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1961: The Bay of Pigs Invasion

Fifty years ago, the U.S. backed a secret plan to overthrow Cuba's new Communist regime. The U.S. and Cuba have been at loggerheads ever since

By Anthony DePalma

In the days immediately after Fidel Castro's bearded guerrilla fighters seized power in Cuba on January 1, 1959, the United States government wished the rebels well.

"The Provisional Government appears free from Communist taint and there are indications that it intends to pursue friendly relations with the United States," Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-'61) in a memo.

It seemed like a promising start between the two neighbors, only 90 miles from each other. But the goodwill did not last long.

By the end of the year, Eisenhower had approved a secret plan to overthrow Castro that two years later became the Bay of Pigs invasion. And half a century later, the failed coup is widely recognized as a misguided monument to the fear and suspicion on both sides in the Cold War, a watershed moment that has left the U.S. and Cuba at odds ever since.

"The U.S. had already broken ties with Cuba by the time of the Bay of Pigs," says Ted Henken, a Cuba expert at Baruch College in New York. "But you could say the invasion was the final, ultimate, and irrevocable divorce."

For the Cuban exiles who participated, the attack was a chance to rescue their homeland from Castro and the Communists.

"We were full of hope," recalled Alfredo Durán, a Cuban exile from Miami who landed at the Bay of Pigs when he was 22. "We believed we were going to win or die."

Cold War Rules

What did the U.S., with all its power, have to fear from tiny Cuba, which is about the size of Pennsylvania and in 1959 had a population of less than 7 million?

The U.S. and its allies were in the midst of the Cold War with Communist countries of the East, led by the Soviet Union and China. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R.* were allies in World War II, but they mistrusted each other. When Germany was defeated in 1945, the two superpowers competed fiercely for global influence. The Soviets installed Communist regimes in most of Eastern Europe after the war, and there was little the West could do about it.

But when the Soviet Union took an interest in Latin America, in what looked like a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine—President James Monroe's 1823 policy that warned European colonizers to stay out of the Western hemisphere—the Eisenhower administration was determined to stop it.

Washington kept a close eye on Cuba after the new regime came to power. There was an uproar in the U.S. when hundreds of Castro's political opponents were executed without fair trials. Then Castro seized the farms, homes, and businesses of Cubans and Americans without compensation. Castro's increasingly belligerent anti-American tone also led Washington to fear that Cuba would strengthen its ties with the Soviet Union, and a secret plan to overthrow him was developed.

But under the unwritten rules of the Cold War, the U.S. could not be directly involved in military actions that the Soviet Union might consider threatening (though the two powers sometimes used other nations, called proxies, to fight on their behalf). Both sides knew that such open aggression could trigger an all-out nuclear war.

The C.I.A. (Central Intelligence Agency) plan was to secretly train a small number of anti-Castro exiles for a guerrilla insurrection similar to the one Castro himself had mounted to seize power from Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Preparations for the invasion coincided with the 1960 U.S. presidential election, which Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts won. He was inaugurated in 1961 and inherited the Cuba invasion plans.

By then, Castro had beefed up his armed forces with weapons from the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, so the C.I.A. called for a larger invasion force and an amphibious landing somewhere on the coast of Cuba. The invaders then would make their way to the Escambray Mountains and launch an armed insurrection with the help of what they believed were the many Cubans who opposed Castro. But the C.I.A. misled the young President, underestimating Castro's support in Cuba and exaggerating the invaders' military capabilities.

The C.I.A. set up training camps in Florida and Guatemala—a Latin American country where the U.S. had supported a coup in 1954 to oust a left-leaning President. About 1,500 Cuban exiles, most of them in their early 20s and living in Miami, volunteered to participate in the invasion to reclaim their country.

But as the plan grew bigger, word leaked out. In April 1961, The New York Times prepared a front page article on the planned invasion. But the newspaper's influential Washington bureau chief, James Reston, worried that publishing the story would tip off the Cubans and endanger the operation.

"A Colossal Mistake"

Reston convinced the publisher to tone down the article and remove some details, including the projected invasion date and the C.I.A.'s role. (After the invasion failed, Kennedy told a Times editor that he wished it had published more details about the planned invasion. "You would have saved us from a colossal mistake," Kennedy said.)

A week after the revised article hit newsstands, the first stage of the invasion began. Old American B-26 bombers painted to look like Cuban aircraft flew over Cuba on the morning of April 15. Their mission: knock out Castro's tiny air force. But Castro, anticipating such an attack, hid his fighter planes and put old planes on the runways as decoys.

