Unraveling the Bay of Pigs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASurprised that the Bay of Pigs is actually an idyllic white sand beach? I was. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it sure wasn’t this little slice of paradise.

The reality is that Playa Girón (as it’s known to Cubans), is exactly that—a stretch of inviting beach where tourists go to snorkel and catch a bit of sun.

But it’s also the site of Kennedy’s military debacle. The high point of the Cuban Revolution. A source of immense Cuban pride. And a graveyard to more than 400 soldiers.

As a historical site, the Bay of Pigs is complex, both in terms of national history, as well as emotional meaning—for both Cubans and Americans.

As a history buff, I was motivated to do a bit of research to learn more about the Bay of Pigs. I also had to do my research since I wasn’t taught this military interlude in my high school American history classes. Here’s my Clift’s Notes version of the whole escapade:

Why It Happened

After 7 years of revolution, in 1959 Fidel Castro came to power by overthrowing Cuban dictator Batista. Upon assuming power, Castro expropriated American corporate assets, severed ties with the U.S. and formed a strong relationship with the Soviet Union.

Since this was during the Cold War era, President Eisenhower allocated more than $13 million to the CIA to support Cuban counter-revolutionary forces and foment Castro’s overthrow. After President Kennedy assumed office in 1960, he consented to the CIA’s plan to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of Cuba.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat Was Supposed to Happen

On April 17, 1961, the CIA launched its covert operation of sending 1,400 Cuban exiles to a remote swamp on the southern coast of Cuba. A night landing at the Bay of Pigs was supposed to surprise the Cuban forces and hide U.S. involvement.

The original invasion plan called for two air strikes against Cuban air bases, an advanced drop of paratroopers to disrupt transportation, and a simultaneous attack on Cuba’s east coast.

Once the invasion team gained control of the bay, a provisional government was to be set up that would be supported by the majority of the Cuban people.

But that’s not what happened.

What Actually Happened

Instead the U.S. bungled the invasion with the bombers missing their targets and the element of surprise blown. The invading exiles were greeted with heavy fire from ~20,000 Cuban troops. Two American escort ships and half of the exiles’ air support were destroyed. The U.S.-backed counter-revolutionary invasion was crushed within 48-hours.

On April 20, the CIA-trained exiles either retreated or surrendered. Those that were captured were publicly interrogated and put into Cuban prisons, where they stayed for more than 20 months. The prisoners were eventually exchanged for $53 million worth of baby food and medicine.

Four American airmen and 114 exiles were killed in action.

On the Cuban side, estimates of casualties range from 500-4,000. Today there are 400 markers commemorating the fallen Cuban forces, ringing the road fronting Playa Girón.

Political Aftermath

Jackie Kennedy, Bay of PigsThe failed U.S. invasion strengthened the Castro regime and helped strengthen Cuban ties with the USSR. The Kennedy administration was severely embarrassed by the military debacle.

The resulting tension with Cuba led Kennedy to impose a full trade embargo and the cessation of America citizens traveling to Cuba, as well as helped ignite the Cuban Missile Crisis several years later.

For More Info

For more detailed information or to check up on my abbreviated history, check out the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library archives, where you can read:

  • Letter from President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev, April 18, 1961
  • Declassified Top Secret documents concerning Cuba and Prime Minister Fidel Castro

You can also watch this History Channel documentary: Bay of Pigs – CIA’s ‘Perfect Failure’

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 7th, 2015 and is filed under North America.

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