There were a lot of bad days during the Cold War, but 54 years ago this weekend was one of the worst, at least for the United States. President John F. Kennedy sent an army of anti-Castro exiles backed by the CIA onto the beach at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs to suffer bloody, catastrophic defeat. It was “the beating of our lives,” the despondent Kennedy would say a few days later as he wondered aloud why nobody had talked him out of it.
One of the piquant questions of Cold War history is, could the Miami Herald have done that — talked him out of it? In a little-known collision of journalism and national security, the Herald, seven months before the Bay of Pigs, had prepared a news story saying that the United States was planning to launch a military operation against Cuba. But the paper’s top management killed the story after CIA Director Allen Dulles said publishing it would hurt national security.
“It’s hard to know these things,” says Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, which has published several books on the Bay of Pigs. “But could a bold, dramatic story that the United States was planning an invasion have stopped the Bay of Pigs? I think the answer might be yes.”
The tale of the Herald’s Bay of Pigs scoop and its subsequent capitulation to the CIA has mostly been shrouded in mystery for the past five decades. It was explored briefly in Anything but the Truth, a book by Washington reporters William McGaffin and Erwin Knoll that was published in 1968 and quickly disappeared.
It all started with some kids throwing firecrackers over a fence in Homestead.
On the sultry night of Aug. 26, 1960, 16-year-old John Keogh had called some of his teenaged buddies over to the family poultry farm in Homestead to help him wrangle a bunch of chickens that were scheduled to be shipped off to customers. But the delivery truck never showed, and the bored kids at last gave up and drove off to a little store where they could buy some Cokes and talk about girls.
On the way there, though, one of the guys mentioned seeing a camp for migrant farmworkers nearby. “He said they danced around the fire at night and acted weird,” says Keogh, now 70 and working in the auto wholesale business in Land O’ Lakes. “So we thought we’d like to see that. And later, that got us called ‘thrill-seeking youths’ in the newspapers.”
When they reached the camp, one of the guys suggested it would be funny to toss a few firecrackers over the fence. A lot of thoughts would flash through Keogh’s mind in the moments after the firecrackers went off, and one of them was, these are not your average immigrant farmworkers. A host of weapons, including .30-caliber machine guns, opened up from inside the camp. One of the bullets came through the window of Keogh’s pickup truck, hit him in the back of the head and left him blind. Over the next 72 hours, he underwent three surgeries.
When police arrived, the men in the camp said they were members of a Cuban counterrevolutionary army training to overthrow Castro. The cops, unimpressed, arrested 15 of them, mostly for vagrancy. But two faced charges of attempted murder.
Oddly, though, the charges didn’t seem to be leading to actual trials. Even the most routine legal proceedings were unscheduled, and all the Cubans seemed to have been released from jail. Finally a cop whispered to a reporter that the State Department had asked for the cases to be tossed.
That’s when editors on the Herald’s city desk called David Kraslow.
Herald’s man in Washington
These days, the 89-year-old Kraslow, who lives in Coral Gables, is best known as a member of the University of Miami board of trustees and as the last publisher of the Miami News, which went out of business in 1988.
But in 1960, he was the Herald’s Washington correspondent, having worked himself up from a $25 a month job covering sports for the News while attending the University of Miami on the GI Bill. He had good sources in the State Department — Latin American news was a Herald specialty — and in the Justice Department, from covering federal courts in Miami.
“I remember the call from Miami,” Kraslow said last week. “They told me this weird story about Cubans and machine guns in Homestead, and asked if I could check with the State Department to see what was going on.”
But Kraslow found his contacts at the Justice Department more fruitful. They told him of a brutal feud between legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA. The CIA wanted to train an army of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro; the FBI was charged with enforcing the federal Neutrality Act that makes it illegal to stage a military expedition against another country from U.S. territory.
“Hoover, rightfully I think, believed that this situation was compromising the FBI,” recalls Kraslow. “But the CIA wouldn’t give ground. And I thought, oh, s---, this is all going on right under our noses in Miami.”
By the end of September, after weeks of reporting and crosschecking, Kraslow had a blockbuster story. “It was about 1,500 words and it said the CIA was secretly recruiting and training Cuban exiles for some sort of major military operation against Castro,” he recalls. “It didn’t say this was a huge, frontal-assault invasion — I don’t think they had even decided that yet.”
