The History of CIA Covert Action - The Bay of Pigs - 1961
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
(Note: This one is near and dear to my heart. It is because of the Bay of Pigs covert action program that I am here in the U.S. and that I joined the CIA.)
This topic is a little more complicated than the last two posts in the blog series because of all the political issues involved and the deep involvement the U.S. had, and has, with Cuba. Suffice it to say that after the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. went into Cuba in a big way. They appointed a governor-general to rule Cuba for several years, passed laws that favored U.S. companies, and intervened militarily at least four times, with 5,000 U.S. marines present on the island from 1906-1909. This involvement was in keeping with U.S. policy throughout the Caribbean and Central America during that time period. By 1905, 60% of the rural property in Cuba was owned by Americans. This is by way of letting you know how deeply involved the U.S. was in Cuba and goes some way toward explaining our actions.
Over time Cuba went through a series of democratically elected and not so democratically elected governments. Most of these governments were corrupt and while Cubans generally experienced a decent standard of living, dictatorships and corruption generated discontent among the populace. By the 1940s and 1950s, Cuban discontent was growing and headed toward rebellion. The dictator of the time, Fulgencio Batista, was widely unpopular and facing violent insurrection. Most probably know the subsequent story. Fidel Castro led a revolution against Batista from 1955 to 1959, emerging victorious.
Castro enters Havana
The U.S. was uncomfortable with Castro from the very beginning. Early on he demonstrated undemocratic tendencies such as assuming the position of prime minister on his own authority and dismissing the need for elections, claiming the revolution was pure democracy. He began repressing the opposition and cracking down on any criticism of his government. Normally this would not bother the U.S. since its record for promoting democracy in Latin America was abysmal. The big problem came when Castro started getting closer to the Russians. The U.S. believed Castro to be a communist, and this time they were right.
Castro proceeded to nationalize various industries, such as banks, oil refineries, sugar and coffee plantations, and such, without compensation. Many of these were owned by Americans and U.S. corporations. Castro also became highly critical of U.S. policies toward Cuba and Latin America, which was widely popular among Cubans. There was a lot of back and forth, several efforts to mend relations, but I am simplifying in the interest of time and space. All these efforts failed and by 1960 the U.S began an embargo of goods to Cuba in retaliation for the nationalization of companies and property, as well as Cuba's drift toward the Soviet Union.
All this started under the Eisenhower administration but was in full swing during the 1960 election. Eisenhower had authorized the CIA to begin training and supporting groups of Cuban exiles in the event he made the decision to overthrow the Castro government, though he made no decision to execute the CIA's plan. Cuba became an issue during the 1960 election, with Kennedy attacking Nixon, and the Eisenhower administration, for allowing communism to take root in our own backyard. This was a feature of American politics of the time. The Republicans had attacked Truman's administration for having lost China to the communists and now the Democrats were paying them back. This fear of being accused of having lost one country or another to communism was a cancer on politics and that fear, among other issues, led the U.S. deeper and deeper into the Vietnam quagmire.
Kennedy Nixon Debate
When Kennedy assumed the presidency, he was presented with the CIA plan for the invasion of Cuba. The plan had been drawn up by Richard Bissell, head of plans at the CIA, and CIA officers with prior involvement in the Guatemalan coup, occurring under the orders of Eisenhower. The plan called for a 1,500 man invasion of Cuba along the south coast, with the intent of obtaining a foothold in Cuba that would lead to an uprising against Castro. The CIA had already been training Cuban exiles as part of Brigade 2506 in various locations including Florida, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The CIA had obtained several ships to transport the troops and aircraft, mostly B-26 light bombers to provide air support. To provide plausible deniability, the ships were purchased from a Cuban exile-owned company, creating the image of a Cuban exile operation, and the aircraft were disguised under foreign markings, initially Guatemalan then Cuban. Despite all this, the U.S. hand was evident. The training was conducted by CIA and U.S. military personnel, and Alabama Air National Guard provided flight training and even flew missions during combat. The plan also called for U.S. Navy ships to be in the immediate area to provide support if necessary.
Let us stop here and look at some of the problems that have cropped up.
