The Bay of Pigs: An American Embarrassment
As a country grows more powerful, it becomes ever more fearful of its potential demise and will often go to great lengths to eliminate potential threats. The Bay of Pigs operation was one such example of this mentality. Prompted by the desire to maintain the country’s all-powerful status and reputation as the protector of freedom, the United States government scrambled to quash the perceived threat to that status posed by newly communist Cuba. The U.S. responded to this by launching an operation, known as the Bay of Pigs, that was hastily conceived and poorly planned. This tarnished the reputation of the United States both domestically and abroad and ultimately led the country to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Reasons Behind the Attack
The U.S. attack on Cuba was prompted by a contentious relationship with the communist U.S.S.R. and general uneasiness with the idea of communism spreading closer to America’s borders. As the largest and most prosperous free country, the United States felt a special obligation to protect the world against the spread of communism and believed they were “support[ing] free peoples who [were] resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” (Harry S. Truman Library and Museum). The fear of communism was multifaceted; for one, the thought of a communist country just ninety miles away from the U.S. made many uneasy, as Cuba was already arm-in-arm with the U.S.S.R., the only other superpower in the world that could match America’s might. Cuba could possibly become a U.S.S.R satellite, and might be urged by the U.S.S.R. to attack the U.S, as launching missiles and other weapons would be relatively easy from Cuba. Additionally, a communist Cuba spelled bad news to the U.S. economically. The U.S. regarded Cuba as an important trading partner, but a communist regime would likely have nothing to do with global capitalism, and economic activity between the two countries could cease entirely. All of these problems would be magnified if Cuba managed to spread Communism to South America. In addition to inflicting even more economic damage on the U.S., it would give the U.S.S.R. even more allies, and “the threat of having more than one Russian supporter near us could have been fatal to our country” (Berry). The biggest concern, however, was the chance of Americans turning communist themselves. These concerns would weigh heavily enough on politicians’ minds to prompt them to action.
The Initial Plan
Taking these concerns into consideration, the CIA and the Eisenhower Administration crafted a plan known as “A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime” to invade Cuba through the Trinidad Bay and topple the government with military action. Fearing worldwide backlash if the U.S. was to openly attack Cuba, the U.S. designed the operation to look like the U.S. had nothing to do with the attack. Instead, the U.S. opted to train disgruntled Cuban exiles while covertly spreading propaganda and encouraging resistance in Cuba. To ensure maximum military success, Trinidad Bay was chosen as it was defendable with a mountain range on the west, a river to the north and a swamp to the east, and the only opening Castro would have to attack would be a suicidal position. In addition to its defensibility, it allowed retreat should the operation fail, and had an anti-Castro town nearby from which they could recruit more resistance members. March 10 was selected by the CIA as the optimal date for the operation to take place, which was the latest possible time they could take to intercept the growing number of Soviet weapons being shipped to Cuba.
Just prior to the operation, the government would send in airplanes to shoot down Cuban airplanes in order to ensure the militia’s success. After the militia moved in, they would recruit local Cubans from nearby towns and, with their help, battle Castro and his army. Assuming U.S. forces could hold their ground against Castro for two to three weeks, the administration and CIA surmised, the Cubans would eventually see the weakness of their leader and join the U.S. in the toppling of Castro. Following the toppling of the government, the U.S. would install the Frentes, an anti-Castro group, into a provisional government and offer support until Cuba was stabilized. Should the plan fail and Cuba gain the upper hand in battle, the militia could escape into the Escambray Mountains and engage in guerilla warfare.
The execution of this plan lay in the hands of Eisenhower’s successor, President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, however, did not even call a meeting to address the operation until after the selected date for the operation had passed. Upon at last calling the meeting, he and his administration rejected the plan. The administration was aware that an overt U.S. participation in the operation would be politically disastrous and undoubtedly prompt backlash from the rest of the world for attacking another country without provocation, and thus wanted to avoid detection at all costs. For this reason, they desired a more secretive operation; the current plan left too many holes. The airfield, the administration argued, was too small, and lengthening it would raise suspicions. Moreover, they felt the operation was too similar to World War II invasions, which again might implicate the U.S. Additionally, the proximity of the nearby town to the invasion site troubled the Kennedy Administration, which wanted to avoid involving innocent citizens in warfare.
