We originally published the following post on Feb. 1, 2004. We’re reproducing it as a permanent page because it describes an example of presidential leadership and integrity that is both timely and timeless.
In April 1961, a still-new president John F. Kennedy authorized what quickly became “the worst defeat of his career,” in the words of his speech writer and biographer, Theodore Sorensen.
That defeat was the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles armed, financed, trained and coordinated by the CIA and U.S. military. Their mission was to land sufficient forces in Cuba to spark a counterrevolution, oust communist dictator Fidel Castro and liberate their homeland.
In the event, the intelligence proved bad, the planning shoddy, the invading forces and firepower insufficient. Exile forces suffered heavy losses and 1,113 wound up imprisoned. Kennedy had had misgivings but felt preparations had gone too far to stop. His military and CIA advisers had urged going ahead, and Kennedy had not wanted to appear soft or indecisive.
In “Kennedy” Sorensen describes the day after:
“But as we walked on the South Lawn Thursday morning, he seemed to me a depressed and lonely man. To guard national unity and spirit, he was planning a determined speech to the nation’s editors that afternoon and a series of talks with every Republican leader. The Bay of Pigs had been – and would be – the worst defeat of his career, the kind of outright failure to which he was not accustomed. He knew that he had handed his critics a stick with which they would forever beat him; that his quick strides toward gaining the confidence of other nations had been set back; that Castro’s shouting boasts would dangerously increase the cold war frustrations of the American people; and that he had unnecessarily worsened East-West relations just as the (nuclear weapons) test ban talks were being resumed.
“`There’s an old saying,’ he later told his press conference, `that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. . . . I am the responsible officer of the government and that is quite obvious.” But as we walked that Thursday morning, he told me, at times in caustic tones, of some of the other fathers of this defeat who had let him down. By taking full blame upon himself he was winning the admiration of both career servants and the public, avoiding partisan investigations and attacks, and discouraging further attempts by those involved to leak their versions and accusations. But his assumption of responsibility was not merely a political device or a constitutional obligation. He felt it strongly, sincerely, and repeated it as we walked. `How could I have been so far off base?’ he asked himself out loud. `All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?’
“His anguish was doubly deepened by the knowledge that the rest of the world was asking the same question.”
Presidents do make mistakes, sometimes with terrible, life-and-death consequences resulting. JFK handled his debacle personally, promptly and forthrightly. He engaged in no blame-shifting, made no effort to recast the attempt at regime change as some kind of minor probing of Castro’s defenses, never tried to justify his mistake by belaboring how bad Castro was or paint it as anything but a mistake.
That’s presidential leadership of the highest caliber, quickly and naturally forthcoming when the going is toughest, when it’s clear there will be no happy ending.