AHA Roundtable

CIA’s Draft History of the Bay of Pigs: The Inside Story

Ken McDonald, August 2014

In late 1984, not long before he retired from the CIA, Jack Pfeiffer filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the CIA to release the classified five-volume draft history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation that he had begun as a CIA History Staff monograph in 1973. In late 1987 and early 1988, after Pfeiffer had appealed the CIA's denial of this request, the CIA's Office of General Counsel asked me, as chief historian, to prepare a declaration and later a supplement concerning Pfeiffer's appeal for declassification and release of this top secret draft history. A few years later, I recall hearing that the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had rejected Pfeiffer's FOIA appeal and his entire five-volume draft history remained classified.

I heard nothing more about the fate of Pfeiffer's draft history until May of this year, when I read a copy of the recent US Court of Appeals denial of the National Security Archive's FOIA appeal for the declassification and release of Volume V of this Bay of Pigs draft history. Although Judge Rogers's dissenting opinion in this case quotes excerpts from my 1980s declarations, I have nothing useful to say now about the continued denial of Volume V. I can, however, provide some explanation for how it was that Jack Pfeiffer produced this massive draft history in the years 1973-1981 and how I came to review that draft in December 1981. I must rely on memory for this account of matters that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, since I am now retired and no longer have access to CIA records concerning Jack Pfeiffer, his history, or my work at the CIA.

Jack Pfeiffer joined the CIA History Staff in the early 1970s on temporary detail from the Directorate of Intelligence. As a staff historian he began work in 1973 on a history of the CIA's failed Bay of Pigs Operation. In January 1975, however, Senator Frank Church's Senate Select Committee investigating the CIA's foreign activities co-opted the small CIA History Staff to find documents needed for its inquiry. While this investigation proceeded, the History Staff's chief and historians found positions elsewhere in the CIA. With some retrospective irony, Jack Pfeiffer was assigned to the office handling FOIA requests, where he was allowed to continue work without supervision on his Bay of Pigs history. Although the CIA History Staff no longer existed, Jack soon styled himself first as "acting chief historian" and later as "chief historian."

When Admiral Stansfield Turner, director of central intelligence, resurrected the CIA History Staff in November 1980, I applied and was selected for the job of chief historian, which had been advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere. When I arrived at the CIA in August 1981, the History Staff included two research assistants, a Directorate of Intelligence analyst with a history PhD as deputy chief historian, and vacant positions for four more staff historians. Jack Pfeiffer, who temporarily occupied a History Staff office, had been given until the end of that year to complete his Bay of Pigs history, submit it to me for evaluation, and then leave for assignment elsewhere.

It took some time to review and evaluate Pfeiffer's massive draft history after I got it in early December 1981. My review, which had nothing to do with any declassification of this top secret manuscript, was intended only to determine whether or not the draft work was acceptable as an official CIA history for classified circulation within CIA. At that time, I had an Oxford doctorate in modern history and 20 years of experience as a professor at George Washington University and the US Naval War College. As the new head of a revived CIA History Staff I was concerned that our products reflect the careful use of historical evidence and high professional standards of both research and writing. I evaluated the draft critically, as I would a doctoral dissertation or prospective book manuscript.

Pfeiffer's eight years of research, especially into the actual conduct of the Bay of Pigs operation, was impressive. I nevertheless found that the work had serious deficiencies as a historical study. I was especially troubled by three particular weaknesses. First, the work was an apologia, an uncritical defense of the officers and operatives most closely involved with the operation. Second, without adequate argument or evidence it put responsibility for the operation's failure on officers elsewhere in CIA and on US government officials up to the highest levels. Third, the work's polemical response to earlier critics of the operation (especially those within the CIA) strongly suggested that Pfeiffer undertook his history principally as a rebuttal to such earlier critiques as the June 1961 findings of General Maxwell Taylor's presidential commission and the October 1961 report of CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick, both of which assessed the operation's many faults in planning and execution.

I might add a word on how the CIA uses its History Staff's studies. The CIA History Staff has privileged access to the classified records that professional historians need to write clear, candid, well-documented, and accurate histories of the operations, events, and people they treat. CIA history is not a separate genre, and it is subject to the same critical standards as other historical works, academic or official. Since CIA histories are almost invariably classified and intended only for an internal CIA readership, staff historians can write without concern for external media or political reaction (at least until a successful FOIA request opens up the work). The CIA expects the History Staff to be useful, but in these classified histories officers find not lists of "lessons learned," but accounts of how and why complex and sometimes dangerous intelligence enterprises have been undertaken and the variety of factors that have affected their outcome. This knowledge can significantly inform and influence decisions for future operations and activities.

In Jack Pfeiffer's case, after completing my review, I decided that his draft Bay of Pigs history gave a historically unsound, tendentious, and in some important respects distorted account of this major CIA catastrophe. At the time, in 1981, I hoped that a less biased historian might later undertake the formidable task of editing, revising, and possibly condensing Pfeiffer's five-volume work to make it acceptable as a History Staff official history. This did not happen, and in early 1982 Jack Pfeiffer was assigned to CIA's Office of Training and Education. There he continued to work on his history, filed an FOIA request for it, and without the CIA's knowledge took a copy of all five volumes of the classified draft manuscript with him when he retired at the end of 1984.

Were Jack Pfeiffer alive today, I suspect he would be pleased that the Freedom of Information Act has not only assured his draft history's now-declassified first four volumes a significant place in CIA historiography, but now promises to focus continued close attention on the fate of that history's still classified and still withheld fifth and final volume.   

Note:  Although the CIA has reviewed this paper to ensure that it includes no classified information, that review neither constitutes CIA authentication of information nor CIA endorsement of my views.  

Ken McDonald, an ex-marine and Oxford DPhil, has been a professor at George Washington University, King Chair of Maritime History at the US Naval War College, and chief historian of the Central Intelligence Agency. His recent publications include (with Michael Warner) US Intelligence Community Reform Studies since 1947 (2005) and (with Michael Herman and Vojtech Mastny) Did Intelligence Matter in the Cold War? (2006).