The Bay of Pigs Invasion as the US’s ‘Perfect Failure’
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Sixty years ago today, April 17, 1961, a CIA-operated group of Cuban exiles sought to overthrow the communist regime of Fidel Castro in what is known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. The planning for this overthrow culminated in 1960 when President Dwight Eisenhower ordered for the classified training of 1400 anti-Castro dissidents tasked with overthrowing the Prime Minister the following year. The Cold War had sparked tensions between Cuba and the United States. Cuba, which was strengthening its relations with communist Soviet Union, became a national security threat. The United States feared both the ideological spread of communism and a severed tie with Cuba, which the US remained tethered to for its own economic interest. Inevitably, the plans, fueled by fear and the preservation of national interests, were inherited by the Kennedy administration in January 1960. What John F. Kennedy did not anticipate was how the CIA’s invasion of Cuba’s southern beach would tarnish the world’s view of democracy for generations to come. Although the United States had intended to sever ties with Cuba (and, effectively, the Soviet base on its shores), the invasion, in turn, extended communist powers and protracted the downfall of the Soviet Union. The oversights in the CIA’s plans are why the Bay of Pigs became recognized as a catastrophic failure that emboldened the tension between the US and foreign powers and bookmarked the political relationship between the US, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. The intention of this event, its poor execution, and its immediate political backlash are why Bay of Pigs can be seen as the “perfect failure,” which Trumbull Higgins aptly titled his book on the subject (Higgins 1989).
The contentious history between the US and Cuba galvanized the motion to invade and overthrow the Cuban revolutionary. This history, alongside JFK’s adamant push to win the Cold War, made the plan an utmost American priority. The relationship between the United States and Cuba began in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The US’s intervention in the Cuban War of Independence sparked animosity between the two nations, infusing relations with paranoia. Evidently in the 1960s, Eisenhower began cutting ties with Castro, after which Castro started working more closely with the Soviet Union. The communist state eventually purchased eighty percent of all Cuban exports. This shook American powers and led to the creation the Brigade 2506, the military of the Cuban democratic revolution front, which was an anti-communist, anti-Castro organization. Their political mission dovetailed with the US’s desire to counter-revolutionize Cuba and stunt communism.
The intention of the CIA was to begin an uprising in Cuba, though it did not work due to erroneous military strategies and Cuba’s cultural adoration for Fidel Castro. First, US attempts at spreading anti-Castro propaganda were unsuccessful. The CIA initially relied on an uprising in Cuba to expand the political intentions of the anti-Castro revolution. However, because of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, where Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries overthrew military dictator Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban people had solidified trust in their Prime Minister. This trust curbed the chances of their being swayed by any US propaganda. Second, and most importantly, Castro knew that this invasion was coming and was able to take strategic advantage of his geographical familiarity with the invasion site. Luis Aguilar outlines one of the reasons why, militarily, the environment doomed the execution of the CIA’s plan from the start, stating that the Cuban army had cut off the battle zone and entrapped Brigade 2506 on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs (Aguilar 1981, 317). Of course, this immediately halted the operation, thereby aborting the possibility for a sound invasion.
Aguilar notes the near impossibility for the Brigade 2506 soldiers to cut through the Zapata marsh to get to the Escambray Mountains eighty miles to the east. (Aguilar 1981, 317). General Maxwell D. Taylor, who JFK had appointed to diagnose the failed mission in its aftermath, reported how the CIA’s own failures were due in part to a lack of proper arsenal power: a shortage of ammunition, in conjunction with the lack of ammunition discipline, was an immediate cause for failure. Supplies did not last, yet this lack of supply actualized the weakness of the military plan. Taylor explains that:
The fundamental weaknesses made for a fragility which invited disaster with the first adverse turn of luck. This adverse turn occurred in the form of destructive enemy strikes on the shipping of the expedition, though one had the feeling that if this misfortune had not occurred another would have, with similarly disastrous results. (Taylor 1972, 191)
Indeed, what this report demonstrates is how although the lack of arsenal power played a significant role in the downfall of the mission, there was a character to the project that weakened the likelihood for its success. This shortage of military weaponry, its replacements, and air force support only heightened the “numerical weakness” of Brigade 2506 and made the dependence on the volunteers in Cuba for short-term survival even more dire (Taylor 1972, 191).
Castro was aware of the event prior to its execution, and aggressively strategized a counterattack leading up to the event. In anticipation of its invasion, Castro ordered for both out of service and functional Cuban aircrafts to be dispersed across the island with the expectation that the US would either hijack or destroy these planes. He placed troops near multiple landing sites, such as locations accessible to the mountains near Trinidad. On the morning of April 17, the American Air Force began to encroach the Cuban island. Beacons were lit that not only alerted exiles where to land but also residents and the Cuban army of their incoming invasion. Around 4:30 am, Castro ordered the immediate wipe out of the invaders from three different Cuban locations: Central Australia, Covadonga, and Yaguaramas. Later that night, Brigade 2506 carried out its main invasion, but was quickly countered by Castro’s men. Kennedy had withheld the use of US military air intervention – backing away from necessary US reinforcement. After seventy-two hours, the United States surrendered and left over one thousand anti-Castro fighters wounded and captured.
The aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion forever marred the reputation of the United States. The utter failure of the mission affected the world’s attitudes towards democracy, weakened foreign relations between the US and other world powers, and sullied US-Cuban relations to this day. The failed event strengthened the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union, which, no less than a year later, began plans to install nuclear missiles on Cuban islands ninety miles outside the United States. This plan gave rise to what is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite praise for JFK’s conduct during the crisis, historians critique the Bay of Pigs invasion on its causal relationship to the Missile Crisis, which, again, placed a looming shadow over foreign relations and American democracy.
Aguilar, Luis. 1981. The ‘Ultrasensitive’ Report and Testimony of the Board of Inquiry on the Bay of Pigs. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America.
Colhoun, Jack. 2013. Gangsterismo: The United States, Cuba and the Mafia, 1933 to 1966. OR Books. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt18z4gvc.
Higgins, Trumbull. 1989. The Perfect Failure: Kennedy, Eisenhower, and the CIA at the Bay of Pigs. Norton paperback. New York: Norton.
Taylor, Maxwell D. 1972. Swords and Plowshares. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton.
SUGGESTED CITATION: Reyes, Fe Lorraine. 2021. “The Bay of Pigs Invasion as the US’s ‘Perfect Failure.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published April 17.