CIA propaganda officer David Atlee Phillips described the audacious measures that would “descend to the level of Castro’s propaganda” in order to support the invaders during the 1961 Bay of Pigs assault through his messages. Phillips, who started as a freelance contractor with the CIA and eventually worked his way up to become the Chief of the Western Hemisphere Division, faced a daunting task trying to woo a “very tough audience” of Cubans. The officer drew on his media experiences in Latin America and a past CIA operational precedent, “the Guatemala Scenario,” to accomplish this revolutionary goal through the means of propaganda including radio communications and clandestine operations. Always seeking to conceal the U.S. hand behind the Bay of Pigs operation, Phillips was the cryptic messenger of the CIA propaganda efforts.
Radio airwaves transmitted the main propaganda effort to strategically and to tactically support the invasion. Phillips tailored the messages to foment revolt among “the very lowest classes.” “Military considerations” dictated the media objectives. The basic framework revolved around anti-Castro groups purchasing time slots on CIA influenced radio stations using American provided funds. Phillips would make the message cryptic, in a similar fashion to the BBC airing covert messages to the French resistance during World War II. These messages had the broad strategic goal to “main morale of anti-Castro fighting forces,” “instruct pro-patriot forces,” “intimidate pro-Castro forces,” “present the desired picture of the internal fighting to world opinion,” and “counteract Sino-Soviet propaganda.” The radio messages also had the tactical purpose to “instruct individuals, telling them how and where they can join fighting forces,” and “provoke fence-sitters into joining ‘the winning side’.” Philips sought to saturate the airways around Cuba, and in the months leading up to the invasion broadcasted eighteen hours a day on medium wave and sixteen hours a day on short wave. On the days leading up to the beach landing, the propaganda shop “stepped up” their broadcasting, sending out eighty one hours of messages to Cuba. Phillip’s cryptic propaganda war for Cuba would be fought primarily on the radio waves around Cuba.
Phillips set up a conglomerate of radio stations and partners to broadcast his cryptic messages into Cuba. Radio Swan off the coast of Honduras was the “principal, tactical station,” and “the center of a series of satellite stations.” Phillips commanded a crew manning a fifty kilowatt transmitter there under the corporate front of the Gulf Steamship Company. Another critical station was WGBS in Miami, Florida, which broadcast into Cuba. Radio Independiente sent messages on a boat off the coast of Cuba under the direction of Tony Varona, a notorious Cuban opportunist. Furthermore, Phillips consulted Henry Loomis of the Voice of America “to discuss broadcasting into Cuba.” Altogether, the CIA and Cuban exiles operated “about 40 stations in five countries around the Caribbean.” The propaganda effort saturated Cuba with radio propaganda, which required numerous stations and unusual alliances.
The CIA also utilized other clandestine means including anti-Castro newspapers, leaflet airdrops, and deception ruses. Phillips “recruited and trained and infiltrated small provocateur teams.” These agents used communications equipment to publish an underground newspaper in Havana. Additionally, at the requests of these teams, the CIA conducted a leaflet campaign, resulting in twenty-three propaganda airdrops. The leaflets succinctly described the mission elements to the Cuban people; “Non Batista, non-foreign Cubans” would now “overthrow Castro and the Communists who have enslaved Cuba,” to create “a democratic Cuba” by “joining with all Cubans to carry out war against the tyrant.” There were three variants of leaflets. Some targeted the army and militia to defect, others urged the general population to rise up against Castro, and the final variant were “target of opportunity” leaflets on the status of the invasion. Phillips created the “defector” story of Cuban B-26s landing in the U.S. In order to make the action seem like a Cuban civil war, two American supported Cuban exile Brigade 2506 pilots flew their B-26s to Miami and Key West to claim they had bombed Castro’s Air Force while defecting from the tyrant. This ruse ultimately failed as the Brigade B-26s had a different nose than Castro’s B-26s, and the Brigade B-26s had taped guns, arousing the suspicion of the press. The elaborate ruse of the B-26s did not thwart the keen eyes of the press. These clandestine means were another propaganda front in the propaganda war.
Despite the multiple fronts of the propaganda war, journalist Jim Rasenberger wrote, “Judging from the reaction it failed to stir, Radio Swan fell on deaf ears.” Castro had so purged the ranks of Cuban dissenters that there would be no popular uprising against his rule. Despite the CIA’s messages of “Look well to the rainbow. The fish will rise very soon,” none of the Cubans rose to the CIA’s cryptic messenger, David Atlee Phillips.
“Propaganda Action Plan in Support of Military Forces.” Undated. The National Security Archive. “The Ultrasensitive Bay of Pigs.” May 3, 2000. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB29/.
Havana Journal. “Life Magazine Bay of Pigs Feature Issue May 10 1963.” February 12, 2004. http://havanajournal.com/politics/entry/life_magazine_bay_of_pigs_feature_issue_may_10_1963/.
Phillips, David Atlee. “Interview.” Undated. The National Security Archive. “The Ultrasensitive Bay of Pigs.” May 3, 2000. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB29/.
——. The Night Watch. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977.
Rasenberger, Jim. Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. New York: Scribner, 2011.
Saxon, Wolfgang. “David Atlee Phillips Dead at 65; Ex-Agent Was Advocate of C.I.A.” New York Times. July 10, 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/10/obituaries/david-atlee-phillips-dead-at-65-ex-agent-was-advocate-of-cia.html.