When the men of Assault Brigade 2506 left the coast of Florida on the night of April 16, 1961, they thought they were sailing to wrest their homeland back from the grip of Castro's Red menace. Instead, they sailed into one of the most misunderstood and vilified chapters of American Cold War foreign policy.
Though ultimately blamed for the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy inherited the plan, with all of its flaws, from the Eisenhower administration.
At the end of 1958, American backed Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar's struggled to keep power as the well financed rebel army led by former the New York Yankee's pitching hopeful turned revolutionary, Fidel Castro, moved virtually unopposed out of the Sierra Maestra mountains into Havana.
Even as early as April 1959, the tide of American foreign policy was turning against Castro. Vice President Richard Nixon said of Castro, on a visit to the U.S. to speak at the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "If he's not a communist, he certainly acts like one." By March 17, 1960 a plan prepared by the CIA entitled, "A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime," received a stamp of approval by President Eisenhower.
The plan originally called for a daylight assault of the southern coastal city of Trinidad, near the Escambray Mountains. Citing the need for "plausible deniability" for America's role in the invasion, the Kennedy administration changed the plan to a nighttime landing at Playa Giron, also known as the Bay of Pigs. Ironically, as it turned out later, CIA advisors pointed out that this site afforded a suitable air-strip to fly bombers against the Communists. Upon securing the bay, a provisional Cuban government, sanctioned by the United States could be landed there to take over the island when the Castro regime crumbled. This provisional government would immediately request recognition and military support from the United States, leaving the stage set for a full scale "intervention" and mass uprising to rid Cuba of communism.
After setting up special training camps in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana, the CIA set out to recruit Cuban exiles to fill the ranks of the invasion force. Christened "2506 Assault Brigade," the insurgents under the eye of their CIA advisors trained in small arms weapons, demolitions, communications and insurgency techniques necessary to pull off an invasion. Though a competent and willing force, cracks in the strategy quickly began to show. Few of the CIA operatives and advisors assigned to Operation Zapata, as it was called at Langley, spoke Spanish or evinced any type of willingness to learn the language.
The slapdash invasion took place on April 17, 1961, and the comedy of errors that played out in the marshy, mosquito-infested inlet on Cuba's southern coast constituted a low-water mark for the CIA that still has not been forgotten by the agency. The Bay of Pigs invasion quickly overrode the former successes the CIA had in the previous decade with the planting of the Shah of Iran back in power in 1953, toppling a democratic government, and a coup in Guatemala in 1954.
The invasion force, with four supply ships, landed at dawn, with a strength of 1,400 men. Initially things looked promising, American planes struck at Cuban air force bases and destroyed Cuban planes on the ground. However, the tide quickly turned on the insurgents. President Kennedy, anxious to cover up America's role, inexplicably called off all American air support, leaving the rebels stranded on the beach. Cuban army and militia units, organized by Castro himself, swarmed the invasion site to block the rebels from gaining the interior of the island. The Cuban Air Force rallied to strafe the landing site and the supply ships moored in the bay.
One ship sank and the remaining three barely made it out to sea. Without resupply or air support, the men of 2506 Assault Brigade managed to hold out for two days, until nearly all were either killed or captured by pro-Castro forces. When the smoke cleared, 114 died and 1,189 lauguished in Cuban prisons. There they remained for 22 months, until the Kennedy administration paid more than $50 million in food, medicine and cash for their release.
The accusations flew around Washington, as well as Havana, in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs and an administration struggled to retain its credibility.
Five days before the date of the invasion, on April 12, the White House Press Corps pointedly asked President Kennedy if the U.S. government had made preparations to stage an uprising in Cuba. The President responded, "First, I want to say that there will not be, under any conditions, an intervention in Cuba by the United States Armed Forces. This government will do everything it possibly can…to make sure that there are no Americans involved in any actions inside Cuba… The basic issue in Cuba is not one between the United States and Cuba. It is between the Cubans themselves."
To add a shade of conspiracy to the bungled invasion, released Soviet documents indicated that Moscow had learned details of the invasion nearly a week ahead of time, around April 9. The CIA, aware of the leak, proceeded with the plan. The mystery remains on how the Soviets were briefed on the invasion, as the Cuban insurgents were themselves not briefed until April 12.
The Taylor Commission convened to assess American involvement in the failed coup. CIA director Allan Dulles himself who, in a commission inquiry, quoted, "I'm the first to recognize that I don't think that the CIA should run paramilitary operations of the type in Cuba." He added "the Cuban operation has had a very serious effect on all our work" and "I think we should limit ourselves more to secret intelligence collection and operations of the nonmilitary category."