Unsatisfied with this plan, Kennedy and his administration ordered the drafting of a new plan at a different location. In just a matter of minutes, the participants selected Bahía de Cochinos, or Bay of Pigs, the only other location that satisfied the CIA’s preexisting criteria, was far away from a civilian population and had a long airfield. Unlike Trinidad Bay, however, Bahía de Cochinos lacked an escape route, as the Escambray Mountains were blocked by a massive swamp. Finding this to be of no consequence, Kennedy’s administration then proceeded to alter aspects of the execution plan in just four short days. Sixteen bombers (which would later be cut down to 8) would bomb Cuban aircraft on April 15th, 1961, and a brigade made of 1,400 Cuban exiles would invade by sea on April 17th, 1961. As the brigade fought, they would gain Cuban converts and, as originally planned, overthrow the government and install the Frentes in place. As the Trinidad Plan originally dictated, the brigade would escape to the Escambray Mountains and engage in guerrilla warfare should the invasion fail.
The operation officially began on April 15th, 1961, with the air raid upon the Cuban airforce. Lacking an a sufficient number of airplanes, the air raid ended up taking out only half of the Cuban air force. Upon hearing of this failure, Kennedy canceled the second air raid, and the troops went ahead to Cuba without the expected air support. The brigade arrived successfully on the night of April 17th as planned, without a hitch, but by morning Cuba had mobilized and attacked the American-trained Cuban forces. Castro’s initial defending forces surrendered quickly, however, and over a hundred-and-fifty deserted Castro and joined the brigade. While this was a positive development for the U.S., the fate of the American cargo ships was not—the remaining undefeated Cuban air fleet attacked the four American cargo ships near the coast, causing two to sink and the other two to flee. The Cuban exiles were now left stranded without the expected cargo from the ships, and, to make matters worse, Kennedy had stoutly refused to send additional airplanes to drop off supplies, provide back-up support and evacuate the exiles.
The operation was neither long nor successful. Although the exiles inflicted between 3,000 and 4,000 casualties upon Castro’s army, the Cubans had inflicted far greater damage upon the brigade. The Cubans managed to destroy two escort ships and half of the American airforce, thereby leaving the brigades without supplies. Severely lacking ammo and unable to escape to the Escambray Mountains as planned due to planning errors, the brigade surrendered after only three days. In the end, 1,500 brigade members were captured and a hundred were killed. These captured brigade members were held in captivity for twenty months until the United States finally paid a ransom agreeable to Cuba. The United States had utterly failed.
The Causes of Failure
In retrospect, the Bay of Pigs failure was inevitable; it was fraught with planning errors, faulty logic, and other flaws that rendered the operation doomed from the start. The government’s desired façade of noninvolvement, Hawkins argues, “was the fundamental mistake underlying the other fatal errors that led to the failure of the operation.” For one, the areas in which the brigade was trained—Nicaragua and Guatemala—were unsuitable; they would have much been better located in Puerto Rico and Florida, but the CIA was worried about them being on U.S. soil due to obscurity. Additionally, the Bay of Pigs was a poor location; there was no escape route and it was difficult to defend. The location had been chosen in just a few minutes because Richard Bissell, the Deputy Director for Plans at the CIA, determined it was the only place that met Kennedy’s requirements. Bissell, however, chose the spot so quickly he never advised Kennedy that it was impossible to escape to the mountains and engage in guerrilla warfare; Hawkins considers this to be “another fatal error, as Mr. Bissell later acknowledged.”
