The Bay of Pigs invasion was an attempted military invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles supported by the United States in April 1961. Planned under the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and organized by the CIA, the operation was launched at the beginning of the mandate of John F. Kennedy. It aimed to land in Cuba, on April 17, 1961, about one thousand four hundred Cuban exiles recruited and trained in the United States by the CIA. Their objective was to overthrow the new Cuban government established by Fidel Castro, which was pursuing an economic policy unfavorable to American interests and was moving closer to the USSR. The operation was a complete failure and the beginning of a serious and deep rift between the presidency and the American secret services.
After coming to power in 1959, following the departure of dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, the Castro revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro initiated a policy of agrarian revolution, leading to the nationalization of the lands of the large landowners. In May 1959, the agrarian reform elaborated by Che Guevara was published. It set the minimum land ownership at 27 hectares and capped the maximum at 400 hectares. The nationalization also took away from the large Cuban landowners their latifundios and minifundios; the labor force no longer belonged to them and they no longer benefited, or only marginally, from the wealth they derived from their land.
At first, the U.S. administration, under President Eisenhower, recognized the new regime, considering the end of Fulgencio Batista”s regime, which it had supported, as a constructive opportunity while continuing to apply the rules of the Monroe Doctrine in force since 1823. Fidel Castro”s announced program of democracy, free elections and social progress seemed compatible at first with U.S. interests, given the corruption of the previous regime and its growing unpopularity among the civilian population. In addition, Washington envisioned controlling the revolution through the possibility of economic aid to the new regime.
However, in April 1959, following Fidel Castro”s official trip to Washington, Vice President Richard Nixon concluded that it would not be possible to maintain constructive relations with the new regime and that it was necessary to overthrow it, in particular by arming and militarily training the anti-Castro exiles.
On March 17, 1960, President Eisenhower signed an executive order giving the green light to all attempts to destabilize the Castro regime and assassinate its leaders. Among the first measures adopted was the principle of training anti-Castro exiles in camps located in Guatemala. In August, the CIA contacted the American mafia (or Cosa Nostra) in Chicago to try to work out a plan for the simultaneous assassinations of Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Che Guevara. In exchange, if the operation succeeded and a pro-American government was restored in Cuba, the United States agreed that the mafia would recover “the monopoly of gambling, prostitution and drugs”. In fact, for the criminal organization, the Cuban revolution was the most serious and costly defeat in its history, with a loss of 100 million dollars a year, the equivalent of 900 million dollars in 2013, after the closure of casinos, prostitution and drug trafficking.
At the end of July 1960, Che Guevara indicated that the Cuban regime had aligned itself politically with the USSR. At the same time, Fidel Castro affirmed the “duty of the peoples of Latin America to recover their national wealth” and announced the nationalization of the economic interests that the United States had in Cuba. The US administration would then classify the Cuban regime as an enemy. In January 1961, the administration of Dwight Eisenhower broke off all diplomatic relations with Cuba.
In August 1960, President Eisenhower approved a thirteen million dollar budget to fund the paramilitary operation against the Castro regime, but requested that no U.S. military personnel be involved. The operation, known by the code name Pluto, was to appear as an internal Cuban conflict.
The first concern in the preparation of the operation was for the American authorities not to appear as the logistical and financial support for the operation and to remain invisible. To this end, within the Central Intelligence Agency, a unit specially dedicated to the operation, the WH-4, which did not pass through the traditional channels of the intelligence agency, was founded by Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, Richard Bissell, his deputy in charge of special operations, and General Charles Cabell. The agents chosen to lead the operation had mostly participated in the overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1953 (Operation PBSuccess).
Within the State Department, those responsible for Latin American and Cuban affairs were also kept in the dark. Within the Pentagon, the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while consulted in a personal capacity, were not consulted about the military organization of the operation and could not provide military expertise. Thus, on 20 December 1960, Admiral Robert Dennison, Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic, considered that none of the plans drawn up until then by the CIA were viable.
During the recruitment of the future leader of the invasion group, agent Frank Bender told Manuel Airtime (former director of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform): “Remember this, Manolo, I don”t work for the American government. I am in the service of an extremely powerful group that is fighting against communism.”
The CIA applied the doctrine of its director, Allen Dulles, according to which: “You can escape guilt by establishing a chain of command that is blurred enough to leave no evidence of its passage. The objective was for the intelligence center to avoid any involvement and through it, that of the United States government, in accordance with the orders given by the White House.
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From a guerrilla war to a landing
The CIA”s initial objective was as follows:
On January 4, 1960, the CIA drew up the final plan for the invasion:
Subsequently, the project evolved within the CIA during the transition period between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. On December 20, 1960, Admiral Robert Dennison, Commander in Chief of the Atlantic, announced after analysis that none of the CIA”s plans were viable in reality. The objective became to land a force of 1,400 Cuban opponents, whom it had recruited and trained, so that they could establish a bridgehead with a prior neutralization of the Cuban army”s means of response, namely the air force and the navy, through aerial bombardment. Measuring its forces, the objective of the counter-revolutionary troops was not to take Havana and the whole island, but to conquer a relatively large portion of the territory through internal fighting, in order to establish a “provisional government” through the political structure of the Cuban Revolutionary Council, installed in Miami and headed by Miró Cardona, who was immediately recognized by the United States, and who would demand (and obtain) an American military intervention.
However, despite this change in scope, the CIA, wishing to retain exclusive control of the operation, did not include the Pentagon in the management of the operation, even though it had military expertise in this area.
The organizers chose a former Cuban officer, Jose Perez San Ronan, to lead the brigade. The men were prepared in camps in Guatemala (Camp Trax, located at an altitude of 2,000 meters, which offered the same climatic conditions as Cuba) and in Florida, at Fort Gullick in the Panama Canal region, and at the U.S. military base in Vieques, Puerto Rico. The brigade was made up of the entire social strata of the Cuban population, mostly middle class, either opposed to the new Cuban power or former supporters of Baptista. The heterogeneous group was composed of peasants, doctors, mechanics, musicians, designers, lawyers, geologists, journalists, artists, schoolteachers, administrative and office workers, shepherds, bankers, soldiers and clergymen.
