50 Years Later: Learning From The Bay Of Pigs

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:36 pm

Fifty years ago Sunday, a brigade of around 1,500 CIA-trained soldiers stormed the beach in Cuba's Bay of Pigs. It was the opening phase of a secret mission to overthrow Fidel Castro and, President John F. Kennedy hoped, halt the spread of communism throughout the world.

Things did not go as planned.

"I think the thing that you have to keep in mind when you ask yourself, 'How did this ever happen?' is the extraordinary fear of communism in the late 50s and early 60s," writer Jim Rasenberger tells NPR's Noah Adams.

In his new book, The Brilliant Disaster, Rasenberger suggests the debacle marked the start of the Vietnam era — before which, "it would have been a fairly skeptical or cynical American who doubted he lived in a country run by competent men, engaged in worthwhile enterprises."

The Bay of Pigs changed that.

"Not only did it appear immoral to many people," Rasenberger says, "but it was also incompetent."

For Kennedy, A Rock And A Hard Place

The plan for a covert, CIA-led overthrow of Fidel Castro was hatched under President Eisenhower, who increasingly saw Castro as aligned with communists in the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower insisted it must remain secret. When John F. Kennedy was elected president and presented with the mission — then still being planned — he agreed.

"He knew that if the American hand showed in this, [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev would then be forced to retaliate," Rasenberger says, leading to all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Kennedy, who had run against Richard Nixon by "beating the Eisenhower administration over the head with Castro," Rasenberger says, could see no way not to press on with the mission.

"He had a lot of doubts about it, a lot of concerns about it, but he never could figure out a way not to do it."

A Plan Awry, And A Tipping Point

The mission, set into motion on April 15, 1961, called for a series of air strikes to take out Castro's defenses first. Then, a brigade of 1,500 Cuban expats would land in Cuba's Bay of Pigs, storm the beach, and spark an overthrow of the Castro regime.

But from the beginning, things did not go well.

The ships that carried the brigade got hung up on coral in the Bay's shallow waters. A series of bombings on Castro's air defenses by Cuban exile B-26s — crucial if the brigade troops on the ground were to invade successfully — missed several of Castro's planes.

But the tipping point, Rasenberger says, may have come on April 16, when John F. Kennedy canceled a second series of air strikes, leaving Castro with air defenses intact and more time to prepare for the troops, which hit the beach on April 17.

"Once those second air strikes were canceled, the game was basically over," Rasenberger says. "The brigade was doomed at that point."

Eduardo Barea, a 25-year-old Cuban exile at the time, would have piloted his B-26 bomber in those air strikes. When the order came through to stop the bomb, "every pilot was surprised," Barea tells NPR. They'd been expecting to help their comrades on the ground launch a successful invasion.

"It was very difficult for me to understand," Barea says. "We never expected that something like that was going to happen."

Lessons Learned

Without air support, most of the invaders were taken prisoner and held for over a year until the Kennedy administration negotiated their release.

Despite its legacy as one of the biggest American foreign policy disasters in history, Rasenberger says it may have been the best Kennedy could have hoped for. A victory, after all, would have led to a U.S. occupation of Cuba.

"Some people say he got the best-case scenario. He went forward with it, so he looked like he was strong on communism, and yet it failed, so he didn't have to deal with some terrible consequences if it had succeeded."

Those consequences might have looked something like modern-day Iraq, Rasenberger says, or even Libya.

One lesson from the Bay of Pigs, he says: "Don't assume, when we go into another country, that immediately the locals will all come and gather behind our cause."

Another lesson — though Rasenberger says it's too early to accurately apply to Libya — "the cure may be worse than the disease.

"And indeed it was," he says, after the Bay of Pigs. "Castro became far more powerful after the invasion. He became more closely tied to the Soviet Union."

But the most important legacy of the Bay of Pigs may be the simplest, Rasenberger says: Murphy's Law.

"Things are going to go wrong," he says.

For an administration composed of the best and the brightest, as Kennedy's was, "it would be wise for presidents to have few people in their administration more acquainted with things not going well."

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

At the top of this hour, we heard from Jim Rasenberger, who's written a new book about the Bay of Pigs. It's called "The Brilliant Disaster." It's an hour-by-hour account of the invasion and the events that led up to it. He says even today, the Bay of Pigs remains one of the most important events in American history.

