The Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961) 

In April 1961, an American-sponsored contingent of 1500 Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, intent on overthrowing Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  The attempt failed miserably.  Most invaders were captured and imprisoned.  The invasion further undermined U.S.-Cuban relations and heightened Cold War tensions, particularly Soviet-American relations.  It also stands as a conspicuous blemish on President Kennedy’s presidency. 

Historian Andrew Preston calls it the “biggest failure of his [Kennedy’s]  Presidency.” (89). Other scholars like John Rasenberger refer to the invasion as the “fiasco.” (xvii). What compelled the United States to organize and sponsor such an invasion? How did Cuban-American relations deteriorate to the point where Washington would risk political humiliation and cold war conflict to depose Fidel Castro?

Cuba and the United States

Some background history of Cuban-American relations helps us contextualize the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Cuba, located 90 miles south of Florida, had been a Spanish colony coveted for its natural resources – particularly sugar.  In 1808, Spain refused U.S. President Thomas Jefferson’s offer to purchase.  However, Spain was a declining power, and as Spanish influence receded from the Americas during the 19th century, the U.S. became increasingly involved in Cuba’s sugar, fruit, and molasses production.” (7)  In 1898, the United States defeated Spain and annexed Cuba as a colony. 

Washington promoted a Cuban resource-based economy dependent on US investments and buyers and sponsored successive Cuban governments who supported its broader Latin American policies. This arrangement continued throughout the 1950s as successive Eisenhower administrations backed Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban leader from 1952-1958.  A dictator, Batista fostered domestic discontent through corruption and repressing political opposition. Americans continued to control Cuban finances, rail, electricity, and sugar, while many Cubans lived in poverty and lacked access to education, healthcare and decent incomes.  

Cuban people resented Batista’s pandering to American commercial interests while callously ignoring Cuban people’s welfare.  

The groundswell of discontent fed Fidel Castro’s revolution that overthrew Batista in 1959. The new leader “nationalized” the economy by imposing widespread government controls. Castro also “invested in housing, schools and public works.  Salaries were raised, electric rates were cut, and rents reduced by half.” (Rodriguez, 25)

These changes reflected Castro’s goal of replacing an American-controlled Cuba with an independent regime.  On May 17, 1959, Cuba implemented the Agrarian Reform Law, which drastically reduced American ownership of Cuban land.  As Christina Fisanick points out, Castro’s reforms reduced American-controlled land from over 2 million to 1,000 acres.” (8). A charismatic speaker, Castro publicly identified as a revolutionary nationalist taking Cuba from imperialist America and giving it back to the Cuban people.  His actions backed his words.

Washington Responds

Not surprisingly, Washington did not welcome Castro’s rise to power or nationalist policies. Castro presented unprecedented challenges, at least in Latin America.  Historian Louis A. Perez Jr. writes that the most immediate was “the Cuban leader’s unprecedented and unrelenting condemnation of the United States for nearly sixty years of deeds and misdeeds in Cuba.” (229).  Some state officials dismissed Castro’s vitriol as the ravings of a mad dictator, while others saw him as a motivated communist.  Most seemed to settle on the latter explanation and framed Castro’s victory as a “Cold War problem.” 

Cold War

Washington’s assessment of Cuba grew out of the Cold War that evolved after World War Two (1939-1945) and centred on a global conflict between communism and democracy.  This bipolar view saw the Soviet Union leading the communists against the American-led democratic powers in a battle for international dominance.  While this paradigm didn’t give due justice to the complexities of the global environment, it still informed foreign policy. 

In 1947, only two years after the end of World War Two, the United States established the Truman Doctrine, which committed the U.S. to assist any country threatened by Communism. Washington showed further commitment by adopting the policy of “containment” that would compel American intervention in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, to stave the spread of communism. 