In order to deceive possible espionage actions and to carry out a disinformation campaign, the number of volunteers started from the number 2,500 to deceive the Cuban surveillance about the real number of volunteers. It was in honor of the Cuban dissident Carlos Rodriguez Santana, who was killed during a training session on September 8, 1960, that the brigade started to use the serial number 2,506 on its crest.
At the same time, an operation of disinformation by the airwaves was set up with the creation on May 4, 1960, of a radio station named Swan, directed by the CIA agent, David Atlee Phillips, and intended for the population present on the island. It broadcast anti-communist propaganda. CIA Executive Action agent Howard E. Hunt, a veteran of the Guatemalan operation, was assigned to form a government of exiles to replace Fidel Castro following the invasion of the island.
In parallel, operations of destabilization of the Castro regime in the form of destruction of agricultural crops (in particular the fields of sugar cane, the main economic resource of the island), industrial (such as oil refineries) and port (with the destruction of ships) were carried out throughout the period preceding the landing operation as well as propaganda in the form of leaflets distributed by air.
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The latest developments in the plan
Faced with the risk of a diplomatic crisis, particularly with the USSR, and in the midst of the Cold War, the Kennedy administration, Eisenhower”s successor, which favored political considerations over military tactics, and which did not want the United States to be perceived as the invader, requested several changes: the landing site was changed from Trinidad, a seaside town of 18,000 inhabitants, to another less populated area of Cuba, in order to reduce the visibility associated with the operation. Secondly, still to reduce the visibility of the operation and especially the support by the United States, the president asked that the number of B-26 aircraft for the first air strike be reduced. They were reduced from sixteen to eight aircraft. Finally, the landing was to take place at night.
On March 11, Richard Bissel presented 4 new different plans which were refused by the presidency which gave 3 days to propose a new plan.
In response, the CIA presented the Joint Chiefs of Staff with three alternative operations on March 14 and 15, 1961: a modification of the Trinidad plan, a landing on an area northeast of Cuba, and a landing on the new Zapata area.
In the latter case, it took into account the proximity of the Cuban capital of Havana, less than sixty kilometers away, and the proximity of an airport runway, but not the absence of a port area equipped to receive ships and the inhospitable swampy area infested with wild fauna, making any maneuver of retreat to the Escambria mountains, a hotbed of anti-Castro guerrillas poorly supported by the CIA, extremely difficult. The general staff validated the third landing operation at Zapata but indicated that none of the alternative concepts presented were considered feasible and especially likely to achieve the objective defined in the initial invasion plan on Trinidad.
However, on March 16, 1961, these three alternative plans were presented to the White House by Richard Bissell and Allen Dulles and on April 4, 1961, assuring that this operation would succeed with better chances than the PB Success operation in Guatemala. After several heated internal debates, Operation Zapata was approved by the President.
As early as November 1960, during the transfer of power, the future president John F. Kennedy was informed of the operations and plans to overthrow Fidel Castro”s regime by Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell, respectively director and head of clandestine operations of the CIA. On January 19, 1961, he was received by the outgoing president, Dwight Eisenhower, where they discussed the need to change the regime installed in Havana. Eisenhower recommended to the newly elected president to act quickly against Cuba. Indeed, a delivery of MiG planes was to take place following the visit to the USSR of Fidel Castro”s brother, Raúl Castro, which would guarantee Cuban air superiority in the sky from spring 1961.
However, divisions within the U.S. government apparatus were emerging, which the Kennedy administration inherited directly. In fact, initially planned for the autumn of 1960, the operation was cancelled for the first time by President Eisenhower with Kennedy”s agreement. Indeed, if the CIA and the Pentagon were convinced for an armed intervention against the Castro regime, the State Department leaned more towards a solution of rotting indicating that it was necessary “to leave enough rope to Castro to hang himself”. At the same time, the anti-Castro Cuban refugee community was calling for action against Fidel Castro”s regime. Although he was elected on a harder political line against Cuba, against the Republican candidate Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy inherited a plan conceived and designed by the Eisenhower administration and had to deal with and arbitrate with all the forces at work on this subject within the National Security Council. On February 8, 1961, the president tried to bring the State Department, the CIA and the Department of Defense to a joint and coordinated action, which proved to be impossible because of the difference in points of view.
Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, in order to reassure President Kennedy, who was initially very reserved about the project, due to the threats of the USSR on the western part of Berlin in Germany and then divided in two, insisted on the fact that once the landing had been launched, it would mechanically give rise to insurrection behind the Cuban lines and defections in Castro”s camp, based on the certainty, based on the reports of analysis, of popular support for the invasion in Cuban society.
On March 11, Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell also told the president that Guatemala would not tolerate the presence of anti-Castro training camps beyond April 30, 1961, and that the brigade”s training potential was at its maximum (despite a mutiny that included 500 Cuban exiles in the Guatemalan camp at the end of January). Finally, if the brigade was disbanded, the presidency ran the potential risk of sending home many Cubans who had been disappointed by the lack of firmness of the United States. In addition, the CIA chief insisted that in the event of success, which he considered certain, the prestige of the newly elected president would be enhanced internationally.
In fact, following the modifications made to the initial plan as requested (see previous paragraph), on the basis of the CIA reports and despite the advice of Dean Rusk and Chester Bowles, the analysis file of Senator J. William Fulbrigh and the questions of Dean Acheson, President John F. Kennedy renewed the agreement for the anti-Castro invasion to the CIA leadership on the condition that the CIA would not be allowed to take part in the invasion. William Fulbrigh and Dean Acheson”s interrogations, President John F. Kennedy renewed the agreement to help the anti-Castro invasion to the CIA leadership on the imperative condition that the United States would not intervene militarily under any circumstances. In addition, the president reserved the right to cancel the operation up to 24 hours before its start if the international situation required it. Similarly, although the operation was conducted by the CIA, with the subordination of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President retained the right to intervene in the use of armed force, particularly air power.