The B-26s attacked Cuban airports and other areas, killing several civilians. At a public funeral for the victims the next day, Castro openly declared the Socialist nature of his revolution for the first time, aligning Cuba with the Soviet Union.

As the invaders prepared for a second day of bombing, Kennedy made a fateful decision. Worried that another round of air strikes would expose U.S. involvement, he grounded the planes and made it clear that he didn't want American troops or the warships that were waiting off the Cuban coast to directly help the invasion brigade.

The landing site the C.I.A. had picked was a swampy area on Cuba's southern coast known as the Bay of Pigs for the wild pigs that roamed there. Just after midnight on April 17, five privately owned merchant ships carrying men and supplies quietly steamed into the bay. Within a short time, several light landing craft started to ferry the soldiers to the beach.

Almost immediately, the invaders—who had called in an urgent request for air cover that never came—were strafed by Castro's fighter planes. Before the battle ended two days later, Cuban pilots shot down nine B-26 bombers, sank two of the merchant ships, and destroyed eight landing craft.

Castro had sent thousands of soldiers to the Bay of Pigs and ordered his pilots to sink the supply ships. "Don't let those ships go," he told Captain Enrique Carreras, the pilot of one of Cuba's Sea Fury fighter planes. "I'll fulfill your orders," Carreras responded. Then, though the battle was just hours old, Castro boldly assured him, "We shall win." The invaders, fighting with patriots' passion but without reinforcements or air support, surrendered within three days. The last message from a brigade commander to a C.I.A. operative was: "I have nothing left to fight with. Am taking to the woods. I can't wait for you."

The final tally of the brief battle was 161 Cuban defenders dead, 114 invaders killed, and 1,189 captured. The victory made Castro stronger than ever, and aligned Cuba even more closely with the Soviets. For Kennedy, who had been in office just 90 days and who at age 43 was the youngest man elected President, it was an embarrassing failure.

Exploding Cigars

But Kennedy wasn't through with trying to bring down Castro. In November 1961, he approved Operation Mongoose, a series of schemes to destabilize the Cuban government. The plots were kept secret until 1993, when declassified documents revealed that at least eight attempts had been made on Castro's life, including plans that called for poison pills, exploding cigars, and a booby-trapped seashell. Another plan involved dousing the Havana radio studio, where Castro made some of his famously long addresses, with hallucinatory chemicals that would have made him ramble while on air, causing the Cuban people to lose faith in him.

A 1961 C.I.A. assessment of the Bay of Pigs invasion had predicted that failure would likely make the Soviets "more adventurous," and it did. In the months following the invasion, the Soviets secretly built missile sites in Cuba capable of firing nuclear-tipped rockets at the U.S. When President Kennedy found out in October 1962, he had only days to decide whether to react with force. For nearly two weeks, Americans literally woke up each morning wondering if nuclear war was about to break out.

But Kennedy didn't order a first strike. Instead, he set up a naval blockade around Cuba to keep out additional nuclear missiles. After a tense 13-day standoff, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, and Kennedy vowed that the U.S. would not try to invade Cuba again.

A few weeks later, most of the captured Bay of Pigs soldiers were released from Cuban prisons and returned to Miami in exchange for $53 million worth of food and medicine. At a ceremony in Miami's old Orange Bowl, President Kennedy accepted a banner that they had carried into battle and said, "I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana."

In the decades since the Bay of Pigs invasion, relations between the U.S. and Cuba have remained hostile. Castro has kept his people ever ready for another invasion and continued to whip up anti-American sentiment. An embargo ordered by Eisenhower and strengthened by Kennedy remains in effect, preventing most Americans from doing business with or traveling to Cuba. More than a million Cubans have fled the country, some in flimsy rafts. Many have died in their desperate efforts to reach Florida.

Cuba is still ruled by Castro and his brother, Raûl. In 2009, President Obama lifted some restrictions, making it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit family there. Obama has said he wants to improve relations with Cuba and has been encouraged by such recent actions as the release of scores of political prisoners.

But Cuba experts such as Professor Henken of Baruch College know that over the last half century, the Castro government has repeatedly brushed aside such openings, and this time could be no different.

"They may be going through counseling now, but the two sides are still divorced," he says.

And the banner that President Kennedy promised would be returned to a free Havana has yet to fly over Cuban soil.

*The Union 0f Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) was the Soviet Union's official name.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, January 31, 2011)