Sixty years ago this April, the United States sponsored an attempted coup against Fidel Castro, beginning with a rebel landing at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. It failed, and the consequences of that failure continue to reverberate. A neglect of sea power was very much part of the story—and it had important naval strategic implications.
The operation was mounted soon after President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration, when he had spoken of how the United States would make every effort, take every chance, to keep freedom alive and well in the face of communist aggression. President Kennedy had inherited a CIA plan to depose Castro, presumably modeled on the earlier successful attack on Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in 1954. The logic of deposing Árbenz had been primarily naval: He had threatened the Panama Canal, the vital means of moving U.S. sea power between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
The Árbenz coup had involved the creation of an army of liberation, which gained force as it marched on the Guatemalan capital. It had helped that Guatemala had a land border beyond which rebels could train, and over which they could retreat if necessary. Cuba offered no such helpful geography, so the plan called for landing the rebel army by sea. Experience showed that no such landing could succeed without air superiority, so the plan envisaged a rebel air force consisting of B-26 bombers. Among other things, they would attack Cuban air bases to isolate the beachhead.
A Ready, and Frustratingly Restrained, Fleet
To avoid any appearance of U.S. involvement, Kennedy ordered that the bombers fly only from Central America rather than from Florida, which was much closer. No one explained to him that, the farther away their bases, the less time the bombers could spend supporting the landing. On the eve of the operation, Kennedy personally cut supporting sorties by 80 percent. It did not help that the site of the operation was suddenly moved from a beach near the Escambrey Mountains—into which the invaders could disappear to meet anti-Castro Cubans—to the Bahía de Cochinos—the Bay of Pigs—which offered no such hinterland.
Plans often go awry. Apparently not explicitly included in the CIA plan, but very much part of it, was the U.S. Second Fleet. Its powerful air force could deal with the small Cuban air arm. As the rebels landed at the Bay of Pigs, the fleet lay offshore, ready to intervene. Reportedly those on board its ships expected to do so. They were shocked and angry when they were told to stand down.
The rebels had reached a peak of training and could not have been held back much longer. Kennedy later said that his choice was either to approve the attack on Cuba or to abandon it altogether. Having made a campaign issue of what he saw as the previous administration’s unwillingness to act on Cuba, he could hardly back off. However, Kennedy did consult his U.N. ambassador, Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson had been the Democratic Party’s nominee in the previous two elections, and many among the left wing of the party considered him a more legitimate candidate than Kennedy in 1960. Stevenson warned Kennedy that his new administration would be tarnished if U.S. forces were involved; everyone would blame the United States for overthrowing a government.
Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, told him it did not matter whether U.S. forces were openly involved. Everyone would assume that any attack on Cuba had been sponsored by the United States, anyway. Eisenhower also warned Kennedy that the Soviets would see his failure in Cuba as a sign of weakness they would be sure to exploit.
The operation failed. The rebel bombers were unable to neutralize the Cuban Air Force, whose fighters sank the supply ships following the troops. The rebels never broke out of their beachhead, and within a short time all had been captured. Cubans opposed to Castro blamed Kennedy for the failure of the operation. Many presumably felt that they had been lured into it in expectation of direct U.S. support, which had been vetoed as they were being shredded by Cuban forces.
Victory’s Missing Ingredients
Kennedy himself was deeply embarrassed. He ordered the CIA to prepare a report on what had gone wrong and why. The report dutifully pointed out the weaknesses in the CIA’s plan; CIA Director Allen Dulles had to resign. The important omission was Kennedy’s own role in the disaster. His tinkering had fatally reduced the air cover, without which the plan had no chance of success. The more the rebels’ own air cover was reduced, the more important was the unmentioned need for the U.S. fleet lying offshore—the fleet Kennedy decided not to use. It easily could have guaranteed the safety of the rebel landing force. (Whether that force would have gained sufficient popular support en route to Havana is, of course, unanswerable.)
Without seeing the fleet as part of the story, responsibility for failure cannot be addressed. It emerged later that the Chiefs of Staff had all had misgivings, but Kennedy had never consulted them. Perhaps that was a harbinger of the later extremely bad blood between his Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, and his service chiefs.
Much later it became clear that President Kennedy could not accept the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation. He sponsored numerous failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. Reportedly, President Lyndon Johnson believed Kennedy’s assassination had been Castro’s effort to end these attempts. One of Johnson’s first acts on becoming President was to order the CIA to let Castro know that there would be no more attempts. The story of the assassination is far too muddy to say whether Johnson was right.
It seems reasonable to ask why Kennedy was so determined to make up for his dithering in 1961. He dithered many other times—for example, over the Berlin Wall. But in no other case did he show the vindictiveness he exhibited toward Castro. It could be argued that Cuba was particularly threatening because of its proximity to Florida, and because it represented an obvious failure of the Monroe Doctrine. It also was well positioned to export foreign power to the Western Hemisphere, in this case by exporting communist-led revolution. There certainly was some such threat, but Cuba has successfully exported revolution only much more recently, most prominently to Venezuela.
There is a darker possibility. Before Castro, Havana was a playground for Americans, a kind of tropical Las Vegas with fewer rules. Pre-Castro Havana generally is represented as a huge (and hugely profitable) investment by organized crime. Castro always presented cleaning up Havana as a central theme in restoring Cuban national pride and virtue. He could not have retreated lightly from that claim. Senior mobsters certainly featured heavily in stories about Kennedy administration attempts to assassinate Castro. It is not clear to what extent they affected Kennedy’s policy toward Cuba.