For his part, Castro denied being part of a global communist movement.  However, he turned to Moscow for economic and political support as Cuban-American relations deteriorated. Cuba signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in February 1960, and Moscow agreed to exchange the oil for sugar no longer purchased by the US.   By January 1961, Cuba established formal diplomatic ties with Moscow and “in early January 1961; the US terminated formal diplomatic relations with Cuba.” (Rodriguez, 26)

Washington saw Castro’s ties with Moscow as a serious threat to American security goals in the Americas and the world. Washington officials feared that the Cuban revolution offered the rest of Latin America an example that could undermine American hegemony in the region.  Eisenhower’s domino analogy now seemed applicable to Latin America. In a broader sense, Castro’s presence and aggressive reforms undermined American status at home and abroad.    As Perez Jr. writes, “if the United States could not contain the expansion of communism 90 miles from its shores, how could it be expected to resist communism in Europe, Asia, and Africa?” (239)

It can be argued that the American isolation of Castro and its history of exploiting the island and its people encouraged a nationalist revolution and an alliance with Moscow.  Some Americans acknowledged these factors, but regional security and Cold War priorities would prevail.  

Washington Plans

In his 1996 book, Confessions of a Cold Warrior, former CIA Deputy Director Richard Bissell writes that “A Communist government in Cuba, ninety miles from the US mainland, was unacceptable.” (Bissell, 152) Accordingly, American officials grappled with how to undermine Castro’s influence and, ultimately, oust him from power.  Some options were untenable. Washington dismissed calls for an open American military invasion of Cuba.  Such an overt act would escalate Soviet-American tensions and undermine Washington’s image as a promoter of freedom and self-determination. 

Instead, Washington chose political isolation, economic sanctions and covert sabotage.  As already mentioned, Washington set about isolating Castro diplomatically and economically by severing diplomatic relations and imposing a trade embargo on Cuba.  Besides these public tactics, President Eisenhower ordered the newfound Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to create a covert plan to invade Cuba by arming, training, and transporting anti-Castro exiles. Historian Raul Rodriguez writes that if all went to plan, “the invading exiles would be greeted as heroes when they landed” and “all private sector assets would be returned,” as a US friendly replaced an ousted Castro. (Rodriguez, 26).  

However, Eisenhower would not remain in power long enough to see the plan through. His second presidential term was coming to an end, so it would be up to his Vice-President Richard Nixon to win the upcoming election and deal with the Cuba problem.   In Nixon’s way stood a formidable political challenger.

John F. Kennedy. (1961-1963)

The 1960 U.S. presidential election saw Republican Richard Nixon pitted against up-and-comer Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy, and Cuba was one of the election’s main issues.  Kennedy campaigned on a hard stance against communism and criticized the Eisenhower government for being “soft” on Cuba.  The Democratic candidate went so far as to publicly insist that Castro be removed.  As historian Howard Jones points out, Nixon had to “remain silent on the invasion plan and thereby unable to counter his adversary’s charge that the administration was soft on Castro.” (Jones, 36).

Kennedy won the election and was inaugurated in 1961. He immediately set about making an impression as an action-oriented President.  By this time, Castro had been in power for a year and had implemented many changes to Cuba that Washington perceived as reflecting Communist ideals.  On January 28th, CIA Director Allen Dulles formally briefed Kennedy and his senior advisors, warning that “Castro was converting Cuba into a Communist state,” and detailed the American plan to topple Castro’s government. (Jones, 46)

Kennedy knew the plan held profound risks, and some of his senior advisors rigorously opposed it.  Chester Bowles and William Fulbright, for instance, both stressed “the invasion pitfalls,” including the potential impact on Soviet-American relations and Washington’s claim as a promoter of political self-determination. (Rasenberger, 394) However, a strong lobby of American officials wanted to follow through, and as historian Mark J. White points out, Kennedy’s campaign promises “delimited his policies as president.” (Fisanick, 10). Besides reneging on a campaign promise, White adds, “Cuba would have exposed him to Republican accusations of “softness” of communism.” (Fisanick, 10). In short, the new President’s public and private commitments to topple Castro compelled him forward.  Once he committed, a core challenge involved executing the invasion in a manner that disguised American involvement. 

Fallout.