Kennedy was initially reluctant to approve the plan and had doubts about its viability. Now here is where things started to go south. Kennedy was not the only one with doubts. Many Defense Department officials, both civilian and military, had doubts about 1,500 men successfully taking on the 20,000 man Cubana army backed by 200,000 militia. Despite this, there was little real pushback to the CIA's plan. Even when doubts were raised at meetings, there was no real discussion about these doubts. Nor was there any debate over the CIA's premise that the Cuban people would rise up against Castro if given half a chance. CIA officer E. Howard Hunt had been sent to Cuba to make contact with the Cuban opposition and gauge antipathy towards Castro. In a 1997 interview, he claimed that all he found in Cuba was support for Castro. In addition, British intelligence analysis passed to the U.S. indicated broad support for Castro. One has to wonder what happened to this information? Why wasn't it taken into account in the planning?
Dulles and Bissell appeared to believe that Kennedy would do anything necessary to overthrow Castro, including committing the U.S. military to direct support of the invasion and a potential invasion of the island. It seems they believed that the Cuban exile invasion itself did not need to succeed, but rather just obtain enough of a toehold that the U.S. would come to rescue them and save the day.
If these issues were not enough, the Castro government knew about the invasion. Between talk among Cuban exiles, both within Brigade 2506 and the exile community as a whole, and Cuban government intelligence efforts, Castro knew the date and time of the invasion. I say this with confidence, because the night right before the invasion, the Cuban government began arresting Cubans on the island who might oppose the government. Castro was unsure of the location of the invasion and whether the invasion itself was the main event or merely a prelude or justification for direct U.S. military intervention. From the start the element of surprise and deniability of U.S. involvement was nonexistent.
Maps of the Bay of Pigs Invasion
On 17 April the invasion was launched. I won't go into detail about the events as it would make for a very long post. There are many good books on the Bay of Pigs, and I would recommend The Brilliant Disaster by Jim Rasenberger.
The invasion ran into immediate trouble when the landing crafts hit uncharted reefs while heading onto the beach. Initial contact was with an armed Cuban militia. The Cuban exiles were well trained and motivated and easily defeated the militia. The fighting heated up as Cuban regular forces were moved to the area. The Cubans of Brigade 2506 fought valiantly and proved formidable against the Cuban Revolutionary army. Problems began in the air. Kennedy had forbidden U.S. military involvement so Brigade 2506 members had to rely on their own aircraft flying in from Central American airfields. The inability to maintain steady air cover over the landing beaches allowed the Cuban Revolutionary air force to sink several ships. Those losses proved disastrous as the ships contained vital stores of ammunition, medical supplies, and communications.
Nearby U.S. forces, which included the aircraft carrier Essex and numerous destroyers, could have intervened and wrested control of the air over the landing beaches but were prohibited by Kennedy. After all, this was supposed to be a clandestine operation with plausible deniability. If the U.S. was going to intervene militarily what was the point of the operation? Hell, if the U.S. Navy had to launch airstrikes against the Cuban government forces the CIA plan was a failure from the start.
For three days the members of Brigade 2506, low on ammunition, food, medicine and outnumbered, beat back Cuban government attacks. Up until now, in the previous two major covert action programs, we discussed there hasn't been much heroism. The programs involved clandestine meetings, money, and individuals who were clearly engaging in coup activity for their own personal gain. During the two previous coup efforts, the forces trained and/or supported by the CIA evaporated at the first contact with the government. This time we can speak of heroism and courage. Brigade 2506 did not collapse at first contact. It fought on and on against increasing odds. Many understood their case was hopeless as each day saw greater enemy numbers and diminishing supplies for the exiles. Despite this, they fought on until ammunition was exhausted and they had nothing left to fight with. Details of the battle are worth reading.