Finally, on April 12, 1961, during his weekly press conference, the president publicly reaffirmed that the United States would not intervene in the event of an attack on Cuba:
On April 14, the operation was confirmed by the Presidency.
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April 12: the beginnings of the operation
The invasion troop was assembled on April 12, 1961 in Puerto Cabezas, a port on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. It was embarked on five simple cargo ships without any protection, except anti-aircraft: the Houston, the Barbara J, the Blagar, the Caribe and the Rio Escondido of the Garcia Line company, directed by a Cuban exile allowing to camouflage the participation of the United States by sea. They were supported by 2 escort ships. The landing barges were 5 m long outboard style boats but not designed for the landing of troops. During the embarkation, the CIA agents assured the Cuban volunteers, by showing the B-26 aircraft made up in Cuban colors and stationed on the base, that air control would be assured for the landing.
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April 15: start of the aerial bombardment and media diversion
On the morning of Saturday, April 15, 1961, eight American B-26 bombers painted in Cuban colors (with the intention of making people believe that it was a Cuban rebellion and not an American attack), in violation of international conventions, took off from Nicaragua and attacked the air bases of Havana and Santiago (south). American planes bombed the country”s airports and airfields, destroying a large number of aircraft on the ground (both civilian and military). The main bombings hit Ciudad Libertad, Havana, San Antonio and Santiago de Cuba. Half of the Cuban military aircraft as well as civilian aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Seven Cuban victims were also recorded.
One of the B-26s that had bombed the sites was riddled with bullets and requested an emergency landing in Florida. The pilot, presenting himself as a member of the Cuban army and a deserter, told reporters that he and other military personnel had decided to rebel and flee after having bombed several sites. This operation of intoxication, which had been set up entirely by the CIA, was defended by the ambassador of the United States, Adlai Stevenson, who was left in ignorance, at the UN (where he was ridiculed as a result). American journalists, however, quickly discovered the fraud, which influenced the decisions of the Kennedy administration afterwards, particularly the planned bombings. Adlai Stevenson urgently cabled Dean Rusk to alert him to the risk of a scandal for the United States equivalent to that caused by the crash of the U2 of pilot Francis Gary Powers shot down over the USSR.
However, Castro hid his planes outside the military bases: grouped by three, camouflaged and defended by anti-aircraft batteries, fourteen to fifteen planes remained intact and would play a decisive role 48 hours later. Moreover, all the armed forces were placed on alert. Fidel Castro then declared “if these air attacks are a prelude to an invasion, the country is ready to fight and will resist and destroy the forces that try to invade our country”.
On the same day, in reaction to the bombing, Fidel Castro had the military forces deployed on the island and the leaders joined their respective command posts: Raúl Castro in the province of Oriente (eastern part), Che Guevara in Pinar del Rio (western part of the island), Juan Almeida Bosque in Santa Clara (central part), Ramiro Valdes in the counter-intelligence department, and Guillermo Garcia in the Havana Tactical Center.
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April 16: the first diplomatic reactions and first operations at sea
On Sunday, April 16, at the funeral of the seven victims of the bombing, Fidel Castro, after comparing the landing to the attack on Pearl Harbor, said: “What the imperialists cannot forgive us is that we made a socialist revolution triumph right under the nose of the United States. He issued the following orders to the population:
At the same time, the Cuban announcement of an invasion was very badly received in diplomatic circles, including in Washington D.C. In fact, it contributed to the cancellation of the second planned B-26 raid by Dean Rusk, which was confirmed by President Kennedy, putting political demands ahead of military operations on the ground.
In the meantime, the anti-Castro brigade arrived in front of Playa Larga and prepared to disembark. At 11:00 p.m., five frogmen, including CIA agents who had insisted on accompanying the anti-Castro fighters (despite orders to the contrary), disembarked from the cargo ship Blagar to reach the beach and guide the first landing craft.
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April 17: Disabled landing and unexpected Cuban resistance
The next day, on April 17, around 1:15 a.m., Brigade 2506 landed in two places, at Playa Larga and Playa Girón, i.e., at the bottom and at the eastern entrance of the Bay of Pigs, 202 km southeast of Havana and 25 km from each other. A third landing planned in the Caleta Buena cove between the two beaches could not take place.
Offshore, cargo ships and many other American warships did not intervene militarily, being intended to consolidate the beachhead. The Cuban exiles, who landed in a sparsely populated, isolated agricultural region with coal mines and whose inhabitants had benefited from the agrarian reforms put in place by Castro”s government, did not receive the expected support from the civilian population.
As soon as they landed, the troops were spotted by the militiamen, who had also been placed on alert since the bombing of April 15, and they passed on the alert to the Cuban military command. The brigade, thanks to its modern weaponry, quickly took the upper hand over the militiamen.
As soon as the alert was transmitted, Fidel Castro, who was in Havana at the time, ordered a first battalion of 900 soldiers stationed on the road to Playa Larga to intervene and had the only three access roads through the swamp blocked off. At the same time, the Cuban air force and militiamen were ordered to attack the invading force at dawn. The brigade, which according to the initial plan was supposed to fight inland and enjoy air superiority, found itself pinned down on the beaches. Dozens of barges under Cuban fire were sunk, forcing the cargo ships to move backwards to get out of range of the fire.
Although supported by a regiment of paratroopers dropped the same day with the objective of storming and locking down the three roads leading to the Bay of Pigs, the brigade was also quickly stopped by militia mortar fire, while the combined actions of the Cuban air defense and air force, whose pilots had been trained in the United States, proved particularly effective in strafing the men and bombing the brigade”s boats. Soldiers from the brigade also attempted to retreat to the Escambria Mountains through the swamp surrounding the beach, but were quickly repelled by the Cuban army.