The plan failed.  Most of the invading Cuban exiles were captured and imprisoned.  Some historians suggest that American air cover could have swayed the results, but Kennedy did not want to expose Washington’s involvement.  It didn’t work.  Despite the denials, the American government’s involvement was exposed.   Cuban-American relations continued to deteriorate as Soviet-Cuban ties strengthened.

Interestingly, the Bay of Pigs debacle did not deter Kennedy from Washington’s overarching Cold War agenda. After the invasion failed, President Kennedy reinforced the need to respond to communism.  As Rodriguez writes, “The lesson he drew from the Bay of Pigs was the need for escalated adventurism, not caution.” (Rodriguez, 27)

Historical Interpretations.

Historians continue to study the Bay of Pigs invasions to understand what happened and why.  Various interpretations abound, and new evidence offers opportunities for fresh insights.  Some scholars focus their criticism on the CIA, suggesting the agency pushed a misleading agenda on the President.  Others point to anti-communist fervour in Washington as the main culprit. In his excellent book, Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs (2011), John Rasenberger acknowledges Washington’s “nearly hysterical” approach to containing Communism while challenging claims that the CIA pulled the strings.   The Bay of Pigs, he writes, “was a collaboration of both Presidential administrations, numerous legislators and the CIA, who “either did know or should have known, what they were agreeing to.” (xv)

Recent scholarship pushes beyond the bounds of American foreign policy to explore the broader context of the Americas. Rodriquez and Trog, for instance, present the Cuban-American conflict as a “fundamental contradiction between Cuba’s revolutionary ferment in search of national realization and the US hegemonic quest for maintaining a status quo throughout the Western Hemisphere. (17)

The Bay of Pigs invasion fascinates us, and future studies will offer fresh and exciting insights. 

Bibliography

Bissell, Richard M. Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. Neultaven, 1996.

Fisanick, Christina. Ed.   The Bay of Pigs.  Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2004.

Friedman, Rebecca R. “Crisis Management at the Dead Center: The 1960-1961 Presidential Transition and the Bay of Pigs Fiasco.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 2, 2011, pp. 307–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23884834. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Gleijeses, Piero. “Ships in the Night: The CIA, the White House and the Bay of Pigs.” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 1995, pp. 1–42. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/158201. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Gott, Richard. Cuba: A New History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Jones, Howard. Bay of Pigs.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.  

Oakes, James.   Of the People: A History of the United States Since 1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Pérez Jr., Louis A. “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba.” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, 2002, pp. 227–54. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3875788. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Preston, Andrew. “Kennedy, the Cold War, and the National Security State.” in Andrew Hoberek ed. The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 89-102. 

Rasenberger, Jim.  Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. New York: Scribner, 2011.

Rodríguez, Raul and Harry Targ. “US Foreign Policy towards Cuba: Historical Roots, Traditional Explanations and Alternative Perspectives.” International Journal of Cuban Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015, pp. 16–37. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.13169/intejcubastud.7.1.0016. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Samson, Anna. “A History of the Soviet-Cuban Alliance (1960-1991).” Politeja, no. 10/2, 2008, pp. 89–108. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24919326. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Stern, Sheldon M. The Week the World Stood: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

From 1966 to 1976, Communist leader Mao Zedong led a “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” that renewed the Chinese Revolution that Mao felt had lost its way. Mao and his followers drastically altered the country’s political, economic, and social structure.   Historian Paul Clark calls it “the biggest non-wartime, concentrated social upheaval in world history. (1). Rhoads Murphey and Kirsten Stapleton describe it as “perhaps the great cataclysm in world history, measured by the hundreds of millions of people in mass persecution and suffering. (377).

During this period, Mao used strong imagery to promote himself as the “father” of the people and China as the world’s communist leader. By 1976, and after Mao’s death, moderates like Deng began to guide the country down a different path that invited economic incentives, western technology, education, and industrialization.

