It seems that the United States has been one of the most dominant, if not the most dominant, countries in the world, since the Declaration of Independence. Yet, on Monday, April 17, 1961, our government experienced incredible criticism and extreme embarrassment when Fidel Castro, dictator of Cuba, instantly stopped an invasion on the Cuban beach known as the Bay of Pigs. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his advisors, and many Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials, made the largest error of their political careers.
Once the decision was made to invade Cuba, to end Castro and his Communist government, Kennedy and his administration were never looked at in the same light nor trusted again. Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev was affiliated with Castro, and the two countries made many military decisions together. As Kennedy and the United States tried to stop Cuba and Russia from becoming a threat to the world, an invasion was planned out and executed. The results were a disaster.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was the largest military mistake ever made by the United States government and the CIA in the 20th century and brought America to the brink of war with Cuba and Russia. The Bay of Pigs invasion was not a quick decision, many hours of meetings and conferences occurred before President Kennedy gave permission for the attack. President Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961, and immediately wanted to take the initiative with the Soviet and Cuban governments (Pearson 12). Russia was already under Communist control, and Fidel Castro took over the Cuban government with heavily armed troops and policeman.
Castro’s policemen filled the streets, and he ran the newspapers, as well as many assembly buildings (Frankel 60). At the beginning, Castro did not run a Communist government, but once he began to meet with Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev, Castro started a Communist government (Crassweller 23). Max Frankel, writer for the New York Times, summarizes the situation in Cuba by saying, “Little by little, the vise tightened. Little by little the free people of Cuba came to realize it could happen there. The grim facts of life on an island that became a police state” (Frankel 59).
Every day, Castro came closer to controlling every aspect in life in Cuba. Fidel Castro even took control of the schools in Cuba, throwing out any teacher who he thought might be “disloyal” or disagreeing with Communism. Castro gave long speeches on television, with colorful banners flapping, and bands playing music as patrolmen covered the streets (61). As Kennedy viewed everything happening politically in Cuba, he began to think of what America could do to help. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson attended many of the meetings and helped advise Kennedy in these conferences.
After a meeting with Kennedy in early March in 1961, Johnson told news reporters, “We don’t intend to sit here in our rocking chair with our hands folded and let the Communism set up any government in the Western Hemisphere” (If U. S. 47). U. S. Senator William Fullbright of Arkansas was concerned over newspaper stories that predicted an invasion on Cuba (Schlesinger 251). If anyone in Cuba expected an attack, it would ruin the surprise attack, and the mission would have less chance for success. Fullbright wanted to let Cuba solve their problems, as long everything was contained in only Cuba (252).
William Fullbright advised Kennedy and other U. S. leaders, “The Castro regime is a thorn in the flesh; but it is not a dagger in the heart” (252). Fullbright admitted to the fact that there was a problem in Cuba, but he did not view Communism as a big problem. Meetings continued through March and April, and the American people wanted to know if anything was going to be done. On April 8, Kennedy stated in a news conference, “There will not, under any circumstances, be an intervention in Cuba by U. S. armed forces” (Flaherty 94).
President Kennedy did not want the American people worrying about events and Cuba, and more importantly, he did not want Cuba to expect an invasion. John F. Kennedy debated and thought about what could be done in Cuba. Senator Fullbright from Arkansas urged Kennedy to hold back from Cuba. Fullbright wanted the U. S. to focus on the Russian government and resolve problems overseas (Pearson 13). Finally, in mid-April, Kennedy gave the Central Intelligence Agency permission to invade Cuba. Kennedy gave the CIA full control of the attack, including when, where, and all the strategy plans for the invasion.
After the decision for the attack was made, meetings continued in the State Department building where Kennedy and 19 of his advisers made speeches and voiced their opinions and ideas on Cuba (Schlesinger 252). The exact location of the attack was a very important decision that had to be decided. The choices were narrowed down to three beaches, Trinidad, Zapata, and Cochinos Bay. Trinidad and Zapata were ruled out, because too many civilians lived there and the beachhead wasn’t large enough (253).
Finally, after many hours of debating, the CIA decided to attack Bahia de Cochinos, the Cuban name for the Bay of Pigs (Guido). Colonel Jack Hawkins, military planner for the U. S. in 1961, told Kennedy and the CIA, “Further efforts to develop armed internal resistance, or to organize Cuban exile forces, should not be made except with a planned overt intervention by United States forces” (Robinson). Col. Hawkins wanted to use Cuban soldiers who had defected from Castro when he took over Cuba. Hawkins also wanted every detail considered before an attack was executed.
1,500 Cuban exiles and 300 U. S. soldiers and frogmen were trained at Puerto Cabezas, which was code named “Happy Valley” (“The Price”). On April 10, Cuban men began boarding military boats, and final plans were designed on April 14. The plan was to seize three beaches along 40 miles of shore, concentrating mainly on the Bay of Pigs. Paratroopers were supposed to drop to control the shore and destroy Fidel Castro’s air force. The beach was to be controlled for three days, and more troops would come in behind to take over (Schlesinger 269). The U. S. wanted to bomb Cuban beaches on 3 consecutive days preceding the invasion.
The bombing would be done by Cuban pilots in Cuban planes, so Castro would not expect an invasion from the United States (Schlesinger 270). On Sunday, April 16, 1961, Cuban planes bombed the Bay of Pigs beachhead for the second day in a row. Castro suspected an attack on Cuba and declared a social revolution, many Cubans expected an attack to be made, and many parades were held in the streets (Crassweller 23). Late Sunday night, on April 16, American frogmen began marking invasion points on the shore so the planes and troops knew where to attack.
