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The Bay of Pigs Invasion: An American Fiasco

Above: A counter-attack by Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces supported by T-34 tanks near Playa Giron during the Bay of Pigs invasion, 19 April 1961.

First, a bit of perspective.

While the Bay of Pigs invasion can properly be called a “fiasco,” one must remember that seventeen years earlier, the United States supervised the greatest seaborne invasion force in world history. The invasion of France on June 6, 1944, on Normandy Beach sent U.S., British, and Canadian troops against Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” on five separate beachheads (Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword, and Omaha) under heavy gun and artillery fire, land mines, tripods, and barbed wire.

These “D-Day” landings included over 9,500 aircraft, 13,000 paratroops, 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, and 277 minesweepers. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on June 6, and 875,000 men disembarked by the end of the month. Allied casualties on the first day were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead. The Germans lost 1,000 men while civilian casualties were estimated at 3,000.

So much for perspective. How did we do in Cuba on April 17, 1961?

Background of the Bay of Pigs Invasion

On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro rode into Havana, Cuba in front of a guerrilla force (26th of July Movement) that had been waging war against President Fulgencio Batista since 1956. Batista had been serving as elected head of Cuba off and on since 1940 but had already fled the island on December 31, 1958, taking $300 million with him.

While the U.S. initially recognized Castro’s government, the relationship quickly soured as Castro repeatedly condemned the U.S. in his speeches for alleged misdeeds under Batista. Castro quickly became a national security threat as he legalized the Communist Party and nationalized over 400 U.S.-owned businesses, including Coca-Cola. In May 1960, he recognized the Soviet Union and essentially became a Soviet “satellite” 90 miles from Florida.

The Invasion

On 17 March 1960, the Eisenhower Administration, led by the CIA, introduced a plan for the overthrow of Castro to the National Security Council including a CIA budget of $13 million.

The amphibious assault was initially a force of 1,500 men, plus a “lodgment” of 750 inside Cuba with considerable air cover. The full operation assumed that the invasion would provoke a public uprising that would topple the Castro regime.

On 28 January 1961, President Kennedy was briefed and approved the Plan. Kennedy subsequently selected the Bay of Pigs location, an obscure area that might disguise U.S. involvement. Troops, all Cuban “expatriates,” were trained in amphibious assault tactics, guerrilla warfare, infantry and weapons training, unit tactics, and land navigation. Overall American supervision was by CIA official Richard Bissell and his deputy Tracy Barnes.

From the beginning, plans went array. While the invasion was scheduled for April 17, a series of “diversionary” attacks on the 14th and 15th failed. President Kennedy, in office for less than three months, disavowed any American involvement, declaring that “the armed forces of this country would not intervene in any way.” In the meantime, Premier Khrushchev of the Soviet Union sent Kennedy a warning of “swift nuclear retaliation” should the U.S. military become involved.

On the morning of 17 April, the main invasion force landed on the beach at Playa Giron at the Bay of Pigs. At 3:15 AM, Castro was awakened, took personal control, and sent thousands of Cuban forces and air power. President Kennedy, fearing U.S. public involvement, canceled further air support, thus in effect “aborting” the full invasion force. Without further air support, the invasion was being conducted with fewer forces than the CIA had anticipated.

Nor did the invasion provoke any political support from within Cuba.

Typical was the loss of the transport ship Houston from Cuban air attacks on Playa Giron at 7 AM. While 180 survivors struggled to get ashore, they had lost most of the weapons and equipment, including vital medical supplies. Communication with other invasion units was impossible as all radios had been soaked by water in the explosions. Many of the invasion craft were capsized by coral reefs, while another ship, Rio Escondido, was sunk, leaving only two more invasion ships still intact.

Nor was Castro surprised. By 6 AM, he had sent his full Cuban Army to meet the invasion, including Air Forces and over twenty T-34 tanks. On all fronts of the beach, the invasion force retreated or fled.

Survivors surrendered, while other invading forces collapsed a day later. The remaining troops were publicly interrogated and put into Cuban prisons.

Legacy of the Bay of Pigs Invasion

The death toll for the invaders was 106, with 1,100 taken prisoner (later repatriated). For the Cuban Army, over 2,000 (estimated). But the legacy for world politics went even further.

The aftermath saw the Soviet-Cuban alliance fortified, a great rise in “Castroism” around the world, and the introduction of ballistic missiles in Cuba a year later.

President Eisenhower, who personally supervised D-Day and began all invasion plans, probably would have planned for success and would have eventually achieved it. John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, was totally opposed to an American presence and didn’t want his new Administration to begin with a nuclear war against the USSR. “This is a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator,” he declared during the invasion. So, he canceled further air support, thus removing any and all U.S. involvement.

In the short run, Kennedy would prove himself in the subsequent missile crisis.

In the long run, both men were responsible for two of the greatest military events in history, IKE in June ’44 and JFK in October ’62.

Yet there’s still another legacy often overlooked from the Bay of Pigs. As President Kennedy afterward remarked to his Cabinet, “Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.”