An imperial license to kill

As a longtime director of the CIA, Watertown native Allen Dulles played a chief role in planning and carrying out several operations to oust the leaders of foreign countries. Public domain

WATERTOWN — At what point in its history did the United States transform from a constitutional republic to an empire?

When did we decide we had the right to topple other governments because we opposed their politics? Most importantly, why hasn’t this betrayal of our charter incited more dissent among Americans?

We got caught with our hand in the imperial cookie jar 60 years ago, but we somehow haven’t learned our lesson. What’s worse, a citizenry that supposedly adores freedom shrugs its collective shoulders when confronted with the facts of our government’s authoritarian behavior.

If John F. Kennedy had a sharper vision for the future and more political courage as president, he likely would have rejected the plan that became the Bay of Pigs fiasco. This could have pushed our country in a new direction and avoided some of the tragedies we’ve endured.

But he signed onto an idea drafted under the previous administration and then blamed “the experts” for misleading him. We repeated a familiar foreign policy practice and stumbled because of poor execution.

On April 17, 1961, about 1,400 Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs to overthrow of the regime of Fidel Castro. They had hoped to inspire an uprising and encourage Cubans to join them.

But that’s not what happened. Within three days, all of the exiles had been captured or killed.

Allen Dulles, the Watertown native who served as director of the CIA since 1953, paid the price for the debacle. He resigned under pressure from Kennedy in November 1961.

“Under a parliamentary system of government, it is I who would be leaving office,” Kennedy told Dulles. “But under our system, it is you who must go.”

Dulles planned to counter charges from members of the Kennedy administration that the president had been misled about the invasion. He worked on various drafts of an article titled “My Answer to the Bay of Pigs,” which Harper’s magazine intended to publish. But Dulles chose not to publish his article and kept most of his opinions to himself about CIA matters — although his writings on this incident are found among the Allen W. Dulles Papers at the Seeley G. Mudd Library at Princeton University.

Dulles pointed out that contrary to assertions from the White House, Kennedy had been lukewarm about the Bay of Pigs invasion. He undercut its potential effectiveness by chipping away at the plan.

“It was a sort of orphan child JFK had adopted (from the Republicans) — he had no real love and affection for it. [He] proceeded uncertainly toward defeat — unable to turnback — only half sold on the vital necessity of what he was doing, surrounded by doubting Thomases among his best friends,” Dulles mused, according to an article titled “The ‘Confessions’ of Allen Dulles: New Evidence on the Bay of Pigs,” written by Lucien S. Vandenbroucke for the fall 1984 edition of Diplomatic History. “Among the Pres[idential] advisors, there were enough doubting Thomases to dull the attack but not enough to bring about its cancellation.”

Key aspects of the invasion had been altered, including where it ultimately took place (the Bay of Pigs rather than Trinidad). Kennedy changed other details to obscure U.S. involvement.

Dulles’s response to the failed operation is crucial to understanding our government’s dictatorial mindset. His primary concern was that we didn’t succeed in overthrowing Castro, not with the fact that we tried to impose our will on another sovereign nation.

Dulles played a chief role in previous coups d’état against two “undesirable” government leaders: Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh (1953) and Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz (1954). Both had achieved their offices through legitimate elections. I guess the U.S. government isn’t as big a fan of democracy as it often claims!

In his 1986 book, “Adventures in the Middle East: Excursions and Incursions,” former CIA operative Donald Wilber wrote that Dulles privately acknowledged the agency’s involvement in removing Mosaddegh. Wilber includes in his book a copy of a letter that Dulles had written to him in which he referred to the operation as “a major victory in the Cold War.”

This is incredibly shortsighted. The coup so enraged Iranians that by the late 1970s, radicals gained enough momentum to oust Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Our support of the shah and refusal to condemn his brutality remains a bitter topic for Iranians, and we suffer strained relations to this day.

Our hubris hasn’t lessened over the decades since the Bay of Pigs invasion. We’re still discussing how to remove all our troops from Afghanistan. After 20 years, uncertainties remain about how the Afghan military will function once we leave.

We’re also afraid that an unchaperoned Afghanistan won’t prioritize what’s best for the United States. So we’ve lingered there for two decades with the promise that we’ll pull out soon. While President Joe Biden is talking about removing troops before Sept. 11 (which will be the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks), I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds an excuse to keep some service personnel there.

We’ve engaged in these acts of empire-building on the premise that they serve our national interests. But we’ve distorted the concept of freedom by denying it to the citizens of other nations.

In addition, we’ve created a faction of government so cloaked in secrecy that many members of Congress don’t know what it’s doing. This is an odd turn for our 1776 experiment in self-government dedicated to expanding liberty throughout the world.

The Bay of Pigs invasion left a haunting legacy for U.S. foreign policy. It launched an intense effort on our government’s part to try to assassinate Castro.

We’ve gone out of our way to harm the Cubans in any way imaginable, which is peculiar given this tiny communist nation’s size and limited power. What are the Cubans going to do to strike out at us? Demand we honor the warranties of all the U.S.-made vehicles from the 1950s they’re still driving?

Yet during this same period of time, we’ve helped strengthen the economy — and, thus, global military prowess — of China, the largest communist country in the world. We’re very selective about the oppressive regimes we feel the need to curtail.

The Bay of Pigs incident also led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy received praise for averting a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. But while he carefully threaded the needle of diplomacy and avoided a war at the height of tensions, critics have said a more attentive president wouldn’t have allowed the missiles to be installed in Cuba in the first place.

If the botched coup d’état had any benefit for the United States, however, it’s this: Believing some advisers lied later on about their views of the attempted invasion, Kennedy had a secret taping system installed in the Oval Office. He wanted documented evidence of what they actually told him in private meetings to contrast with what they claimed publicly.

When he was president, Richard Nixon followed Kennedy’s example by using a similar system. The resulting tapes ultimately trapped Tricky Dick in his own lies concerning the Watergate scandal, which led to his resignation. So more than a decade after his death, Kennedy defeated Nixon all over again!

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.

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To answer the rhetorical question about when we became an empire, we were always an empire. We were founded by an empire, broke off, and continued as a mini-empire. Not just that, mind. America is many things at the same time, and always has been. Attempts to define it on the basis of one aspect always distort the truth. But our interest in international hegemony was much on the decline until World War 2 led to a necessity to treat the whole globe as a battleground to be controlled in a never ending war. This is a whole new kind of thing and analogies from farther back in history cannot apply. The world community has yet to forge a new vision of international relations that fully encompasses the unique new conditions resulting from modern technologies and economic scales that knit us all together into a single space, vast yet unprecedentedly finite.

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