Bay of Pigs
When Hubris Hurts
When John F. Kennedy became President of the United States on January 20, 1961, he inherited every policy decision that Eisenhower had yet to carry out. (1) One of these was the planned invasion of Cuba to depose Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement. The Central Intelligence Agency had recruited and trained Cuban exiles to conduct the invasion. The operation became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion after the point that the Cuban exiles made their landing. The planning of the invasion began with the 1959 defeat of Fulgencio Batista, the former president of Cuba. The CIA believed that the use of Cuban exiles would work because of their perceived success in the 1954 coup against President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala. In the 1954 coup against Arbenz, the CIA had used disgruntled Guatemalan military officers and Agency provided air support to aid in the coup. In the Bay of Pigs, there would be no such saving graces. The air and artillery support the US promised was either canceled or so delayed that Castro's forces easily repelled the invading forces. Additionally, the CIA had no understanding of the environment in which they were operating. In Guatemala, there had been differing factions to exploit within Arbenz's government. In 1961 Cuba there were no such factions left on the island. This was due to any that had opposed the 26th of July Movement fleeing the island in the wake of losing their benefactor. This meant that the invaders had no support to meet them once they arrived. This led to the spectacular failure that is now associated with the Bay of Pigs. By 1961, the CIA had grown confident enough in its abilities to conduct such an operation. However, they operated with undeserved confidence, as they had not learned how to conduct such operations in hostile nations. It is by looking at the CIA's overconfidence in their ability to pull off the Bay of Pigs Invasion that we see how Fidel Castro and the Cuban government were able to assert their sovereignty, and become a regional power despite the lopsided odds stacked against them.
The impetus for the Bay of Pigs was an established US policy against the encroachment of Communist governments into the Western hemisphere. US government officials had established this policy by two public addresses. The first was at The Tenth Inter-American Conference in March of 1954 by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. (2) In his speech, Dulles told the delegates that:
This conference was shocked by the dastardly attack on members of the United States Congress by those who professed to be patriots. They may not themselves have been communists. But they had been subjected to the inflammatory influence of communism which avowedly uses extreme nationalism as one of its tools. (3)
The next attack came from the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, who warned the Soviet Union to, “stay out of this hemisphere. And don't try to start your plans and your conspiracies over here.” (4) US representatives gave these speeches because they believed that the Soviet Union was attempting to establish a proxy state in Guatemala. (5) This was wholly unacceptable to the US government, because despite their purported opposition to a Communist “invasion,” the US was more interested in maintaining regional hegemony. This was due to the long-established foreign policies that the US had used to legitimize its actions in Latin America. The two most significant of these were the Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary. These policies had kept US troops in almost every country in the Caribbean basin since 1898. But now the US government had an even greater supposed justification for its practices. As anthropologist Lesley Gill notes in her book, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, that the label of Communist was “an enormously elastic category that could accommodate almost any critic of the status quo.” (6) And to drive this point home, John F. Kennedy made sure to drive home the point that the US government would not tolerate any changes to the status quo in his inauguration speech.
People often remember John F. Kennedy as one of the most progressive US presidents of the twentieth century. While much of this is true, he was not above playing into the realpolitik needed to be a Cold War leader. And his inauguration speech reflects this sentiment, where he gave the following challenge to the world:
Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house. (7)
It was the last part of this portion of Kennedy’s speech that would linger for a young Argentine doctor that had been in Guatemala during the coup against Arbenz. (8) While Ernesto “Che” Guevara had left-leaning beliefs before 1954; it was the coup against Arbenz that forced him to flee to Mexico, where he met Fidel Castro and further cemented his beliefs in Communism as the future for Latin America. (9) It was the combination of his earlier travels throughout Latin America on his motorcycle, with his experiences in Guatemala and Mexico that would solidify his revolutionary beliefs. Chief of amongst these was the belief that for any revolution to be successful, it was necessary for the revolutionaries to completely extricate the previous regime from the country to prevent counterrevolutionaries. This was one of the mistakes Arbenz had made, due to his desire to form a coalition government. Several years later Castro remembered Guevara’s reaction to the coup as being, “…terribly indignant and embittered by these events which had interrupted an endeavor which wasn't even radical. It was a relatively simple change, land reform, which was very just and necessary.” (10) Once the coup against him began, Arbenz attempted to arm the populous, but his officers thwarted his efforts. (11) Castro and Che Guevara seeing this vowed not to make the same mistake.
The first and greatest success Castro had achieved in his revolution was developing a deep connection to the Cuban people that ingratiated them to him. This in turn, along with the repressive crackdown by Batista, created an atmosphere where the majority of Cubans supported the 26th of July Movement. (12) This was instrumental in defending the island nation when the US government sent in its assets to do its dirty work. Jack Shulman noted the love for Castro in an article by journalist eight months before the invasion. In his article, Shulman wrote that “…the whole Cuban nation is being armed to defend the revolution. All over Cuba, you can see the workers, peasants, and students joining the militia, drilling, and recovering arms.” (13) However, some intelligence agents had a better assessment of what was going on in Cuba.
