Bay of Pigs Invasion
President John F. Kennedy's sanctioning of the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961 had a significant impact on contemporary perceptions of his administration. For the majority of Americans, his actions proved that he was willing to actively confront the perceived “communist threat” in Central America and South America. However, the incident disillusioned young radicals who had supported Kennedy during his election campaign in 1960 and accelerated the politicization of student protests in the United States.
A DOOMED PLAN
In the early hours of April 17, 1961, 1,400 Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba, in an attempt to overthrow the revolutionary government headed by Fidel Castro. From the beginning, this “invasion” was marred by poor planning and shoddy execution. The force, which had been secretly trained and armed in Guatemala by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was too large to engage in effective covert operations yet too small to realistically challenge Castro in a military confrontation without additional support from the United States. Most significantly, the popular uprising upon which the invasion plan had been predicated did not occur.
After three days of fighting, the insurgent force, which was running short of ammunition and other supplies, was effectively subdued by Castro's army. In a futile effort to avoid capture, the insurgents dispersed into the Zapata swamp and along the coast. Cuban forces quickly rounded up 1,189 prisoners, and 114 insurgents were killed. Only a handful of insurgents escaped to waiting U.S. ships.
Although the Bay of Pigs operation had initially been intended to be carried out in a manner that would allow America to deny involvement, it was readily apparent that the U.S. government was largely behind the attack. Months before the invasion, American newspapers had run stories that revealed the supposedly covert training operations both in Miami, Florida, and Guatemala. Consequently, when the invasion began, the official cover story that it was a spontaneous insurrection led by defecting Cuban forces was quickly discredited. Revelations concerning the United States' role in the attack served to weaken its stature in Latin America and significantly undermined its foreign policy position.
After the collapse of the operation, a New York Times columnist commented that the invasion made the United States look like “fools to our friends, rascals to our enemies, and incompetents to the rest.” However, domestic political protest was allayed by Kennedy, who assumed full responsibility for the fiasco. According to Kennedy biographer Theodore C. Sorensen, this decisive action avoided uncontrolled leaks and eliminated the possibility of partisan investigations.
THE EISENHOWER INFLUENCE
The operation was actually conceived by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration in January 1960. It was originally envisioned as a covert landing of a small, highly trained force that would engage in guerrilla activities in order to facilitate a popular uprising. Over the ensuing months, however, the CIA systematically increased its scale. According to both Sorensen and biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger, Kennedy had little choice but to approve the continuance of the operation upon assuming office. Its importance had been stressed by Eisenhower, and it was supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and by influential advisers such as John Foster Dulles.
Further, as noted historian John L. Gaddis argues in Now We Know: Rethinking Cold War History, Kennedy believed that “underlying historical forces gave Marxism-Leninism the advantage in the ‘third world’” and viewed Cuba as a clear example of the threat that communism posed in Latin America. As a result, Kennedy was predisposed to take action against Castro. Unfortunately, due to inaccurate and ineffective communication between planning and operational personnel, the significant changes that had been instituted within the invasion were not sufficiently emphasized to Kennedy. According to Sorensen, Kennedy “had in fact approved a plan bearing little resemblance to what he thought he had approved.” Leaders of the Cuban exiles were given the impression that they would receive direct military support once they had established a beachhead, and an underlying assumption of CIA planning was that the United States would intervene. However, Kennedy steadfastly refused to sanction overt military involvement.
American public opinion about the failed operation was sharply divided. According to historian Thomas C. Reeves in A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy, Kennedy's public support of and sympathy for the Cuban exiles rallied the public in favor of its “firm, courageous, self-critical, and compassionate chief executive.” According to a poll conducted in early May of 1961, 65 percent of the American people supported Kennedy and his actions. Conversely, the Bay of Pigs invasion sparked student protests. Students had been enchanted by Kennedy's vision of a transformed American society and by the idealism embodied by programs such as the Peace Corps, but many, particularly those within the New Left, were disillusioned by his involvement with the invasion. On the day of the landings, 1,000 students held a protest rally in Berkeley, California; five days later, 2,000 students demonstrated in San Francisco's Union Square. This newfound distrust of the Kennedy administration undoubtedly accelerated the political divisions that developed within American society during the 1960s.
Internationally, the Bay of Pigs invasion provided Castro with evidence of what he characterized as American imperialism, and this enabled him to consolidate his position within Cuba. The incident drove Castro toward a closer alliance with the Soviet Union and significantly increased both regional and global political tensions. The failure of the operation also convinced Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that Kennedy was weak and indecisive. This impression undoubtedly contributed to Khrushchev's decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, which resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However, sympathetic biographers have argued that failure in Cuba in 1961 contributed to success in Cuba in 1962, because the experience forced Kennedy to break with his military advisers and, consequently, enabled him to avoid a military clash with the Soviet Union.
Christopher D. O'Shea
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