Almost every nation has been through an event or taken an action that has injured its international image and prestige, an event in which it was universally and domestically embarrassed. For America, this was the Bay of Pigs. Theodore Draper called it, ” One of the most rare events in history- a perfect failure”. Even president John F. Kennedy described it as “The worst experience of my life”. Few other military actions taken by the United States were as disastrously unsuccessful and humiliating.
When Fidel Castro gained power of Cuba in 1959, the U.S government became concerned. There were rumors floating around that he was a communist. This was a problem to the United States. A potential Soviet ally 90 miles from American soil would not be tolerated. The current government had to be eliminated. If America was to do this, it would have to be covert in its actions and U.S intervention could not be evident. The answer to this came during the Eisenhower administration and was entitled “Operation Zapata”.
The program didn’t come into effect until Eisenhower left office and was succeeded by John F. Kennedy. Though much of the tactics of the operation changed, the main goals were conserved.
Both Eisenhower and Kennedy knew that it was dangerous for the U.S to be directly involved, therefore the key to an invasion lied in the anti-revolutionary Cuban exiles that were determined to take down Castro. The Cuban exile council would serve as cover for action which would became publicly known.
The CIA predicted that only an internal uprising would bring down Castro and they expected that a successful invasion by exiles would spark an uprising against the new regime.
After the CIA reached the objective of forming an exile group, a training camp was set up in Guatemala to prepare for the invasion. There, the exiles went through rigorous military communications training for several months. The CIA attempted to keep the operation completely confidential with no trace of U.S intervention. To clear the image of U.S involvement, CIA personnel in contact with exiles would even be documented as private American businessmen.
The next objective of “Operation Zapata” was propaganda. The U.S military operatives would occupy Swan Island, a small island off the coast of Cuba, and create a medium wave radio station. This station was planned to send subtle anti-Castro messages to Cubans and add fuel to the fire of an anti-Castro uprising.
The third part was, of course, was the actual “invasion”. The trained exiles would be deployed into Cuba to set up a base in which to organize, train, and lead resistance forces already recruited there. These recruits would wage guerrilla warfare on Castro s forces. After D-day, the CIA would broadcast bold anti-Castro messages to abet, further instruct, and spark additional uprisings. The plan called for 1,500 men to land in Cuba, the invasion would leave nearly 2,500 dead.
During the course of time the plans and objectives changed drastically. The original invasion site during the Eisenhower administration was to be the populated city of Trinidad. Kennedy insisted that site be relocated to a lesser populated location. The site selected was eventually Cuba s Bahia de Los Cochinos; the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy also changed the invasion from a night to a day attack and reduced potential airstrikes. ( May, pg. 27-28))
The invasion planned was also an attempt to change the future of Cuba and other nations. The concerns of the United States were similar to that of their concerns with North Vietnam in later years. They were fearful of the domino effect; if Cuba fell to Communism, the rest of Latin America may soon follow.
Along with the chance of Communism spreading over Latin America came the threat of a Soviet/Cuban Alliance. If Castro were allowed to create a concrete alliance with the Soviets, this could pose great danger to the national security of the United States, as well as the rest of the Americas. If this alliance were to occur, the Soviets would definitely seek the establishment of missile silos in Cuba; substantially putting the country at risk of a nuclear war. The invasion of Cuba was for the purpose of preventing such occurrences.
Although the CIA, the Cuban exiles, and the whole Kennedy administration were confident of the operation s inevitable success, it was ultimately an absolute failure. On April 17, 1961, 1400 Cuban exiles invaded the Bay of Pigs .In the end 1189 were captured and 114 were killed. Along with many tactical errors, the U.S drastically underestimated how strong their foe could be. Washington perceived Castro as a hysteric; incapable of rational defense. They assumed that he had done nothing to nullify the uprisings within Cuba, or that the underground would find means of protecting themselves. They dismissed his airforce; miscalculating its strength as well as number.
