The unmarked plane streaked across the Nevada sky in the winter of 1955 on a mission so secretive its full details wouldn’t be revealed for more than a half-century.
On the plane was Kelly Johnson, the legendary aeronautical engineer from Lockheed (today known as Lockheed Martin), and two members of the Central Intelligence Agency, Herb Miller and Richard Bissell, a one-time Connecticut economics professor who was now one of the most powerful men in the world of espionage.
A Lockheed test pilot named Tony LeVier was piloting the plane, but Bissell was calling the shots. Bissell was under personal orders from President Dwight Eisenhower to establish a top-secret testing facility for what would be the world’s most advanced aircraft: the U-2. A new spy plane for a new world, the U-2 would fly up to 70,000 feet, above the range of Soviet fighter jets and missiles. Nicknamed the Dragon Lady, it would be stable enough at that altitude to stare down from the heavens, offering a bird’s-eye view of America’s rival in the Cold War, much like the gods of Olympus had stared over the battlefield of Troy.
Bissell and the others were scouting out a dry lake bed in southern Nevada, about 70 miles north of Las Vegas, called Groom Lake that they thought might serve as the perfect test site for the craft. When they landed on the lake bed and walked around, the men agreed the location was perfect. The flat, hardened surface could serve as a runway and the site was hemmed in by nearby mountains. Better yet, it was adjacent to the sprawling Nevada Test Site, a 1,000-square-mile-plus tract of land reserved for nuclear testing.
When he returned from the expedition, Bissell suggested that Eisenhower add the Groom Lake area to the Nevada Test Site. The president agreed and a secret base unlike any other was born.
Nicknames for the new base included “Paradise Ranch,” “Watertown” and “Dreamland.” When Bissell wrote about the expedition in the mid-1990s, he called it only Groom Lake. His sons never recall him ever uttering the place’s official name, despite how closely it was linked to his work.
The Nevada Test Site was divided into various areas: Area 1, Area 23, etc. The name of the area Bissell established in 1955 would ultimately be leaked to the public, but it wasn’t until 2013 when the CIA, in response to a Freedom of Information request, finally acknowledged after years of rumors and speculation that Area 51 was real.
Part One: Connecticut royalty
A Connecticut economics professor turned spymaster, Bissell was one of the most influential figures in CIA history. “Richard Bissell is probably the most accomplished, least-known person in 20th-century history,” says Victor Triay, professor of history at Middlesex Community College and author of Bay of Pigs: An Oral History of Brigade 2506.
In 1958, Bissell became the CIA’s deputy director for plans. Throughout the 1950s he had his hand in almost every famous or infamous action of the CIA, from unintentionally fueling UFO conspiracies at Area 51 and launching the first spy satellite to overseeing mind-control experiments and planning assassinations with members of the mafia.
“He was Jack Ryan — this was one man who did all that,” says Frances T. Pudlo, Bissell’s longtime secretary and the coauthor of his memoir, Reflections of a Cold Warrior.
Born on Sept. 18, 1909, Bissell was Connecticut royalty. His father was president of the Hartford Fire Insurance Co. and young Bissell was raised in the Mark Twain House in Hartford before the family moved to Farmington. He attended the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts, then Yale and the London School of Economics before returning to Yale to obtain his Ph.D. in 1939. Many of his classmates, first at Groton and then at Yale, would become his future colleagues in the CIA.
Tall and bespectacled, Bissell and his intellect impressed almost everyone who met him. As a child, he memorized train schedules in distant cities for fun and later wowed engineers on secret aerospace programs with precise questions and knowledge. “He had the kind of mind that was extremely good at keeping track of detail and a lot of detail,” says his youngest son, Tom Bissell, who lives in West Hartford. “He had a borderline photographic memory as far as tracking all sorts of information.”
Despite his intellect and patrician upbringing, Bissell did not always feel at home in genteel society. A shy and unathletic kid, he had trouble fitting in at Groton School. “I went to a dormitory after evening school and had to live with boys my own age, most of whom I didn’t like and most of whom didn’t like me,” he writes in his memoir.
Later, invited to join Skull and Bones, one of Yale’s most elite secret societies, he declined. “I resented a system that introduced a competition for social standing that was counterproductive to true education, labeling one select group of individuals as more acceptable and successful than the rest of their colleagues,” he wrote.
After obtaining his Ph.D., he started teaching economics at Yale and was the first to teach the influential Keynesian economic theory at the university. “He was very much the academic through and through,” Tom says. “Had World War II not come along, he would have continued in that role. He loved knowledge and information.”
Fate had other ideas.
