This article was first published in the May 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
“Let me tell you something,” President John F Kennedy told confidant Clark Clifford in April 1961. “I have had two full days of hell – I haven’t slept – this has been the most excruciating period of my life. I doubt my presidency could survive another catastrophe like that.”
That catastrophe was the failed attempt by a group of Cuban émigrés, with the backing of the US government, to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, an inlet on the island’s south coast, 90 miles south-east of the capital Havana. Their aim was to provoke an uprising that would bring about the overthrow of Fidel Castro, the left-wing leader who had seized power in an armed revolt in 1959.
Castro had found himself on a collision course with the United States almost from the moment he seized power. Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy’s immediate predecessor in the White House, had looked on with growing alarm as the Cuban revolutionary developed an ever-closer relationship with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had already used the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to topple ‘undesirable’ governments in Iran and Guatemala. In 1960, in the final year of his presidency, he turned to the CIA again.
The agency came up with a plan to train, fund and equip in Guatemala a group of Cubans who had fled their homeland out of disgust at Castro’s policies, and then to assist them in an amphibious invasion. The operation was to be backed by strikes on Castro’s air force.
To proceed with the plan to topple the Cuban leader, or place it on the back burner? That was the dilemma facing Kennedy when he replaced Eisenhower in the White House in January 1961. Having grappled with this thorny issue in meetings with senior advisers in the early weeks of his presidency, Kennedy decided to give the invasion his blessing as long as it could be carried out as unobtrusively as possible – and with America’s role in the operation concealed.
With this in mind, he asked the CIA to replace their preferred invasion site – Trinidad on Cuba’s south coast – with one that was less populated and less conspicuous. The location they came up with was the more sparsely populated Bay of Pigs.
Events then began to unfold quickly. By mid-March, Kennedy’s top military advisers – the joint chiefs of staff – had given the revised plan their blessing. The date of the attack itself was set for April.
Kennedy hoped the invasion would help the United States seize the initiative in the Cold War. Instead it turned out to be a humiliating disaster. Prior to the assault, an air strike by B-26 bombers on Cuba’s main airfields on 15 April failed to destroy all of Castro’s air force. Then, when the Cuban exile fleet approached Cuba, coral reefs damaged the boats. Worse still, Castro rapidly mobilised his militia of 200,000 men and, on learning of the invasion on 17 April, dispatched sizeable forces to the beachhead. He also ordered the rounding up of 100,000 Cubans who were thought to oppose his leadership – and, in doing so, dashed Kennedy’s hopes that the attack would spark an anti-Castro uprising.
Meanwhile, JFK dealt the operation another blow when he cancelled a second air strike on Cuba’s airfields, fearing that it would reveal US involvement to the world. This enabled Castro to use the planes that had survived the initial air strike, as well as field artillery, to attack the invading Cuban exiles. On 19 April the CIA-backed Cuban exile force started to surrender. The Bay of Pigs invasion had failed.
That the United States had been behind the operation was soon reported by the press and revealed in the United Nations. Unaccustomed to setbacks in what had so far been a charmed political life, Kennedy was devastated by the Bay of Pigs disaster. An adviser who peeped into the White House bedroom as the operation was failing observed JFK crying in the arms of his wife Jackie. He called his father for advice every hour, yet did not receive the paternal support he had anticipated. “Oh hell,” Joseph Kennedy told his son,“if that’s the way you feel, give the job to Lyndon [Vice President Johnson].”
An understandable error?
The Bay of Pigs raises some important historical issues. Why did Kennedy support a plan that failed so badly? Did he have good reason for thinking that the operation would prove successful? Was it the case, as Kennedy supporters have often claimed, that although the Bay of Pigs was a serious error on JFK’s part, it was an understandable one, as virtually all of his advisers had urged him to authorise the operation?
Kennedy decided to go ahead with the invasion for a variety of reasons. First of all, it reflected his own foreign policy ideology, which was based on the idea that democracies like the United States must develop considerable military power and show an uncompromising toughness when dealing with aggressive dictatorships, such as Castro’s Cuba and Nikita Khrushchev’s Russia. This conviction derived from Kennedy’s analysis as a student at Harvard of the British appeasement of Nazi Germany. To a young JFK, the lessons of the 1930s were clear: confront totalitarian dictators, don’t mollycoddle them.
That is precisely what Kennedy planned to do by ordering the Bay of Pigs invasion. He also believed that if Castro were to remain in power he would promote a series of communist revolutions throughout Latin America. In the mind of the new president, Castro’s Cuba represented a dangerous and unacceptable extension of Russian influence in America’s own backyard.
Kennedy, moreover, had taken a strong stand against Castro in the 1960 presidential campaign, railing against his Republican rival Richard Nixon for being part of an administration that had failed to prevent the Cuban revolutionary from coming to power. JFK pledged to take robust action to overthrow Castro if elected president and so, once he’d won that election, felt compelled to honour his promise and support the CIA plan.
Another factor almost certainly lay behind Kennedy’s decision to approve the Bay of Pigs plan: the belief that it would work because Castro would be assassinated. In 1975 a US Senate investigation into alleged attempts by the CIA to kill foreign leaders established that the agency devised at least eight plots to murder the Cuban leader in the early sixties. The CIA even went to the lengths of recruiting mobsters such as John Rosselli and Sam Giancana to help them do the job.
In one such attempt – planned for the period before the Bay of Pigs invasion – a Cuban was to pass on poison pills to an official in the Cuban government, who would see to it that the pills were dropped into Castro’s drink. Another plot (the details of which remain shady) involved a Cuban exile arranging for poison to be put in Castro’s food at a restaurant he frequented.
