On the night of April 16th and 17th, 1961, 1,400 armed men on board a flotilla of small boats and landing-craft approached Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the southern coast of Cuba. ‘Brigade 2506’ was mainly Cuban, with a handful of ‘North Americans’ (US citizens in Cuba-speak), refugees from the regime headed by Fidel Castro, which had overthrown the pro-US caudillo Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar 27 months earlier. The brigade’s goal was to oust Castro and the Fidelistas. Within three days, more than three quarters of them had been captured and more than 100 killed.
Seaborne invasions were not new in Cuban history. Castro, having gone into exile from the Batista regime, had launched his own successful invasion in December 1956 with just 80 armed companions. In 1895 the forces of the ‘father of Cuban nationalism’, José Martí, invaded and three years of bloody warfare against the Spanish colonial authorities ensued. This second War of Independence, following the Ten Years’ War of 1868-78, led, in 1898, to the US placing Cuba under its control for the next 60 years.
In the first three decades of the 20th century, US Marines intervened on a number of occasions in the Caribbean and Central America, usually to ‘restore order’. The promotion of US interests was more subtle under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ‘good neighbor’ policy. After the Second World War, came the more familiar Cold War form of US intervention: backing rebels more or less openly as anti-Communist patriots against pro-Soviet regimes. The favoured rebels would be those promising to protect US interests; the allegedly traitorous Communists would be those attempting reforms such as land redistribution, mass education, health programmes and defending the interests of indigenous (Amerindian) peoples often neglected by criollo elites.
For Fidel Castro, his compañeros, the wider Cuban public and the US, the point of historical reference was Guatemala in 1954. Then, the freely-elected reforming government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán had been overthrown in a golpe launched from Honduras by dissident Guatemalan army and air force officers, backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the US Air Force.
Historians have disagreed about the respective responsibilities of the Fidelistas and the US government, both Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), for the deterioration of US-Cuban relations following Castro’s golpe. Yet the worsening of relations was predictable and Eisenhower and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon concluded by mid-1959 that Castro should be overthrown. Castro’s expropriation of large landholdings (latifundios) and private companies to fund the revolution and wrest political power from the economic overlords hit US property owners as well as wealthy Cubans – not to mention gangsters based in Chicago, Las Vegas and Miami. ($1bn of US property had been expropriated within a year of the Revolution.) US threats, later realised, to limit and eventually end the favourable terms for the import of Cuban sugar, the major source of export earnings, were just one of the reasons the Cuban government sought trade and credit deals with the Soviet bloc.
Before the end of 1959, Cuban opponents of the revolution were flying both propaganda and bombing raids from Florida. Throughout 1960, diplomatic and economic relations between the US and Cuba worsened, with Democrats such as former President Harry Truman and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy accusing Eisenhower and Nixon (by now the Republican presidential candidate) of being soft on Communism. But whatever the heat generated by the public friction, the key decision in the history of the Bay of Pigs invasion was made secretly in March 1960, when Eisenhower authorised the CIA to train and equip Cuban refugees for a counter-coup, while also planning Castro’s assassination with help from the US underworld.
The Director of the CIA during Eisenhower’s presidency was Allen Dulles; Eisenhower’s first Secretary of State was Allen’s brother, John Foster Dulles, who died shortly after Castro’s triumph. The brothers had successfully collaborated on the 1954 Guatemalan counter-coup. (Both had links to the Boston-based United Fruit company, whose huge plantations were targeted for expropriation.) Perhaps the Bay of Pigs invasion, initially code-named Operation Pluto, might have succeeded had the two brothers presided over the attack. But this speculation implicitly minimises its difficulties. What was clear even in April 1961, and comes out strikingly from the archives after 50 years, are Pluto’s uncertain goals, the constraints placed upon the participants and the failures at the bureaucratic, political and military levels.
It is easy to think of Cuba and the US as David and Goliath: Florida, the new and would-be temporary home (Miami especially) for tens of thousands of anti-Castro refugees, is one-third bigger than the island. In the 19th century, US advocates of Cuba’s detachment from the Spanish empire described the ‘Pearl of the Antilles’ as topographically and therefore politically part of the North American continent, just 90 miles from the Florida peninsula. Yet in the iconic struggle, it is David who defeats Goliath. How, then, in April 1961 did David triumph?
