INTERVIEW WITH THEODORE SORENSEN
INTERVIEWER: Can I ask you your name and title for the transcripts?
THEODORE SORENSEN: My name is Ted Sorensen. My title in the White House was Special Counsel to the President. My responsibilities covered the entire area of policy and programme.
INT: Thank you, sir. Can I ask you, first of all... if we start in 1961 - President Kennedy was just coming to power, he had a new administration - how do you think he got embroiled in the Bay of Pigs, and why?
TS: 1961 was in many ways the height of the Cold War. Shortly before President Kennedy took office, Khrushchev made statements about "We will bury you," statements about wars of liberation all over the world. The Soviet Union, in contrast with what we see in Moscow today, was a powerful country, militarily powerful, technologically, scientifically, even economically powerful, with steel and other major industries that were surpassing the United States and pointing to the Third World as a way for all the rest of the world to go, not the way of democracy. So President Kennedy had reason to be concerned about a Soviet outpost in Cuba, 90 miles from our shore. In addition to that, Cuba was a gnawing, nagging political problem, almost an emotional problem. Castro seemed like this taunting figure that got into the skin of Americans.
INT: And was Kennedy being informed, was he being given enough information by the various agencies, to make strong decisions about what the next move should be?
TS: Kennedy had been briefed on the Bay of Pigs invasion plan by President Eisenhower and his outgoing team, and felt that a plan that he had inherited, in which a band of Cuban exiles were to liberate their own country, was one he could hardly turn his back on. It was a decision that he came to regret, but at the time it seemed, if this is what they wanted to do, surely the United States should help get rid of a communist dictatorship in our hemisphere. The fact is that the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, which had devised the plan, sold it to the President on the basis of a number of premises which turned out not to be correct.
INT: Was there any sense at the time that Kennedy was... trapped is too strong a word, but put into a position through his election campaign, where he campaigned quite strongly that the Eisenhower regime had not done anything about Castro, that Kennedy was almost forced into making a move on Castro?
TS: I don't believe that he was forced to do so. I'm not so certain that anything he said in the campaign, despite one rather broad statement about action to get rid of communism in Cuba, committed him to the Bay of Pigs plan. No, I think that the decision was made all over again to proceed with what had been recommended to him by a mostly inherited team, people wearing all kinds of medals and people with dark glasses and murky backgrounds, for whom at the time he had a great respect.
INT: Once word came through that the invasion had failed, that the troops had either been killed or captured, what was the reaction within the White House?
TS: Jack Kennedy was devastated by the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, and he said it was a fiasco. He was not accustomed to failure in politics or in life. He felt personally responsible for the brave Cuban exiles who had been placed on that island by United States ships and under United States sponsorship; and he was also angry, angry at himself for having paid attention to the experts without checking out their premises more carefully, angry at the Central Intelligence Agency for having sold him a bill of goods about a plan that supposedly would not have any discernible American connection and that had all these safety fall-backs, a plan that they told him would lead to an uprising of the Cuban people - all of which turned out to be nonsense; and disappointed in his own military leaders and others, that they had not asked tougher questions and checked out the plan more carefully.
INT: Did this, in the coming crisis that was about to happen, alter Kennedy's attitude towards people like the Joint Chiefs and the CIA?
TS: It altered his whole approach toward government. He realised that intelligence officers and military officers were human beings, capable of imperfection, as he was. He realised that he needed people who thought the way he thought and looked at the world the way he looked at it, to join him in these sessions, and asked Robert Kennedy, his brother, the Attorney General, and me to sit in on National Security Council meetings from then on. He decided to make some changes in personnel in all of the agencies that were involved; he decided to make some changes in policy as to how we would isolate Cuba, some changes in procedure, all of which stood him in very good stead when we had another crisis in Cuba a year and a half later.
(Request for water. A bit of talk.)
INT: So, Mr Sorensen, will you tell me what the consequences of the Bay of Pigs were on the Kennedy Administration?
TS: There were some favourable consequences, in the sense that he made the changes I mentioned in policy, procedure, personnel; he realised that primarily political questions cannot be solved by military means alone, which caused him to take a very different look at Indo-China and Vietnam and ask much tougher questions of the military; and told me some months afterwards that had it not been for the stumbling at the Bay of Pigs, we probably would have been knee-deep in Indo-China by that time. Interestingly enough, it did not hurt him much politically. Although it caused the President himself to realise that he didn't have a magic touch, there wasn't going to be automatic victories every time he put his hand to something, and he felt flawed, the American people were absolutely astounded by his willingness to take responsibility for the Bay of Pigs. Here was a plan that he had inherited - he could have blamed it on his predecessor, he could have blamed it on the hold over officers in the CIA and in the Pentagon, but instead he stood up at a press conference and said, "This is my responsibility: I'm the officer in charge, and we're going to investigate and find out what went wrong, and make sure it doesn't happen again." And as a result, his standing in the popularity polls went up, which caused him some wry amusement.