The CIA recalled Howard Hunt from Montevideo, Uruguay to reassemble "the PBSuccess team, that is the Guatemala Operational team, to take care of Castro.”(14) The only problem with this plan, according to the man in charge of planning the operation was that “Castro was secure, and he was beloved by millions in Cuba and so it was a different situation than Guatemala.”(15) But as later documents show, those in the upper echelons of the United States government’s decision-making spheres were already committed to dislodging Castro at all costs.(16) The Bay of Pigs had become an inspiration to both sides of the conflict.
For the Cuban people, it had destroyed the notion that their small, island nation had to kowtow to the whims of the United States. As Jack Shulman discusses, in his article, the real lesson that would be learned, was the that
“a people inspired leadership, with unbreakable unity, with a firm determination to struggle and to achieve victory, and with the support of a powerful international solidarity (especially the backing of the Soviet Union) can achieve victory over the victory over the mighty giant of U.S. imperialism”(17)
It would become the international solidarity that would be the greatest fallout from the Bay of Pigs. As it showed the vulnerable position that Cuba was still in as long as it did not have a way to directly threaten the United States with a retaliatory strike. This would lead Cuba to grow closer to the Soviet Union. In 1998 CNN made a documentary on the Cold War. In this documentary Castro discusses his reaction to the invasion as such:
We couldn't think about the Cold War at that time, and besides we were naive. We really believed there was a certain international order. We believed in the existence of certain international principles. We believed that the sovereignty of nations would be respected.
Cuba was not the only nation that saw the invasion as a grievous breach of international protocol. The Manchester Guardian declared that “‘Everyone knows…that the sort of invasion by proxy with which the U.S. has now been charged is morally indistinguishable from open aggression.” Prime Minister Nehru of India called it, “a case of intervention.” Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia and Egyptian President Nasser called it “a breach of world peace.” The failed invasion also became the first opportunity for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to test his theories about the new American president.
While Kennedy is now remembered as a strong president that protected the United States through one of its most challenging events, the later fiasco that became known as the Cuban Missiles Crisis, in April 1961 he had barely been on the job for two months. It is not well-known in the popular memory of American history, but Kennedy was the preferred candidate by the Soviet Union. This is because Khrushchev saw the young president as inexperienced and easily manipulated. The New York Times article "Setback" from April 23, 1961, demonstrates this. In the article, the author discusses how the Soviet Union attempted to use the failed invasion to coral the United States into giving up their efforts in Laos.(18) This is an interesting point of contention between the two nations, as it shows not just that this phase of the Vietnam War had started earlier than is commonly understood, but it also shows that the Soviet Union willingness to exploit any, and all chinks in the United States armor that they could find. In this, the Soviet Union would become Cuba’s greatest benefactor for the majority of the Cold War.
The Soviet-Cuban relationship was well suited to the goals of the Soviet Union. This was due to the Warsaw Pact nation needing a way to counteract United States advances in Europe. And in this, the repercussions of the Bay of Pigs would provide them a way into the Americas that they did not have before, for while the coup against Arbenz and the Bay of Pigs invasion began as operations intended on pushing out perceived Soviet influence, they both brought one the United States’ closest southern neighbors closer to their primary enemy at the time. This led the Soviet Union to deliver surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable missiles to Cuba. This was in response to the United States having recently placed Jupiter nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey. While the United States was able to make the Soviets take the nuclear missiles out of Cuba, the incident also led to the downing of a U-2 spy plane. This further eroded the prestige of the United States on the world stage, which in turn fueled the resentment that led to Operation Mongoose.
Operation Mongoose was the name the CIA gave to their ever-growing list of cartoonish attempts to either kill or remove Castro from power. The CIA launched Operation Mongoose amid the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a released CIA memorandum from October 4, 1962, we see how the US government was growing more frustrated with their inability to reign in the one that got away. Mister McCone makes this position evident when he points out that, “after considerable discussion, the Group agreed that it is not necessary to go to such extreme lengths to guarantee non-attributability and that short cuts will be acceptable.”(19) Towards the end of the document, the planners agree that “all efforts should be made to develop new and imaginative approaches to the possibility of getting rid of the Castro regime.”(20) And this they did, with each subsequent administration the plans to kill or overthrow Castro grew into one of the most ridiculous exercises in US foreign policy. But this became a boon to Cuba’s reputation throughout the world. Cuban success led many countries to welcome Cuban advisors during the African wars of decolonization. This was a part of the revolutionary tactic that Che Guevara had developed, where he sought to create 100 Vietnams. It was at this time that the Soviet Union and Cuba did start to split slightly, as Cuba’s support of decolonization often threatened the USSR’s desire for peaceful co-existence with the US. But in the early 1970s, the Soviets were already losing ground as the locus of authority for the Communist world.
