The Failed Invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs
Just three months into his administration, the young President John F. Kennedy learned quickly of the murky world of running of a coup d'état against the fiery pro-communist militant leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro. The failed attempt to oust the leader has become known as the “Bay of Pigs Invasion,” and Kennedy would later describe the event as “the worst experience of my life.” Kennedy would spend the rest of his administration and his life trying to live down this most visible failure so early in his presidency.
Trouble in Cuba
President John F. Kennedy was taught by his father from a young age to be a militant anti-communist and brought this determination to the White House in 1961. He so eloquently expressed his thoughts and showed his resolve in his inaugural address when he declared, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The young president let it be known that he ardently supported policies of containment for the growing spread of communism.
In 1959, lawyer and revolutionary fighter Fidel Castro led a coup against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and became the iron-fisted leader of the country. Once in power, he began to pursue radical policies: Cuba’s private commerce and industry were nationalized; sweeping land reforms were instituted; and American businesses and agricultural estates were nationalized. Castro adopted a fiery anti-American rhetoric and established a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in February 1960 that deepened American distrust. Within a year of Castro taking control, most economic ties between Cuba and the United States had been severed. The United States ended official diplomatic relations with the island country in January 1961.
The idea of overthrowing Castro’s dictatorship began within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in early 1960. President Eisenhower recognized that Castro and his government were becoming increasingly hostile to the United States and directed the CIA to begin preparations to invade Cuba and overthrow the Castro regime. Eisenhower approved of the plan before leaving office and provided $13 million to fund the clandestine project.
In talks with Eisenhower shortly before his inauguration, Kennedy first learned of the plans to oust the communist regime of Fidel Castro. Cuba had not only become a geopolitical liability for the United States, it had become an economic one as well. “Large amounts of capital now planned for investment in Latin America are waiting to see whether or not we can cope with the Cuban situation,” Eisenhower’s secretary of the treasury, Robert Anderson, told Kennedy.
By the time Kennedy entered the White House, he had been fully briefed by the CIA and outgoing Eisenhower staffers. The CIA emphasized the urgency of the situation partly on the belief that Castro had plans to promote communism in Latin America and that he “already had power among the people in the Caribbean countries and elsewhere, particularly in Venezuela and Columbia.” The Cuban exiles were already being trained, and the operation had considerable momentum. Kennedy was reluctant to move forward with the plan but did so based on the enthusiasm for the operation by those high up in the CIA. Not everybody was on board with the planned invasion. Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy aid, had been asked to investigate the matter and was skeptical—“a terrible idea” he once said. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued intensely against the operation. “To give this activity even covert support is a piece with the hypocrisy and cynicism for which the United States is constantly denouncing the Soviet Union,” he scolded. His and other dissenting options were brushed aside, and things moved forward.
The theory of the invasion was that the land of the exile’s brigade would touch off a nationwide uprising in Cuba and oust Castro. Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations feared Castro’s political far left leanings toward communism. The plan was put into place when Kennedy learned that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly described conflicts in Vietnam and Cuba as “wars of national liberation” that merited Soviet support. The assumption that the Cuban population would revolt against Castro was flawed from the very start. To prepare for the invasion, the CIA trained their force in Guatemala for nearly six months. News of the planned landing had leaked to Castro before the assault as preparations for the invasion were known in Florida’s Cuban community.
The CIA plan also called for a new pro-American government to be established once Castro was eliminated. In March 1961, the CIA assisted Cuban exiles in Miami to create the Cuban Revolutionary Council, chaired by José Miró Cardona, the former Prime Minister of Cuba, in early 1959. Cardona was to be the new head of the government after the invasion and the fall of Castro.
Kennedy was now faced with two bad choices. If he decided against the invasion, he would have to disband the Cubans’ training camp in Guatemala and risk public ridicule for failing to implement Eisenhower’s plan to rid the hemisphere of communism. A decision to invade Cuba was not without grave consequences as well. “However well disguised any action might be,” Schlesinger told Kennedy, “it will be ascribed to the United States. The result would be a wave of massive protest, agitation, and sabotage throughout Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.”
Bay of Pigs Explained Video
In early April of 1961, the stage was set for the invasion of Cuba. Kennedy, fearful of the international backlash that would result from a full-on military invasion of Cuba, ordered the operation scaled back—no American troops would land in Cuba. The air support was reduced to only a small group of American pilots to fly bombing raids on key military targets. The Joint Chiefs of Staff considered the restrictions “totally inadequate” and believed that if the mission went badly the military would step in to pull victory from defeat. To their dismay, the commander in chief had no such intentions.
