A Defeat at the Bay of Pigs

Discussion in 'Essays & Journals' started by Taylor, Feb 26, 2012.

  1. Taylor

    Taylor EdChat™ PhD

    Oct 13, 2010
    EdChat Karma:
    Defeat at the Bay of Pigs
    by Taylor V. Smith


    From the time of its inception, the Central Intelligence Agency possessed a considerable level of mystique. Particularly during the Cold War era, the CIA obtained near immortal status in the eyes of some of its most capable rivals.[1] After 1961, however, the Agency suffered an irreparable loss of prestige.[2] Following an operational debacle in Cuba, the once-revered Agency became a diplomatic embarrassment to the U.S. government.[3] Abroad, as opinion of the Agency sank to a low point, the CIA became a favorite target for foreign politicians – both liberal and conservative, alike.[4] At home, the CIA’s public humiliation in Cuba inaugurated an “era of exposure” as newspapers lost their resolve to practice self-censorship and began treating secret service projects as matters of public interest.[5] The effects of the CIA’s Cuban Bay of Pigs operation – codenamed “Operation Zapata” – are evident. What is less apparent is why the Bay of Pigs failed so completely, and what was ultimately responsible for the fiasco.

    Many CIA experts and historians have offered differing accounts of the CIA’s ignominy at the Bay of Pigs – some blaming President Kennedy or CIA leaders, others faulting poor organization or inadequate resources. Surely, each of these factors played at least a small role in the operation’s failure. Nevertheless, as this author will explain, the most basic reason for the disastrous result of the Bay of Pigs invasion was not the ability of U.S. leaders or the aptitude of U.S. logistics. Instead, as this author will argue, a fundamental difference between the goals of the Kennedy Administration and the aims of the CIA, and a miscommunication thereof between the two parties, was the true reason for the catastrophe. To validate this argument, this author will explore the three most cited reasons for Zapata’s demise, demonstrating the tacit discrepancy between the goals of the Kennedy Administration and the CIA.

    Kennedy’s Inexperience

    The CIA’s initial plan to invade Cuba – called the Trinidad Plan – was well underway when Kennedy took office.[6] One of Eisenhower’s final acts as President was to suspend diplomatic relations with Cuba, allowing for Kennedy’s Administration to quickly recognize a provisional government in Cuba should Kennedy decide to go ahead with the operation.[7] Yet, Kennedy was slow to give his approval.[8] First of all, Kennedy’s concerns were different than those of Eisenhower and the CIA, and second, Kennedy misunderstood the CIA’s capabilities.
    First, Kennedy, chiefly concerned with avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation, was determined to circumvent any perception of U.S. involvement in Cuba. Kennedy disliked the Trinidad Plan, believing it to be too “spectacular.” Accordingly, he ordered the CIA to devise a more subtle plan, preferably to be executed at night and at a different location. Yet, as historian Christopher Andrew explains, what President Kennedy failed to realize was that no such plan was possible. In Dr. Andrew’s words, “The only realistic alternatives were to accept that United States involvement in the operation could not be concealed or to call the whole thing off. Since the realistic options were both unacceptable, Kennedy settled for an unrealistic alternative.”[9]

    Second, Kennedy’s decision to accept this unrealistic plan exemplifies his inexperience with covert operations and his overconfidence in the CIA’s abilities. Traditionally, Eisenhower and CIA director John F. Dulles used America’s power cautiously, despite their talk of “massive retaliation” against the spread of Communism. However, as CIA expert John Ranelagh explains, “Kennedy, who was less experienced and less wise, was far more excited about the opportunities American power offered.”[10] According to Andrew, the new plan formulated under Kennedy’s direction, which was to take place at the Bay of Pigs, ended in fiasco partly due to Kennedy’s “inexperience with intelligence and covert action.”[11] Though some would argue that Kennedy’s faith in the CIA was beguiled by Richard M. Bissell, the CIA’s deputy director of plans, causing Kennedy to become “a victim of the plan’s enthusiasts,”[12] it is much more likely that Kennedy’s inexperience led to his overconfidence. Thus, it is evident that Kennedy’s choice to forgo the Trinidad plan was due, first, to his desire to avoid a national embarrassment (in contrast to the CIA’s desire to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro), and second, to his ill-informed conception of the CIA’s resources.

