The Bay of Pigs Invasion.
The story of the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs is
one of mismanagement, overconfidence, and lack of security. The
blame for the failure of the operation falls directly in the lap of
the Central Intelligence Agency and a young president and his
advisors. The fall out from the invasion caused a rise in tension
between the two great superpowers and ironically 34 years after the
event, the person that the invasion meant to topple, Fidel Castro,
is still in power. To understand the origins of the invasion and
its ramifications for the future it is first necessary to look at
the invasion and its origins.
Part I: The Invasion and its Origins.
The Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, started a few days
before on April 15th with the bombing of Cuba by what appeared to
be defecting Cuban air force pilots. At 6 a.m. in the morning of
that Saturday, three Cuban military bases were bombed by B-26
bombers. The airfields at Camp Libertad, San Antonio de los Ba¤os
and Antonio Maceo airport at Santiago de Cuba were fired upon.
Seven people were killed at Libertad and forty-seven people were
killed at other sites on the island.
Two of the B-26s left Cuba and flew to Miami, apparently to
defect to the United States. The Cuban Revolutionary Council, the
government in exile, in New York City released a statement saying
that the bombings in Cuba were ". . . carried out by 'Cubans inside
Cuba' who were 'in contact with' the top command of the
Revolutionary Council . . . ." The New York Times reporter
covering the story alluded to something being wrong with the whole
situation when he wondered how the council knew the pilots were
coming if the pilots had only decided to leave Cuba on Thursday
after " . . . a suspected betrayal by a fellow pilot had
precipitated a plot to strike . . . ." Whatever the case, the
planes came down in Miami later that morning, one landed at Key
West Naval Air Station at 7:00 a.m. and the other at Miami
International Airport at 8:20 a.m. Both planes were badly damaged
and their tanks were nearly empty. On the front page of The New
York Times the next day, a picture of one of the B-26s was shown
along with a picture of one of the pilots cloaked in a baseball hat
and hiding behind dark sunglasses, his name was withheld. A sense
of conspiracy was even at this early stage beginning to envelope
the events of that week.
In the early hours of April 17th the assault on the Bay of
Pigs began. In the true cloak and dagger spirit of a movie, the
assault began at 2 a.m. with a team of frogmen going ashore with
orders to set up landing lights to indicate to the main assault
force the precise
location of their
objectives, as well as
to clear the area of
anything that may impede [Map of Cuba was here]
the main landing teams [Link to Map to be added when
when they arrived. At time permits]
2:30 a.m. and at 3:00
a.m. two battalions came
ashore at Playa Gir¢n
and one battalion at Playa Larga beaches. The troops at Playa Gir¢n
had orders to move west, northwest, up the coast and meet with the
troops at Playa Larga in the middle of the bay. A small group of
men were then to be sent north to the town of Jaguey Grande to
secure it as well. (See figure 1).
When looking at a modern map of Cuba it is obvious that the
troops would have problems in the area that was chosen for them to
land at. The area around the Bay of Pigs is a swampy marsh land
area which would be hard on the troops. The Cuban forces were quick
to react and Castro ordered his T-33 trainer jets, two Sea Furies,
and two B-26s into the air to stop the invading forces. Off the
coast was the command and control ship and another vessel carrying
supplies for the invading forces. The Cuban air force made quick
work of the supply ships, sinking the command vessel the Marsopa
and the supply ship the Houston, blasting them to pieces with five-
inch rockets. In the end the 5th battalion was lost, which was on
the Houston, as well as the supplies for the landing teams and
eight other smaller vessels. With some of the invading forces'
ships destroyed, and no command and control ship, the logistics of
the operation soon broke down as the other supply ships were kept
at bay by Casto's air force. As with many failed military
adventures, one of the problems with this one was with supplying
In the air, Castro had easily won superiority over the
invading force. His fast moving T-33s, although unimpressive by
today's standards, made short work of the slow moving B-26s of the
invading force. On Tuesday, two were shot out of the sky and by
Wednesday the invaders had lost 10 of their 12 aircraft. With
air power firmly in control of Castro's forces, the end was near
for the invading army.
Over the 72 hours the invading force of about 1500 men were
pounded by the Cubans. Casto fired 122mm. Howitzers, 22mm. cannon,
and tank fire at them. By Wednesday the invaders were pushed back
to their landing zone at Playa Gir¢n. Surrounded by Castro's forces
some began to surrender while others fled into the hills. In
total 114 men were killed in the slaughter while thirty-six died as
prisoners in Cuban cells. Others were to live out twenty years or
more in those cells as men plotting to topple the government of
The 1500 men of the invading force never had a chance for
success from almost the first days in the planning stage of the
operation. Operation Pluto, as it came to be known as, has its
origins in the last dying days of the Eisenhower administration and
that murky time period during the transition of power to the newly
elected president John F. Kennedy.