There was no greater recognition of this than when Chilean President Salvador Allende sought Cuban expertise to assist in his administration. It was Cubans that trained Allende’s protective detail. (22) Additionally, the Cuban government's ability to negotiate with more militant elements of the Chilean leftists prevented a civil war from breaking out between moderate socialists and hardliners. In this, we see a change in perception of Cuba from the maiden in need of the US’s protection at the beginning of the twentieth century, to a small island nation that is sought after for assistance in foreign internal defense, a role typically reserved for the great powers of the world. (23)
In closing, Fidel Castro and the revolution he led were able to be successful by building an international community of support around themselves built on seeking strong allies, and also on letting the world see the ridiculous nature with which the US reacted to them asserting sovereignty over their nation and lives. This allowed the Castro regime to learn from an earlier coup against another Latin American nation and show to the aggressor in both cases that they may be small, but they are a mighty nation that can project its power further than any expected. While the average Cuban may not appreciate the route by which they have achieved this status, nonetheless it has benefitted significantly from the ignorant and tone-deaf policies of the US during the Cold War.
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Other works by this author:
1. Mitchell, Pat, and Jeremey Isaacs, Season1, Episode 18 “Backyard”, Cold War, CNN. 1998.
2. "Aid to Arbenz Pledged: Three Guatemalan Parties Issue Manifesto of Support." New York Times, 15 June 1954.
3. Mitchell, Pat, and Jeremey Isaacs, Season1, Episode 18 “Backyard”, Cold War, CNN. 1998.
5. Shulman, Jack. “Cuba Won’t Become Another Guatemala, Declares Arbenz.” August 28, 1960.
6. Gill, Lesley, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, Duke University Press, 2004, 10.
7. Transcript of President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, 1961.
8. Mitchell, Pat, and Jeremey Isaacs, Season1, Episode 18 “Backyard”, Cold War, CNN. 1998.
11. Shulman, Jack. “Cuba Won’t Become Another Guatemala, Declares Arbenz.” August 28, 1960.
12. Szulc, Tad, “Anti-Castro Units Land in Cuba; Report Fighting at Beachhead; Rusk Says U.S. Won’t Intervene: Premier Defiant Says His Troops Battle Heroically to Repel Attacking Force Anti-Castro Military Units Land in Southern Cuba and Battle Government Forces Premier Directs Island Defenses Escapes Injury in Bombing Raid – Aircraft Support Rebels Beachhead.” New York Times, Apr 18, 1961.
13. Shulman, Jack. “Cuba Won’t Become Another Guatemala, Declares Arbenz.” August 28, 1960.
14. Mitchell, Pat, and Jeremey Isaacs, Season1, Episode 18 “Backyard”, Cold War, CNN. 1998.
16. Parrott, Thomas A., “Minutes of Meeting of the Special Group (Augmented) on Operation MONGOOSE, 4 October 1962.
17. Shulman, Jack. “Cuba Won’t Become Another Guatemala, Declares Arbenz.” August 28, 1960.
19. Parrott, Thomas A., “Minutes of Meeting of the Special Group (Augmented) on Operation MONGOOSE, 4 October 1962.
21. Mitchell, Pat, and Jeremey Isaacs, Season1, Episode 18 “Backyard”, Cold War, CNN. 1998.
23. The Cuban Melodrama, Political Cartoon shows Uncle Sam in the role of the "Noble Hero" in a melodrama, defending a young woman labeled "Cuba" from the "Heavy Villain" labeled "Spain". 1896
"Setback." New York Times (1923-Current File), Apr 23, 1961.
Mitchell, Pat, and Jeremey Isaacs, Season1, Episode 18 “Backyard”, Cold War, CNN. 1998.
Shulman, Jack. “Cuba Won’t Become Another Guatemala, Declares Arbenz.” August 28, 1960.
"Aid to Arbenz Pledged: Three Guatemalan Parties Issue Manifesto of Support." New York Times, 15 June 1954.
Szulc, Tad, “Anti-Castro Units Land in Cuba; Report Fighting at Beachhead; Rusk Says U.S. Won’t Intervene: Premier Defiant Says His Troops Battle Heroically to Repel Attacking Force Anti-Castro Military Units Land in Southern Cuba and Battle Government Forces Premier Directs Island Defenses Escapes Injury in Bombing Raid – Aircraft Support Rebels Beachhead.” New York Times, Apr 18, 1961.
Transcript of President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, 1961.
Parrott, Thomas A., “Minutes of Meeting of the Special Group (Augmented) on Operation MONGOOSE, 4 October 1962.
The Cuban Melodrama, Political Cartoon shows Uncle Sam in the role of the "Noble Hero" in a melodrama, defending a young woman labeled "Cuba" from the "Heavy Villain" labeled "Spain". 1896