Shortly before his inauguration the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) briefed John Kennedy on a plan developed during the Eisenhower administration to train Cuban exiles to invade Cuba.
On April 17, 1961, against the advice of his military advisors, John Kennedy approved an assault on Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
Cuban armed forces defeated the U.S. backed invasion within two days.
On April 21, 1961, Kennedy held a tenth press conference attended by 402 reporters.
The questions are tough and Kennedy looks tired, but he is never insulting, he doesn’t blame the previous President, he doesn’t tell anyone to sit down or shut-up, he is the President and he knows his responsibilities to his office, the Constitution, the press and the American people.
This is how a normal President interacts with the press in a democracy.
Kennedy starts the press conference by saying he doesn’t want to talk about Cuba beyond statements he’d made the day before, announces U.S. support for a UN attack on World hunger, increased insurance dividends for Veterans and the Peace Corps first project. Then he takes questions.
QUESTION: Mr. President, quite respecting your feeling of not going beyond your statement of yesterday on Cuba, there still is in print this morning, quite widely distributed, a published report that you took the decision to continue training Cuban refugees with arms provided by this government, and for releasing ships and fuel for launching the current operations in Cuba. Furthermore, this report says, that you reached this decision against the advice of Secretary Rusk and Mr. Bowles. Now is this true?
THE PRESIDENT: I think that the facts of the matter involving Cuba will come out in due time. I am sure that an effort will be made to determine the facts accurately. As for me, I am confining myself to my statement, for good reason.
QUESTION: Sir, since last Saturday, a certain foreign policy situation has given rise to many conflicting stories. But during that time, reporters in Washington have noticed that there has been a clamming up of information from formerly useful sources. To my knowledge the State Department and the White House has not attempted to take a representative group of reporters and say “these are the facts as we know them.” And this morning we are not permitted to ask any further questions abut this foreign policy situation. In view of the fact we are taking a propaganda lambasting around the world, why is it not useful, sir, for us to explore with you the real facts behind this, or our motivations?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think in answer to your question that we have to make a judgment as to how much we can usefully say that would aid the interest of the United States. One of the problems of a free society, a problem not met by a dictatorship, is this problem of information. A good deal has been printed in the paper. I wouldn’t be surprised if those of you who are members of the press would be receiving a lot of background briefings in the next day or two by interested people or interested agencies.
There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan, and I wouldn’t be surprised if information is poured into you in regard to all the recent activities.
Now, I think we see some of the problems, to move from this particular case, in the problem of Space, where the Soviet Union — no reports were made in regard to any experiments that they carried out. “Our man in space” — I saw in a national magazine about some student said the Americans talk a good deal about their man in space. The Soviet Union says nothing and yet it wins. Well, that is one of the problems of a democracy competing and carrying on a struggle for survival against a dictatorship.
But I will say to you, Mr. Vanocur, that I have said as much as I feel can be usefully said, by me, in regard to the events of the past few days. Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I am the responsible officer of the government, and that is quite obvious, but merely because I do not believe that such a discussion would benefit us during the present difficult situation. I think you will be informed and some of the information, based on what I have seen, will not be accurate.
QUESTION: You have practiced what has been described as the quiet diplomacy approach (to Russia). Your speech yesterday seemed to suggest that you have perhaps decided upon another approach?
THE PRESIDENT: No, I wouldn’t attempt to make a judgment or response to that. I think that — I am concerned about these kinds of problems which I just described. I don’t feel satisfied that we have an effective answer to it yet, and I think it’s a matter of the greatest possible concern to all of us, because I think events have been moving with some speed.
The use which Communists (Soviet Union) make of democracy, and then when they seize power, the effectiveness with which they manage the police apparatus so that dissent cannot arise, and so that the people can no longer express their will, liquidation by gunfire of the opposition, or by forcing them out of the country to be refugees -this suggests the kind of problem which we are going to have in this decade.
In my judgment, it is an extremely difficult matter for the free nations to deal with. But I must say that it is a matter to which we must address all of our energy and all of our attention.
This isn’t the Arthurian Kennedy of Camelot.
This is clearly a humiliating moment for President Kennedy but he is in command of the facts, understands the issues, gives detailed and respectful answers, and takes responsibility for his decisions.
We’re fortunate to have videos like this one.
We can see and hear the important events of the last 100 years.
President Kennedy’s News Conference 04/21/1961
U.S. Information Agency. (1982 – 10/01/1999)
The Internet Archives
Full transcript of President Kennedy’s News Conference 04/21/1961
To learn more about the Bay of Pigs visit the JFK Presidential Library.