The origins of American policy in Latin America in the late
1950s and early 1960s has its origins in American's economic
interests and its anticommunist policies in the region. The same
man who had helped formulate American containment policy towards
the Soviet threat, George Kennan, in 1950 spoke to US Chiefs of
Mission in Rio de Janeiro about Latin America. He said that
American policy had several purposes in the region,
. . . to protect the vital supplies of raw materials
which Latin American countries export to the USA; to
prevent the 'military exploitation of Latin America by
the enemy' [The Soviet Union]; and to avert 'the
psychological mobilization of Latin America against us.'
. . . .
By the 1950s trade with Latin America accounted for a quarter
of American exports, and 80 per cent of the investment in Latin
America was also American. The Americans had a vested interest
in the region that it would remain pro-American.
The Guatemalan adventure can be seen as another of the factors
that lead the American government to believe that it could handle
Casto. Before the Second World War ended, a coup in Guatemala saw
the rise to power of Juan Jose Ar‚valo. He was not a communist in
the traditional sense of the term, but he ". . . packed his
government with Communist Party members and Communist
sympathizers." In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz succeeded Ar‚valo after an
election in March of that year. The party had been progressing with
a series of reforms, and the newly elected leader continued with
these reforms. During land reforms a major American company, the
United Fruit Company, lost its land and other holdings without any
compensation from the Guatemalan government. When the Guatemalans
refused to go to the International Court of Law, United Fruit began
to lobby the government of the United States to take action. In the
government they had some very powerful supporters. Among them were
Foster Dulles, Secretary of State who had once been their lawyer,
his brother Allen the Director of Central Intelligence who was a
share holder, and Robert Cutler head of the National Security
Council. In what was a clear conflict of interest, the security
apparatus of the United States decided to take action against the
From May 1st, 1954, to June 18th, the Central Intelligence
Agency did everything in its power to overthrow the government of
Arbenz. On June 17th to the 18th, it peaked with an invasion of 450
men lead by a Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. With the help of air
support the men took control of the country and Arbenz fled to the
Mexican Embassy. By June 27th, the country was firmly in control of
the invading force. With its success in Guatemala, CIA had the
confidence that it could now take on anyone who interfered with
In late 1958 Castro was still fighting a guerilla war against
the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista. Before he came to power,
there was an incident between his troops and some vacationing
American troops from the nearby American naval base at Guantanamo
Bay. During the incident some US Marines were held captive by
Casto's forces but were later released after a ransom was secretly
paid. This episode soured relations with the United States and
the chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Admiral Burke, wanted to send
in the Marines to destroy Castro's forces then but Secretary of
State Foster Dulles disagreed with the measures suggested and
stopped the plan.
Castro overthrew Batista in 1959. Originally Castro was not a
communist either and even had meetings with then Vice-President
Richard Nixon. Fearful of Castro's revolution, people with money,
like doctors, lawyers, and the mafia, left Cuba for the United
States. To prevent the loss of more capital Castro's solution was
to nationalize some of the businesses in Cuba. In the process
of nationalizing some business he came into conflict with American
interests just as Arbenz had in Guatemala. ". . . legitimate U.S.
Businesses were taken over, and the process of socialization begun
with little if any talk of compensation." There were also
rumours of Cuban involvement in trying to invade Panama, Guatemala,
and the Dominican Republic and by this time Castro had been
turn down by the United States for any economic aid. Being rejected
by the Americans, he met with foreign minister Anasta Mikoyan to
secure a $100 million loan from the Soviet Union. It was in
this atmosphere that the American Intelligence and Foreign
Relations communities decided that Castro was leaning towards
communism and had to be dealt with.
In the spring of 1960, President Eisenhower approved a plan to
send small groups of American trained, Cuban exiles, to work in the
underground as guerrillas to overthrow Castro. By the fall, the
plan was changed to a full invasion with air support by exile
Cubans in American supplied planes. The original group was to
be trained in Panama, but with the growth of the operation and the
quickening pace of events in Cuba, it was decided to move things to
a base in Guatemala. The plan was becoming rushed and this would
start to show, the man in charge of the operation, CIA Deputy
Director Bissell said that,
. . . There didn't seem to be time to keep to the
original plan and have a large group trained by this
initial cadre of young Cubans. So the larger group was
formed and established at La finca, in Guatemala, and
there the training was conducted entirely by Americans .
. . .
It was now fall and a new president had been elected.
President Kennedy could have stopped the invasion if he wanted to,
but he probably didn't do so for several reasons. Firstly, he had
campaigned for some form of action against Cuba and it was also
the height of the cold war, to back out now would mean having
groups of Cuban exiles travelling around the globe saying how the
Americans had backed down on the Cuba issue. In competition
with the Soviet Union, backing out would make the Americans look
like wimps on the international scene, and for domestic consumption
the new president would be seen as backing away from one of his
campaign promises. The second reason Kennedy probably didn't abort
the operation is the main reason why the operation failed, problems
with the CIA.