Mr. JIM RASENBERGER (Author, "The Brilliant Disaster"): Well, it really was the beginning of an era that we still live in today of troubled interventions. You know, before the Bay of Pigs, it would have been a fairly skeptical or cynical American who doubted that he lived in a country that was run by competent men engaged in worthwhile enterprises. But the Bay of Pigs changed that.

Not only did it appear immoral to many people, but it also was incompetent. I sort of see it as the beginning of the Vietnam era even before the Vietnam War really took off. The aspect of questioning authority that would go on through the Vietnam era really began with the Bay of Pigs.

ADAMS: A lot of the conventional thinking, when you look back on it, about the Bay of Pigs, puts the CIA up as the aggressors who push Kennedy, the new president, to move forward with the invasion. You say that's not really quite how it happened.

Mr. RASENBERGER: No, it's more complicated than that. It is true that the CIA pushed the operation. The part that I take issue with is that they somehow tricked or fooled the president.

My take on it is that John Kennedy went forward with the Bay of Pigs largely because he could see no way not to go forward with it. He had run against Richard Nixon beating the Eisenhower administration over the head with Castro.

And when he came into office and then was handed this plan, it would have been very difficult for him to say, you know, I don't think I'm going to do this.

He had a lot of doubts about it, a lot of concerns about it, but he never could figure out a way not to do it.

ADAMS: To speak to what went wrong, Fidel Castro had airplanes the CIA didn't know about, air cover wasn't there, there was a second airstrike that people thought was going to happen. And what was the tipping point in this disaster?

Mr. RASENBERGER: In most people's minds, it was the cancellation by John Kennedy of the second airstrike. Now, I have to go back and explain. On April 15th, eight Cuban exile B-26s took off from Nicaragua and flew to Cuba and bombed Cuban airfields trying to destroy Castro's air force. It was always understood that Castro had to have no airplanes for this to work.

Those airstrikes knocked out a number of planes, but they left about half a dozen, maybe seven, planes. There were supposed to be follow-up airstrikes on the morning of April 17th as the invasion was beginning. But John Kennedy at the last moment, on the evening of April 16th, canceled these.

And this essentially left the brigade marooned on this beach that they had just taken. Once those second airstrikes were canceled, and Castro was left with his airplanes, the game was basically over. The brigade was doomed at that point.

ADAMS: You (unintelligible) a very intriguing prospect here that Kennedy may have thought it was going to be a bad idea, wanted to do it anyway, it would give him a great deal of power. He didn't really want to occupy Cuba, which you would have to do if you won, with American troops.

Mr. RASENBERGER: He was caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, as I said, he had to go forward. On the other hand, he was very concerned about lighting a match that would spark a great conflagration with the Soviet Union, start a nuclear war.

And he knew that if the American hand showed in this, Khrushchev would then be forced for his own reasons to retaliate, and then he would have to retaliate in kind, and onward it might go.

So as some people said afterwards, he got the best-case scenario. He went forward with it, so he looked like he was strong on communism, and yet it failed, so he didn't have to deal with some terrible consequences that might have followed had it succeeded.

ADAMS: There have been comparisons about what's going on in Libya today to the Bay of Pigs. A headline in The New York Times this past week read: U.S. groups helped nurture Arab opposition. Are there lessons from the Bay of Pigs that you can truly apply to what's going on in the Middle East?

Mr. RASENBERGER: One lesson would be - certainly would apply to Iraq would be: Don't assume when we go into another country that immediately, the locals will all come and gather behind our cause.

We also have to remember, and I think this may apply to Libya, we don't know: The cure may be worse than the disease. And indeed, it was. Castro became far more powerful after the invasion. He became more closely tied to the Soviet Union after the invasion.

Those are two big lessons. You know, in the Kennedy administration, these were people famously known as the best and the brightest. They were all supremely confident, supremely successful people. One of the lessons I take from it is maybe it would be wise for presidents to have a few people in their administrations who weren't supreme successes, just people maybe more acquainted with, you know, the possibilities of things not going well.

ADAMS: Jim Rasenberger, his new book is "The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro and America's Doomed Invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs." Thank you, sir.

Mr. RASENBERGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.