Bay of Pigs
█ LARRY GILMAN
The Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos) is a small bay on the southern coast of Cuba that was invaded on April 17, 1961 by approximately 1,400 Cuban exiles organized and armed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The invasion was meant to appear to be an attempt by independent Cuban rebels to overthrow leftist Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but became obviously known as an American project, and confirmed when President John F. Kennedy immediately admitted responsibility when the invasion failed. The Bay of Pigs, as the whole episode came to be known, was a major embarrassment for the United States, which was caught deceiving the United Nations and trying to overthrow by force a government which the U.S. itself had officially recognized and which was not attacking the U.S. One hundred and fourteen invaders and 157 Cuban soldiers were killed and 1,189 invaders were taken prisoner.
Fidel Castro became the leader of Cuba's government when his revolutionary forces overthrew the Batista regime in January, 1959. At first, Washington was not hostile to Castro. President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized his government a few days after Batista's downfall, and Castro even traveled to Washington to meet with Vice President Richard Nixon (later President Nixon). Nixon decided that Castro could not be relied upon to pursue U.S. interests and began to agitate privately for his removal.
In October, 1959, Eisenhower approved a secret program to depose Castro proposed by the CIA and the State Department. Eisenhower told his advisors that "our hand should not show in anything that is done"—in other words, that the operation should be carried out in such a way that
U.S. responsibility could be plausibly denied. To this end, the CIA gathered, funded, armed, and trained an anti-Castro rebel organization in Florida, the Panama Canal Zone, and Guatemala. The CIA began military training of 300 Cuban expatriates in March of 1960, and in May began broadcasting anti-Castro propaganda over the whole Caribbean from a station on a small, disputed territory named Swan Island. The programs were taped in Miami under CIA control, but claimed to be the voice of an authentic Cuban rebel movement without U.S. ties. In September, addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, Castro accurately accused the U.S. of operating Radio Swan; the U.S. denied the charge.
In July, 1960, the Cuban fighters of "Brigade 2506"—named for the number of a brigade member killed in an accident—were transferred to a training camp in Guatemala built and run by the CIA.
On November 4, 1960, John Kennedy was elected president. Once in office, Kennedy gave his approval for the training of Brigade 2506 to continue. Like Eisenhower before him, however, Kennedy was adamant that U.S. armed forces should not take part in any effort to overthrow Castro. Not only was the whole operation illegal, any hint of U.S. manipulation would alienate potential supporters of the invasion inside Cuba. U.S. planners hoped that when news of the invasion reached the Cuban populace, an anti-Castro rebellion would arise and cast him out. At the very least, planners believed, the invaders could fight their way overland to the Escambray Mountains, about 100 miles west of the landing zone, and join rebel forces already fighting there.
On April 15, 1961, the first part of the invasion plan was carried out. Eight B-29 bombers supplied by the CIA bombed Cuban military aircraft on the ground at several locations. Later, a B-26 bearing Cuban markings and marked with bullet-holes landed at Miami International Airport. The pilots claimed to be defecting Cuban pilots, the goal being to make the raids on Cuba earlier that morning look like an internal action by defecting Cuban pilots. However, reporters on the scene noted that the plane's machine guns had not been fired and that the plane was not of the type actually used by Cuba. Castro, hearing the reports, commented that even Hollywood would not have tried to film such a feeble story. The goal of the bombings themselves was to destroy the Cuban government's small air force at one stroke, eliminating any call for U.S. air support of Brigade 2506 at the landing site. The raid was not completely successful, however.
Two days later, on April 17, a landing was made at Playa Girón (Girón Beach) in the Bay of Pigs. A small beachhead was quickly achieved by Brigade 2506, but one of their freighter vessels, containing food, fuel, medical equipment, and a ten days' supply of ammunition, was quickly sunk. Combat was heavy around the beachhead as Cuban government forces responded to the attack. The remnants of the Cuban Air Force bombed and strafed the invading forces, as Brigade 2506 had not been supplied with fighter aircraft and President Kennedy categorically refused to allow U.S. fighters to go into combat.
The military situation deteriorated steadily (from the invaders' point of view) over the next 48 hours. On April 18, while the fighting was at its peak, Adlai Stevenson denied to the United Nations, in response to Cuban accusations, that the U.S. was attacking Cuba. Eventually, Kennedy was persuaded to authorize unmarked U.S. fighter jets from the aircraft carrier Essex to provide escort cover for the invasion's B-26 bombers, most of which were now being flown by CIA agents in support of the ground invasion (two-thirds of the Brigade pilots were refusing to fly). The jets from the Essex missed their rendezvous with the B-26s by an hour due to a misunderstanding about time zones; in the subsequent, unescorted bombing raid over Cuba, two B-26s were shot down and four Americans were killed. The fighting ended on April 20, 1961, with the defeat of Brigade 2506.
The project, most analysts would later conclude, had been hopeless from the beginning. Fidel Castro enjoyed wide support in Cuba and had just consolidated a military victory against the Batista regime; a few thousand lightlyarmed invaders could not possibly have taken the island. Furthermore, the idea that the U.S. could keep its role secret had become ridiculous long before the invasion was attempted. The New York Times had run a story on March 17, 1961, predicting a U.S. invasion of Cuba in the coming weeks, and another story on April 7, entitled "Anti-Castro Units Trained to Fight at Florida Bases," which noted that invasion plans were in their final stages. Although the Times had watered down the latter story considerably at President Kennedy's personal request, when Kennedy saw the paper he exclaimed that Castro didn't need spies; all he had to do was read the news. But Castro, and others, did have spies, and the Soviet Union was fairly well-informed of U.S. invasion plans ahead of time.
The costs of the Bay of Pigs were high, and not only in lives lost. In the wake of the invasion, Castro consolidated his regime, supported by public outrage in Cuba over the U.S.-plotted invasion, and concluded a mutual-defense agreement with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union exploited this relationship to get Cuban permission to place ballistic-missile launch sites on Cuban soil. These launch sites, detected by U.S. aerial photography, were the immediate cause of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, generally agreed to have been the closest approach to all-out nuclear war that the world has yet ecountered.
█ FURTHER READING:
Blight, James and Peter Kornbluh. Politics of Illusion: The Bay of Pigs Invasion Reexamined. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.
Kornbluh, Peter. Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba. New York: The New Press, 1998.