Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1961: The Bay of Pigs: A Force of Cuban Exiles Trained and Equipped by the U.S. Invaded Cuba in a Failed Attempt to Overthrow Fidel Castro

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1961: The Bay of Pigs: A Force of Cuban Exiles Trained and Equipped by the U.S. Invaded Cuba in a Failed Attempt to Overthrow Fidel Castro

Article excerpt

Well before dawn on Monday, April 17, 1961, a brigade of 1,500 Cuban exiles landed on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba. They hoped to trigger a counter-revolution that would overthrow the fledgling socialist and pro-Soviet regime headed by Fidel Castro.

Instead, within three days almost all of the exiles who formed Brigade 2506 were dead or captured. The United States, which had sponsored their invasion, was reeling from a major diplomatic and military embarrassment.

The increased mistrust between the two countries would contribute one year later to the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Forty-five years later, the repercussions are still being felt in Washington's relations with Cuba and with Latin America.

Two years before the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro's rebel army had toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and seized power. Though Castro quickly nationalized U.S. corporations in Cuba, few people were certain whether he was a revolutionary populist or a full-fledged communist.

COMMUNIST THREAT?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower didn't want to take any chances on Soviet-sponsored communism gaining a foothold in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida: The U.S. feared Cuba would serve as a beachhead for Soviet expansion in the Western Hemisphere, a base for exporting communist revolution to Latin America.

Planning for an operation that would overthrow the Castro regime began in April 1960. The blueprint for an invasion by Cuban exiles, many of whom had fled to the U.S. when Castro seized power, was already in place when President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961.

Looking back, the warnings of a disaster in the making seemed to have been everywhere.

It was almost an open secret that Cuban exiles were being trained, armed, and directed by America's Central Intelligence Agency in Florida and Guatemala to invade Cuba. In a decision that would be debated for years, the Times published a story about the preparations early in April 1961. But, because of concerns about national security, references to the C.I.A. and an impending attack were deleted.

President Kennedy, who was angry that any story at all had been published before the invasion, would later confide to a Times editor: "If you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake."

'ENEMY CLOSING IN'

The Bay of Pigs was apparently named for the fierce animals that once inhabited its swampy shores on Cuba's south coast (see map, p. 22). The 1,500 fighters who slipped ashore on landing craft from five freighters in darkness that April 17 had hoped to be greeted as heroes and ignite a coup or an uprising against Castro. Instead, without the element of surprise, unable to destroy Castro's air force, and out-numbered 10-to-1 by Castro's soldiers, they were crushed within 72 hours.

A brigade commander radioed these final messages: "Out of amino. Enemy closing in," and "Help must arrive in next hour." It never did.

Of about 1,500 commandos, 114 died and 1,189 were captured. (In December 1962, Castro released 1,113 in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine; the money was raised in the U.S.)

From a military standpoint, without support from American warplanes and troops, the mission was doomed. From a diplomatic perspective, the prospects for success weren't much better. The C.I.A. itself, in a scathing self-examination (made public in 1998 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request), concluded that the operation suffered from ignorance and incompetence, and that once "success had become dubious," the agency should have recommended to the President that the invasion be canceled.

Tad Szulc (pronounced Shultz), the Times correspondent who covered the Bay of Pigs invasion, would later write that Brigade 2506 was the "pathetically brave and pathetically inadequate" force enlisted in "one of the worst conceived, planned, and executed military-intelligence operations in modern history. …

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