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 Baos 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 the main landing
teams when they arrived. At 2:30 a.m. and at 3:00 a.m. two battalions came
ashore at Playa Girn and one battalion at Playa Larga beaches. The troops
at Playa Girn 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
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 the troops.
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 Girn. 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 Castro.
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 that,
. . . 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
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 game.
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 its beginnings.
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 president.
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
. . . 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.