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The Bay of Pigs

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    “On January 1, 1959, a young Cuban nationalist named Fidel Castro (1926-) drove his guerilla army into Havana and overthrew General Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973), the nation’s American-backed president.” The United States (US) backed General Batista since his rise to dictatorship in 1952. General Batista was friendly with the US, and the US had no reason to necessarily think General Batista would act in a manner hostile to US interests. However, General Batista was overthrown by a revolution lead by Fidel Castro, and the US feared Castro would contribute to the spread of Communism and hostility towards the US. The US continued to back General Batista until Castro’s popularity became apparent through Castro’s “charisma and nationalistic rhetoric.” The US wanted to find a balanced Cuban leader who was between Castro and General Batista, but the US could not. With Castro growing in popularity and the lack of support from the US, General Batista fled Cuba and Castro took power on January 1, 1959.

    Castro now in power, Cuba began to establish a relationship with the Soviet Union, stoking fears within the US that Cuba would begin a spread of Communism within Latin America. The US wanted Castro ousted. Thus, in March 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized Operation Zapata: a plan to train Cuban expatriates who fled or were exiled during the Castro uprising to combat and topple the Castro regime by military force. President John F. Kennedy inherited Operation Zapata after winning the election against Vice President Richard M. Nixon partially by seeming more anti-communist than Nixon. Kennedy continued with the plan to invade Cuba. On April 17, 1961, more than 1,200 Cuban expatriates trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) attempted an amphibious assault at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba. The invasion failed. “The invaders were badly outnumbered by Castro’s troops, and they surrendered after less than 24 hours of fighting.”

    Known by some as the “perfect failure,” the botched Bay of Pigs invasion exhibited some key failures by decision-makers, and estimations by intelligence analysts were obviously not taken into consideration during the planning phase of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Additionally, decision-makers made assumptions that were not necessarily helpful. There were more tools at Kennedy’s disposal than he used. Although most aspects of the operation were flawed, some characteristics of the operation where worth the trouble. We shall explore Kennedy’s leverage, or lack thereof, of instruments of national power and some faulty assumptions that should have been considered more carefully before executing the invasion. Inheriting what President Eisenhower started, President Kennedy continued with plans for the invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained Cuban expats known as Brigade 2506. The plan came in three phases: bomb the Cuban air force two days prior to the invasion, launch a second bombing run the morning of the invasion, and conduct an amphibious landing at the Bay of Pigs.

    The CIA painted B-26 bombers to disguise them as Cuban Fuerza Aerea Revolucionaria (FAR) aircraft, which would be used to bomb the Cuban air force. The idea was to make it appear that the invasion was an insurrection from within Castro’s FAR. This allowed Kennedy to “maximize plausible deniability.” Kennedy wanted the US to be as far removed from the invasion as possible. The attacking FAR pilots would “then fly to the US to defect.” At first, the plan was to use fifteen bombers, but Kennedy changed the plans at the last minute to only use eight bombers because he did not want an oversized signature from the bombing. The next part of the plan involved bombing whatever aircraft remained of the FAR hours before the invasion. However, Kennedy altered this part of the plan by cancelling it entirely due to the overwhelming backlash the US received at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Political and Security Committee where Cuba blamed the US for the attack. The US’s UN Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, remained unaware of the CIA’s mission, vehemently defending the US yet later becoming furious when learning the truth.

    Lastly, Brigade 2506 was to conduct a landing by air and sea via the Bay of Pigs in an effort to initiate a revolt leading to an overthrow of Castro and his regime. Officially reported available forces for the operation included 1,511 men, fifteen B-26 bombers, ten C-54 transports, five C-46 transports, two Landing Craft, Infantry; three Landing Craft, Utility; four Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel; seven chartered commercial freighters; and one 165-foot Cuban coastal steamer. However, Castro’s force accomplished taking “1,197 prisoners, killing 89, downing nine B-26 bombers, and sinking two 5,000-ton boats; one communication boat; three Landing Craft, Utility; and five for troops” between April 17 and April 20. Kennedy made severe miscalculations, resulting in not only the defeat of Brigade 2506 but also the embarrassment of US leadership and the intelligence community, which allowed Cuba to further accept support from the Soviet Union. Kennedy accomplished the opposite effect of his initial plan. Kennedy had the most knowledgeable intelligence community at his disposal and held the most influential office in the world, yet he suffered one of the US’s most embarrassing defeats.

    Duenas mentions Kennedy’s failed assumptions which contributed to the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion: that he was assessing the problem critically, the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCoS) could provide the proper advice for the changes he made last minute, and that he understood the “estimate of the Cuban situation.” Additionally, Kennedy did not properly utilize all the instruments of national power: diplomatic, information, military, and economic. Kennedy’s first failed assumption is evidenced by his postulation that what worked in Guatemala in 1954, would work for Cuba in 1961. According to an American communist newspaper called The Worker, Jacobo Arbenz, a former president of Guatemala who was ousted by a revolution within Guatemala, insisted Cuba would never succumb to the same CIA actions that took him out of power. Arbenz stated Cuba erased what was left of the Cuban police and army after Castro took power. He also explained how “a people with inspired leadership…unbreakable unity…and…powerful international solidarity…can achieve victory over the mighty giant of US imperialism.” Arbenz continued clarifying the differences between Guatemala and Cuba that would allow Cuba to not fall victim to US intervention.

