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The 'Bay of Pigs Invasion' and the Pitfalls of U.S. Covert Action

John is a writer based in Portsmouth in the United Kingdom who enjoys writing on a wide range of personal and professional interests.

Che Guevara (left) and Castro, photographed by Alberto Korda in 1961.

Che Guevara (left) and Castro, photographed by Alberto Korda in 1961.

Covert Action: Bay of Pigs Invasion

Covert Action is defined in the National Security Act as: “[a]n activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly” (Lowenthal, 284). Covert action has been an important option available to policymakers to advance their goals, though frequently the subject of controversy, especially when they fail. Reasons for this controversy are centered primarily around opinions of how to exercise matters of diplomacy using covert action as a so-called third option between diplomatic agreements or compromise and military action. Here we will examine the failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba, and how this operation has become synonymous with the pitfalls of failed covert action.

The Cold War: Early Moves

Up to 1961, the United States had enjoyed a period of military supremacy in the early stages of the Cold War, having a monopoly on nuclear power. Under President Eisenhower, early confrontations in Korea demonstrated the willingness of the United States to check communism and to confront its spread, making the Soviet Union the principal adversary. During Eisenhower’s presidency, Cuba which had long been a country under the sphere of influence of the United States since the 1890s fell to Fidel Castro’s communist revolt. Having backed the failing government of Fulgencio Batista against Fidel Castro, the US was now faced with the problem of Castro’s communist Cuba allied to the Soviet Union off its shores.

As Russell Weigley has cited, President Kennedy who succeeded Eisenhower was keen to push a strategy of action in matters of foreign policy and a willingness to seize initiative (Weigley, 438). Weigly has argued further that, Kennedy’s inaugural promise to be tough on America’s foes meant that diplomacy and defense were not to be distinct alternatives and that military power would be a tool to advance policy (Weigley, 450). Such an opportunity to exercise military action emerged early in Kennedy’s presidency with a plan to depose Castro with a revolution led by Cuban exiles.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to plan the Bay of Pigs Invasion

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to plan the Bay of Pigs Invasion

The Plan for Intervention in Cuba

As Russell Weigley has noted, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had developed the Cuban action plan in the last months of Eisenhower’s presidency (Weigley, 450). Eisenhower authorized the CIA to conduct planning for a covert operation to rid Cuba of Castro using Cuban exiles living primarily in the US. The CIA plan called for training and equipping the hand-picked exiles, who were organized into an expeditionary brigade named Brigade 2506, to infiltrate Cuba and start an uprising with the aim of a new revolution to depose Castro. The most important element of the plan was that it be non-attributable to the United States. The original plan consisted of three phases:

  • Phase One required the destruction of Cuba’s Air Force to allow the successful landing of the brigade on the beach at the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of Cuba by bombing nearby Cuban airbases. To do this, the plan called for pilots in the brigade recruited and positioned already within the Cuban Air Force to seize bombers, destroy their own airbases, and finally exfiltrate by “defecting” to the US.
  • Phase Two called for the further destruction of Cuban aircraft on D-Day in the early morning hours to prevent rapid reaction to the landing.
  • Phase Three was the actual invasion from the sea to landing beaches chosen for their proximity to sympathetic anti-Castro communities, and from the air with parachute drops further inland.

The landing beach itself at the Bay of Pigs was also part of the deception as the chosen site was a remote swampy area where a covert landing would face little resistance and conceal any US involvement, but problematically also more than 80 miles from the planned evacuation site in Cuba's Escambray Mountains if the landing was compromised.