At the same time, in order to win the media battle through the airwaves and to incite the Cuban population to rebellion, the Radio Swan station, as part of its campaign of intoxication, incited the Cuban army to revolt and made people believe that the invasion was going to succeed. It also spread false information about Raúl Castro”s suicide.
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April 18: fighting on the beach and diplomatic skirmishes
In the morning, the two heads of the 2506 brigade managed to reach each other despite the fire of the Cuban army.
At the UN in New York, the institution”s premises were the scene of an intense diplomatic battle between the United States on the one hand and the USSR on the other. The latter summoned the United States to “put an end to the aggression against the Republic of Cuba”, indicating that it reserved “the right, in the event that the intervention against Cuba does not cease immediately, to take, together with other States, the necessary measures to assist the Republic of Cuba”. In fact, Raul Roa, Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs, had called on the UN for help, indicating that his country was under attack by “a mercenary force organized, financed and armed by the United States government, coming from Guatemala and Florida”.
At 10 a.m., the United States denied any involvement in the military intervention on Cuban soil and reaffirmed its right to protect the hemisphere from external aggression.
In Washington, a new air raid with planes painted in Cuban colors with napalm ammunition and piloted by Americans was authorized at 2 p.m. On the ground, Cuban troops were taken by surprise by the bombing, while anti-Castro fighters fired on the planes that were supposed to help them.
At the same time, demonstrations of support, particularly in front of Cuban embassies, took place all over the world.
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At about 1:00 a.m., the U.S. presidency, in view of the alarming reports, authorized a one-hour raid from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. by unidentifiable jets but with a prohibition on engaging in combat.
Richard Bissell approached the President to obtain the intervention of the US Navy air force stationed nearby. President John F. Kennedy refused and conceded only the escort by US Navy planes of the new B-26 raid. This protection, due to the poor organization of the army, which had forgotten the difference in time zones between Nicaragua and Cuba, could not take place. The squadrons did not meet and the four B-26s of this raid, which arrived an hour too early, saw two of them shot down by the Cuban air force. The deceased pilots, who were American nationals after the defection of anti-Castro Cuban pilots worried by the Cuban flak, contributed to highlighting the responsibility and involvement of the United States, following the declarations of the Cuban delegation in the UN forum.
The intervention of the militia and Fidel Castro”s troops, supported by the ten or so Cuban military planes still in condition and by the tanks not destroyed by the previous B-26 raids, continued to increase the pressure on the brigade”s troops. Quickly running out of ammunition, the Cuban air force having sunk the only cargo ship carrying ammunition, the Rio Escondido cargo ship carrying 145 tons of weapons and fuel reserves, the anti-Castro fighters surrendered to the Cuban army on April 19 after 72 hours of fighting. At 2 p.m., on Playa Larga, while the forces on the ground were surrendering, the commander of Brigade 2506 sent his last message: “I am destroying all the equipment and communications. I have nothing left to fight with. I am leaving for the woods. I can”t wait for you.
A few dozen fighters, including the three leaders of the brigade, were captured in the following days in the swamps after having escaped from the Cuban troops for several days, and in particular Manuel Airtime, who lasted thirteen days. Twenty-two men who managed to escape by the beach drifted for fifteen days, resorting to cannibalism, before being rescued at sea.
Fidel Castro, who arrived later on the landing beach, fired a SAU-100 at one of the beached freighters, the Houston, hitting the target in the second shot. At the end of the afternoon, he communicated on the invasion:
In the evening, he carried out the review of the prisoners of the brigade. A member of the brigade, Enrique Ruiz Williams, who had concealed a weapon, tried to assassinate him before being neutralized by the security service.
After the battle, Che Guevara made morality speeches to some of the prisoners: a Phalangist priest who asked for forgiveness but was soon sent back to Spain, a playboy who also pleaded not guilty and did not want to be confused with the “henchmen”, a black man to whom Guevara lectured: “you came to fight in an invasion financed by a racially segregated country, so that good young people could get back to their own private clubs, so you have fewer excuses than the others.
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Military balance sheet
114 anti-Castro fighters were killed and 1,189 were taken prisoner. In addition, four civilian pilots flying the B-26s shot down by the Cuban air force were also lost. In fact, the CIA had forgotten to inform the political leaders that following the defection of the Cuban pilots, they had been replaced by civilian pilots of American nationality. Contrary to the CIA”s analysis, there was no attempt at internal insurrection against the government in place.
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Acceptance of defeat and recognition of US involvement
The United States was denounced internationally as an aggressive power towards the island of Cuba. In fact, the Kennedy administration”s attempts to clear itself of any U.S. involvement in the attempted invasion were unsuccessful in the eyes of national and international public opinion. President John F. Kennedy accepted full responsibility for the operation and the humiliation suffered by the United States on April 24, 1961, during a press conference. It was the first real test of his presidential term after the first 100 days. He told his advisor Arthur Schlesinger Jr:
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Release of prisoners
The prisoners of the operation were released on December 22, 1962, after an agreement for a total of $53 million, or $47,000 per prisoner released, including food, agricultural supplies and medicine, for which Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General, had to lobby U.S. pharmaceutical companies. The negotiations were led by business lawyer James B. Donovan, a former agent of the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA), who had previously intervened in the exchange of the pilot of the U-2 spy plane, Gary Powers, shot down in 1960 over the USSR.
The surviving members of the brigade were received by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy, on December 29, 1962, in Miami at the Orange Bowl. During a ceremony, the flag of the brigade was handed over to the President of the United States, who declared: “I assure you that this flag will be returned to you in a free Havana. However, in 1976, the flag was requested again for unfulfilled promise. It was returned to the survivors of Brigade 2506 by mail.