    Furthermore, Duenas mentions an anonymous CIA memorandum in which the operation in Guatemala was lauded for having lucked out and having a “unique coincidence of favorable factors.”  The second failed assumption Kennedy subscribed to was that the CIA and JCoS were well-equipped to aid in his last-minute decision making. Duenas asserts the JCoS did not have much stake in the operation, which did not allow for a critical assessment of the operation by top military leaders. Also, the CIA struggled to navigate through its own compartmentalization standards, making critical analysis of the plan and last-minute decisions next to impossible. This resulted in “[compounding] the issue of faulty advice directly begin [sic] given to the president. Lastly, Kennedy did not quote understand the entire Cuba situation, let alone the attitudes of the other Latin American countries towards Cuba. Duenas principally agrees with Arbenz’s declaration to The Worker, mentioning Cubans were loyal to Castro while the Soviet Union heavily supports Castro.

    Because of this, the Cuban people would not have followed a supposed uprising against Castro due to their lack of knowing an uprising was occurring. At worst, Castro knew of invasion thanks to Cuban informants in Miami where Brigade 2506 started. All three failed assumptions contributed to the poor decisions Kennedy made. In hindsight, Kennedy should have made use of all the instruments of power. He partly used the diplomatic instrument in trying to rein in the Soviet-American relationship prior to the invasion. However, this should have begun with Eisenhower more than a year prior. This would have helped authenticate the US’s actions in cozying up to the Soviet Union. Bleeding into the information instrument, the intelligence community should have informed Kennedy and Eisenhower of the Organization of American States’ (AS) posture towards Cuba. President Miguel Ydigoras of Guatemala gave Kennedy a hint when he reportedly changed Kennedy’s mind about following through with the operation.

    More explicitly, the CIA’s Office of National Estimates (ONE) drafted a memorandum explaining how several countries within the OAS felt concerning Castro and Cuba. “Eight (Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela) are avowedly anti-Castro and would welcome, if not throw their full weight behind, collective measures against him.” This egregious oversight did not allow Kennedy to exercise full diplomatic power in his decisions pertaining to the Bay of Pigs. Succinctly speaking, he could have used these feeling towards Cuba to help with the invasion. AS for the military instrument, Kennedy should have used the military’s Special Operation Command (SOCOM) to assist the CIA train Brigade 2506 (along with OAS allies). With only one year of preparation, Brigade 2506 needed as much training as possible. Kennedy should have accounted for only a brigade worth of people combating an entire loyal, well-equipped army under Castro. Lastly, Eisenhower’s leverage of the economic instrument was the only one worth praising. Since US corporations owned a substantial portion of Cuba’s sugar production, it only made since to restrict sugar imports in an effort to collapse Cuba’s economy, especially since Cuba began diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. However, those diplomatic relations proved fruitful as the Soviet Union decided to buy the sugar that the US would not. A good theme that Kennedy tried to hold on to, however, was his goal of plausible deniability. Although he did not meet his goal, the attempt is worth mentioning. Kennedy could have improved his chances of accomplishing plausible deniability not only by considering the above critiques but also allowing relaxed compartmentalization within his group, particularly his lack of communication with Ambassador Stevenson. If Stevenson was made aware of the invasion, he could have considered the possible backlash and formulated a possible solution to accusations inevitably tossed around by Cuba. Kennedy should have also made better use of military deception (MILDEC), which is the art of deceiving an adversary to achieve a military goal. Painting the B-26 bombers was a good start, but he should have attempted using the CIA to conduct psychological operations to turn a true defector and allowed the contemning OAS nations join in.

    If Kennedy had anticipated the existence of Cuban informants within the expats, he could have exploited them and fainted an invasion at an opposing location similar to the Normandy landing. Much more planning would have helped Kennedy if only one of his priorities did not involve acting quickly as opposed to working the operation slowly and carefully. The Bay of Pigs was, by any measure, the perfect failure. Nevertheless, the intelligence community and decision-makers involved in the failure provided many lessons-learned as a result. Although some people may disagree with invasion in the first place, if it was to be done, it should have been done correctly. Kennedy and the CIA worked to quickly and did not think hard enough on the decisions that they made and the intelligence they provided. Future intelligence analysts and decision-makers should take note of this case study in failure and work to resolve such issues. Regardless of the goal, proper planning and intelligence analysis will always be the cornerstone of any successful operation.

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    The Bay of Pigs. (2022, Mar 15). Retrieved from

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