Brigade 2506 prisoners
By 20 April, the last members of Brigade 2506 had surrendered. The fight for the Bay of Pigs was over. The aftermath of the invasion was not pretty. In addition to the casualties suffered in combat by Brigade 2506, many were summarily executed or killed by the Cuban government. Many others were sentenced to long prison terms. There were negotiations between the U.S. and Cuban governments that eventually led to the release of the Brigade prisoners. An interesting bit of information that I did not know, despite what some Cuban exiles believed to be a betrayal by the U.S. government—i.e. no U.S. air or naval support—over 60 of the Brigade 2506 members joined the U.S. military and served as officers in Vietnam (6 colonels, 19 lieutenant colonels, 9 majors, 29 captains). When I was assigned to run a large covert action program I met with some other individuals who had managed similar programs and asked them their opinions. The most useful bit of advice I received was from one senior officer who said, "Work with patriots, people who love their country and want to make it better. Don't work with people who are in it for the money or power." How right he was.
This was the first defeat for the CIA, at least of its covert action capabilities, and a defeat for the United States. Not only did it generate more anger toward and mistrust of the U.S. throughout Latin America and much of the then third world, but it strengthened Castro both at home and internationally. He had defeated America and preserved his revolution. This likely emboldened other would-be communist dictators in the region. It also showed them that America could be defeated.
Dulles and Bissell soon found themselves replaced at the CIA, paying for their failure with the loss of their jobs and reputations. Dulles and Bissell, plus a few others, were forced to resign from the CIA in 1961, months after the Bay of Pigs failure. Dulles died in 1969 from influenza. Bissell, once considered one of the smartest men in government, held a few positions in various think tanks and passed away in 1994, haunted by the Bay of Pigs failure.
Lessons Learned: There have been numerous studies, reviews, seminars, and commissions looking at the Bay of Pigs. It is probably the most studied CIA covert action program in history. Given the diversity of reviews, it is obvious that there are a variety of conclusions that agree and disagree with each other. However, we can take away a few commonly agreed lessons learned.
Once again, the foundation of the plan was false. Yes, Castro was a communist, that was clear, but at this stage of his revolution, there was majority support for Castro. This information was available to the CIA and U.S. government, but it appears not to have made an impact. The invasion would not lead to a popular uprising by the Cuban people, thus it was doomed to fail on its own. This also leads to the other failing: groupthink.
There were serious doubts among senior U.S. officials as to whether the plan drawn up by the CIA could work. However, the CIA was allowed to lead the discussion and was able to easily brush aside any concerns. There was no presentation to the President laying out the concerns and how many different senior officials had these concerns. This leads to the third issue: Kennedy was never given the full picture, or at least was not provided all the information he needed to make decisions. He was not informed of the support for Castro on the island, he was not presented with a clear understanding of the doubts many of his cabinet officials had. Furthermore, there seemed to have been a belief on the part of the CIA that they could count on the President ordering direct U.S. military intervention should the plan fail.
The internal CIA review, declassified in 1998 (Inspector General's Survey of the Cuban Operation and Associated Documents (gwu.edu), pointed out several faults with the program. Of note—Failure to realistically assess risks and to adequately communicate information and decisions internally and with other government principals. The CIA exceeded its capabilities in developing the project from guerrilla support to overt armed action without any plausible deniability.
Covert action can have serious consequences for the U.S., not to mention the target country. All the ins and outs, and their consequences need to be seriously and thoughtfully discussed. The weaknesses of the covert action in question also need to be aired and discussed. Too often, and I have observed it myself, policymakers assume that covert action will remain covert and will carry few if any consequences. That is a mistake. The larger the covert action program, the more people involved, the greater the likelihood of U.S. sponsorship becoming public. For example, if I use an agent of influence, that is an agent working for the CIA who by virtue of their position of job can sway others to carry out actions in favor of the U.S., it has a great chance of staying covert since extremely few people know the U.S. is behind the agent's actions. If the goal is to train 5,000 insurgents, it is almost certain that U.S. involvement in that training will become public knowledge, eliminating the clandestine nature of the activity.
Covert action programs should be put through a rigorous review process before the program is launched and during the life of the program. The basic assumptions for a program's success should be questioned and thoroughly vetted. Throughout the life of the program, and some of these programs can last years, it must be reviewed to establish whether it is accomplishing its intended goals and whether it is still needed.
The Bay of Pigs was the culmination of the CIA's early covert action efforts to help the U.S. shape the Cold War world. It came after numerous covert action and intelligence successes, but despite these successes, it tainted its reputation for decades to come.