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The Kennedy-Nixon Debates: JFK Lied, Cubans Died

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Last week in the New York Times JFK speechwriter and adviser Ted Sorensen commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy/Nixon debates. “When Kennedy Met Nixon: The Real Story,” reads the op-ed’s title.


Turns out, however, that the “real story” as “revealed” by Sorensen is identical to the one filtered through the MSM for the past fifty years: Kennedy, we’re given to understand, trounced Nixon—and not just in style—mainly in substance. Sorensen also laments what “now passes for political debate in our increasingly commercialized, sound-biteTwitter-fied culture, in which extremist rhetoric requires presidents to respond to outrageous claims.”

Nothing of the sort, we’re given to understand, marred those heady and substantive debates of yore. Take Kennedy’s claim that President Eisenhower had fallen asleep (or gone golfing) during his command and allowed a perilous “missile gap” to grow between the U.S. and the Soviets. In fact a huge gap had grown (roughly six thousand for us, three hundred for the Soviets)

Might this qualify as an “outrageous claim” by Kennedy? Not if your source is Ted Sorensen and the New York Times. In fact, prior to the debates, CIA director Allen Dulles had briefed Kennedy on the genuine missile numbers. But rather than respond to this genuinely outrageous claim, Nixon bit his tongue. Disclosing the real number (that JFK knew perfectly well) in public would alert the Soviets to how we got their number, and jeopardize U.S. national security. Which is to say, to blindside his Republican opponent Kennedy relied on that opponent's patriotism. Let's face it, Republicans are at a woeful disadvantage here.

"The Republicans have allowed a communist dictatorship to flourish eight jet minutes from our borders!” Kennedy charged during the second debate. “We must support anti-Castro fighters. So far these freedom fighters have received no help from our government." Here again JFK’s “extremist rhetoric,” was a pre-meditated lie. Unlike the John Lovitz character on "Saturday Night Live," JFK lied expertly, with a straight face.


Short weeks before the debates Allen Dulles (on Ike's orders) had also briefed Kennedy about Cuban invasion plans (what became the Bay of Pigs invasion). So the “Real Story” (as you well know Mr Ted Sorensen) is that Kennedy was again lying through his teeth. He knew damn well the Republican administration was training Cuban freedom fighters. And since the plans were secret, he knew damn well Nixon couldn't rebut. So Nixon bit his tongue again. He could easily have stomped Kennedy on it. But to some candidates national security trumps debating points. Four months later, 1,500 of those very Cuban freedom-fighters that "we must support" were slugging it out with 51,000 Castro troops, squadrons of Stalin tanks and his entire Air force at a beachhead now known as the Bay of Pigs.

JFK was no longer a candidate. He was now commander in chief. It was time to put up or shut up. He'd already done plenty of putting up by forcing the CIA and military planners to change the landing site. Then by holding up his approval of an invasion a year in the making till 24 hours before the planned D-day. Then by canceling 80 percent of the pre-invasion air strikes. This last was a vital element of the invasion as planned under Eisenhower. The Cuban invasion was born under a Republican administration, with Vice President Nixon its main booster. The man who saw through Alger Hiss was also the first to see through Fidel Castro. Then it landed in Camelot’s lap.

"Where are the PLANES?" kept crackling over the invasion ships' radios. That was their commander, Pepe San Roman, roaring into his radio from the beachhead between hundreds of artillery concussions from huge 122 mm Soviet Howitzers. "Send planes or we can’t last!” San Roman yelled while watching the Soviet tanks close in and his casualties pile up.


The pleas made it to Navy Chief Admiral Arleigh Burke in Washington, D.C., who conveyed them in person to his commander in chief.

"Two planes, Mr. President!" Admiral Burke sputtered into his commander in chief's face. The fighting admiral was livid, pleading for permission to allow just two of his jets to blaze off the carrier deck and support the desperately embattled freedom-fighters on that heroic beachhead.

"Burke, we can't get involved in this," replied JFK.

"WE put those Cuban boys there, Mr. President!" the fighting admiral exploded. "By God, we ARE involved!"'

Interesting match here. In one corner, the man who blasted almost half the Imperial Japanese fleet to fiery rubble and sent it to the bottom of the Pacific at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In the other, the man who managed to get his PT boat Karate-chopped in half by a Japanese destroyer, a feat of nautical ingenuity that still has naval men scratching their heads – and one that almost got him court-martialed. Only some heavy political pressure saved John F. Kennedy in 1944. Alas, politics prevailed again that night in April '61. JFK refused to help the freedom fighters. The election was over, you see.

"Can't continue," crackled the final message from San Roman a day later. For three days his force of mostly volunteer civilians had battled savagely against a Soviet-trained-and-led force 10 times their size, inflicting casualties of 20 to 1. To this day their feat of arms amazes professional military men. Morale will do that to a fighting force. And there's no morale booster like watching Fidel Castro and Che Guevara ravage your homeland and families, believe me.


Ammo finally ran out. "Russian tanks overrunning my position" ... San Roman on his radio again ... "destroying my equipment…How can you people do this to us?" Finally the radio went dead.

"Tears filled my eyes," writes CIA man Grayston Lynch, a multi-decorated WWII and Korea vet who took that final message. "I broke down completely. For the first time in my 37 years I was ashamed of my country.”

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