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  • James Houser

April 17, 1961 - The Bay of Pigs Invasion

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

April 17, 1961. Over a thousand CIA-trained and equipped Cuban exiles land at the Bay of Pigs on the southwest coast of Fidel Castro's Cuba. This attempt to overthrow Castro's regime quickly produces disaster, scandal, and consequences.

Ever since the Spanish-American War, the former Spanish colony of Cuba had in theory been an independent democracy. In reality, it was a virtual American satellite, dominated by American sugar and coffee companies. By 1905, Americans owned 60% of the land in Cuba and US Marines intervened multiple times throughout the 1910s and 1920s to back the American-funded government. The Cuban democracy was fully corrupt and dominated by the US Ambassador, who was as or more powerful in Cuba than its President.

In 1952, the weak liberal President Carlos Prio was overthrown by General Fulgencio Batista, whose dictatorship initiated harsh repression across the island including outright torture and mass execution. Multiple resistance groups formed to fight Batista, the most important of which was the May 26 Movement, led by former lawyer Fidel Castro. Fidel, his brother Raul Castro, and Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara fought a guerrilla war against Batista's regime throughout the 1950s, and by 1959 had gained military victory. Batista fled in 1960, leaving the Presidency in the hands of the Castro-backed Manuel Lleo, and the Cuban Revolution was complete.

Castro's new regime quickly took full power, forcing Lleo and many of the other rebel groups into opposition against the new regime. Castro soon faced a guerrilla war of his own against the remnants of these groups. He also launched a war of repression against Batista's former allies, dispensing harsh revolutionary justice and gaining "confessions" through psychological torture. What looked at first like a possible democracy began to tack hard toward Communist authoritarianism, including the suppression of speech, the loss of newly gained liberties, and mass executions.

The United States was at first lukewarm to Castro's regime. Even though they had backed and funded Batista, President Eisenhower was glad he was gone and hoped a more liberal figure could fill his shoes. Instead, Castro retaliated against the US by nationalizing American-owned factories and businesses, confiscating US property, andexecuting American citizens that had worked in Batista's regime.

A spiraling blend of mutual antagonisms, then, ruined US-Cuba relations. The final straw was when Cuba began aligning itself with the Soviet Union, including approaches for military hardware. Eisenhower was cool to corporate moaning about their profits being hurt by Castro, and was not sad to see Batista go, but a Soviet client state 90 miles from Florida went from "annoying" to "threat." By March 1960 the US was seriously considering Castro's overthrow.

A couple of things to note before we move on:

1. Castro was absolutely a dictator, and a repressive and brutal one. He is not a person to idolize, and neither is Che Guevara, not really.

2. The US basically treated Cuba like a colony until the 1950s and propped up the Batista regime, so let's not pretend we were victims in any way here.

3. Castro BAD than the truly terrible dictators of the 20th Century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. If it's between Stalin's USSR/Nazi Germany and Castro's Cuba, that's not even a question.

Okay, off my soap box.

CIA Chief Allen Dulles was intimately familiar with the use of coups to get rid of lefty-looking regimes. He had planned and executed the Guatemala Coup of 1954, and the US spies had gained experience in the British-led 1953 Iran coup. So in March 1960, when Eisenhower approached the CIA about an option to get rid of Castro with $13 million in hand, Dulles began training a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles. By November 1960, their training was well underway, and a unit of 1400 Cubans had been formed called Brigade 2506.

In the meantime, attempts to pave the way for the Brigade's return via air insertion and guerrilla infiltration had failed, and someone got the bright idea to turn a cloak-and-dagger coup into a full on amphibious assault, with considerable supporting air assets. This decision considerably raised the stakes.

By November 1960, though, Eisenhower was on the way out. New President John F. Kennedy had defeated Ike's VP Richard Nixon for the White House, and a few days after the election Dulles and Eisenhower briefed Kennedy on the plan. Kennedy favored bringing back Batista, but Ike and Dulles told him in no uncertain terms that no one in Cuba or America wanted Batista back in power. The favored solution was the installation of Jose Cardona, a leader of the civil opposition to Batista who had fled into exile from Castro's regime.

On January 28, 1961, Kennedy, Dulles, and the National Security Council met to review the plan and hammer out details. The State Department was concerned that the US maintain plausible deniability in the invasion, which would be launched from Guatemala where Brigade 2506 had been training. It was especially important for this reason that no US-based aircraft could support the invasion, so the invaders had to seize an airfield almost immediately. The city of Trinidad near Havana offered good ports and offered close contact with the anti-Castro guerrilla groups. However, it did not offer a suitable airfield for the B-26 Marauder bombers operated by the Cubans. For this reason, the site was changed to the Bahia de Cochinos - the Bay of Pigs - 150km southeast of Havana.

