In the wee morning hours of April 17, 1961, nearly fifteen hundred Cuban exiles descended upon the Bay of Pigs, Cuba. Their mission: to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government. From the first hour of fighting, however, it became evident that the overthrow attempt was fatally flawed.
The exiles’ invasion was designed by the United States government. The US was wary of Fidel Castro’s presence in their hemisphere. His communist regime and close relationship with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev led to fears that Cuba would become a base for communism throughout Latin America. They hoped to overthrow Castro and establish a US-friendly government in his place. In 1960, President Eisenhower therefore approved a CIA plan entitled “A Program of Covert Action against the Castro Regime”. That year, Cuban exiles commenced guerrilla war tactics training in Guatemala. President Eisenhower cut diplomatic ties with Cuba in January of 1961, and when President Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower, he approved the pending invasion plan. It included outlines for intelligence gathering, propaganda, and military training.
According to the plan, the entire invasion would transpire without evidence of US involvement; it was supposed to look like a spontaneous Cuban insurrection. For example, before the operation began, CIA operatives (some disguised as Cuban students) traveled to Cuba to prepare for the invasion. Their task was to destroy bridges and other infrastructure, and to make it seem as if Cuban residents themselves were resisting Castro’s revolution.
The US government therefore did not reveal the plan to the American public, but continually denied its existence. On April 17th, when the invasion was already underway, the U.S. Secretary of State announced in a press conference, “The American people are entitled to know whether we are intervening in Cuba or intend to do so in the future. The answer to that question is no. What happens in Cuba is for the Cuban people to decide.” Kennedy and the CIA truly believed that many Cubans would choose to provide support. When the exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos), surely they’d be greeted with spontaneous support from the local population. Then, it was expected, locals would usher the guerrillas to Havana and a new government would be installed.
However, loose talk in Miami drew Cuba’s attention to the impending US invasion. It could hardly be called “A Program of Covert Action” anymore. Castro prepared in part by rounding up Cubans who might be supportive of change; this removed 100,000 suspected supporters of democracy from the streets.
At the same time, Castro prepared his army to quickly halt the exiles. Twenty thousand Cuban ground troops easily overwhelmed the small US force. His air force effectively patrolled the skies. By the time fighting ended two days later, about a tenth of the exiles had been killed. The others escaped to the sea or were taken political prisoner. (Later, Castro would exchange most of the men for $53 million in baby food and pharmaceuticals.)
Of course, the new Kennedy Administration was embarrassed by this military failure. Some observers said that not enough force had been provided; the 1,400 US troops were too many to conduct guerrilla warfare, but too few to overcome Castro’s forces. Also, crucial air support – a promised “umbrella of defense” — was missing; US jets arrived an hour late because of a misunderstanding about time zones! The ground force of Cuban exiles had been trained to rely on air cover that failed.
The botched US-backed invasion increased the resolve of the opposed parties. Castro’s relationship with the Soviets tightened immediately. The US secretly started planning Operation Mongoose, which had goals of sabotaging the Cuban economy and perhaps assassinating Castro himself. The invasion also heightened Castro’s caution regarding the US. From the Bay of Pigs invasion onward, Castro was especially vigilant for a US incursion on his soil. Both regional and global tensions escalated. By 1962, the US and Cuba were caught up in a missile crisis, and the world was on the brink of nuclear war.