A Plan Gone Bad and Failed Execution

The execution of the invasion failed from the start. On April 15, 1961, the modified bombing plan which called for the use of CIA obtained old B-26 bombers based in Nicaragua and painted to look like Cuban air force planes, bombed Cuban airfields. Accounts differ, but Castro claimed that the bombers missed most of their targets leaving most of the Cuban Air Force intact but served in tipping Castro off to a possible invasion. In Florida, a “Cuban defector” who was in fact a Cuban pilot on the bombing mission, landed his “stolen” Cuban bomber in what was a much-publicized fake defection. Castro denied any such defection took place, while the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Adlai Stevenson, countered publicly that the U.S. could not have been responsible and held up photos in the U.N. of the planes. Stevenson, who was not aware of the covert operation, inadvertently aided in unraveling the operation. Embarrassingly, the photos of the repainted planes revealed clues as to their origin and ruled out the likelihood of their being of Cuban origin, causing the planned subsequent bombings to be canceled. On April 17, the CIA landed the 1,400-strong Brigade 2506 at the Bay of Pigs beach. Swiftly overwhelmed by a counterattack of the forewarned Cuban army, the invasion force was crushed within two days. More than 100 members of the exile brigade were killed, and some 1,200 were taken prisoner and held in Cuba for nearly two years.

Counter-attack by Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces supported by T-34 tanks near Playa Giron during the Bay of Pigs invasion, 19 April 1961.

Counter-attack by Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces supported by T-34 tanks near Playa Giron during the Bay of Pigs invasion, 19 April 1961.

The Political Fallout

Instead of removing the Castro regime, the failed invasion strengthened Castro’s popularity with the Cuban people, solidifying Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union, and further emboldened Soviet Premier Khrushchev in his view that the new American President was inept, prompting the Premier to move nuclear missiles to Cuba in October 1962 (Weigley, 452).

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The failed invasion was also a severe blow to the new President eager to make good campaign promises. Publicly, Kennedy took responsibility for the invasion’s failure stating in a televised address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 20, 1961, but equally shifted focus to the harshness of communist regimes in Cuba and around the world as well as those who resist them (JFK speech, 20 April 1961). Opinion polls taken the week following the failed invasion showed Kennedy had an 83% approval rating with 61% of Americans having approved specifically of his handling of the invasion (The Bay of Pigs, Kennedy Library website). With much scrutiny of the failures of the operation, Kennedy privately defended the decision not to commit U.S. military air power and other assets to assist the invasion in order to maintain deniability of the U.S. role.

Mark Lowenthal has cited that Eisenhower reportedly rebuked the idea to Kennedy, stating that given the scale and complexity of the operation and what it stood to gain, the United States could not have plausibly hoped to deny having taken any part (Lowenthal, 297). Upsetting many at home in government, the outcome also negatively affected public opinion about the U.S. abroad, particularly in Western Europe such as in France and the United Kingdom.

As the Bay of Pigs failure was a sensational failure at the start of Kennedy’s presidency, European media outlets speculated whether such heavy-handed methods were to be characteristic of U.S. policy (Reactions to Cuba in Western Europe, Kennedy Library website). The CIA in the aftermath experienced a damning appraisal of its conduct in an internal investigation prompted by DCI Allen Dulles, which concluded: “The Agency became so wrapped up in the military operation that it failed to appraise the chances of success realistically. Furthermore, it failed to keep the national policymakers adequately and realistically informed of the conditions considered essential for success.” (Warner, CIA Website). Essentially, the CIA became enamored with the planning of the operation instead of its focus on the end goal of deposing Castro as a matter of policy. This conclusion, however, did not meet with agreement from those who planned the operation in the Directorate for Plans and those who sided with the report’s conclusions on CIA internal failures, causing internal friction for many years (Warner, CIA website).

A Failure in More Than One Sense

The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a failure. It was a failure in the operational sense, in that it failed to achieve its objective of deposing Castro, but also in the fact that it created further tension between Cuba and the U.S. and most of all with the Soviet Union. Due to its flawed execution, it served in the near term to cast doubt on the legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy. In the long term, it has served to this day as an infamous example of the pitfalls and risks associated with covert action.

Robert F. Kennedy's Statement on Cuba and Neutrality Laws, 20 April 1961

Robert F. Kennedy's Statement on Cuba and Neutrality Laws, 20 April 1961

Sources Used

Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources:

  • Lowenthal, Mark W. Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, Sixth Edition, (Thousand Oaks: CQ Press, 2015)
  • Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973)

Other Web Sources:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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