The Bay of Pigs invasion remains one of the darkest marks on American foreign policy. The failed military action damaged the country’s global reputation and allowed Cuba’s communist government to cement its rule over the nation’s people. Even worse, it almost led to a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union.
When Fidel Castro led the Cuban Revolution against the country’s existing government in 1959, it was a great cause for worry among western capitalist nations. He was a committed communist and a close ally of the Soviet Union, which was embroiled in a Cold War with the United States. The revolution’s success meant that communism now had a foothold in the American continent.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began making plans to remove Castro from his position as dictator of Cuba. The agency decided the best course of action was to work with Cubans who fled the country when the communists took over. These exiles started training with the CIA to learn how to launch a guerilla war against Castro.
Guerilla warfare is a form of military strategy that involves small groups of soldiers, armed civilians, or others using tactics that involve ambushes, sabotage raids, hit-and-run maneuvers, and other less traditional ways of fighting. The plan was that these exiles would sneak back into Cuba, recruit others to their cause, and eventually overthrow the dictator.
However, the agency decided to change the plan and assist the exiles in carrying out an open invasion of the island. They believed that once the invaders began warring against Cuba’s army, the civilians would immediately join forces with them and bring about a quick takeover.
The operation was initially set to happen at the city of Trinidad. But President John F. Kennedy felt it would be better to launch the attack in a more secluded place. The CIA eventually settled on the Bay of Pigs. The agency attempted to keep the plans secret, but too many knew about it and the information was revealed to Castro’s military.
Many of Kennedy’s military advisors warned against launching an attack from water with only 1,200 lightly armed fighters. Nevertheless, Kennedy decided to order the assault. April 17, 1961, the rebels traveled to the Bay of Pigs and the strategy fell apart right away. The landing force was confronted with Castro’s armed forces, who were there waiting for them.
Cuba’s air force easily sank their supply ships because the United States did not provide the exiles protection from fighter jets. Despite what the CIA believed at first, the locals did not rise up to join the invasion, and Castro’s military quickly destroyed the attack. The assault resulted in the deaths of 100 invaders, and the remaining fighters were captured.
The United States’ failure was a complete disaster. It gave Castro the opportunity to use the ill-fated invasion to persuade the Soviet Union to give them more military aid. This led directly to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which almost caused a full-on nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
To make matters worse, the incident destroyed the United States’ reputation in central and south America. It was sharply criticized for its attempt to use military force to oust Castro, who was considered a hero by many in the region.
The Bay of Pigs invasion further illustrates the difficult decisions that a president must make as the commander in chief of the United States Armed Forces. While it is easy to look back and see that this particular action was not a good idea, it is more difficult to understand the flaws in the plan when one is in the moment. Every military decision carries great risk; if a president chooses wisely, they can prevent a larger conflict. If they choose wrongly, it could lead to negative outcomes that impact the nation for decades to come.