The cartoonish Bay of Pigs plot falls short in every way
Originally appeared in The Daily.
When Fidel Castro kicked the capitalists out of Cuba in 1959, he created an embittered exiled class only too eager to help his main enemy, the United States of America, oust him as soon as possible. If you want to topple a government, its exiles can be a tempting tool: They have money, spies on the inside and a level of rage so incandescent, you could read a map by it on a moonless night. Unfortunately, as President John F. Kennedy learned 50 years ago today, all that and a few hundred million dollars in military training won’t buy regime change.
Kennedy’s attempt to use Cuban exiles now ranks among the most dubious schemes ever hatched by the U.S. government. But at the time, Castro looked like a soft target. By 1961, the CIA had honed its coup-plotting skills. In Iran and Guatemala, when U.S. and British businesses were about to be nationalized, the CIA yanked the countries’ leaders out of power like tablecloths, leaving the Western oil and fruit companies standing and profitable, with U.S.-friendly tyrants in place to keep them safe. Compared to Mossadegh of Iran and Guzman of Guatemala, Castro seemed like a precarious young upstart, and his motley gang of commie commandos looked incapable of operating a safety razor, much less defeating a CIA-trained army.
The CIA thought the whole operation, from recruitment to victory party, would take about a year. In May 1960, it opened a job placement service in Coral Gables as cover to recruit fighters, and opened a base in Guatemala for training. The base wasn’t even secret: Guatemalan coffee plantation workers rubbernecked over the base’s fences, and Castro’s people heard that an invasion was being planned. One of the recruits, Carlos Rafael Santana Estevez, died during training, so the exiles adopted his serial number as the name of their group: Assault Brigade 2506. Other more specialized squads trained in Puerto Rico, Georgia, and on the Gulf Coast, each aiming to provide just enough skill to together constitute a full expeditionary force.
The plan was ambitious. The Cuban exiles, accompanied by a few CIA advisers, would come ashore at the Bay of Pigs at three semi-deserted landing points, with teams of frogmen leading the invasion and silently securing landing points for three large freighters. As the seaborne contingent landed, an airborne unit would parachute in and seize nearby roads, preventing Castro’s military from counterattacking. With small arms and a few tanks, 1,511 exiles would establish a beachhead and inspire anti-Castro elements in Cuba to rise up and overthrow or kill him. If instant counterrevolution didn’t happen, the exiles could start a rival Cuban government and inaugurate a civil war, with the American finger pressing heavily on the exiles’ side of the scales.
The first rule of military planning is that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. But the exiles’ plan proved exceptionally fragile, shattering before the frogmen even reached the shore. Soon after midnight April 17, they began motoring quietly toward the first of the three landing points. But instead of finding it semi-deserted, they discovered that it was an active construction site, and that the workers and their families were having a brightly lit party on the beach. Then the frogmen’s craft hit a coral reef (identified by the CIA on aerial maps as “seaweed”), and the frogmen had to hop into the water and drag the boat forward. In doing so, they inadvertently switched on one of the lights they intended to use to guide the freighters ashore. The covert frogmen had bathed themselves in light in front of a whole party of Cubans, including some militiamen. The Cuban partiers (evidently not a suspicious bunch) thought the frogmen might be fishermen, so they came to the shore to help the frogmen land, only to have the frogmen shoot at them. The shooting tipped off the onshore Cubans that a military invasion was starting.
The next few days unfolded even more lucklessly for the exiles. The Cuban military had arrived by morning, first by air and then by land, with Castro himself present to rally his troops. The exiles seized an airstrip and blew up numerous Cuban soldiers, but to no avail — the whole plan hinged on the misguided belief that Cubans would rise up and throw off the yoke of Communist oppression. But the yoke had been firmly attached, and all anti-Castro sentiment mercilessly suppressed, so Cubans didn’t side with the exiles at all, and in fact were bewildered at the notion that 1,511 exiles might bring down a government as resolute as Castro’s. In the end, 114 exiles were killed and almost all the rest rounded up and imprisoned. Over the next year, Castro executed and tortured some, then sold the rest back to the U.S. for 500 tractors.
He and Che Guevara engaged in some hearty gloating over the failed invasion while their principal overseas antagonist, Kennedy, had to sit back and hear the snickers of the whole world, aghast that he had signed off on a mission as haplessly conceived and executed as this one. Having inherited the Bay of Pigs plan from Eisenhower and approved it with some reluctance, he wanted to be able to deny that the U.S. had any part in the debacle. That’s why he ordered U.S. military assets to stay far from the fighting — so far that they could not have saved the Cuban exiles, even if they tried. In the days following the invasion, the full details of the fiasco became apparent, and the young president looked like a hopeless naif. Castro, by contrast, strutted before the international press, bragging that the only Cubans who opposed him were a gang of worthless exiles, capitalist running dogs who couldn’t last a week against the Cuban army.
Embarrassment morphed rapidly into policy, and “Castro Out” has been the two-word version of American Cuba strategy ever since. “Bay of Pigs,” meanwhile, is the shorthand curse for any plan to arm exiles and see if they can ignite a counterrevolution. It turns out you need a lot of incandescence to make a pig catch fire.