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Bay of Pigs Invasion Begins–April 17, 1961

On April 17, 1961, a brigade of about 1,500 Cuban exiles landed at Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the southern coast of Cuba. Their mission was to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro by inciting revolt among the Cuban people. Funded and supplied by the United States, this invasion ended in absolute failure with some of the exiles killed and many captured by Castro's army. Although President John F. Kennedy wanted American involvement in the operation to remain covert, signs of CIA sponsorship of the brigade were obvious. In addition, the President's decision not to provide American air support for the invasion made him appear weak. The disastrous invasion stands out as one of the major mistakes of Kennedy's presidency.

The plan for a covert invasion of Cuba originated in the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Supported by both President Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon, CIA Director Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell, CIA deputy for planning, had trained anti-Castro forces in Guatemala in preparation for an invasion. Dulles and Bissell briefed Kennedy on the operation shortly after his election victory in November. Kennedy chose to reappoint Dulles to head the CIA in his administration.

Some in the administration warned Kennedy not to follow through with this attack. Liberals in the administration such as Chester Bowles, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and John Kenneth Galbraith felt that a Democratic administration should not carry out this kind of "adventurism." In addition, some foreign policy experts, such as Dean Acheson, feared that the operation as planned was too small and would not succeed. Still, most of the President's advisers maintained that this operation would work and rid the United States of a Communist dictatorship 90 miles of the coast of Florida.

President Kennedy wanted to blur any connections between the American military and the Cuban operation. The American press threatened the secrecy of the mission, however, when they reported on the training of exiles and an impending invasion. Kennedy chose not to authorize any air strikes by American planes during the mission, fearing that a downed plane would expose the American role in the plan. The operation was limited to one round of air strikes in disguised planes followed by the CIA-trained exiles landing at the Bay of Pigs to invade Cuba.

On April 15, B-26 bombers from Nicaragua began the attack on Cuba. While they succeeded in destroying some of Castro's air force, their attack warned the Cuban leader of further assaults. When the invasion began on April 17, Castro quickly ordered his military forces to the area, trapping the exiles on the beach. By the next day, it was clear that the operation had failed. The planners had claimed that the invasion would spark an uprising in Cuba. However, the uprising failed to materialize. Kennedy, hoping to maintain American invisibility, refused to allow additional air strikes to salvage the disaster. In the end, some 115 men died, and the Cuban forces captured almost 1,200 exiles. Criticism of the administration soon poured in from all political perspectives; President Kennedy had failed in the first major test of his administration.

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