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The Bay of Pigs
on August 12, 2008
On April 17, 1961, approximately 1500 Cuban exiles trained and supported by the United States launched an ill-fated invasion against Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in southwest Cuba. The Bay of Pigs invasion occurred early in the presidency of John F. Kennedy and constituted one of the great foreign policy missteps of the United States during the Cold War. In his new book in the "Pivotal Moments in American History" series of Oxford University Press, Howard Jones offers a succinct and sobering account of the Bay of Pigs and its aftermath. Written with quiet restraint, Jones's book has much to teach about American interventionist tendencies in Cuba and elswhere. Howard Jones is University Research Professor of History at the University of Alabama. He has written extensively on American history.
Jones shows the many tangled threads in the Bay of Pigs story. Following Castro's ascension to power in Cuba and his increasing hostility to the United States, the Eisenhower Administration authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to plan and conduct what became the Bay of Pigs invasion. With the momentum the plan had gathered, the new president, Kennedy, allowed the proposed overthrow of Castro to continue. Kennedy was indeed an active participant and changed the original plan in several respects. In addition to the invasion by the Cuban exiles, the plan had several components that Jones documents well in his study. The CIA engaged in dealings with the Mafia in a plan to assassinate Castro before the invasion. The invasion also relied popular insurrection in Cuba to displace the Castro regime after the exile force had established a beachhead. In the event the initial landing did not immediately succeed, the plan was for the invading force to assume guerilla tactics by joining with local fighters in the Escambray Mountains of Cuba.
Jones details how and why the plan failed at every level. He is critical of the plan at the outset for its interference with the internal affairs of a foreign nation, including the assassination of its leader, which had not committed acts of war against the United States. He also shows well how various parts of the Executive Branch, from the President and his immediate advisors, to the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the State Department tended to work against each other and to avoid responsibility for the unfortunate events that occurred in Cuba in April, 1961. The United States badly underestimated the resolve of the Castro regime, overestimated the likelihood of a popular uprising, and did not know the strength of Castro's air force.
Beyond these concerns, Jones points to other factors which doomed the invasion from the outset. The primarily failing was the confusion between political and military goals in the invasion. Eisenhower had entrusted planning to the CIA rather than to the military in an attempt to minimize the public exposure of the United States. Through Kennedy, the policy was one of "plausible deniablity" of the United States's activites. This "plausible deniability" proved impossible to maintain for an operation of the scope of the Bay of Pigs. Furthermore, political considerations irreparably compromised the military aspects of the plan. The invasion site was moved to the Bay of Pigs from a site about 100 miles east in the interest of secrecy. With its coral reefs, swamps, and lack of access to the mountains, the Bay of Pigs proved a poor alternative site. Probably more importantly, President Kennedy called off and limited supportive United States air strikes which were designed to neutralize Castro's air force. Castro's planes performed well during the invasion. Without air support, the amphibious landing, difficult at best, was doomed. Without support from the United States, the Cuban invasion quickly failed.
Jones also describes the aftermath of the failed invasion, with further attempts by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to assassinate Castro and to mount a direct United States military attack on Cuba. The Bay of Pigs invasion led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis in the autumn of 1962, which came perilously close to nuclear confrontation between the United States and the USSR. In 1975, following the investigations of a Senate Committee, President Gerald Ford issued an Executive Order forbidding at last the use of assassination as a political weapon of the United States. Jones sees parallels between the Bay of Pigs invasion and subsequent attempts by the United States to intervene in the internal affairs of nations unfriendly to the United States. He writes at the conclusion of his study (p. 174):
"[A]s history has repeatedly shown, intervention is far more complicated than it appears at the outset. The United States in April 1961 had embarked on the slippery slope toward a high-risk policy of forceful regime change that did not work in Cuba, nor in Vietnam, nor in Iraq, and remains shaky in Afghanistan."
Jones has written a thoughtful detailed study of the Bay of Pigs that will be of interest to readers who wish to reflect upon and understand the foreign policy of the United States.