As they marked the land, they were spotted by Cuban guards, who fired several shots in their direction, so they swam back to their boats (Schlesinger 273). Immediately after daybreak on Monday, April 17, Cuban paratroopers were dropped down onto the beaches, and the Bay of Pigs invasion began. Castro’s six remaining planes reacted without delay, and sank two battle ships located near the shore, the Houston and the Rio Escondido (“The Price”). The Houston held all the ammunition for the next two weeks, and the Rio Escondido carried all communications equipment needed for a successful attack (Schlesinger 274).
25 year-old Cuban soldier Zayas Bayan describes how the beginning of the attack occurred by telling news reporters, “We realized we were standing on reefs. When the next troops followed, we knew we had a problem” (“The Price”). The attack started off worse than planned, and the bottom sides of the aluminum boats bought from Sears were punctured on the reefs just below the surface of the ocean. What the CIA photo analysts believed to be seaweed was actually coral reef (“The Price”). The coral reef slowed down all invaders, and made them sitting ducks for the Cuban Army and planes.
Not far from shore, two more U. S. carrier ships with fighter planes on board waited just in case the U. S. Joint Chiefs of Staff commanded them to join in the attack. The CIA and the Army didn’t know that President Kennedy decided to end the third air strike (“If U. S. ” 47). Without this last bombing, Castro’s planes remained, and all the Cuban tanks remained intact. At Playa Larga, eighteen miles away from the main beachhead, the Cuban exile invasion force was having many problems of their own. The fiberglass boats they were using were ripped on the coral reef, and some of the engines wouldn’t start.
Lieutenant Erneido Oliva was in charge of the invasion at Playa Larga. He started the day on the Houston, and when he saw trouble, he immediately left before the ship was sunk by Castro’s air force (“The Price”). Oliva eventually led his force onto the beach, many of his men were shot on the way. Finally, early in the evening, Oliva and his men were in the small village of Palpite, where 1,000 Cuban militiamen met them there. When Oliva described the battle afterwards, he said, “I call this the night of the heroes. We had three tanks. They had 40.
Castro’s artillery shelled us for two or three hours, at least 2,000 rounds” (“The Price”) This was the main battle during the entire invasion, and no ground was gained by the invaders. Soon after this battle, Oliva was forced to return to the beachhead at Giron, near the Bay of Pigs location. By this time in the evening, nine of the United States’ 16 planes had been shot down and were disabled permanently. Late in the evening, Oliva decided to regroup everyone.
He wanted to run into the Escrambray Mountains, located about 80 miles away. The CIA leaders in charge of the operation overrode this decision over the radio, and ordered Oliva to stay. Navy support was promised to be there as soon as possible to aide Oliva in his attack (“The Price”). However, the Navy never arrived at the beach to participate in the invasion. As the battle worsened, many of the President’s advisers, both military and non-military, begged for the use of the planes located on the carriers located near the shore (“If U. S. ” 47) Kennedy denied the use of these planes, and they remained grounded.
The next afternoon, Oliva and many of the troops were exhausted, and most of them were out of ammunition. Oliva radioed into the CIA, located on a Navy ship several miles from the battle, screaming, “We have nothing left to fight with! How can you people do this to us, our people, our country? ” Grayston Lynch, CIA person in charge replied, “I’m sorry, and good luck” (“The Price”). The CIA was abandoning the soldiers on the shore completely. “Pepe” Perez San Roman, commander of the Brigade 2506, radioed into the U. S. Navy destroyers, yelling, “How do these people expect me to defend the beach with no air force, no artillery, and no antiaircraft guns? I’m a military man, not a magician” (“The Price”). Commander San Roman felt he did not have the proper equipment and personnel for a successful invasion. Meanwhile, during the fighting on the shore, Castro’s police arrested 2,000 Cubans who might have joined the invaders and caused an uprising (Flaherty 93). Once Castro expected an invasion, he kept a close eye on anyone who might have defected and joined the United States.
Part of the original plan by the CIA assumed Oliva and his men would seize the beachhead at Playa Larga, where volunteers and defectors from Castro were to join them and help fight. The arrested Cubans were collected into auditoriums and theaters in the cities. Anyone who was expected to be in underground connections was taken into custody. The Cuban Revolution Council, a group of Cuban citizens who were against Castro and Communism, went into hiding early on Sunday, before the invasion took place (Schlesinger 274). On Monday and Tuesday, Kennedy held meetings in the White House.
Kennedy and his advisers were very concerned about the members of the Brigade and the other invaders. Kennedy, however, refused to send in the Marines (Schlesinger 276). However, officials still refused to let the American people know there was an invasion. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, during a press conference stated: “The American people are entitled to know whether we are intervening in Cuba or intend to do so in the future. The answer to that question is no. What happens in Cuba is for the Cuban people to decide. 275)
Not only did American leaders hold back information from the public, but they lied about the entire thing even happening. Even while the invasion was taking place, the CIA and Kennedy denied that anything was happening outside of the United States. On Tuesday morning, San Roman and Oliva gathered their troops, and abandoned the entire invasion. All members of the invasion, both American and Cuban returned back to the ships, and returned to the United States. Everyone has their own opinions on the reasons for the failure at the Bay of Pigs. Many people believe we never should have tried to invade Cuba.