When the U.S. entered World War II, many of Bissell’s Yale colleagues and students signed on with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Bissell took an equally important, if far less glorious, position with the Shipping Adjustment Board where he put his penchant for logistics to good use and helped supply the war effort in Europe. After the war he was a key administrator tasked with helping the European economic recovery called for by the Marshall Plan.
After that he went to work for the Ford Foundation, an influential D.C. think tank, and reconnected with old Yale and Groton pals. He and his wife, Annie Bissell, became part of what would be known as the Georgetown Set, an influential group of D.C. policy makers, journalists and spies. The group included Ben Bradlee, who would go on to become the Washington Post’s legendary editor, and other Yale alumni who would make names for themselves in the annals of espionage history including James Jesus Angleton and Tracy Barnes. It also included Frank Wisner, one of the founders of the CIA. Bissell’s work with the Marshall Plan was already revered in D.C. circles.
“Colleagues would call him the ‘smartest man in Washington’ and mean it. He was unknown to the public and famous to the inner circle of diplomats and foreign policy makers,” Evan Thomas writes in The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA.
When Wisner tried to recruit Bissell, he at first resisted. However, the idea of fighting against communism appealed to him. “He was very concerned for his country and very anti-communist and believed that communism had to be stopped at any cost,” says another of his sons, Winthrop Bissell, a New Britain resident.
But Bissell was not a witch hunter. In 1953 when Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the FBI accused a member of the CIA of being a communist sympathizer and security risk based on the flimsiest of charges, Bissell was impressed with the CIA’s refusal to back down to the accusations. He also liked that the men in the agency were “doers.” Ultimately he decided to join their ranks.
Part Two: Eye in the sky
Bissell’s logistical skills were put to good use with the U-2 spy program, which he was tasked with overseeing in late 1954. Within a few months Area 51 was established. Workers at the base were ferried by plane back and forth between “the ranch” and California because Bissell didn’t want people drawing suspicion as they drove back and forth. Bissell spent most of his time at the Washington, D.C., office dedicated to the program, but his presence was felt on the new secret base that would soon become the stuff of legend.
“Richard Bissell was the single most important individual responsible for setting up the secret base,” Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, told me in 2015. “A number of people I spoke with said Bissell was most definitely the de facto Mayor of Area 51.”
The secrecy of the U-2 was paramount and was kept mostly intact, but there was no way to hide the majestic “Dragon Lady” entirely as it soared upward into the sky and cruised across the entire U.S. on long test flights. “[The U-2] would hit this extraordinary height, and up there with the sun shining and reflecting from its very long wings, it looked almost like a [fiery] cross, and that did result in all these UFO sightings,” Jacobsen says.
A few years ago the CIA Twitter account tweeted a 1998 report that revealed more than half the reported UFO sightings in the 1950s and ’60s could be traced directly to U-2 flights that were secret at the time.
It does not take much imagination to see how the program could have fueled Roswell-style UFO conspiracy theories. As the plane was being tested, Bissell got a call that a pilot had just reported an engine flameout over Tennessee and was heading to an Air Force base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which the pilot thought he could reach in a half-hour in a long, flat glide. Bissell called the base commander and told him that an unusual aircraft was going to land there in about 30 minutes and that he should cover it with a tarp, to disguise its shape, and post a guard. The craft was later transported back to Area 51 where Bissell himself was among those who viewed it.
“Richard Bissell was the single most important individual responsible for setting up the secret base. A number of people I spoke with said Bissell was most definitely the de facto Mayor of Area 51.” — Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base
By the summer of 1956, the plane was ready to fly, having become operational in record time and costing just $19 million, $3 million under budget. In July it flew over Moscow and Leningrad, providing an unparalleled glimpse into Soviet weapons capabilities and giving decision makers crystal-clear images of the Kremlin’s courtyard. Though the Soviets picked up the aircraft on their radar, they were at first powerless to touch it. The following year when the Soviets launched Sputnik, Eisenhower considered revealing the U-2 to show the public that the U.S. was not behind Russia when it came to space-age technology.
“The U-2 enhanced our national security,” Bissell wrote. “The intelligence collected allowed Eisenhower to remain calm during a period of great international tension.” He added that the U-2 “changed intelligence collection forever,” by demonstrating just how powerful aerial imagery could be.