In actuality, Castro s planes enacted their defense with speed and vigor. His patrols spotted the invasion at the first possible moment. His secret police took radical actions to eliminate any traces of rebellion and sabotage. While the U.S greatly underestimated their enemy, Castro overestimated his.(Schlesinger, pg. 292- 293)
The entire operation was destined for failure. The designing operatives could not find a balance between secrecy and success. In the end, the invasion both failed and was brought to the eyes of the public. The CIA apparently did not comprehend the importance of the fact that if there was to be no U.S military intervention, an internal uprising was the only way the Castro regime was going to be overthrown.
An internal uprising required an intact underground, which the CIA failed to achieve communication with and assumed it to be an organized force. The CIA failed to gather sufficient information on the strength of the Castro regime and the opposition towards it. The CIA did not succeed in its job to assess the available information. (Schlesinger, pg.294)
Not only did the U.S poorly plan and estimate the invasion, Castro saw it coming all along. Cuban intelligence sent a message to Moscow that entailed the knowledge of the CIA training camps in Guatemala. The CIA also intercepted a message from the USSR to Mexico city that stated the exact date of the invasion; April 17, 1961. (Kornbluh, pg. 276)
The invasion location was an error in itself. The planners expected that the exiles, if defeated, could melt into the hills, spark an uprising, and engage in guerrilla warfare. This was deemed impossible due to the inaccessibility of the mountains which where locked in by the Zapata swamps. Most of the prisoners were taken from the swamps after days of hiding. Also, all the ammunition was carried on a single ship, which was destroyed by Cuban aircraft. (Wyden, pg.106)
If America wanted to deny its responsibility for the operation, it should have been guerrilla, like originally planned, instead of an amphibious up-front invasion. America could not disclaim the event, the rebels could not of orchestrated the it alone. The project should have been overtly backed, or not backed at all.
The ways in which Washington tried to cover up its involvement failed as miserably as its military tactics. The preliminary bombings of airfields in Cuba were exposed to the world before the invasion even took place. The same week that became public was the week that the United Nations was to address the complaints of U.S aggression towards Cuba. To cover this up, Deputy Director of Plans Richard Bissel, his deputy Tracy Barnes, and paramilitary specialist Jack Hawkins formulated a cover-story stating a defected Cuban B-26 bomber bombed key airfields before fleeing to Miami. The story crumbled within hours. But, before it fell apart, it was presented to the entire U.N general assembly. The United States
was caught in a lie in front of all its international peers. This was the first humiliation of the U.S as a result of the Bay of Pigs. To avoid further embarrassment, Kennedy canceled the very critical second air strike.(Kornbluh, pg. 2) This air strike was critical in that it could have seen the victory of the invasion, or at least lengthened time of the invasion from three to ten days; enough time to evacuate invaders. (Kurland pg.25)
After the failed invasion, the United States reputation as a world leader was severely injured in the eyes of the international community. The once prestigious nation was, momentarily, the bully and laughing stock of the international community. President Kennedy suffered major political humiliation. He said at a press conference “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. I am the responsible officer of the government.” The whole nation felt embarrassment and was harshly criticized by the world, especially Western Europe.(Kombluh.. pg.3)
Europe was disappointed in America, not because of its failure, but because of the invasion itself. The United States led an unprovoked attack that left 1800 military and civilian dead or wounded. Washington was perceived as self-riotous, trigger-happy instigator. (Schlesenger, 275)
Up to this point in time, America had never lost a military conflict. It is easy to see why this was such an embarrassment to the government and the people. The whole world was awestruck that the sovereign power of the United States was matched by a small, newly formed nation a fraction of the size of the U.S.
The Bay of Pigs takes its place as one of the most monumental military embarrassments in history. It taught valuable lessons in military intelligence, planning tactics and balancing secrecy with success. It reminds us that no nation is perfect and that the most supreme of powers can often be challenged and defeated.