Beyond the Bay of Pigs: The Cuban Volunteer Program and the Reorientation of Anti-Castroism

By Bass, Jeffrey D. | The Historian, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Bay of Pigs: The Cuban Volunteer Program and the Reorientation of Anti-Castroism


Bass, Jeffrey D., The Historian


"We joined to fight Fidel Castro, not to polish shoes and drill!"(1) asserted one entrant to the military component of the Cuban Volunteer Program, a U.S. government project from May 1961 to September 1963. Jointly administered by the Departments of Defense and Health, Education, and Welfare, the program served several agendas within a broader U.S. campaign to eliminate the Castro regime. Primarily this endeavor constituted a tool of the Kennedy administration's Cuba policy to control fragmented Cuban exile politics, cope with a massive influx of refugees, and reorient anti-Castro strategies following the April 1961 attempted invasion of Cuba at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs). But the strength of neutralist sentiment in Cuba vis-a-vis the Cold War and the single-mindedness of exiles agitating for counterrevolution remained woefully unappreciated as the U.S. government attempted to prepare Cuba for a new government in a post-Castro era. The Cuban Volunteer Program reflected a fundamental incongruity between the aspirations of Cuban expatriates and U.S. policymakers, which contributed to a confused and uneven implementation. Ultimately, the program embodied the ambivalence and chaos it aimed to remedy.

President John F. Kennedy's obsession with Cuba and Fidel Castro constituted a vital backdrop to the Volunteer Program. Scholars have described Kennedy's apparent sense of betrayal by Castro; while still a senator, Kennedy had praised the Cuban Revolution for eliminating the corrupt Fulgencio Batista government in 1959, but then instead of retaining close ties to the United States, Castro steered the new government toward communism.(2) Moreover, Kennedy had exploited the Eisenhower administration's frustration over "losing Cuba" as a weapon in the 1960 presidential campaign. Castro's dalliance with the Soviet Union seemed to flout the Monroe Doctrine and challenge U.S. hegemony in Latin America. This upstart regime might serve as a prolonged, intense source of embarrassment to Kennedy's New Frontier vision of U.S. domestic society. The Cold War mentality of a monolithic Communist threat pervaded the Kennedy White House and encouraged a sense of action. Presidential assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. referred to the persistent conviction within the administration that "someone ought to be doing something to make life difficult for Castro"(3) Kennedy's tendency to personalize issues and promote a "cult of toughness" among his advisors ensured a continued effort to abort this vexing experiment in revolutionary socialism.(4) The Volunteer Program owed its existence in no small part to Kennedy's revanchism over Cuba.

A humiliating setback at the Bay of Pigs rendered the Castro regime particularly offensive to the Kennedy administration and supplied a powerful impulse for the creation of the Volunteer Program. Approximately 1,400 Cuban commandos trained in Nicaragua by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives went ashore in a sparsely populated region of Cuba in hopes of engineering a broad-based revolt against Castro. The amphibious assault rapidly bogged down in the face of inadequate air cover, treacherous reefs, and swampy terrain. President Kennedy, wanting to conceal U.S. participation, waffled as to how aggressively to salvage the operation. Virtually abandoned as the United States attempted to deny complicity in the operation, surrendering invaders became bargaining chips while Castro sought concessions from Washington. Although the invasion had been planned under the Eisenhower administration, this widely publicized debacle formed one of the darkest moments for the Kennedy White House and spurred U.S. policymakers to revitalize their Cuba strategy.

The Cuban Revolution ignited a massive exodus of disenchanted citizens to the ostensibly friendly shores of North America. Prior to the tumultuous spring of 1961, the Cuban Refugee Program served as the primary vehicle for managing exile affairs. The Volunteer Program augmented this earlier effort at providing for basic needs with greater educational, financial, medical, and welfare services to ease exile integration into North American society with an eye towards developing the leadership of a post-Castro Cuba. …

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