Some 300 veterans of the brigade later joined the American secret service. At the end of 1962, they were sent to the Congo to support Joseph-Désiré Mobutu”s troops, and took part in Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, in the tracking down of Che Guevara in Bolivia, and in actions to destabilize the Chilean government of Salvador Allende.
The causes of the failure, as noted by Inspector Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. notes, are multiple, sweeping from top to bottom the different levels of the American state apparatus. Some of the causes are political (administrative level), others tactical, operational and informational (secret service level). All of these factors combined to lead to the resounding failure of Operation Zapata.
For John F. Kennedy, in addition to a relentless desire to get rid of Fidel Castro, as he had defended during the presidential campaign against the candidate Richard Nixon, the real initiator of the program, combined with a lack of strategic imagination relative to the means deployed, led him, in spite of his doubts, the numerous warnings of his advisors and his own interrogations, to rely on the CIA and its assertions of “probable” success while ignoring its real weaknesses
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For the French journalist Pierre Kalfon, the failure of the landing would result from several notable reasons.
On the one hand, no popular uprising as envisaged and predicted by the CIA occurred. According to the journalist, the CIA let itself be intoxicated by its own propaganda and refused to understand that in 1961, a very large majority of Cubans supported a revolution which, at that time, had not yet adopted a communist character but was more simply translated into democratic reforms and a beginning of redistribution of wealth in addition to a literacy campaign. Instead, the CIA believed that the population would cheer the liberators and help overthrow the Castro regime. Moreover, unlike previous operations, notably in Guatemala during Operation PB Success, the Cuban army had been ideologically purged by Fidel Castro”s regime of all political elements favorable or potentially favorable to the United States and which could have provided assistance to the external invasion forces, allowing for the loyalty of the ground troops whose combative value had been underestimated by the American intelligence services.
Moreover, the Americans imagined that they had completely destroyed the small Cuban air force, which numbered 36 aircraft in the bombing of the country”s few air bases that preceded the landing, and therefore did not include in their strategy the possibility and condition for the sine qua non success of the operation, of an air intervention on the side of the Cuban forces, the initial bombing reports having greatly overestimated the damage. In reality, eight aircraft had been hidden and converted into combat aircraft. During the fighting, they managed to sink two transport ships and shoot down two American B-26 bombers in the second air raid, which strongly influenced the evolution of the battle.
At the same time, the CIA had no reliable inside information on the Cuban regime”s army, which numbered 60,000 regular members, not counting the militia forces.
In the same way, the place of the landing initially planned in Trinidad, a simple and easily accessible seaside town, near the anti-Castro groups of the Escambray mountains, was changed for the beach of the Bay of Pigs, located further west. The latter, less well known, has many natural obstacles, such as the coral reefs on which several landing craft sank and which the CIA analysts had not detected, natural swampy areas with impenetrable flora and a fauna composed of crocodiles, dangerous wild pigs, poisonous snakes, tarantulas, scorpions and squadrons of mosquitoes, wasps preventing any strategic retreat to continue the fight in guerrilla mode, and shark-infested waters. The maps in the CIA”s possession dated back to 1895 and had not been updated. In addition to these extreme conditions, there were tactical handicaps such as the absence of a protective geographical relief allowing a concealed approach and therefore an effect of surprise. In addition, although it was carried out at night, the landing of the Cuban exiles did not benefit from the diversionary operations planned by the CIA but not carried out or poorly orchestrated by the latter, thus avoiding a concentration of Cuban retaliation means in the Bay of Pigs area. In addition, the aerial bombardment 24 hours earlier had put Cuban forces on alert.
However, the change in the location of the landing, which was strongly criticized in the United States, was also relativized in 2001 during an international symposium involving direct actors of this operation, including two of President Kennedy”s special advisors, Richard Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger Jr, two former CIA officers, as well as five veterans of the anti-Castro 2506 brigade, the commander of the Cuban forces at the time, General José Ramon Fernandez, and Fidel Castro himself. It was reported that Cuban forces had preventively reinforced Trinidad against any invasion from outside and by sea, but had not anticipated a landing on the beach at the Bay of Pigs.
Fidel Castro declared:
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The Central Intelligence Agency, in setting up the operation, made several serious errors of evaluation, notably that of the real military capabilities of the anti-Castro brigade and the Cuban army, which was clearly underestimated, of the geographical conditions of the landing site, of the absence of a popular uprising, which was an essential condition for the success of the operation. Likewise, the central intelligence agency did not take into account a study that indicated that the Cuban regime enjoyed broad support from the Cuban population. Their British intelligence counterparts also predicted that the Cuban exile brigade should not expect any support or willingness to change from the existing Cuban population.
Similarly, organizational and coordination failures were also noted internally. In fact, the mission had been entrusted to an action service outside the usual control procedures of the agency and composed of third-rate agents in order to maintain maximum dissociation from the United States. However, in doing so, the central intelligence agency deprived itself of any reflection, constructive evaluation and internal critical spirit in the conception and development of the operation, its designers not having the necessary hindsight to make the necessary corrections.
The operation thus demonstrated the imperative need to maintain a clear and precise separation between the evaluators responsible for analyzing the quality of the information collected and the organizers responsible for designing operations based on it.
More profoundly and seriously, this failure also marked the overall failure of the CIA”s primary mission: the collection and evaluation of reliable intelligence to assist the presidency in the development of its foreign policy, which had deviated to focus on the development of clandestine actions to influence and overthrow external regimes.
In this regard, John F. Kennedy”s predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, concluded in January 1961, after eight years in office and before the transfer of power, that: “The structure of our intelligence organization is defective. For eight years I have been consistently defeated in this struggle,” concluding that, faced with a situation that had not changed since the attack on Pearl Harbor, he would leave “ashes as a legacy” to his successor.
