The Kennedy Detail
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Monday, April 18, 2011

On the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, lessons in presidential humility

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From Jon Meacham.

Humility is a rare presidential trait; the effort of will required to win the office and then hold it does not ordinarily allow for much self-awareness, much less self-criticism.

This April marks the 50th anniversary of an episode at once humiliating and instructive: the failed American-backed operation against Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs. Humiliating because the attack was a disaster; instructive because President John F. Kennedy realized he had made a terrible mistake — and he pledged to learn from it.

He was candid about the scope of the mess. “How could I have been so stupid?” he asked himself and others in the aftermath. Fifteen hundred men had been sent to the beaches; later estimates suggested it would have taken a whole division — 15,000 men — to successfully conduct an amphibious operation of this scope. To a CIA officer he admitted, “In a parliamentary system I would resign.” Kennedy learned official-seeming presentations from officers wearing what he called their “fruit salad” of ribbons were not always reliable.

Yet he took responsibility in public, understanding that in politics, as in life, to whom much is given, much is expected. Kennedy said, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan… I am the responsible officer of this government.”

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