What is not certain is whether Kennedy knew of, and endorsed, the CIA’s attempts to kill Castro, or whether the president was left in the dark. The CIA practice of ‘plausible deniability’ – whereby presidential briefings about assassination attempts are not recorded in official documentation so that his knowledge is plausibly deniable – makes the issue even murkier.
A number of Kennedy advisers have since claimed that the president’s strong moral code makes it unthinkable that he would have backed CIA plans to kill Castro. Looking at this another way, however, it seems very probable that Kennedy knew about and approved the CIA assassination plots. For one thing, just before the Bay of Pigs, he asked a senator – who was also a close friend – to produce a memorandum on the assassination of Castro. For another, he told a journalist later in the year that he had been “under terrific pressure from advisers… to okay a Castro murder”.
Furthermore, Kennedy found the world of espionage, with its illicit manoeuvring and moral compromises, not reprehensible but intriguing. He loved Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and during the 1960 presidential campaign had even met Fleming and asked his advice on how best to handle Castro. When Kennedy was informed that America had its own James Bond, William K Harvey, who had succeeded in building a tunnel under East Berlin, he was determined to meet the legendary CIA operative. As one Kennedy aide recalls, the “pistol-carrying, martini-drinking adventurer was found and sent over to the White House”.
Rather than being troubled by the notion that CIA agents were trying to assassinate Castro, Kennedy probably viewed it as the kind of covert and unsavoury tactic that a president had to employ because it served the national interest, in this case the removal of a hostile communist leader from the western hemisphere.
Knowledge of the CIA’s attempts to kill Castro certainly makes Kennedy’s decision to order the invasion more comprehensible. Mathematically, the Bay of Pigs never made sense. How could a Cuban exile army of 1,400 defeat Castro’s forces which, bolstered by his strong militia, could number close to a quarter of a million? What JFK most likely calculated was that Castro’s assassination would throw Cuba into turmoil. In that context, the small Cuban exile force could prove effective in determining Cuba’s political future.
Ignoring good advice
However, the fact of the matter is that Kennedy should have questioned CIA and military officials more thoroughly as to the potential shortcomings of the plan. He should have taken on board British intelligence information he received early in his presidency that suggested Cubans were unlikely to react to a Cuban exile invasion by rising up against Castro. Finally, he should have listened more carefully to those US officials who opposed the operation.
That there were numerous dissenters within the US administration was an embarrassing fact that Kennedy’s supporters often concealed. The Bay of Pigs was a mistake on JFK’s part – it was argued – but an understandable one given that almost all of his advisers backed the operation. But that was not so. Chester Bowles, Adlai Stevenson, Dean Rusk, Charles Bohlen, Richard Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger, among others, expressed deep reservations about the invasion plan, as did Arkansas senator J William Fulbright. Veteran Democrat Dean Acheson pulled no punches in telling the president: “It was [not] necessary to call [the accountancy firm] Price, Waterhouse to discover that 1,500 Cubans weren’t as good as 25,000 Cubans. It seemed to me that this was a disastrous idea.” Kennedy could and should have listened to these voices of dissent.
The Bay of Pigs invasion represented the nadir of Kennedy’s presidency. It was emblematic of the excessively hard-line policies he often carried out before the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.
He not only tried to topple Castro through the CIA-engineered assault on the Bay of Pigs but continued thereafter to work for his overthrow by launching another top-secret CIA programme directed against Cuba, Operation Mongoose. He also deepened America’s involvement in Vietnam and needlessly increased military spending at a time when the US had a huge lead in nuclear weapons over the Soviet Union.
Sobered by the dangers of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy later adopted a more conciliatory approach to international affairs, signing the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and urging the United States in his famous speech at American University to change its attitude towards the Russian people and the Cold War. The maturity displayed by Kennedy in the final year of his presidency, so lacking in his handling of the Bay of Pigs operation, makes the tragedy of his assassination in November 1963 even greater.
From the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis
The Bay of Pigs invasion took place in a period when Cold War tensions were at their height. Of course, friction between the United States and the Soviet Union had been ongoing since the end of the Second World War, and would continue through the Kennedy era until 1989 when the Soviet empire in eastern Europe crumbled and the Berlin Wall came down.
However, never did war between the superpowers seem more likely than it did in the early 1960s. The summer of 1961 was dominated by a major Soviet-American crisis over Berlin.
Aerial spy photos of a ballistic missile base at San Cristobal, Cuba, October 1962. President Kennedy rejected advice to order an air strike on Soviet missile sites. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
At a stormy summit meeting in Vienna, Nikita Khrushchev told Kennedy that the United States had to get out of West Berlin within six months. JFK refused, and the crisis ended only after Khrushchev sealed off communist East Berlin by building the Berlin Wall. The following year Khrushchev triggered the most dangerous episode in the entire Cold War – the Cuban missile crisis – by deploying nuclear warheads in Cuba.
The consequences of the Bay of Pigs invasion for the Cold War were profound. One of Khrushchev’s main motives for sending nuclear weapons to Cuba was to deter a US invasion of the island he thought likely as Kennedy had already sanctioned a similar sort of attack in April 1961. In short, without the American-backed invasion, the Cuban missile crisis would most likely not have taken place.
Paradoxically, the Bay of Pigs fiasco gave Kennedy some of the insights he would need to manage the missile crisis as well as he did. Essentially the failed invasion attempt made him more wary of accepting uncritically hard-line advice from military and CIA officials. This played a major role in his decision to reject their recommendation to order a risky and dangerous air strike on the Soviet missile sites in Cuba.
Mark White is a professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London. His books include Missiles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, and the 1962 Crisis (Ivan R Dee, 1997).