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This Day in History: The Bay of Pigs Invasion

JFK Decisions Doodle

At a cabinet meeting John F. Kennedy made several attempts to spell decisions. The Kennedy Library does not have sufficient information to determine the date of the meeting, although we suspect it was either during meetings on the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Courtesy of NARA, PD.

Today’s guest post is by Graham Egan, a 2012-2013 Miller Center Student Ambassador and a Third Year Government Major in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics a the University of Virginia.

Today marks the 52nd Anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. In the early hours of April 17, 1961, a brigade of approximately 1,500 Cuban exiles landed at Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on Cuba’s southern coast, initiating an attempt to overthrow the Communist regime of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The invasion was the culmination of an increasingly acrimonious situation, one that had been heightened three months earlier when the Eisenhower Administration closed the American embassy in Havana and severed diplomatic relations with the island nation. Although they were funded, armed, and trained by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency, the Cuban exile force was quickly overwhelmed and defeated by Castro’s revolutionary army in 3 days. More than 100 of the rebels were killed and 1,200 were captured. The operation was a terrible debacle and a very public embarrassment for the nascent Kennedy Administration.

The CIA first conceived of the plan to overthrow the Castro regime early in 1960. Cuban-American relations had been deteriorating since the Castro regime had seized power during the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Fearing the anti-American rhetoric of the regime and the potential rise of communism so close to US borders, the latter of which was heightened when Cuba signed a trade treaty with the Soviet Union in 1960, President Eisenhower approved the plan on March 17th, 1960. Shortly after, the Eisenhower administration began financing and training a group of anti-Castro exiles in Guatemala. The primary objective of the invasion, as stated in a top-secret policy paper entitled “A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime,” was to “bring about the replacement of the Castro regime with one more devoted to the true interests of Cuban people and more acceptable to the U.S. in such a manner to avoid any appearance of U.S. intervention.”

The original plan, code-named Operation Pluto, called for a covert attack of about 1,000 men targeted at the port of Trinidad on the southern coast of central Cuba. The site was attractive because it had a large population of anti-Castro civilians and was in close proximity to counter-revolutionary guerilla forces in the Escambray Mountains. The CIA predicted that these forces would mobilize once the American-trained force had landed on the island, commencing a seemingly home-borne insurrection that would give the United States government plausible deniability. When the State Department and President Kennedy subsequently rejected Operation Pluto, CIA Director Allen Dulles and Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell developed an alternative plan, labeled Operation Zapata. The new scheme required a larger force, a nighttime amphibious attack under the cover of air strikes, and most importantly, relocation to a more remote area of Cuba, the Bay of Pigs. As Howard Jones, the University of Research Professor of History at the University of Alabama and author of The Bay of Pigs, detailed in a 2011 Miller Center Forum:

[The Bay of Pigs] had a lot of liabilities. And the liabilities were quite clear when you look at them in retrospect. The beaches were not as accommodating as those in Trinidad. It was an isolated spot, so there would not be a populace ready to join in as [the CIA] assumed would happen in Trinidad. The mountains were about 80 miles now from the beaches, so no longer is there a place of refuge or guerillas there to help, or anything of the sort. The waters are shark infested, there are no accommodating docks, and the waters are so deep in some places that you couldn’t anchor…But these weren’t the biggest [liabilities]. The Bay of Pigs sat on the Zapata Peninsula, which was known as the great swamp of the Caribbean… All of these things were tremendous liabilities that came with this choice. Richard Bissel knew this. Richard Bissell did not tell the president of these liabilities.

After President Kennedy approved the new proposal on April 10th, 1961, the CIA immediately made preparations to carry out the assault. On the morning of April 15th, eight Douglas B-26B Invader bombers initiated an air strike on several of Cuba’s airfields, in order to provide cover, and two days later, the Cuban exile force landed on the shores of Cuba. There were several factors that led to the failure of the operation. First, the expected uprising of anti-revolutionary forces never materialized. Second, hoping to maintain American invisibility, President Kennedy refused to order more air strikes after the morning of April 17th. More significantly, the Castro regime and the Cuban security apparatus knew the invasion was coming through their secret intelligence networks. The Cuban rebels were surrounded by revolutionary forces on the beach and within 72 hours were disastrously defeated.

Once news of the fiasco spread to international and domestic media outlets, the Kennedy Administration immediately began denying the United States’ involvement in the invasion. In a speech to the American Association of Newspaper Editors on April 20, 1961, President Kennedy told reporters:  

On that unhappy island, as in so many other arenas of the contest for freedom, the news has grown worse instead of better. I have emphasized before that this was a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator. While we could not be expected to hide our sympathies, we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not intervene in any way. Any unilateral American intervention, in the absence of an external attack upon ourselves or an ally, would have been contrary to our traditions and to our international obligations.

As more evidence was discovered and reported, however, the role of the American government in the operation became apparent and claims of plausible deniability were discredited.

The Bay of Pigs disaster had several important consequences for the Kennedy Administration. According to Ernest May and Philip D. Zelikow, it severely damaged President Kennedy’s reputation among certain American domestic audiences and the Cuban exile community. Second, some within Kennedy’s inner circle developed a personal animus toward Castro. This animus resulted in advisers supporting and pushing decisions that would lead to the expansion of Mongoose, a CIA plan to provide US support for indigenous forces inside Cuba to overthrow Castro and replace him with a government friendly to the US, in addition to possible US intervention. Most importantly, the Bay of Pigs disaster made Kennedy aware of shortcomings in his decision-making processes. When he was confronted with the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was sure to include Theodore Sorensen and his brother, people who would think not only of national security interests, but also look after his own interests. President Kennedy also recognized through Bay of Pigs that he not only listened to too few advisers, but had given the issues too little time. According to May and Zelikow, the president would change his ways during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

Kennedy searched widely for advice, insisted on going over and over alternative courses of action and pressed for imagination to expand the menu.

 

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