Part II: Failure and Ramifications.
The failure at the CIA led to Kennedy making poor decisions
which would affect future relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
The failure at CIA had three causes. First the wrong people were
handling the operation, secondly the agency in charge of the
operation was also the one providing all the intelligence for the
operation, and thirdly for an organization supposedly obsessed with
security the operation had security problems.
In charge of the operation was the Director of Central
Intelligence, Allan Dulles and main responsibility for the
operation was left to one of his deputies, Richard Bissell. In an
intelligence community geared mainly for European operations
against the USSR, both men were lacking in experience in Latin
American affairs. Those in charge of Operation Pluto, based
this new operation on the success of the Guatemalan adventure, but
the situation in Cuba was much different than that in Guatemala. In
Guatemala the situation was still chaotic and Arbenz never had the
same control over the country that Castro had on Cuba. The CIA had
the United States Ambassador, John Puerifoy, working on the inside
of Guatemala coordinating the effort, in Cuba they had none of this
while Castro was being supplied by the Soviet block. In
addition, after the overthrow of the government in Guatemala,
Castro was aware that this may happen to him as well and probably
had his guard up waiting for anything that my indicate that an
invasion was imminent.
The second problem was the nature of the bureaucracy itself.
The CIA was a new kid on the block and still felt that it had to
prove itself, it saw its opportunity in Cuba. Obsessed with
secrecy, it kept the number of people involved to a minimum. The
intelligence wing of CIA was kept out of it, their Board of
National Estimates could have provided information on the situation
in Cuba and the chances for an uprising against Castro once the
invasion started. Also kept out of the loop were the State
Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff who could have provided
help on the military side of the adventure. In the end, the CIA
kept all the information for itself and passed on to the president
only what it thought he should see. Lucien S. Vandenbroucke, in
Political Science Quarterly of 1984, based his analysis of the Bay
of Pigs failure on organizational behaviour theory. He says that
the CIA ". . . supplied President Kennedy and his advisers with
chosen reports on the unreliability of Castro's forces and the
extent of Cuban dissent." Of the CIA's behaviour he concludes
. . . By resorting to the typical organization strategy
of defining the options and providing the information
required to evaluate them, the CIA thus structured the
problem in a way that maximized the likelihood the
president would choose the agency's preferred option . .
The CIA made sure the deck was stacked in their favour when the
time came to decide whether a project they sponsored was sound or
not. President Kennedy's Secretary of State at the time was Dean
Rusk, in his autobiography he says that,
. . . The CIA told us all sorts of things about the
situation in Cuba and what would happen once the brigade
got ashore. President Kennedy received information which
simply was not correct. For example, we were told that
elements of the Cuban armed forces would defect and join
the brigade, that there would be popular uprisings
throughout Cuba when the brigade hit the beach, and that
if the exile force got into trouble, its members would
simply melt into the countryside and become guerrillas,
just as Castro had done . . . .
As for senior White House aides, most of them disagreed with
the plan as well, but Rusk says that Kennedy went with what the CIA
had to say. As for himself, he said that he ". . . did not serve
President Kennedy very well . . ." and that he should have
voiced his opposition louder. He concluded that ". . . I should
have made my opposition clear in the meetings themselves because he
[Kennedy] was under pressure from those who wanted to proceed."
When faced with biased information from the CIA and quiet advisors,
it is no wonder that the president decided to go ahead with the
For an organization that deals with security issues, the CIA's
lack of security in the Bay of Pigs operation is ironic. Security
began to break down before the invasion when The New York Times
reporter Tad Szulc ". . . learned of Operation Pluto from Cuban
friends. . ." earlier that year while in Costa Rica covering an
Organization of American States meeting. Another breakdown in
security was at the training base in Florida,
. . . Local residents near Homestead [air force base] had
seen Cubans drilling and heard their loudspeakers at a
farm. As a joke some firecrackers were thrown into the
compound . . . .
The ensuing incident saw the Cubans firing their guns and the
federal authorities having to convince the local authorities not to
press charges. Operation Pluto was beginning to get blown wide
open, the advantage of surprise was lost even this early in the
After the initial bombing raid of April 15th, and the landing
of the B-26s in Florida, pictures of the planes were taken and
published in newspapers. In the photo of one of the planes, the
nose of it is opaque whereas the model of the B-26 the Cubans
really used had a plexiglass nose,
. . . The CIA had taken the pains to disguise the B-26
with "FAR" markings [Cuban Air Force], the agency
overlooked a crucial detail that was spotted immediately
by professional observers . . . .
All Castro's people had to do was read the newspapers and they'd
know that something was going to happen, that those planes that had
bombed them were not their own but American.