In 1962, Castro accepted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s plan to station Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba in the context of the failed Bay of Pigs operation, the claim being that the United States would not risk another invasion if the likely outcome were to be nuclear rocket fire against the United States. In retrospect, it seems that Khrushchev wanted missiles in Cuba because his longer-range missiles had proven unsuccessful; he needed a deterrent, and it had to consist of shorter-range missiles. Also in retrospect, it is difficult to understand how urgent it was to throw the Soviet missiles out of Cuba when the Soviets were putting similar missiles on board submarines on an urgent basis. U.S. antisubmarine warfare was excellent, but it was not so good that any U.S. administration would bet the fate of the country on the certainty that all Soviet missile submarines had been caught and sunk beyond attack range.*
Ramifications and Strategic Implications
Castro certainly found out what mattered to Khrushchev: the interaction between the Soviet Union and its main enemy, the United States. Under U.S. pressure, much of it exerted by the fleet Kennedy had not used the previous year, Khrushchev withdrew the missiles without even informing Castro of his decision. The impact on Castro of this sellout probably has been undervalued. He needed insurance against a future, more fundamental sellout in some grand bargain between the Soviet Union and the United States. Castro considered siding with the Chinese in the evolving Sino-Soviet struggle, but he soon realized that they could not provide him with any useful material support.
Instead, Castro seems to have decided to use the Soviet pretension to leadership of the world revolutionary movement as leverage. In the 1970s, he decided to support revolutionary movements in Africa. Given his involvement, it became difficult for the Soviets to disown him. The revolutionaries threatened Western access to strategic minerals. At the time, the African episode was read as a Soviet grab for the great storehouse of natural resources, with Castro serving as a Soviet pawn. Reality may have been somewhat different, and it may well be traceable back to failure at the Bay of Pigs.
Continued Soviet presence in Cuba had strategic implications. For example, it provided the Soviets with a submarine base close to the U.S. coast. It also provided invaluable electronic intelligence resources.
When U.S. naval strategists contemplated a sustained non-nuclear war in the late 1970s and the 1980s, Cuba presented a serious problem. What if Castro decided to declare neutrality? It would be difficult to justify overrunning Cuba anyway. To what extent would Cuban neutrality tie down major fleet assets badly needed elsewhere? Even a 600-ship fleet with 15 active carriers was considerably less than that needed to fight a sustained global war.
‘Everything Seemed to Happen at Once’
William Smoot had but a brief naval career; however, it included shipping out to Cuba on a certain classified assignment in April 1961. In his U.S. Naval Institute oral history, he provides a firsthand account of one of the most infamous occurrences of the Cold War.
The invasion started after first light, and we moved in even closer. Right at the Bay of Pigs there are several sets of breakers. There are evidently reefs at graduated distances from the shore, and we moved in to the point where we could just look off the ship and see white water. I had my own pair of binoculars, and I was sitting on top of the pilothouse. Where they came from I don’t know, but there were large, flat, amphibious-type vessels, loaded with Cubans. Each one appeared to have at least one or two Americans on board. Then everything seemed to happen at once.
Suddenly, there were planes everywhere in the sky over the beach. There were F8Us—Crusaders, I believe—obviously our planes but with no insignia. They were all painted completely gray. There were old PBYs, there were old B-26s, there were Guatemalan planes. There were other South American countries’ planes, and I’m not really sure exactly which ones, but I did identify the Guatemalan planes. It was like a World War I movie. There were little dogfights in the air, but the F8Us just flew up and down the beach, parallel to the beach, and didn’t engage at all in this conflict.
They appeared from over the horizon behind us. They also evidently had the same kind of radio gear in the planes that we had in the ship, because we could hear them talking in Spanish.
It was getting very light now, and the landing force had gone in. I could see there appeared to be one main road that came down to the beach. As you face the Bay of Pigs, it’s basically just a funnel-shaped bay. It’s not a very large beach. My first impression was that this was an awfully small place to have a landing. On the left side of the bay were mangrove swamps.
Even before the first Cuban expeditionary force members hit the beach, I could see militiamen on the beach. It’s not funny, but it was almost a comic opera, because the uniforms were different, and you could tell that some had dark pants and some had khaki trousers, and some had khaki shirts and some had dark shirts, and some had a patch. The liberation force or the expeditionary force had an identifying patch that was red or a bright color. I would say that only half of the people who started in actually set foot on the beach.
There was a lot of gunfire. I was then in the pilothouse because the commodore had called me down. I was listening to the radio, and an American voice was saying, “Would you please tell [I can’t remember the code name; all I can think of is Big Boy] to send the air support down?”
They came back in about 15 minutes and said, “When is the air support coming?”
In the meantime, the commodore was calling someone else about the air support. The commodore answered back to whoever it was on the beach who was calling and said that the air support was on its way.
It was totally light now. About five or ten minutes later the people on the beach called and said, “We need the air support now.”
The commodore called whoever it was he talked to, and they said, “We will advise you when the air support is coming.”
There were several more transmissions, and finally the voice on the beach said, “If you don’t send the air support within the next ten minutes, all is lost.”
The commodore made one last call, and whoever it was he was talking to said, “There will be no air support.”
He had to call the beach and say, “There will be no air support.” There followed profanity from the people on the beach. We could hear gunfire on the radio, and that was the last we heard from anyone on the beach.
In my parochial opinion, had the air support—and I never have known to what extent air support had been promised, but obviously it had been promised. It was expected by the Americans on the beach, it was expected by the Cubans on the beach, it was expected by the naval officers who were running that portion of it on the ships. It’s my impression that with air support, the least that could have been done would be that the expeditionary force could have taken the airfield. Had they been able to take the airfield and they had planes, they would have been able to go on from there.
On 22 April we started back to the States. The commodore made an announcement over the ship’s 1MC that it was obvious that everything we’d done was the highest order of secrecy, and nothing could be said to wives, family, or other military people. The only story that was to be told was that we had gone out into the Virginia Capes for operations and that we were coming back.