Because of the success of the U-2, Bissell also oversaw its successor, the SR-71 Blackbird, which also was tested at Area 51. Bissell was also tasked with overseeing the development of the U.S.’s first-ever spy satellite, the Corona. A dazzling leap forward in terms of technology, the Corona would take pictures from space on actual film that was then jettisoned back to earth, where parachutes would deploy and it would be scooped up by specially trained crews who hooked it from an airplane. The process was far from easy and there were 14 failed flights before the first payload of film was received, but it helped pave the way for a new arm of espionage, one that seemed ripped from the pages of science fiction. As Bissell wrote, “although Sputnik had beaten us into space by over two years, Corona, in the words of historian William E. Burrows, ‘would do quite a bit more than go beep in the night.’ ”
Winthrop says his father truly believed in the power of this technology to make the world safer. “He thought that was an extremely important thing for both sides to have a good idea of what the other side was doing as far as any kind of weaponry or other activities.”
Even beyond reconnaissance, Bissell’s work at the agency reads like something dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter. He had a leadership role in the 1954 CIA-organized coup in Guatemala. As part of the agency’s ongoing attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, Bissell turned to the CIA’s infamous chemist, Sidney Gottlieb, who ran Project MKUltra, the agency’s ill-fated program to develop methods for mind control. Bissell also greenlit a scheme to hire members of the U.S. mafia to organize a hit on Castro.
Bissell’s oldest son, Richard Bissell III, says although he may have been misguided, his father believed if the Soviets increased their foothold in the world, “it could lead to a world war or be disastrous for his people. He believed that, so he was willing to do what he thought had to be done to keep it from happening.”
Years later Bissell would admit the assassination attempts were a mistake. “My philosophy in my last two or three years in the agency was very definitely that the ends justify the means, and I was not going to be held back,” he writes. “However, I came to believe that it had been a great mistake to involve the mafia in an assassination attempt.” This regret was partly moral and partly practical, he wrote. “These were people who were not subject to any kind of security control by the agency, and they posed a great risk.”
But nothing in his career would cause Bissell greater regret than what happened at the Bay of Pigs.
Part Three: Operation Zapata
The communication radio crackled to life aboard the Lake Charles cargo ship on April 19, 1961. For two days Néstor T. Carbonell, a recently graduated Harvard lawyer turned anti-Castro fighter, had waited on that ship just outside Cuban waters near the Bay of Pigs. The vessel was loaded with medical supplies and other members of Brigade 2506, the CIA-sponsored military unit of Cuban exiles formed to launch a massive clandestine invasion of the Cuban mainland.
A recent transplant to the U.S., Carbonell’s family had long fought for democracy in Cuba, opposing the authoritarianism first of Fulgencio Batista and then Fidel Castro.
“I felt it was a duty to me to join the brigade. I felt that my turn had arrived,” says Carbonell, who moved to Greenwich in the 1980s where he still lives and wrote the book Why Cuba Matters: New Threats in America’s Backyard, published earlier this year. He was supposed to land in the second wave of the invasion and coordinate the provisional government as new territories were liberated.
But nothing was going according to plan. An aerial bombardment of Castro’s air force had been significantly scaled back at the last minute, and instead of clear skies, the brigade found itself at the mercy of Castro’s fighter planes. Two ships were sunk or grounded, their ammunition and food reserves taken out of the fight. Two other ships had to put out to sea without unloading their supplies. Far from securing the beachhead, the men who had managed to land were in a desperate fight for their lives.
Carbonell and those he served with on the Lake Charles heard this disaster play out in real time on the radio and had been ordered to hold off landing on the beach. Now, across the radio, the order came for the Lake Charles to proceed with the landing. “There was dead silence,” Carbonell recalls. “I’ll never forget that. We received the order to land, already knowing that the situation was desperate, if not lost.”
As grim as the circumstances were, around the same time a glimmer of hope appeared in the sky: for there, like the cavalry arriving in a Western film, were the long-awaited U.S. fighter jets streaking toward Cuba.
Bissell was integrally involved with the planning for the Bay of Pigs, eventually codenamed Operation Zapata, but the invasion that was ultimately launched bore little resemblance to what he and other CIA and military strategists had planned. A little more than a month before the invasion, Bissell and others presented a plan to President John F. Kennedy. The plan had been in the works for more than a year and called for the brigade, which had nearly 1,400 fighters, to land on a beachhead close to the town of Trinidad in south-central Cuba. The landing was near the Escambray Mountains, where anti-Castro guerrillas were already fighting the regime. The hope was that the local population would also rise up in support of the invasion. However, Kennedy felt that having the invasion occur in a populated area would take away plausible deniability. The president gave organizers a few days to come up with a new location. The invasion point was shifted to the remote Bay of Pigs, a swampy, sparsely populated area. “The move from the heavily populated Trinidad to the remote Bay of Pigs made a mass uprising less likely,” Bissell wrote, adding that it also made the possibility of a retreat into the mountains to join up with guerrilla fighters impossible if the brigade could not secure the beach.
