Veterans Corner: Bay of Pigs
President Dwight D. Eisenhower sanctioned the ultimately unsuccessful U.S. invasion of Cuba known as "Bahía de Cochinos" or Bay of Pigs. The United States' intelligence community had gathered information that Cuban president Fidel Castro was nationalizing business interests on the island, including U.S. businesses. The administration feared that Castro was attempting to spread Communism throughout the region, including the United States. Cuba is less than 100 miles from the Florida coast so that threat appeared genuine. Eisenhower made the decision to train Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro.
The Major Players
Cuba and the U.S. government officially became friendly foes on January 7, 1959, when John Foster Dulles officially acknowledged Cuba's new administration in a memo to Eisenhower. He stated that the new government seemed "free from Communist taint" and "intended to pursue friendly relations with the United States." Vice President Richard Nixon had a decidedly different view of the Cuban leader. He called Castro "incredibly naive about Communism or is under Communist discipline" in a then-secret memo to the president in April 1959. He also cautioned that Castro's leadership qualities appeared to rank highly.
Eisenhower met with president-elect John F. Kennedy less than four months before the invasion. He tells Kennedy that the Bay of Pigs project is going well. He also makes it clear that Kennedy must bring it to fruition by whatever means necessary. In February, the Joint Chiefs of Staff evaluate the plan of action, considering it having a "fair chance" of ultimate success, including the "eventual" overthrow of Castro's government.
Before the invasion could begin, Castro's small air force needed to be destroyed. On April 15, 1961, eight B-26s bombed three locations: Camp Libertad, San Antonio de los Baos and Santiago de Cuba. Early estimates were overblown, later estimates of the damage were greatly reduced due to photographic evidence. Still, it made Castro nervous enough to ask his remaining pilots to "sleep under the wings" of their aircraft in order to immediately takeoff if needed.
Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. denied the United States role in the attack and stated that the U.S. would not be participating in aggression against Cuba. Castro readied his military and put his nation on a heightened state of alert with this warning, "If this air attack is the prelude to an invasion, the country is ready to struggle and will resist and destroy with an iron hand whatever force tries to land in our country."
The United States wanted the world to believe that any uprising would be a Cuban uprising. There were photos of a Cuban aircraft that landed in Florida with three Cuban defectors who had carried out an internal attack against their own air force. There were reports that the planes suffered antiaircraft hits and were very low on fuel, although reporters found that the machine guns on the plane had not been recently fired and that the plane had a metal nose instead of the usual Cuban plastic nose. Castro scoffed at the idea. Adlai Stevenson reaffirmed that the U.S. would not be involved in any uprising, only Cubans. He used those photos to prove the dissent, although their authenticity was greatly debated.
Zulu and Invasion
Late in the day of April 16, 1961, about 40 miles south of Cuba, a U.S. Navy operation converged on Point Zulu, called "Rendezvous Point Zulu" where seven battalions of troops, about 1400 men, prepared for the next day's invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
First came the diversion when a fake landing drew Castro away from the Bay of Pigs to Bahia Honda during the wee hours of the morning April 16-17. The real invasion began at 10a.m. when 1300 U.S. government-trained Cuban exiles landed on the southern coastal bay, April 17, 1961, meeting with unexpected resistance. There were around 1400 U.S. troops total counting the exiles. The amphibious assault was hampered from the beginning with delays in unloading the troops, engine failures, and unexpected coral reefs to maneuver. The local militia alerted the Cuban forces by radio before being overtaken by the invasion.
The hoped-for support of the Cuban population on the island never materialized. Kennedy decided that air support was out of the question and sent no support for the 2506 Assault Brigade. For two days, the fighting continued. It ended on April 19 with the surrender of the exiles on Blue Beach. Most of the exiles in the U.S. force became prisoners of the Cuban government and 90 died.
The aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion was not pretty. Kennedy was blamed for his lack of action to support or to stop the invasion. Castro used it to propel himself into a positive light with the Cuban people and solidify his presidency. He also solicited help from the USSR, now Russia, to help it defend itself, by planting missiles on the island, which would become JFK's next threat. The Bay of Pigs has so resonated through the years that any presidential fiasco is half-heartedly called a "Bay of Pigs" moment. The 50th anniversary of the invasion is April 2011.