Cuba had a strong history of nationalism, defined for decades against the US. Moreover, Castro’s forces had fought their way to power against great odds and numbered an estimated 250,000 militia-members and a highly trained and politically conscious army of over 30,000 men, with most of the Batistiano officer-class purged or exiled. Planners in Washington underestimated the difficulties facing a counter-coup, sharing and repeating the rhetoric of the golpistas about lack of support for the Castro regime, especially in the armed forces; British intelligence services tried to disabuse their US counterparts.
A full-scale invasion would have incurred huge US casualties: 40-50,000 according to Department of Defense estimates. There was also public opinion to be considered. Since the introduction of the ‘good neighbor’ policy, US armed intervention was of potential political harm and had been formally ruled out under such commitments as the Charter of the Organisation of American States. The US had made political capital during 1956 out of Soviet armed intervention in Hungary and the British-French-Israeli action in Suez. Any involvement in Cuba must be subject to ‘plausible deniability’, with the White House especially untainted by any knowledge or involvement.
Such requirements left Pluto in operational limbo. In the first place, air cover was deemed essential for the invading force to secure the beach-heads; yet control of the skies could not be achieved by the rebels alone. To solve this problem the original landing-site was changed from a point close to the Escambray mountains (good guerrilla territory) to the Bay of Pigs, more difficult terrain for an amphibious operation. Three main groups of rebels existed: insurgents in Cuba killing and sabotaging, but ignored by the CIA; the invasion forces being trained by the CIA mainly in Guatemala, but also within the United States; and the anti-Castro leadership, which divided into two antagonistic groups: the original Batistianos and those who began as Fidelistas, but lost faith in the revolution. The most influential of this disparate trio was the divided leadership, but precisely because of these divisions, their susceptibility to leaks and the unsavoury backgrounds of many, such men were cut out of CIA decision-making.
Before JFK’s inauguration in late January 1961, the New York Times leaked information about Pluto, some two months after Kennedy had been briefed on the operation (later renamed Operation Zapata after the swamps near its new landing-site). For months the Cuban government had been warning of the invasion, so making ‘plausible deniability’ even more politically necessary for Kennedy and even more implausible. Just weeks after Kennedy proposed his ten-year, $20bn. western hemispheric Alliance for Progress (Alianza para el Progreso), ostensibly to address the social, economic and governance problems which had inspired the Cuban revolution, the president gave the go-ahead for Zapata.
The prelude to Zapata (April 15th, 1961) involved sorties flown from Nicaragua by US-supplied B-26 bombers falsely marked as the Cuban FAR (Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria). Their task was to destroy three major airbases. The raids damaged but did not eliminate Cuban air-power; and US complicity was exposed when two B-26s landed near Miami, supposedly crewed by Cuban defectors. Unwilling to highlight further US involvement, Kennedy cancelled effective air cover on D-Day (April 17th) for the invaders, who were strafed by the remnants of the FAR. (US naval vessels convoyed the exiles’ flotilla until it reached Cuban waters but along with a huge task-force in the Caribbean took no active part in Zapata.) With supply vessels being sunk and reinforcements being hampered in treacherous reefs, those who reached Playa Girón and Playa Larga to the east and north of Bahía de Cochinos were initially pinned down by militias who were later reinforced by 20,000 heavily armoured regular troops under the personal command of the Lider Máximo himself. By D-Day + 3 (April 20th) it was all over for Brigade 2506, though they sustained fewer casualties than the defending forces.
The initial consequences of the Bay of Pigs were predictable: along with increased support for Castro, both in Cuba and throughout Latin America, came the round-up of thousands of suspects by the Cuban authorities and the trial and execution of some 20 participants (including four US citizens), usually for offences committed under Batista. Paradoxically, President Kennedy emerged with some credit, publicly taking responsibility for a flawed operation planned by his predecessor. Less surprisingly, JFK privately blamed ‘CIA bastards’ and the Joint Chiefs of Staff ‘sons-of-bitches’, the latter for being lukewarm towards the project. For the future he placed his trust in counter-insurgency Special Forces to wage his war against Third World nationalism and international communism – the two being presented as synonymous. In what now became a vendetta, Kennedy intensified mob-aided assassination efforts against Castro in Operation Mongoose, while broadcasting the option of outright US support for a further invasion and the recognition of a provisional, anti-Castro government – the political goal of Zapata. By the year’s end, Castro formally embraced Marxism-Leninism (having disclaimed Communism in the past) and came closer to accepting the Soviet Union’s 1960 offer of nuclear missiles to deter US attacks. The scene was being set for a confrontation of global rather than hemispheric proportions: the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
Michael Dunne is Visiting Professor at St Cross College, Oxford, and a Research Associate at Cambridge’s Centre of Latin American Studies.