Mar 17, 2021

Yankee Imperialism in the 20th Century: The Bay of Pigs Invasion

I believe there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime … to some extent, it was as though Batista was the incarnation of several sins on the part of the United States, now we shall have to pay for those sins. 

- John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, October 1963

Throughout the 1950s, Cuba was ruled by President Fulgencio Batista, a repressive dictator who ordered the killing of more than 20,000 Cubans, destroyed individual liberty by jailing his political opponents, and turned Cuba into a police state. Interestingly, what separates Batista from other despots is that he is one of the few dictators in history to be supported by the United States Government. Even though Batista was a ruthless dictator, he was considered pro-American and allowed US companies and wealthy individuals to take over half of Cuba’s sugar plantations, cattle ranches, mines, and utilities by awarding them cultivation contracts otherwise given to Cubans. 

Soon unemployment and despair were commonplace and even simple administrative tasks required bribes to prominent officials. The people, especially the youth, had had enough of the greed, corruption, and brutality of Batista’s government and rallied behind guerrilla groups led by Fidel Castro. After three years of conflict, Batista was forced to flee to the Dominican Republic on January 1st, 1959 along with his $300 million fortune. Tens of thousands of Cubans celebrated the end of the regime in Havana chanting Castro’s slogan, ‘Cuba Si, Yanquis No.’ Immediately, Castro moved to reduce America’s influence, by seizing America-owned property, nationalizing all American-dominated industries, and establishing close diplomatic relations with the USSR.

Naturally, the Americans watched with great concern as what they initially thought to be a nationalist revolution slowly turned into a communist one, just ninety miles from their borders. 

CIA’s Covert Operations

At the time, communism was spreading globally and was seen to be in direct opposition to American beliefs, values, and strategic interests. It was in this era that the United States started to use covert operations as a means to shape geopolitical situations and secure their interests without directly committing their military forces. The operations were designed in such a way that the United States could express plausible deniability of involvement. This was usually done by claiming that President and senior officials were unaware of the incidents and attributed the same to rogue actors, even though such claims often rang hollow. That same rationale was used to design the plan to overthrow Castro. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower, serving his last year in office in 1960, saw Castro’s Cuba as an unacceptable extension of Soviet influence in America’s backyard in the Cold War and approved a CIA (Central Investigative Agency) plan to overthrow Castro. The plan was straightforward: to replace the regime with one more suited to American interests with help from anti-Castro forces, without any concrete links pointing to American interference. 

The CIA organized an operation in which it trained and funded a force of exiled counter-revolutionary Cubans of the armed wing of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, known as Brigade 2506, to launch an initial ground assault with 1500 men. These men had fled Cuba when Castro took power and was ideal for the CIAs purpose. Brigade 2506 was taken to a private island off the coast of Florida leased by the CIA, and pilots were trained at a base in Guatemala. 

Operation Zapata

Shortly after his inauguration, newly elected President John F. Kennedy was informed of the operation and authorized the invasion plan in 1961, hoping to send out a strong message to the Soviets. Two runs of obsolete World War II-era B29 Bombers painted as Cuban Air Force planes would destroy runaways and cripple the Cuban Air Force. In the meantime, a 1400 men task force would launch an attack in the cover of darkness. Simultaneously, a small force would land on the east coast of Cuba to open a second front. A key assumption made by the CIA, central to the success of the plan, was that the population would join the uprising and help overthrow Castro. 

The invasion was doomed before even its start, on April 15, 1961, when the eight B29 bombers flying in from Nicaragua missed some of the targets and about twenty percent of the Cuban Air Force remained operational. Immediately news broke out in the press with photos of the planes being repainted, and John Kennedy was forced to suspend the second airstrike. Still, the invasion commenced on April 17, but coral reefs damaged the boats of the Cuban exile taskforce and made it difficult to even reach the shore. Castro having an inkling of what was coming due to the B29 bomber incident mobilized 60,000 of his men and rounded up more than 100,000 Cubans thought to oppose his leadership, dashing the CIA’s hopes of a people’s uprising. 

The plan continued to backfire, as a  group of operational Cuban warplanes sank the USS Rio Escondido, which carried 10 days of ammunition and fuel, causing a deafening explosion before sinking. The USS Houston, stationed west of the Bay in Cuban waters, was also heavily damaged.

The Brigade’s pleas for air and naval support were ruled out of the question by U.S. Generals. By April 19, the task force was overwhelmed, outgunned, and out-planned by Castro’s forces and had no choice but to surrender. The invasion had failed.


The whole operation was revealed in the press and the United Nations. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, unaware of the covert operation, was furious when the truth was revealed. It was unusual for a President to authorize an operation without consulting foreign policy experts and considering the implications for the country. In a shocker, Stevenson, still fuming from his non-involvement, publicly called on the United States to stop the invasion. Meanwhile, amidst all this chaos, the Soviet Ambassador Valerian issued USSR’s statement:                               

“Cuba is not alone today. Among her most sincere friends the Soviet Union is to be found.”

Kennedy was devastated by the failure, merely weeks into his presidency. Reportedly, an advisor peeped into the White House bedroom as the operation was failing only to find JFK crying in the arms of his wife Jackie. “Oh hell,” John Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy said, “if that’s the way you feel, give the job to Lyndon Johnson [Vice President].” 

Even more embarrassing for the CIA and the Kennedy Administration were reports of friendly fire, later confirmed by documents released from the National Security Archive in 2011. The lead CIA operative in the transport boat fired on aircraft his agency had supplied. With the B26 Bombers configured to match those in Cuban Air force, “We couldn’t tell them, from Castro planes,” according to the account of CIA operative Grayston Lynch. ”We ended up shooting up at two or three of them … it was a silhouette, that was all you could see.” Soon afterward, Kennedy fired the longest-serving CIA Director, Allen Dulles. 

In 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy secured the release of the captives in exchange for $53 million worth of medical supplies in an agreement with Castro. 

In the words of Robert Dallek, author of John Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, the Bay of Pigs calamity cost the invaders more than a hundred lives, gave Communists around the World a propaganda coup, and made a mockery of Kennedy’s promise of a new day in relations with Latin America. 

Understandably, Kennedy was distraught. Reportedly, he felt responsible for authorizing the attack and believing the CIA that the operation would go without any hiccups. The President had even received a memo from the British Intelligence detailing that Cubans were unlikely to rise against Castro in arms with a Cuban exile invasion. The main driving force behind the approval was perhaps Kennedy’s political ideology, that dictators should be dealt with directly instead of appeasing them. This thought stemmed from a paper he wrote at his time at Harvard, detailing Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy with the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler at the Munich Agreement. 

The Bay of Pigs invasion changed JFK; his mistrust of the CIA, the FBI, and other secret programs run by the agencies grew manifold and he instead began to consult his brother Attorney-General Robert Kennedy and Theodore Sorensen in sensitive matters.

Consequently, the origins of the Cuban Missile Crisis lay in the Bay of Pigs invasion as Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev placed the nuclear missiles in Cuba to act as a deterrent to a United States invasion of Cuba. The fiasco led Khrushchev to believe that Kennedy was weak and inexperienced and that he could get the better of him. 

Mark White, professor of History at the Queen Mary University of London even believes that if the American-backed invasion had not taken place in 1961, the Cuban Missile crisis would not have taken place. Till this day, even after 65 years throughout which the United States has been involved in several conflicts, the Bay of Pigs invasion remains one of the worst policy blunders in American history, and a permanent blot on Kennedy’s presidency.

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