    Abandonment of the Trinidad Plan

    Another element contributing to the failure of the Cuban invasion was the President’s decision to move the landing sight from Trinidad Bay to Cachinos Bay – the Bay of Pigs. This decision was made only weeks before the invasion, leaving little time to research the terrain.[13] As a result, the first wave of invading ships collided with the coral reefs that lined the shore of Cachinos Bay, which NPIC photographic interpreters had mistakenly identified as seaweed.[14] Moreover, the marshy terrain hindered the movement of ground forces and supply transports.[15] Perhaps most detrimentally, whereas the Trinidad plan provided a swift way of escape through the Escambray mountain range, the Cachinos plan afforded no such means of escape.[16] Some observers fault the President for his imprudent decision to move the location.[17] Others blame the CIA for their poor planning and their inept execution of the invasion.[18] Yet, a more thorough examination of this decision reveals another instance of miscommunication between the CIA and the Kennedy Administration.

    On April 4, 1961, President Kennedy convened the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as CIA and administration officials, to review the Cachinos plan. The plan was approved as written. Yet, as Captain Grayston L. Lynch, one of the two Americans accompanying the invading force, later explained:

    A misunderstanding occurred at this meeting that the Kennedy administration later tried to use to lay the blame for the failure of the invasion on the CIA. . . . after the failure of the invasion, these same administration officials claimed that the only reason they voted for the approval of the Cochinos plan was that they believed the Trinidad escape plan still existed.[19]

    If these claims by administration officials are factual, it is possible that Cachinos Bay would never have been selected as the destination for the invasion had this misunderstanding not occurred. However, the subject of an escape plan was never discussed at the April 4 meeting.[20] Thus, while abandoning the Trinidad Plan did undermine the Cuban invasion, this decision was underscored by yet another tragic effect of miscommunication.

    Cancellation of Air Strikes

    Perhaps the most vital phase of the invasion was the series of preemptive air strikes that were schedule to take place before the invasion flotilla landed in Cuba. The purpose of these air strikes was strategic bombing of several Cuban targets, including Cuba’s telephone system, railways, bridges, the majority of Castro’s armored vehicles, and most importantly, Castro’s airfields.[21] The JCS and CIA officials agreed: “The plan hinged on destroying Castro’s planes . . .”[22] However, on April 14 – one day before the first air strikes were scheduled to take place, the State Department persuaded the President to adjust the plan. Heeding the recommendations of the State Department, President Kennedy reduced the first air strike from twenty-two planes to a meager six planes. Even more damaging, Kennedy cancelled the second air strike altogether, as well as both strikes scheduled for the following day.[23] As a result, most of Castro’s air force was left unscathed.[24] All CIA participants agreed that Kennedy’s decision to cancel the air strikes was fatal to the mission.[25]

    In the aftermath of the invasion, CIA director of plans Richard M. Bissell blamed the invasion’s failure on Kennedy for his cancellation of air support. Conversely, the Kennedy administration blamed the CIA for poor coordination and over-centralization.[26] Doubtless, both charges are valid. Yet, once again, these accusations are underscored by a fundamental difference in the interests of the President and those of the CIA. The CIA’s principal concern was a successful mission. Had Kennedy not interfered once the plan was underway, the operation would likely have been successful, despite the weaknesses of the Cachinos Plan.[27] Yet, Kennedy, under pressure from the United Nations and Cuban foreign minister Raul Roa, was trying desperately to resist claims of U.S. involvement in Cuba.[28] Ranelaugh explains Kennedy’s situation:

    The problem was that Kennedy did not have Eisenhower’s understanding of what was and what was not required to make the operation a success. All he understood was that he should take it seriously, and this make him increasingly nervous. He began insisting that the operation be trimmed back for political reasons.[29]

    Unable to call off the whole operation, he chose to cancel the air strikes.[30] Hence, in order to avoid national embarrassment, Kennedy made his injurious decision to reduce air support. Thus, while Kennedy’s decision did contribute greatly to the failure of Operation Zapata, his interest was ultimately in preserving national credibility – even at the expensive of the Cuban operation.