The Great Leap Forward and Soviet “revisionism.” A series of events leading to 1966 undermined Mao’s position in the Chinese Communist Party. First, his “Great Leap Forward” (beginning in 1958) was a disaster. Proclaiming that China would exceed British industrial production, Mao abolished private ownership and established communes throughout China to focus on manufacturing and bring industrialization to China’s rural areas. These peoples’ communes lacked organization and adequate equipment, expertise, and resources to succeed. Peasant resistance, administrative problems and bad weather also lead to unproductive food production. As many as 30 million starved or died from malnutrition in what Murphy and Stapleton describe as the “worst famine in world history.” (376). The program undermined Mao’s credibility and opened more opportunities to the moderate elements of the Communist Party, such as Lin Shaoquoi, who wanted to invite foreign technology and reinstate profit incentives.

Foreign developments also undermined Mao’s status. Mao had “portrayed Soviet policy-makers as ‘capitalist roaders’ and as betrayers of Marxism for seeking to cooperate with the West. (Rossabi, 386) The subsequent break with Moscow led to increasing political isolation and the withdrawal of much-needed Soviet technical support and economic assistance. In short, Mao’s zealous ideology furthered China’s isolation.   

Mao “revives” the revolution. Mao Zedong lost his position as head of state but somehow remained the most powerful and popular leader of the Communist party. He wanted to renew a revolution he felt had lost its vision and integrity. He insisted that China would fall into the complacency and Westernization he believed was happening in the Soviet Union without drastic changes. The Chinese revolution needed a revival.

Persecution. Supported by ideologically driven Party members and youth movements, Mao set about to “cleanse” Chinese society by targeting those deemed enemies of the campaign. The list of enemies proved long, but Mao and his supporters began with moderate party members like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997). A Red Guard Student Brigade ridiculed and abused Mao’s political rivals such as Liu Shou (killed), Deng Xiaoping (imprisoned), and Zhou Enlai (driven to seclusion).  

Mao closed China’s schools and universities, labelling them as breeding grounds for rightist dissenters. Intellectuals, including writers, educators, and academics who criticized Party policies, were removed or detained, sentenced to forced manual labour or killed. Persecutors identified these targets as “rightists,” “enemies of the revolution,” or people of “bourgeoisie” inclination. In 1968, Zhou Enlai finally convinced Mao to bring in the army to suppress the Red Guards, many of whom felt betrayed by Mao, who had encouraged their radical actions. 

Mao’s Economic Revolution. Mao and his supporters altered the economy to reflect their ideological goals. They criticized Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiangping’s welcoming of foreign technology to grow the economy. Mao preferred to depend on labour rather than machinery and favoured the competence and dedication of the proletariat over capital investment in technology. In other words, China would achieve progress and prosperity through domestic efforts without foreign inspiration or assistance. Like the Great Leap Forward, rural communes produced mediocre and low-quality items such as iron, steel, and agricultural goods.  Once again, the economy faltered.

The Moderates Regain Power. By the 1970s, the revolution lost momentum, mainly under the weight of its extremism and archaic economic policies. The violence of the Red Guard and other groups had gone further than even Mao saw fit. People coveted stability. Not surprisingly, Mao’s economic policies did not revive the economy, and China seemed again immersed in a weakening economy inspired by ideology rather than practical guidance. 

The Cultural Revolution received its final blow when Mao died on September 9, 1976. Again, the moderates moved to consolidate control. One of the first steps was to purge the Gang of Four from the Party and sentence them to life imprisonment. Deng Xiaoping would lead the moderates to shift China away from Mao’s ideologically driven plan to a more pragmatic approach that blended modernization and capitalist ingenuity into the Party’s communist agenda.

In future blogs, we will take a closer look at various elements of the Cultural Revolution and the preceding Great Leap Forward. As always, feel welcome to contact us with ideas about future blog topics you would like to see.

Bibliography

Clark, Paul. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dikoter, Frank. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

MacFaquahar, Roderick and Michael Schoenhals.  Mao’s Last Revolution.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Murphey, Rhoads and Kristen Stapleton. A History of Asia. Eighth Edition, New York: Routledge, 2019.

Rossabi, Morris. A History of China. West Sussex, Blackwell Publishing, 2014.