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.
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.”
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.
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.
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)
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.
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