More profoundly, and much more seriously, the CIA also acted very autonomously from the political power in the White House in carrying out the operation by putting pressure on the presidency, despite the high probability of failure. In 1996, Richard Bissell, the CIA”s chief planner of the operation, acknowledged that even with a second air raid carried out, if granted by President Kennedy, the initial objectives of creating and consolidating a beachhead by Brigade 2506 could not have been achieved. The researcher Howard Jones also analyzed in his book on this issue published in 2010 that the CIA knew that, “without a mass insurgency, the invasion force would need at least five thousand men to occupy a sector of the country. However, this information was not passed on to President John F. Kennedy.
On November 18, 1960, Agent Jack Easterline, in charge of the CIA”s office in Venezuela, warned Richard Bissel, stating:
Similarly, Jack Easterline had also alerted him on several occasions to the imperative need to neutralize the entire Cuban air force. This information was not passed on to President Kennedy.
Allen Dulles, in contrast to the likely complete success he predicted for President John F. Kennedy, had previously informed the previous U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, that the landing operation had a one-in-five chance of success and none without air support.
The CIA officials, Richard Bissel and Allen Dulles, did not inform the political leaders of the low probability of success and then of the almost certain failure of the invasion as soon as they learned of the cancellation of the second B-26 air raid, in the secret hope of forcing their hand by maintaining the operation, and thus being able to call in the armed forces. Allen Dulles had indeed indicated in his memoirs that he thought that once the presidential green light had been obtained and the invasion launched, all the necessary measures, including military ones, would have been taken by the White House to ensure its success, which the CIA was incapable of conceiving.
In 1998, the final volume of five on the Bay of Pigs operation compiled by the agency”s official historian, Jack B. Pfeiffer, from 1974 to 1984, was made public, revealing that the intelligence agency, in charge of the paramilitary operation, did not envision any possible victory without U.S. armed force intervention.
The CIA leadership had thus voluntarily submitted to President John F. Kennedy a plan whose conditions for success contradicted his own rules of engagement prohibiting any involvement of US military forces in the invasion of Cuba.
At the same time, President John F. Kennedy realized that he had misjudged the dossier presented by the CIA by not analyzing the forces present, as his advisor Dean Acheson had pointed out to him during a preparatory meeting. The latter had asked him about the ratio of forces present, that is to say 1,500 men for the anti-Castro brigade against 200,000 men of the regular Cuban army. At the same time, the president realized that the choice of the landing site had been incorrectly analyzed and that, with the benefit of hindsight, it was necessary to entrust such an operation to the military and not to the CIA agents who had sought to involve the regular army. Finally, when asked by the President whether the surprise effect of the landing would not be undermined by the aerial bombardment that had taken place 24 hours earlier, the CIA had also failed to provide a concrete answer.
To his advisor Ted Sorensen, he said, “How could I have been stupid enough to let them do this?”
In addition to the disastrous preparation of the project by the CIA, the latter did not take the necessary measures to maintain its confidentiality by training Cuban exiles directly in American military camps strictly forbidden to the public. In addition, leaks to the Guatemalan and then the US press in November 1960, including the existence of the training camp in Guatemala by the New York Times, within the anti-Castro Cuban community in the United States, estimated at 200,000 people who had been infiltrated by Cuban spies and including within the brigade itself, had informed the Soviets and Castroites of the details of the US plan. Indeed, earlier in April 1961, the USSR embassy in Mexico City informed Moscow of an imminent landing on April 17.
Finally, contrary to the CIA”s predictions, which were based on the collapse of the Cuban regime and a popular uprising, there was no real opposition on which the invasion project could be based. Indeed, the few opposition maquis in the remote areas of the Cuban mountains were, at best, either isolated or harassed by Cuban forces, in addition to being poorly supplied by the CIA, notably through airdrops (out of a total of 30 operations to drop arms and ammunition, only 3 succeeded). Most of them resulted in a rapid decline in their capacity to cause harm and their ability to support an anti-Castro Cuban government from the time of the landing operation. In March 1961, a deployment of 60,000 Cuban militiamen and soldiers in the Escambray mountain range led to the neutralization of 421 guerrillas opposed to the new regime, of whom 39 were killed and 381 taken prisoner.
As the French historian Jeannine Verdès-Leroux recalls in The Moon and the Caudillo, Castro had carried out enormous preventive detentions, totally illegal, estimated by Herbert L. Matthews and other authors at between 100,000 and 200,000 people simply suspected of being opponents, throughout the country. These massive raids are confirmed by Carlos Franqui. This had the consequence of further weakening the internal resistance on which the invasion should have been based in order to consolidate the bridgehead envisaged by the CIA in its initial plan.
In 1975, Raúl Castro declared:
All of these factors combined to cause the failure of the Zapata operation, the consequences of which were profound.
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At the international level
Overall, for Karine Prémont, professor of applied politics at the Canadian University of Sherbrooke, the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation was a moral victory for Fidel Castro. On a global level, the Castro regime appeared as a Cuban David who was able to resist the American Goliath and received the support of all of Latin America. Likewise, this event reinforced the social cohesion of the Cuban people behind the Lider Maximo and solidified the legitimacy of the Castro regime for the following decades.
For the United States, the humiliation at the Bay of Pigs was also experienced and perceived as the first political, diplomatic, and military defeat since World War II and is recorded as a “perfect failure.
From a geopolitical point of view, Operation Zapata, in a vicious circle, pushed the Cuban government to openly ally itself with the USSR, under the name of “Operation Anadyr”, which led to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. As noted by Philip W. Bonsal, the US ambassador to Havana in the early days of the Castro regime, noted, “the USSR came to Castro”s aid only after the United States had taken steps to overthrow him.
In fact, Castro, after this first attempt at invasion, now feared a direct intervention by the United States in military form. And indeed, less than two weeks after the failure of the Zapata operation, the American president had given his approval for an invasion project of 60,000 soldiers of the American army whose leaders were, like the CIA, in favor of an invasion of the island.
