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 along with his advisors. The fall out from the invasion caused a rise in tension between the two great superpowers and ironically, thirty-eight years after the event, the person whom the invasion was 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. The Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, started a few days before the bombing of Cuba on April fifteenth by what appeared to be defecting Cuban air force pilots. At 6 a. m. on that Saturday, B-26 bombers bombed three Cuban military bases. The airfields at Camp Libertad, San Antonio de Los Banos 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, 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.
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 fuel tanks were nearly empty. On the front page of The New York Times the next day, a picture of a B-26 was shown along with a picture of one of the pilots wearing a baseball hat and hiding behind dark sunglasses.
His name was withheld. Even at this early stage, a sense of conspiracy had begun to unravel the events of that week. In the early hours of April seventeenth, the assault on the Bay of Pigs began in a cloak and dagger fashion. The assault began at 2 a. m. with a team of frogmen going ashore with orders to set up landing lights. Those lights indicated 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. At 3:00 a. m. wo 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 well. When looking at a modern map of Cuba it is obvious that troops would have problems in the area that was chosen for them to land. 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, along with two Sea Furies, and two B-26s into the air to stop the invading forces. Off the coast were 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, Marsopa, and the supply ship, Houston, blasting them to pieces with five-inch rockets. Lost with the Houston was the fifth battalion 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 Castos 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 todays 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 Castros forces, the end was near for the invading army. During the seventy-two-hour invasion, the Cubans pounded the invading force of about 1500 men. The invaders weapons were no match for Castros 122mm Howitzers, 22mm cannons, and tank fire. By Wednesday the invaders were pushed back to their landing zone at Playa Girn. Surrounded by Castros forces, some surrendered while others fled into the hills. One hundred fourteen 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 for plotting to topple the government of Castro. The 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, has its origins in the last days of the Eisenhower Administration and the murky time period during the transition of power to the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy. 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 Castos forces but were later released after a ransom was secretly paid. This episode soured relations between Castro and the United States. The chief of U. S. Naval Operations, Admiral Burke, suggested sending in the Marines to destroy Castros forces, but Secretary of State Foster Dulles disagreed. Originally Castro was not a communist; he even had meetings with Vice President Richard Nixon.
Fearful of Castros revolution, people with money, including doctors, lawyers, and the Mafia, left Cuba for the United States. To prevent the loss of more capital Castros solution was to nationalize some of the businesses in Cuba. In the process of nationalizing some business he came into conflict with American interests. Legitimate U. S. businesses were taken over, and the process of socialization begun with little if any talk of compensation. Following rumors of Cuban involvement in planning to invade Panama, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic, the US Government refused Castro any economic aid.
After being rejected by the Americans, he met with Russias foreign minister Anasta Mikoyan to secure a $100 million loan from the Soviet Union. It was in this atmosphere that 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 trained Americans, 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, There didnt 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.
By now it was fall and President John F. Kennedy had replaced President Eisenhower. President Kennedy could have stopped the invasion if he wanted to, but he probably did not 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 traveling around the globe claiming the Americans had backed down on the Cuban issue. In competition with the Soviet Union, backing out would make the Americans appear as wimps on the international scene. On the domestic home front, the new president would be seen as backing away from one of his campaign promises.
The failure at the CIA led to Kennedy making poor decisions, affecting future relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Three reasons caused failure at the CIA headquarters. 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, 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 lacked 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 John Arbenz never had the same control over the country like 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 the Soviet block was supplying Castro. Furthermore, 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 an invasion was imminent. The second problem was the nature of the bureaucracy itself. The CIA was a new kid on the block, and feeling it had to prove itself, 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, although 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 behavior theory.
He says, The CIA supplied President Kennedy and his advisers with chosen reports on the unreliability of Castros forces and the extent of Cuban dissent. Of the CIAs behavior 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 agencys preferred option. The CIA made sure the deck was stacked in their favor when the time came to decide whether a project they sponsored was sound or not.
President Kennedys Secretary of State at the time was Dean Rusk. In his autobiography he stated, 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 that simply was not correct. For example, he was told the elements of the Cuban armed forces would defect and join the brigade. Also there would be popular uprisings throughout Cuba when the brigade hit the beach, and 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 said, Kennedy went with what the CIA had to say. As for himself, he said, He did not serve President Kennedy very well, and he should have voiced his opposition louder. He concluded, I should have made my opposition clear in the meetings themselves because he (Kennedy) was under pressure from those who wanted to proceed. When the president was faced with biased information from quiet advisors and the CIA, there was no question why the president decided to go ahead with the operation.
For an organization that deals with security issues, the CIAs 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 be blown wide open, the advantage of surprise was lost even this early in the game. After the initial bombing raid of April fifteenth, 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 planes to disguise the B-26 with FAR markings (Cuban Air Force). The agency overlooked a crucial detail that was spotted immediately by professional observers. Castros people only had to read the newspapers to learn something was going to happen. The planes that bombed them were not their own but American. In The New York Times on the twenty-first of April, stories about the origins of the operation in the Eisenhower administration appeared with headlines, CIA Had a Role in Exiles Plans, revealing the CIAs involvement.
By the twenty-second, the story is wide open with headlines in The New York Times stating, CIA is accused by Bitter Rebels and on the second page of that days 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, if reporters knew the whole story by the twenty-second, it can be expected that Castros intelligence service along with the Soviet Union knew about the planned invasion as well.
Tad Szulcs report in the April twenty-second edition of The New York Times says it all, . As has been an open secret in Florida and Central America for months, the CIA planned, coordinated and directed the operations that ended in defeat on a beachhead in southern Cuba Wednesday. It is clear now; 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. Stating 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. However, this crisis passed, but it set the stage for the next major crisis over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and probably led to the Soviets increasing their military support for Castro. In the administration itself, the Bay of Pigs crisis led 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, and 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 presidents 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 devils 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 invasion failure is that thirty-eight 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 Castros 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. No longer receiving help from the Soviet Union, things were beginning to change.
He has opened 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 Cubas fate without Castros 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, his major American opponents, 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 losing 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 the first year. As of now, 100 firms have talked to Cuba 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 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 chairman 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. Misinformation and mismanagement caused the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The consequences were the 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. This picture was taken of President Kennedy walking with three Cuban Exiles in 1961.