The invasion began on Monday, April 17, when 1,453 hastily trained Cuban exiles, known as Brigade 2506, landed on the swampy southwest coast of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs. Nothing about the invasion went as planned; the expected Cuban uprising of anti-Castro factions did not occur, and the émigré’s progress was hampered by rocky shores and high winds. Castro had his forces in place to ensure the invaders made little progress, and they immediately came under heavy fire from Cuban ground troops and air force. Two of the exile’s escort ships were sunk, and half their aircraft were destroyed in short order. The aircraft supporting the invasion were eight used World War II B-26 bombers that had been painted to look like Cuban air force planes. The small number of air attacks did some damage to Cuban military sites days before the invasion, but not enough to change the course of events. As the news broke of the air attacks, photos of the repainted U.S. planes became public and revealed the role of the U.S. military in the attacks.
Castro wasted no time and ordered 20,000 troops to advance on the beach while the Cuban air force gained control of the skies. Castro’s forces made quick work of the small air force and vessels used by the invaders, who had made a beachhead hold at the Bay of Pigs. By the evening of Tuesday, April 18, a little over 24 hours into the mission, it was becoming obvious defeat was at hand. Admiral Burke recalled that at a meeting at the White House with the president and his top advisors, “Nobody knew what to do…They are in a real bad hole,” Burke recorded, “because they had the hell cut out of them…I kept quiet because I didn’t know the general score.”
In the early morning hours of April 19, Kennedy reconvened his advisors in the Cabinet Room. They reviewed the deteriorating situation, and the CIA recommended use of carrier planes to shoot down Castro’s aircraft and a destroyer to shell Castro’s tanks. Kennedy stuck to his resolve not to interfere directly with U.S. forces. Kennedy took the failure hard and was seen wandering the South Grounds of the White House at 4:00am, head lowered, hands dug in his pockets. His wife, Jacqueline, recalls the morning as the president returned from his late night meeting, “…He came over to the White House to his bedroom and he started to cry, just with me…just put his head in his hands and sort of wept…And it was so sad, because all his first hundred days and all his dreams, and then this awful thing to happen.”
On Tuesday morning, Castro’s air force had sunk the brigade’s principle supply ship with their stock of ammunition and much of their communication equipment. By late in the afternoon, the invaders were pinned down by a much larger Cuban force with nowhere to escape. In the original CIA concocted plan, if things went wrong, the émigrés were to flee to the Escambray Mountains. The eighty-mile stretch of swampland between the Bay of Pigs and the mountains made this all but impossible. The invaders were left with two choices: fight and die or surrender to Castro’s overwhelming force—nearly all of the remaining 1,200 attackers surrendered that day.
Castro held over one thousand prisoners for twenty months, and in December of 1962 released them in exchange for $53 million worth of medical supplies and other goods raised by private individuals and groups within the United States.
Though the invasion was a total fiasco that cost more than a hundred lives, Kennedy did not compound the problem by attempting to hide the role of the U.S. in the failed coup. Kennedy felt a personal responsibility for the brave Cubans who had stormed the beach only to meet their death or harsh imprisonment. The episode seemed to bring up old memories of his brother’s death in World War II. Kennedy later met to console the six-member Cuban Revolutionary Council, three of whom had lost sons in the invasion. Kennedy described the meeting and the Bay of Pigs incident as “the worst experience of my life.”
Once the full details of the botched coup attempt became pubic, President Kennedy received widespread condemnation from those who felt the invasion should have never happened. The president of the U.S. based National Revolutionary Council, José Cardona, blamed the invasion’s failure on the lack of air support by the U.S. The CIA director, Allen Dulles, and the CIA Deputy Director of Plans, Richard Bissell, would also be casualties and were forced to resign.
The failed coup had the effect in Cuba of bolstering Castro’s position with the people, and he became a national hero. The Kennedy administration was determined to make up for the failed attack and initiated Operation Mongoose—a plan to destabilize the Cuban government and economy, which included the possibility of assassination of Fidel Castro.
The failed invasion fomented the seeds of discord between the United States and Soviet Union that would lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and decades of tensions between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba.
Burke, Flannery and Tad Szulc. “Bay of Pigs Invasion.” Dictionary of American History. Third Edition. Stanley Kutler (Editor in Chief). Chars Scribner’s Sons. 2003.
Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy 1917-1963. Little, Brown and Company. 2003.
Reeves, Thomas C. Twentieth-Century America: A Brief History. Oxford University Press. 2000.
Thomas, Evan. Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World. Little, Brown and Company. 2012.