Obituary: Richard Bissell

Richard Mervin Bissell, economist: born Hartford, Connecticut 18 September 1909; economic adviser to the Director, War Mobilisation and Reconversion 1945-46, Deputy Director 1946; Assistant Professor of Economics, MIT 1942-48, Professor 1948-52; Executive Secretary, President's Committee on Foreign Aid 1947-48; Assistant Administrator, Economic Co-operation Administration 1948-51, Acting Administrator 1951; staff, Ford Foundation 1952-54; special assistant to the Director, CIA 1954-59, Deputy Director, Plans 1959-62; President, Instiute for Defense Analyses 1962-64; Director of Marketing and Economic Planning, United Aircraft Corporation 1964-74; married 1940 Ann Bushnell (four sons, one daughter); died Farmington, Connecticut 7 February 1994.

RICHARD BISSELL was the central covert operations man in the Central Intelligence Agency for the central period of the cold war. Not the most well-known nor the highest-ranking official, Bissell was the man who planned and gave the orders for such low points in American cold-war dirty tricks as the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba, the disastrous invasion of Cuba and the numerous (failed) attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

Bissell could be called, based on this track record, the head honcho of the 'cowboys' - the CIA agents who believed in firepower over diplomacy, and who never let the US Constitution get in the way of their plans. Yet Bissell was, at the same time, a pillar of the establishment. He was born in 1909, to a New England family of wealth and influence and he attended the upper-class Groton School, Yale University and the London School of Economics.

The contradiction between his class background and his chosen line of work is not, of course, anomalous. The American establishment that ran the cold war certainly employed an army of tough customers to do the dirty work - pay-offs, murders, gun-running and the like - but the elite corps made the choices and issued the orders.

When Lumumba, a postal clerk in the Congo up till 1956, became that newly independent country's leader, the US responded as though the Red Army had marched into the heart of Africa.

Lumumba was, above all, a fighter for his own people. His attraction to the idea of getting Soviet help to oust the Belgian soldiers from his land was probably based on the sensible notion that his best option for defeating the well-armed white men was to fight them with other well-armed white men. Having made no attempt to understand Lumumba or his political dilemma, the US decided he had to go. The decision was made by President Eisenhower and transmitted by Richard Bissell, then deputy director of the CIA, to his station chief in Kinshasa (then Leopoldsville).

Like many of his generation Bissell was drawn into government by the Second World War. Then an economics teacher at Yale, Bissell was tapped to manage the maritime operations supplying American and allied forces around the world. After the war he returned to teaching (at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) until 1948, when he returned to Washington to work on the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe.

In 1954, Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, appointed Bissell, who was known as a brilliant innovator, as his special assistant for planning and co-ordination. Bissell's job was to commission an aeroplane that could fly over hostile countries with impunity: Lockheed built him the U-2 spy plane. The dream of 'impunity' was, of course, shattered some years later when the Russians shot down a U-2 and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, in one of the cold war's critical turns of fortune. But Bissell went on to higher things. He launched the American spy satellite programme which, according to the former CIA director Richard Helms, 'did much to improve intelligence during the cold war'.

In 1960, as head of clandestine operations, Bissell embarked on the one dirty trick that will forever bear his name: the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Conceived by the CIA command under President Eisenhower, the plan was to train a small army of exiles from Cuba and then land them on the Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) in Cuba. The theory was that the Cuban people, oppressed by Fidel Castro's Communist government, would rise up with the invaders and re-take their country. But midway through the planning John F. Kennedy won the presidential election over the CIA's friend Richard Nixon. Incredibly, the agency continued planning for the invasion to take place on 17 April 1961 - without telling the President.

As the day drew near, Bissell, Dulles and other holdovers from the previous Republican administration found their support eroding. Even though Kennedy, we now know, felt totally isolated from and intimidated by his military-

intelligence directors, Dulles and Bissell had to tell him their plans. The new President refused to provide them with US Air Force and Navy support. Then the invasion was compromised by a report in the New York Times about the training of the refugee army in Guatemala. Still the CIA went ahead, and, preceded by bombing raids on Cuban airfields by unmarked American planes flown out of Florida, 2,000 men landed at the Bay of Pigs.

It took Castro's forces less than 72 hours to capture or kill every invader, and Kennedy was thereafter reviled by Cuban exiles and CIA hard-liners as the man who sabotaged their invasion. Many of the conspiracy theories on the Kennedy assassination cite these two groups as likely co-conspirators.

Bissell was not done yet. Allegedly at Kennedy's behest, he ordered a series of bizarre schemes designed to assassinate Fidel Castro. These included hiring known Mafia leaders to send in hitmen, providing a fake television reporter with a camera fitted with a through- the-lens rifle, and shipping drugs to Havana that were supposed to make the maximum leader's beard fall out. Some believe that these schemes inspired Castro to retaliate and kill Kennedy, but the evidence for this is thinner than for most other conspiracy theories.

The Bay of Pigs invasion, in which the US government absurdly denied official involvement, was seen world-wide as a blow to American honour, so Bissell and Dulles had to go. On 28 February 1962, Bissell resigned his post as chief of covert operations and was given a National Security Medal by Kennedy, who called Bissell's intelligence work 'unique'.

While Kennedy's administration unfairly piled the blame for the Bay of Pigs on Bissell, Bissell remained unrepentant. Far from reflecting on the constitutional and political implications of allowing career spies to plan the overthrow of foreign governments, Bissell complained that the Kennedy administration had 'chipped away' at the invasion plans. He regretted that he hadn't demanded all, or nothing. 'Because we were so involved in seeing it go ahead,' Bissell told the Evening Star in 1965, 'we did not insist on as great freedom of action as we needed.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'