For the USSR, the latter”s rallying constituted the first tactical victory in a geographical area under the direct influence of the United States, in the middle of the Cold War, in the face of a hesitant and inexperienced Kennedy administration in the field of international politics. Cuba, therefore, represented in the eyes of the Kremlin leaders, a choice piece on the geopolitical chessboard of the Cold War which opposed them to their counterparts in Washington.
In the United States: intensification of the secret war against Cuba and search for those responsible for the failure
On the other hand, in order to counter and solve the Cuban problem on its borders and the geo-strategic issue that the island represented, the United States put into practice the “Cuban Project”, aimed at sabotaging the Cuban economy (destruction of harvests, mining of ports, attacks on factories, etc.) in order to exacerbate tensions in Cuba and generate a popular uprising against its government. To do this, the CIA established the world”s largest clandestine operations center, JMWAVE, at the University of Miami, with up to 3,000 American and Cuban agents.
In the same way, the plans for attacks on Fidel Castro”s person, combining the CIA and the mafia (particularly through godfathers such as Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello and Santos Trafficante), which also had enormous financial interests linked to gambling, drug trafficking and prostitution on the island before the advent of the Cuban revolution, were accelerated, particularly with Operation Mongoose, which was approved on 30 November 1961 by the Presidency. Subsequently, no less than eight attempts were made in the following years to physically eliminate the Cuban leader.
At the same time, the U.S. military, in favor of a direct invasion of the island, designed terrorist operations against civilians directly on U.S. soil in order to manipulate U.S. public opinion by means of attacks, notably with Operation Northwoods, a project that was rejected by the Kennedy administration in 1962 and never implemented.
At the level of the United States, the dysfunctions observed in the secret services led to the creation of a presidential commission of inquiry headed by General Maxwell Taylor, the White House military advisor, and led by Robert Kennedy, the Secretary of Justice, in order to determine the responsibilities of the various actors. Allen Dulles and Arleigh Burke, the organizer of the operation, were forced to attend.
At the same time, John F. Kennedy learned that he had different sources of reliable information to rely on before making any decision with a team of critical analysts, considering that he had been manipulated rightly by both the American army and the central intelligence service. As a result, the role of the National Security Council (or NSC), which he had not taken into account at first, was strengthened, particularly in the evaluation of information and a centralization of the latter was intensified in order to have the most realistic picture before intervening. The lessons directly drawn from this crisis were applied during the missile crisis of October 1962, when President John F. Kennedy rejected the recommendations for an invasion of the island by the CIA and the American army, preferring a graduated response that avoided an irreversible escalation and allowed a diplomatic solution to emerge in the end.
In addition, at the President”s request, a thorough review of the CIA”s methods was conducted internally by a member of the CIA: Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick.
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A critical analysis of the information collected
Among the conclusions, the CIA Inspector General, Lyman Kirkpatrick, pointed out that the CIA had used the exiled Cuban opponents at the head of the expedition as puppets. Also, the CIA had only a limited number of agents and the majority of them did not speak Spanish.
Moreover, the reports analyzing the Castro movement and the supposedly “weak” popular support it enjoyed, provided by the CIA and written by agents on the ground and approved by the American ambassadors in Cuba, were generally in line with the political line taken by the United States and the State Department: unconditional support for the dictator Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, motivated under the guise of the fight against communism, by the defense of American economic interests on the island of Cuba, despite the growing and continuous hostility of a majority of the population. Thus, the vice-president Richard Nixon, after returning from a trip to Havana, estimated that although corrupt and contested by a growing majority of the Cuban population, the dictator Batista was “a friend of the United States” who admired “the American way of life” and “free enterprise” and who benefited from the support of the army. This American vision, distorted by the prism of the fight against communism, explained why the CIA and also the State Department were conceptually and institutionally incapable of apprehending the reality of the Cuban terrain and in particular the true will and reasons of the Cubans to support Fidel Castro”s regime. In this regard, President Kennedy stated:
Similarly, his personal advisor, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. testified about a visit to the Cuban capital:
The CIA had also largely allowed itself to be auto-intoxicated by the success of its previous operation in Guatemala in 1954 (code name: PB Success), by not analyzing the multiple causes of success leading to an overestimation of its true operational capabilities. Lyman Kirkpatrick concludes: “We can state with certainty that the agency had no evidence to indicate that a significant quantity of Cubans would join the invaders.” The report also highlights a “complex and bizarre organization . This operation had taken on a life of its own. The agency went ahead without knowing precisely what it was doing,” while CIA officers “were so absorbed in the operation as such that they no longer perceived its ultimate objectives. Overall, this “grotesque or tragic operation, or both, was caused by the institutional arrogance, ignorance and incompetence of the intelligence agency.
It concluded that the organization and its management needed to be changed and that its leaders, Allen Dulles and Richard Bissel, had not sufficiently informed the presidency and their supervisory administrations.
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A report classified as confidential upon its release
The conclusions of the report were denounced internally by CIA officials who accused Kirkpatrick of personal malice and blamed the Bay of Pigs fiasco on President Kennedy for his failure to provide air support for the invasion. However, the latter, as Lyman Kirkpatrick observed at the time, had only been in office for three months at the time of the operation, and perhaps he did not perceive all the elements of the project because the CIA had not exposed them to him in detail, and more seriously, deliberately concealed them. Moreover, Lyman Kirkpatrick added that the CIA had failed in its most basic duty to the President by not warning him that “success had become doubtful and by not recommending to him that the operation be cancelled as a result.
The report”s findings, which were deemed disastrous for the CIA and could have clearly spelled the end of the institution as such, were kept secret for over forty years. Originally published in twenty copies, nineteen were destroyed on the orders of the new director of the CIA and Allen Dulles” replacement, the Republican John McCone, and only the last copy of the report was kept secret in a safe, a sign of the seriousness of the conclusions. They were only revealed in February 1998 by the National Security Archive, where the CIA finally acknowledged all of its errors (report available online).
