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 BaĄos 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
[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 Girón and one battalion at Playa Larga
beaches. The troops at Playa Girón 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 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
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 Girón.
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.
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
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 American interests.
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
. . . 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 . .
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
. . . 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 operation.
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
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
. . . 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
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 that,
. . . 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.
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