    As White House-CIA relations deteriorated following the Bay of Pigs debacle, the CIA’s credibility suffered a lasting decline.[31] CIA director Allen Dulles, held chiefly responsible for the failure, was forced to resign.[32] Furthermore, to compensate for its failure in Cuba, the CIA became more active elsewhere in Central and South America, interfering in Ecuador only seven months later.[33] The invasion’s demise also affected the White House, inhibiting President Kennedy’s efforts in Africa, where he hoped to prevent Communistic expansion by encouraging local nationalism.[34] Moreover, as Ranelaugh states, “The Soviet Union would read the failure as a fault of indecision on the part of a new, young President and move quickly to exploit this weakness.”[35] All observers agree: failure at the Bay of Pigs was a turning point for both the CIA and the Kennedy Administration.[36]

    Ultimately, three often-cited factors contributed to Zapata’s unfortunate end. First, President Kennedy’s inexperience undermined the success of Operation Zapata. He was less familiar with covert operations than Eisenhower, and he possessed a misguided understanding of U.S. capabilities. Second, the Kennedy Administration’s decision to change the invasion’s location from Trinidad to Cachinos provided insufficient time to research the new terrain. As a result, the CIA’s invasion was poorly planned and imprudently executed. Third, Kennedy’s decision to cancel the imperative pre-invasion air strikes left Castro’s air force intact, further contributing to the operation’s failure. Yet, while each of these faults may be attributed to the invasion’s catastrophic end, a more careful examination of each instance reveals a single underlying problem: an inconsistency in the goals and perceived abilities of the parties involved. Therefore, though numerous elements may legitimately be blamed, the most fundamental cause of the Bay of Pigs fiasco was a difference in the principle concerns of the Kennedy Administration and the CIA.


    Aldrich, Richard J. The Hidden Hand: Britain, America, and Cold War Secret Intelligence. New York: The Overlook Press, 2001.

    Andrew, Christopher. For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

    Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. The CIA and American Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

    Lynch, Graston L. Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs. Washington: Brassey’s Inc., 1998.

    Ranelaugh, John. The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA from Wild Bill Donovan to William Casey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

    [HR][/HR][1] Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, The CIA and American Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 118.

    [2] Ibid., 138.

    [3] Ibid., 127.

    [4] Ibid., 123-124.

    [5] Richard J. Aldrich, The Hidden Hand: Britain, America, and Cold War Secret Intelligence (New York, The Overlook Press, 2001), 607-608.

    [6] Grayston L. Lynch, Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs (Washington: Brassey’s, Inc., 1998), 37.

    [7] John Ranelaugh, The Agency: The Rise and Recline of the CIA from Wild Bill Donovan to William Casey (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 362.

    [8] Ibid., 358-360.

    [9] Christopher Andrew. For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1995), 262.

    [10] Ranelaugh, 352.

    [11] Andrew, 4.

    [12] Jeffreys-Jones, 122.

    [13] Ranelaugh, 370.

    [14] Andrew, 264.

    [15] Ranelaugh, 370.

    [16] Lynch, 43-44.

    [17] Lynch.

    [18] Jeffreys-Jones.

    [19] Lynch, 43.

    [20] Ibid., 44.

    [21] Ranelaugh, 369.

    [22] Ibid., 367.

    [23] Lynch, 44.

    [24] Andrew, 263.

    [25] Ranelaugh, 368.

    [26] Jeffreys-Jones, 122.

    [27] Ranelaugh, 362.

    [28] Ibid., 368.

    [29] Ibid., 364.

    [30] Ibid., 368.

    [31] Jeffreys-Jones, 118-119.

    [32] Ranelaugh, 375.

    [33] Aldrich, 611.

    [34] Jeffreys-Jones, 125.

    [35] Ranelaugh, 382.

    [36] Ibid., 377

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