Again fearing American involvement would be too obvious, Kennedy only supplied the military with sixteen airplanes, which was what military advisers considered to be the absolute bare minimum number of airplanes necessary to destroy the Cuban air fleet. Then, against the recommendations of military advisers, Kennedy sliced the number from sixteen to eight on April 14, 1961. Doing so was a huge mistake, and “military failure was now virtually assured” (Hawkins).
The planning of the attack, however, was not done entirely haphazardly with no regard or warning to its fatal flaws. To the contrary, many individuals, such as the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense both said the plan was bound to fail. Hawkins reports that he “frequently emphasized, both orally and in formal correspondence, the absolute necessity for complete destruction of the opposing air force at the outset of the operation,” which unfortunately proved itself to be true when the surviving Cuban fleet incurred heavy damage on the brigade. Additionally, the Deputy Director for Plans at the CIA, an Air Force general, Chief of Naval Operations, and an admiral all advised Kennedy to reinstate the cancelled air strike or otherwise face failure. Kennedy stoutly refused, again fearing being exposed.
All of these errors and mistakes that led to the downfall of the operation stemmed from a single cause—the U.S. had a “fear of exposure [that] so dominated their thinking that it became an obsession. It became their primary concern any discussion of changes to the plan. [. . .] In short, they were feared exposure more than they feared defeat” (Lynch, 154). While not being implicated in the operation would have been advantageous, the “military requirements for a successful operation and the President's insistence on plausible deniability were in irreconcilable conflict.” Kennedy threw out the Trinidad Plan, which could have worked, because he “opposed the plan, saying that it was too much like an invasion and too easily attributable to the United States,” and thus ended up choosing a plan that was less obvious but also doomed for failure (Hawkins). Kennedy’s rejection of “a plan that offered a good chance of success and placing ‘plausible deniability’ ahead of military viability” turned out to be a “fatal error” (Hawkins). Ironically, for all of the U.S.’s efforts to avoid detection, Cuba knew about the attack far beforehand. The foreign minister of Cuba had details of the planned attack as early as Halloween 1960.
The failure of the attack had widespread ramifications, none of which worked in the U.S.’s favor. For one, the brigade did not take the loss and poor planning well; Hawkins reports that the brigade was “shamefully misled and betrayed by the Government of the United States. The last message from Jose ‘Pepe’ San Roman, the Brigade Commander, was, ‘How can you people do this to us?’” Aside from losing the trust of the brigade, however, the incident looked horrible both abroad and domestically. In the mess that ensued, the CIA and the Kennedy administration all wildly pointed fingers at the other. Publicly, Kennedy accepted blame for the failure, which was a good political move; Victor reports that “Kennedy helped himself politically by accepting full responsibility for the failure. The public rallied to his side. His job-approval ratings soared, reaching 83 percent.” Internally, however, Kennedy blamed the CIA and his advisers, feeling that he had been misled with false information. He did, however, realize he had made a huge error, as shown by the comments he made to those close to him about his boost in popularity: “‘Jesus, it's just like Ike,’ Kennedy said, referring to Eisenhower, according to an account by Richard Reeves in President Kennedy: Profile of Power. ‘The worse you do, the better they like you’” (qtd. in Victor).
Unlike Kennedy, the CIA suffered harsh criticism. The CIA was accused of being responsible for the failure, irresponsible and out-of-control, but Lynch argued that this was “a myth [. . .] as great as the administration’s other myth about Cochinos, but it was necessary for one myth to support another” (169). Regardless of the CIA’s degree of fault, the CIA was completely restructured due to the operation and kept on a very short leash.
The U.S. as a whole suffered diplomatically with its allies. Adlai Stevenson, the American ambassador to the U.N., was asked at a U.N. meeting if the U.S. was involved, and, having not been informed about the attack, denied U.S. involvement. When the details of the attack came to light, Stevenson rightly “protested to the President that this affair was extremely embarrassing both to the President and to him” (Hawkins). Stevenson, however, wasn’t the only one humiliated by the fiasco at the U.N. meeting; Lynch claims that had the U.S. lost a chance to gain respect and praise from its allies. “A successful invasion could have won the approval and acclaim of the entire free world,” Lynch notes, “[. . .] Instead [the Americans] were timid and fearful, and they heaped shame and ridicule onto not just themselves, who justly deserved it, but on the entire nation” (154-155).