Kraslow’s bosses in Miami, however, were uneasy. Publishing stories about secret wars and other national-security issues was not common practice in the American newspaper industry. During World War II, war correspondents had filed their stories under strict military censorship. Nobody could remember a story quite like Kraslow’s.
The Herald bosses — including managing editor George Beebe and executive editor Lee Hills — kept asking Kraslow to seek comment from various senior government officials, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s press secretary, James Haggerty. (Kennedy would not become president for another three months.) All of them dismissed the story and said they knew nothing about it.
Finally, Kraslow was told to seek an appointment with CIA chief Dulles. With Knight Newspapers Washington bureau chief Ed Lahey, he drove over to the agency’s headquarters.
“I didn’t show Dulles the story, but I told him, in detail, everything that was in it,” Kraslow recalls. “He was stoic, poker-faced. Was he surprised? I don’t know, directors of the CIA never, ever look surprised. And he never commented on the accuracy of the story. At the end of it, he said: ‘If you publish that kind of information, you’ll seriously damage national security.’”
That was the end of the interview. Kraslow called Beebe and Hills back in Miami to tell them what Dulles had said. They in turned discussed it with Herald publisher John S. Knight. “I can’t prove it, I’m just guessing, but I’ve always suspected that the minute I left his office, Dulles called Knight and said, ‘Don’t publish that story,’” Kraslow says. “Knight was a big Republican and a very patriotic guy, and I think Dulles probably believed a direct appeal to him would work.”
Whatever exactly happened in Miami, Kraslow got word from Beebe a couple of days later: The story was dead. The Herald wouldn’t run it. Kraslow was disappointed, but not angry. “It was a tough call,” he said. “Those guys — Beebe, Hills, Knight — were all great men and great bosses. It’s very hard to run a story when the director of the CIA tells you it will harm national security. I think the Herald was wrong, I think the Herald made a mistake, but it was a mistake born of good intentions.”
Even though the story wasn’t published, Kraslow believes it affected government policy in at least one way: Training of the Cuban exiles was moved out the United States to Guatemala. Meanwhile, other publications — from The Nation magazine to the York Gazette and Daily in York, Pennsylvania — got a whiff of the Bay of Pigs and began nibbling at the story.
So did The New York Times, which on Jan. 10, 1961, published a story on the exile training base in Guatemala. The day after that, the Herald published its own story about the base and the recruiting of exiles in Miami, including some details from Kraslow’s spiked story — though it stopped well short of saying the United States was planning a major attack on Cuba.
A little editor’s note explained that the Herald had held up the news “for more than two months” and released it “only after U.S. aid to anti-Castro fighters in Guatemala was first revealed elsewhere,” the closest the paper ever got to admitting what had happened. Even inside the Herald’s newsroom hardly anyone knew the tale.
“I remember hearing a kind of vague rumor about something like this a few years later, but it must have been very tightly held,” says Don Bohning, who spent nearly three decades as the Herald’s Latin America editor. “I’m not surprised by what you’re telling me, though. That was a very different time and things were much different between newspapers and the government.”
Kraslow is not certain that publication of his story would have forestalled the invasion. “Maybe, maybe not,” he says. “The CIA was very gung-ho to get this thing done.”
Kornbluh, however, thinks it might have. “Both Eisenhower and Kennedy were extremely sensitive to the idea that there be no sign of a U.S. hand in this operation,” he says. “A lot of publicity might have caused Kennedy to back away.”
One person who thought so: Kennedy himself. A few days before the Bay of Pigs, The New York Times, too, had all the details about what was to happen. At the last minute, the paper’s editors softened the story considerably, cut out key facts, and gave it meager display. Two weeks later, Kennedy told a senior Times editor: “If you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.”
At least one other person outside the government knew the whole story: poor John Keogh, the teenager whose shooting first got the Herald on the trail of the Bay of Pigs. Keogh had most of the bullet removed from his head — though fragments show up on X-rays and MRI scans to this day — regained his sight and was released from the hospital, then spent several weeks conferring with prosecutors and cops while they tried to decide what to do about his case as State Department monitors stood by.
“From what questions I was asked, and what I overheard from other conversations in the room, I could have told you the whole Bay of Pigs story a few months before it happened,” he says. “Including the identity of the first casualty, who was me.”
His family soon moved to the Tampa area and the whole thing began to seem like a dream. Before last week, Keogh said he had never spoken to a reporter, and he hardly tells anyone else — except his barber: “I got to explain to him not to cut my hair so short that the scars show.”