In The New York Times of the 21st of April, stories about the
origins of the operation in the Eisenhower administration appeared
along with headlines of "C.I.A. Had a Role In Exiles' Plans"
revealing the CIA's involvement. By the 22nd, the story is
fully known with headlines in The New York Times stating that "CIA
is Accused by Bitter Rebels" and on the second page of that
day's issue is a full article on the details of the operation from
The conclusion one can draw from the articles in The New York
Times is that if reporters knew the whole story by the 22nd, it can
be expected that Castro's intelligence service and that of the
Soviet Union knew about the planned invasion as well. Tad Szulc's
report in the April 22nd edition of The New York Times says it all,
. . . As has been an open secret in Florida and Central
America for months, the C.I.A. planned, coordinated and
directed the operations that ended in defeat on a
beachhead in southern Cuba Wednesday . . . .
It is clear then that part of the failure of the operation was
caused by a lack of security and attention to detail on the part of
the Central Intelligence Agency, and misinformation given to the
On the international scene, the Bay of Pigs invasion lead
directly to increased tensions between the United States and the
Soviet Union. During the invasion messages were exchanged between
Kennedy and Khrushchev regarding the events in Cuba. Khrushchev
accused the Americans of being involved in the invasion and stated
in one of his messages that a,
. . . so-called "small war" can produce a chain reaction
in all parts of the world . . . we shall render the Cuban
people and their Government all necessary assistance in
beating back the armed attack on Cuba . . . .
Kennedy replied giving American views on democracy and the
containment of communism, he also warned against Soviet involvement
in Cuba saying to Khrushchev,
. . . In the event of any military intervention by
outside force we will immediately honor our obligations
under the inter-American system to protect this
hemisphere against external aggression . . . .
Even though this crisis passed, it set the stage for the next
major crisis over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and probably lead
to the Soviets increasing their military support for Castro.
In the administration itself, the Bay of Pigs crisis lead to
a few changes. Firstly, someone had to take the blame for the
affair and, as Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles was
forced to resign and left CIA in November of 1961 Internally,
the CIA was never the same, although it continued with covert
operations against Castro, it was on a much reduced scale.
According to a report of the Select Senate Committee on
Intelligence, future operations were ". . . to nourish a spirit of
resistance and disaffection which could lead to significant
defections and other by-products of unrest." The CIA also now
came under the supervision of the president's brother Bobby, the
Attorney General. According to Lucien S. Vandenbroucke, the
outcome of the Bay of Pigs failure also made the White House
suspicious of an operation that everyone agreed to, made them less
reluctant to question the experts, and made them play "devil's
advocates" when questioning them. In the end, the lessons
learned from the Bay of Pigs failure may have contributed to the
successful handling of the Cuban missile crisis that followed.
The long term ramifications of the Bay of Pigs invasion are a
little harder to assess. The ultimate indication of the invasions
failure is that thirty-four years later Castro is still in power.
This not only indicates the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion,
but American policy towards Cuba in general. The American policy,
rather than undermining Castro's support, has probably contributed
to it. As with many wars, even a cold one, the leader is able to
rally his people around him against an aggressor.
When Castro came to power he instituted reforms to help the
people and end corruption, no longer receiving help from the Soviet
Union things are beginning to change. He has opened up the Cuban
economy for some investment, mainly in telecommunications, oil
exploration, and joint ventures. In an attempt to stay in
power, he is trying to adapt his country to the new reality of the
world. Rather than suppressing the educated elite, he is giving
them a place in guiding Cuba. The question is, will they
eventually want more power and a right to control Cuba's fate
without Castro's guidance and support? If the collapse of past
regimes is any indication, they will eventually want more power.
When Castro came to power in 1959, the major opponents in
America to him, as with Guatemala, were the business interests who
were losing out as a result of his polices. The major pressure for
the Americans to do something came, not only from the Cuban exiles
in Florida, but from those businesses. Today, the tables are turned
and businesses are loosing out because of the American embargo
against Cuba. It is estimated that if the embargo were lifted, $1
billion of business would be generated for US companies that first
year. Right now, 100 firms have gone to Cuba to talk about doing
business there after the embargo is lifted. Will American
policy change toward Cuba because of pressure from business
interests and growing problems with refugees from Cuba? Given the
reasons why the United States got involved in Latin American
politics in the first place, it is very likely that their position
will change if they can find a face saving way to do so. American
policy at this time though is still stuck in the cold war, the
chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms said
. . . Whether Castro leaves Cuba in a vertical or
horizontal position is up to him and the Cuban people.
But he must and will leave Cuba . . . .
The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion was caused by
misinformation and mismanagement, the consequences of that was egg
in the face for the Americans and an increase in tension between
the superpowers at the height of the cold war. We will only have to
wait and see if the Americans have really learned their lesson and
will not miss another opportunity to set things right in Cuba. Bibliography
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