While the failure shook the confidence some had in the U.S., the failed attack only empowered the U.S.S.R. and Cuba all the further. The failed operation did nothing but hurt the U.S.; as “the Bay of Pigs fiasco caused the U.S. Government to be perceived as weak, irresolute, and inept” (Hawkins). Castro ceased economic activity altogether with the U.S., and, paranoid of another attack, only grew closer with the U.S.S.R. in hopes of being offered protection. Additionally, Cuba’s overwhelming win solidified Castro’s popularity among the Cuban people. Che Guevara, an Argentine Marxist, wrote Kennedy a few months later to thank him for the invasion, claiming that “‘before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it is stronger than ever’” (qtd. in Craughwell). Meanwhile, Khrushchev of the U.S.S.R. was encouraged by the attack’s failure; he saw the failure as confirmation of Kennedy’s naivety and weakness, and was hence “reassured that he had little to fear from the United States” (Hawkins). With this element of fear dismantled, the U.S.S.R. continued to supply Cuba with weapons, which Berry argues “led up to another important U.S.-Cuba event, The Cuban Missile Crisis.” This directly culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis a few years later, which was the closest the world has ever come to a full-blown nuclear war. To this day, the U.S. and Cuba have limited relations, and will probably remain that way for decades to come.
In retrospect, the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation comes down to a single theme. The U.S., which felt powerful and wished to remain that way, tried to launch an offensive against the threatening Cuba. However, in its quest to avoid worldwide condemnation and the wrath of the U.S.S.R., the U.S. was overly cautious and ended up failing. The concept of military failure was relatively unknown to such a young, successful country, and it stung when the U.S. awoke to the fact that with power comes responsibility. As the U.S. found out, responsibility can mean planning well and effectively.
Berry, Jason. “Bay of Pigs Invasion.” Exploring the Culture of Little Havana. University of Miami. 20 May 2009 <http://www.education.miami.edu/ep/LittleHavana/Monuments/Virgin1/The_Virgin_Mary/Bay_of_Pigs/bay_of_pigs.html>
Craughwell, Thomas, and William Phelps. “Failure of the Presidents: the Bay of Pigs Disaster.” George Mason’s History News Network. 10 November 2008. George Mason University. 13 May 2008. <http://hnn.us/articles/55759.html>
“Harry Truman and the Truman Doctrine.” Harry Truman Library and Museum. National Archives and Records Administration. 13 May 2008. <http://www.trumanlibrary.org/teacher/doctrine.htm>
Hawkins, Jack. "Classified disaster: the Bay of Pigs operation was doomed by presidential indecisiveness and lack of commitment". National Review. 31 December 1996. FindArticles.com. 13 May 2009. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1282/is_n25_v48/ai_19029956/>
“JFK in History: Bay of Pigs.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. 25 April 2009. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. 2009. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/JFK+in+History/JFK+and+the+Bay+of+Pigs.htm
Lynch, Grayston. Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs. Washington D.C.: Brassey’s Inc, 1998.
Schoenherr, Steven. “The U.S. Fear of Communism in Cuba.” University of San Diego: History Department. 4 August 2004. University of San Diego. 27 April 2009 <http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/st/hollister.html>
Sierra, Jerry. “Bay of Pigs.” History of Cuba. 2009. 20 March 2009 2009. <http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/baypigs/pigs2.htm>
Victor, Kirk. “Kennedy: A Visit to the School of Hard Knocks.” NationalJournal.com. 13 January 2001. National Journal Group. 13 May 2009. <http://www.nationaljournal.com/inauguration/in_20090109_2358.php>
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