INT: I believe in your book you mention the fact that he couldn't believe he'd been so stupid to have let others influence him that way. Do you remember him saying that?
TS: (Overlap) I remember this very well. It was the day that the invasion and the aftermath ended. We were in his office, and he went outside to walk in the sunshine in the April day; we walked around the garden in the back, and he was more distraught than I'd ever seen him. "How could I have been so stupid?" he said. "How could I have let the experts so mislead me? I never pay attention... I never rely on experts alone." That's how he'd gotten where he was in politics, that's how he had achieved what he had achieved in life, by not relying on experts; and this time he had relied on them and they had let him down.
INT: So, if I can take us forward now slightly. In the following year, in the summer of that year, the Russians started introducing a lot of ships, a lot of troops were going into...
TS: No, a year later.
INT: A year later - yes, sorry, 1962.
TS: Yes, this was all '61...
INT: '61, of course, yeah. And in the summer of '62, the first ships started arriving, a lot of activity was going on, and it led to the President making a speech, I think on the 13th of September, where he said the equipment they'd detected in Cuba was defensive, and he warned quite strongly the world that any offensive weapons would be dealt with. Do you remember that speech and what led to him making that speech?
TS: There was a good deal of agitation in the Congress about the Soviet military activity in Cuba during the summer and early fall of 1962. Cuban refugees, most of whom could not tell the difference - nor could I - upon eye view, oa surface-to-air missile or an intercontinental ballistic missile, or a tactical weapon from a strategic weapon, were telling Senator Keatinand other Republicans that the Soviets were putting long-range missiles, offensive strategic weapons, in Cuba, and there were demands for an investigation and calls for US military action and so forth. The President felt he needed to say something. It was not a speech, but a press conference statement, in which he declared that to the best of our knowledge, and checking all of our intelligence sources, the weapons in Cuba were defensive weapons, which was their right under international law; but were it to be otherwise, the gravest consequences would ensue.
INT: So, within a few weeks of that press conference, missiles were detected in Cuba. Can you tell me how you personally heard about it, and what your reaction was?
TS: I believe it was Tuesday morning, October 16th - perhaps Monday, but I believe Tuesday...
(Something inaudible in b/g)
TS: On Tuesday morning, October 16th, the President called me into his office and said that we had sent a U-2 surveillance flight over Cuba. The photo-intelligence had been interpreted, and the conclusion was that the Soviets were building offensive missile bases in Cuba. It was clearly a threat, it was clearly an action that required a response, and he was calling together the key people in his administration, the small group that would later be known as the Executive Committee of the Security Council, or Excom. He wanted me to attend those meetings, and he wanted me to bring to the first meeting copies of whatever statements he had made about the US reaction to offensive weapons in Cuba.
INT: What was that first meeting like, the first meeting of what was to become Excom?
TS: The first meeting was very sombre. Seated around the table were about a dozen of the President's closest and most trusted advisers, assembled not necessarily on the basis of position or even rank - because the Secretary of Treasury was there, for example; I had no military responsibilities; the Attorney General had no official national security responsibilities - but they were the people whose judgement he wanted on this matter. And we didn't spend a great deal of time wondering why the Soviets were doing this, because why they had done it, for whatever reason they had done it, they had done it in a surreptitious way, lying to the United States through a variety of messages and messengers, that they were only putting defensive weapons into Cuba, and those weapons constituted a clear and present danger to our security. Those missiles were capable of reaching almost every part of the United States and almost every part of Latin America. And so, after a briefing via the photo-intelligence people, the primary question was: what are our options? And although the option of doing nothing was always there, and from time to time would be mentioned by a variety of people around that table - "Get used to it. The Europeans are used to living on the bull's eye of nuclear weapons. Maybe the Americans had better get used to it also" - that was never an acceptable option to the President. We talked instead about the possibility of an air strike, which was at one time or another almost everybody's first choice, upon first thought, to knock out the missiles. We talked about an invasion of Cuba, which was always the preferred choice of the right wing, go in and take Cuba away from Castro and rid the island of communism, while at the same time getting rid of these missiles; a diplomatic approach, either bilaterally or through the United Nations: a blockade, or a quarantine, as it later came to be called. There were a number of permutations and combinations of all of these. No decision was made at that first meeting. But if a vote had been taken there - and fortunately it was not; it was not President Kennedy's method to take votes - an air strike was probably number one on everybody's list.