The CIA had no more success, under Lansdale’s prodding, in mobilizing an internal insurgency against Castro despite a massive expenditure of resources. The CIA station in Miami, operating under the cover name Zenith Technical Enterprises, became its largest in the entire world, with some 15,000 Cuban exiles connected to it and so many boats ferrying agents and supplies to Cuba that it controlled the third-largest navy in the Caribbean. The CIA’s agents carried out a few sabotage operations, but, as future CIA Director Richard Helms was to write, “the notion that an underground resistance organization might be created on the island remained a remote, romantic myth.”
As 1962 progressed and Mongoose failed to produce results, tempers frayed all around. The relationship between Bill Harvey and Bobby Kennedy, a CIA officer recalled, was “bad from the beginning, and then it deteriorated steadily.” At Langley, a story was making the rounds that when Bobby Kennedy demanded to know why a team of exiles had not yet been infiltrated into Cuba, Harvey replied they had to be trained first. “I’ll take them out to Hickory Hill and train them myself,” Kennedy snorted, referring to his mansion in northern Virginia. “What will you teach them, sir?” Harvey shot back. “Baby-sitting?”
Confidence was also faltering in Lansdale. In a contemporaneous memorandum, a CIA officer wrote, “Practically everyone at the operating level agrees that Lansdale has lost his value.” It was hardly Lansdale and Harvey’s fault that they had not been able to achieve impossible results, but they were set to become the fall guys.
Once the Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 16, 1962, following the discovery of a Soviet missile base in Cuba, President Kennedy prudently suspended Operation Mongoose. The only positive outcome of the operation was that it generated the intelligence which tipped off Washington that the Russians were placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Leaks about Mongoose had also, however, encouraged Nikita Khrushchev to send missiles in the first place to safeguard the Castro regime from Yanqui aggression. After the crisis ended, Mongoose was formally disbanded early in 1963. Efforts to overthrow Castro resumed shortly thereafter, but Lansdale was no longer in charge.
Having failed to achieve the Kennedys’ most cherished objective, Lansdale lost their favor, and was left naked before his bureaucratic enemies. His military career ended less than a year after Mongoose did. “I think the thing that hurt me the most in the long run was the task that Kennedy gave me on Cuba,” he reflected decades later. “I’m sorry I ever got mixed up in those Cuban things.”
Lansdale’s Cuban failure was to prove historically significant not just for the future of that island nation but also for Indochina, because it ensured that he was cut out of American policymaking toward Vietnam just as relations between the Kennedy administration and the Diem government were reaching their breaking point over Diem’s handling of an uprising by militant Buddhists. The Kennedys were convinced that Diem’s heavy-handed repression was costing his government critical support in the struggle against communism—without considering whether the generals scheming to succeed him would prove any more popular. Throughout 1963, Lansdale presciently warned that giving the go-ahead to a military coup against Ngo Dinh Diem would be a catastrophic mistake. While Diem was flawed, Lansdale believed he was the best available choice, because he was not corrupt and he had nationalist credentials, having opposed both the communists and the French colonialists. By contrast, the leaders of the military plot against Diem were not only corrupt and lacking in democratic legitimacy but also tainted by their earlier service in the French army. Lansdale warned against Americans “trying to play God, by trying to pick a leader for Vietnam,” when a leader, no matter how imperfect, was already in place.