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Sacking of the CIA leadership
William Colby, director of the CIA from 1973 to 1976, reported in his book that following the “humiliation” inflicted on Kennedy, the latter was tempted to “scatter the ashes of the CIA to the four winds.
In a second step, on November 28, 1961, Allen Dulles was fired from his historic position as CIA director and replaced by the Republican John McCone. His deputy Richard Bissell was sent to the Institute for Defense Analyses after submitting his resignation. He was replaced by Richard Helms. General Charles Cabell, chief of operations (and brother of Earle Cabell, mayor of Dallas from 1961 to 1964), was also dismissed.
It should be noted that during the transfer of power, the new director of the CIA, John McCone, was not informed by Allen Dulles of the existence of the illegal program of opening the mail on the territory of the United States and directed by James Angleton. Founded in 1947 by President Harry Truman, the CIA was formally prohibited from operating within the country”s borders. Richard Bissel and Allen Dulles also failed to reveal the planned assassination program against Fidel Castro in connection with the American mafia. John McCone, the new director, took two years to discover this second program.
This information was later revealed to the general public by the Senate Committee of Inquiry into the illegal activities of the Secret Service, known as the Church Committee from 1975 to 1976, set up by Congress to deal with the cascade of revelations from the serious Watergate scandal that shook American democracy for a long time.
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A CIA criticized externally and highly criticized internally
At the same time, the failure at the Bay of Pigs was the signal for a wave of criticism against the intelligence agency, which had enjoyed an impeccable reputation until then, but had never experienced any, both from the public opinion and from the American political class in general. From being the equivalent of modern-day James Bond agents, dedicated and loyal, CIA agents were now seen as “a bunch of incompetent, stupid adventurers who led their men to a pointless death”.
Within the CIA, the feeling of abandonment by the presidency, even of having become a scapegoat and, more seriously, of betrayal, despite the series of errors, inaccuracies and omissions accumulated by the central intelligence agency, began to spread. Some elements of the Central Intelligence Agency saw this event as a defeat for which they blamed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and in particular General Charles Pearre Cabell, who later privately criticized the policies of John F. Kennedy.
In a third phase, the president seriously considered the possibility of significantly reducing the future possibilities of the agency, which had exceeded its powers and which was both poorly controlled by the executive branch and not subject to any control by Congress. He considered the project for his potential second term of office to merge the FBI and the CIA under the direction of the attorney general (the equivalent of the Minister of Justice in France), his brother Robert Kennedy, which was not allowed by his assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.
This affair also led to an increased and redoubled distrust of the intelligence center within the American political world over the next two decades, and particularly within the presidency.
The Bay of Pigs came back to the forefront in two events in the 1970s during the Watergate scandal in 1974 and during the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which resumed the investigation of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in November 1963 and Martin Luther King in 1968.
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During the Watergate scandal
Indeed, on August 5, 1972, President Richard Nixon, under the growing threat of impeachment, decided to reveal the full text of one of the tapes recorded in previous years and repeatedly requested by the Justice Department, but which he had refused to release at the time for national security reasons. The tape, dated June 23, 1972, dubbed “The Smoking Gun Tape,” literally, the “smoking gun tape,” in reference to the blatant evidence of a smoking gun found at a crime scene, transcribed an interview with his chief of staff Bob Haldeman and was made public. During this meeting, in which President Richard Nixon authorized his staff to approach CIA Director Richard Helms to ask FBI Director Patrick Gray to bury the federal investigation of the burglary for reasons of national security, he made direct reference to the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Thus, according to the transcript, Nixon sibylline advises Haldeman to slip to the CIA director (Richard Helms): “The problem is that it could reopen the whole Bay of Pigs thing. Haldeman claimed in 1978 that this had calmed Helms down, as it could be a direct reference to the role of the CIA in connection with the anti-Castro exiles, in connection with organized crime, in the attempts to assassinate and bring down Fidel Castro”s regime.
In particular, he revealed that during the preparation of the invasion, the director of the operation, CIA agent Frank Bender, met in early April 1961 at the Guatemalan camp with commanders San Roman and Einerdo of the invasion force of anti-Cuban exiles. He told them that, in case of a possible cancellation by the political authorities before the start of the operation due to the hesitations of the Kennedy administration, they should follow the following plan:
Finally, the HSCA determined that the gradual change in policy toward Cuba by the John Fitzgerald Kennedy administration, first with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, and then more profoundly with the October 1962 missile crisis, in order to permanently ease relations with the Cuban regime and open up new prospects, had contributed to the polarization, if not the strengthening, of the most radical fringe of anti-Castro Cubans, U.S. intelligence agents and mafia criminals within the many paramilitary operations groups who continued to operate in Cuba, within the numerous paramilitary operations groups, the most radical fringe of anti-Castro Cubans, American intelligence agents and mafia criminals who continued their operations to overthrow Fidel Castro”s regime in an autonomous manner, despite the White House”s requests for a formal halt to enforce the neutrality agreement following the missile crisis from early 1963.
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On the Cuban side
The Bay of Pigs event is still celebrated annually by both sides to this day, each keeping the memory alive for different reasons. For the Castro camp, this failed invasion is still seen in Castro”s rhetoric as “the first great defeat of Yankee imperialism in America” and has reinforced the regime”s belief in the “irreversibility of the revolutionary process”.
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For the Cuban community in the United States
The struggle against the Castro regime and in particular the preparation of the Bay of Pigs invasion with the support of the mafia are presented in Martin Scorsese”s film The Irishman released in 2019 on the Netflix network. Based on the biography of Cosa Nostra henchman Frank Sheeran (published in 2003 as I Killed Jimmy Hoffa), the film recreates the CIA-Mafia interconnection and their intersecting interests.
Dobbs and Mr. Fab published the comic book Appointment with X – Bay of Pigs at Comix Buro in 2019.
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