, Pierre Salinger. “Castro doesn’t need any agents over here. All he has to do is read our papers. It’s all laid out for him.” He was still fuming a week later, delivering a speech in which he admonished journalists, “Every newspaper now asks itself with respect to every story, ‘Is it news?’ All I suggest is that you add the question: ‘Is it in the interest of national security?’”
But it is Kennedy’s later reversal, perhaps motivated by a desire to flatter Catledge and Dryfoos, that lives on in the history of the era. Anthony DePalma, in his Times obituary of Castro, asserts that Szulc’s article had been watered down “at the request of the Kennedy administration.” But as best as I was able to determine in the course of my research, the White House was not contacted before Szulc’s story was published.
Oddly enough, DePalma’s obit links to a contradictory 2014 Times article by David W. Dunlap. Despite the self-flagellating headline (“The C.I.A. Readies a Cuban Invasion, and The Times Blinks”), the story itself makes it clear that Catledge acted as he did for journalistic reasons, and that the Kennedy administration did not have a hand in toning down Szulc’s article.
But legend is often more powerful than truth. And maybe the legend is what we ought to remember. Every day, we hear warnings against the media “normalizing” President-elect Donald Trump and his motley band of associates. Whether you think the pending Trump presidency represents a danger to the country or not (I think it does), the legend of the Bay of Pigs—if not the reality—serves as a reminder that one of the few checks on an out-of-control government is a free, fearless, independent press.