The Cuban exiles consisted of 1500 decently trained and equipped soldiers, most of whom had been part of the resistance to Batista. Their commander, Jose San Roman, had been imprisoned by both Batista and Castro. They were equipped with tanks, ships, and B-26s secretly supplied by the US military, and trained by CIA agents in guerrilla warfare and Air National Guardsmen to fly. Regardless, they still faced a large and well-equipped Cuban Army with Soviet T-34 tanks, heavy artillery, and jet fighters.

Many of Kennedy's staff as well as American military leaders had small hope for the plan, but few of them spoke up. Kennedy had made a campaign promise to oust Castro, and the CIA had successfully presented the Bay of Pigs operation as the best option to do so. They were already undertaking numerous, legendary and increasingly bizarre plots to assassinate the guerrilla leader.

On April 15, two days before the scheduled invasion, a number of B-26s piloted by Cuban exiles of Brigade 2506 launched a preliminary raid in an attempt to cripple the Cuban Air Force. The American-made planes flew from Nicaragua and were painted with Cuban markings. This attack failed to produce significant results, and the Cuban UN ambassador accused US forces of launching air attacks. American diplomats publicly declared that US armed forces would under no conditions intervene in Cuba, and insisted the Cuban exiles were working on their own.

This incident had significant consequences. For one thing, the B-26 pilots oversold their success, leading Kennedy to give the operation the green light. Worse, under mounting international pressure and worried that further strikes would reveal US support for the exiles, Kennedy ruled out any US air attacks.

On April 17, 1961, the Cuban exile flotilla headed for the Bay of Pigs escorted by US Navy squadrons. As soon as Brigade 2506 hit the beaches, however, they were met by patrolling militia and floodlights covering their landing sites. Castro had known they were coming. He had infiltrated Cuban exile communities in Miami, and the air raids had alerted him to the imminence of the attack. All of Cuba awaited the battle.

With this in mind, the result was utterly unsurprising. The Cuban Air Force began to hit the ships, and while most of 2506's troops and tanks got ashore they lost almost all their medical gear, communications and aviation fuel. The loss of the radios killed comms as 2506's planes were knocked out of the sky. A paratroop attack of 300 specially trained exiles made a successful landing but lost most of its equipment and failed to block the main road, allowing Cuban reinforcements to stream down towards the Bay of Pigs. Heavy tanks and swarms of militia swamped the invaders.

By April 19, three days of heavy fighting had seen 2506's attacks thrown back everywhere. Most of its planes were gone, the Cubans were in force at the landing site and fighting hard in the streets and on the beaches, and the population had failed to rise up against Castro. US Navy ships tried to pick up the brigade from the beaches, but were forced back by Cuban tank and artillery fire. 112 Cuban exiles had died in the fighting, and 1202 were captured by the Cuban government. 4 American CIA airmen also lost their lives. They inflicted around 2,000 Cuban casualties but to no avail.

The Bay of Pigs was an unmitigated disaster for the Kennedy Administration. Kennedy was embarrassed and angry with the CIA. Dulles had believed that once troops were on the ground Kennedy would be obligated to order US air strikes, despite his previous rejection of the notion, and had based all the planning for the operation on forcing the President's hand. Less than half a year into his administration, Kennedy had lost virtually all trust in his military and intelligence leaders.

Castro's government emerged from the Bay of Pigs stronger than ever, and Che Guevara even sent Kennedy a letter thanking him for the "gift" of the invasion. Castro, though, was convinced the US would try again and that he needed further protection. He decided soon after the Bay of Pigs to contact the Soviet Union and authorize the placement of nuclear missiles on Cuban soil.

Kennedy's mistrust of his advisors, Castro's insecurity, and Soviet machinations were about to lead the world to the brink of World War III in the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On December 29, 1962, President Kennedy and his wife Jackie welcomed home 1,000 Brigade 2506 prisoners in Miami, exchanged from the Cuban government for US food and medicine. The Bay of Pigs veterans became the core of the Cuban community in Miami that exists to this very day, all refugees from Castro's regime and their descendants. Many went on to serve in the US Armed Forces in Vietnam. But they could never go home.

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