Bissell would later regret not opposing the new plan. “The physical impossibility of calling off the invasion, as well as the emotional toll that would entail, was an important factor in our actions,” he wrote. “It could very well be that fear of cancellation became so absorbing that I managed to ignore or suppress relevant facts, although I sincerely believed that, even with the plan’s faults, as long as we were able to move ahead with air strikes and destroy Castro’s air force, the brigade would win the day.”
But as the invasion approached, Kennedy continually pushed to limit air support and for other tactically questionable changes aimed at reducing U.S. exposure. The CIA and Bissell have been accused of pushing the flawed plan forward because they believed that once it started Kennedy would not let it fail. Bissell admitted in his memoir that “we in the agency were not as frank with the president about further deficiencies as we could have been. As an advocate for maintaining the president’s authorization, I was very much afraid of what might happen if I said, ‘Mr. President, this operation might as well be made open because the role of the United States certainly can’t be hidden.’ ”
There are other more sinister reasons why the invasion may have been carried out even after it was clear, or should have been clear, that it was misguided. In his book, Carbonell talks about the “disposal problem.” Kennedy was advised that the members of the brigade would become incredibly vocal critics of his if the invasion was canceled and it would make him look weak on communism. “He pondered the pros and cons of canceling versus going ahead with the pared-down operation and concluded that the cost of abandonment outweighed the political risk of defeat,” Carbonell writes. “With that in mind, he confided to [Arthur] Schlesinger: “If we have to get rid of these eight hundred men [the brigade fighters], it is much better to dump them in Cuba than in the United States, especially if that is where they want to go.” Carbonell adds, “One could argue that the president didn’t really mean what his callous words implied. But what is indisputable is that the young Cuban patriots, who in good faith relied on the support of the United States, were indeed dumped in Cuba with scant chance of success.”
Carbonell was among those patriots when the radically reworked invasion went forward with inefficient air support in mid-April.
Bissell awoke early on the morning of April 18 to an increasingly desperate situation. The tide had turned against the invasion and would get worse as the day progressed. At a midnight meeting with the president and other advisers, Bissell urged the president to authorize Navy pilots on a nearby aircraft carrier to clear the beaches. Kennedy refused.
Around 2 a.m. on the morning of April 19, Kennedy agreed to allow six Navy fighters to provide cover for anti-Castro-operated aircraft to go on a bombing run and for ships to resupply the brigade. “The invasion was on the brink of failure, but there was still hope,” Bissell wrote.
Those were the fighters Carbonell saw streaking toward the beachhead later that day. But in one of the more heartbreaking moments in the tragic comedy of errors that was the invasion, the anti-Castro planes arrived before the U.S. because of time zone differences, and the anti-Castro planes were either forced from the field of battle or shot down.
Bissell called it “the final tragic blow.”
Without a hope of the beach being secured, Carbonell’s boat reversed course and retreated instead of landing. Those who had already landed were either captured or killed.
Triay, the Middlesex Community College historian, says the blame game has been going on since immediately after the invasion. “There was a big effort to take the blame off John F. Kennedy and put it on the CIA and that was a very deliberate campaign right from the beginning.”
Carbonell says Bissell certainly had his faults when it came to planning the invasion, but “assigning responsibilities is pretty delicate, particularly in an operation such as this one. You could assign responsibilities to a certain degree to practically all of the factions including the anti-Castros. No one was perfect,” he says.
Despite the blame being shared by others, Bissell emerged as the fall guy along with CIA Director Allen Dulles. According to Bissell’s memoir, Kennedy told Bissell that, “In parliamentary government, I’d have to resign. But in this government I can’t, so you and Allen have to go.”
Bissell was ultimately offered the option of staying on in the newly created position of deputy director of science and technology — his brain power was still highly prized and his success with technological spy programs had been proven again and again — but Bissell declined to take what would have been a demotion. Instead, he left the government and then Washington, D.C., to take a job as a consultant for United Technologies in Connecticut and moved with his family back to Farmington where he had spent the second half of his childhood.
His children say he continued to constantly read journals and histories throughout his life. Though he rarely spoke of the Bay of Pigs failure or about much related to his time in the CIA, his oldest son got the impression that Cuba weighed on him and that he felt responsible for the men who had died and been imprisoned. “He felt as though he let them down. I think it troubled him a lot.”
Bissell died in 1994 at the age of 84.
After his death, a member of Brigade 2506 delivered a flag to his family, which meant a great deal to his children.
Though Bissell appears in many spy histories, he often takes a back seat to other flashier spies, such as fellow Yale alumnus James Jesus Angleton, and he is virtually unknown by the general public despite his important role in American history. But one gets the impression, like a true spy, that would be just the way he wanted it.