The United States’ intervention in the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain, which brought on the Spanish-American War of 1898, was in large part motivated by a desire to protect extensive American business interests on the island. Although the United States officially guaranteed Cuban independence, business ties continued to make Cuba a de facto dependency. American companies often exploited cheap Cuban labor, engaged in corrupt practices and encouraged corruption among Cuban government officials. Cuban leaders, seeking to maintain their personally profitable relationship with U.S. companies, were characteristically oppressive. Such was President Gerardo Machado, who was elected in 1925 and overthrown in a coup and replaced by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in 1933.
Later that year Céspedes was ousted in a military coup led by Fulgencio Batista. In the manner of many Caribbean and Central American “strong men” (the euphemism that American politicians and the American press used for tyrants), Batista was elevated to high military command—he served as army chief of staff—rather than elective office. From his military position, he governed through a series of civilian puppet presidents until 1940, when he was finally elected to the office himself. After serving one term, Batista retired to Florida to enjoy the fruits of his regime, but he returned to Cuba in 1952 and, in a nearly bloodless coup that toppled Carlos Prío Socarrás, once again became president.
Batista’s second regime was even more repressive and corrupt than his first, making deals not only with legitimate American business interests but also with American organized crime figures. By the end of the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower became so concerned about Batista that he canceled arms sales to the regime. In the meantime, Cuban opposition to Batista was mounting, and a young student named Fidel Castro emerged as a leader of a growing movement. In 1959 Castro led a successful rebellion against Batista to become the new premier of Cuba. Castro had conducted the revolution in the name of anti-imperialism, nationalism and general reform—all palatable enough to official Washington—so the United States recognized his government immediately.
Under Castro the living conditions of the people dramatically improved, and Cubans supported Castro’s nationalization of foreign-owned properties and industries, most of them American. Castro’s rhetoric grew defiant and bellicose, attacking the United States for the degradations it had historically visited on his country. As Castro seized American oil refineries, sugar mills and electric utilities on the island, those who resisted his new direction for Cuba were subject to arrest, imprisonment, exile or execution. Many followed Batista’s example and fled, most often to Florida. On May 7, 1960, Castro announced the resumption of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, which had been broken off by Batista. Suddenly, an outpost of Soviet-style communism was a mere 90 miles from the city of Miami. Most important, in strategic terms, Castro menaced the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, and on November 1, 1960, President Eisenhower declared that the United States would take all necessary measures to defend the base.
In 1959, after the revolution, the CIA began planning an invasion near Guantánamo Bay at a place called the Bay of Pigs. Although started under Eisenhower, it was his successor, John F. Kennedy, who authorized a covert invasion of Cuba by some 1,400 anti-Castro Cuban counterrevolutionaries, dubbed Brigade 2506 and supported by the CIA. The invasion kicked off on April 15, 1961, with the bombing of Cuba by what was reported to be defecting Cuban air force pilots—they were, in fact, in the hire of the CIA. Three Cuban military bases, two airfields and the Antonio Maceo Airport were attacked, killing 54 people. Two of the “defecting” B-26 bombers involved in the attack flew to Miami.
The invasion proper began at 2 a.m. on April 17, at the Bay of Pigs, about 100 miles southeast of Havana. Two battalions came ashore, but soon found themselves bogged down in a swampy marsh. Cuban forces were quick to react. Castro’s air force was small, but he ordered it into action against the slow-moving brigade and its offshore command vessel Marsopa and supply ship Houston. Both ships were sunk, and an entire battalion, which had yet to disembark, was lost. With their coordination and logistical support destroyed, the invaders were cut off.
By April 19, Castro’s air force shot down nine of the invaders’ 16 aircraft and, over the next couple of days, Cuban ground forces pounded the invading brigade with howitzer and tank fire. Surrounded, the U.S.-backed invaders began to surrender. Their death toll was 114. Some were incarcerated for up to 20 years; 36 subsequently died in Cuban prisons. Many of the survivors were released between 1962 and 1965 after private donors paid what amounted to a ransom of $53 million in food and medicine for Cuba.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was a total failure—ill-conceived, hastily staged and based on the CIA-spawned fiction that large numbers of Cubans would rise up in support. But Cuban refugee leaders, Bay of Pigs veterans and American security agencies insisted that the mission failed largely because the invaders did not receive the naval air support that had been promised by President Kennedy. The fiasco allowed Castro to consolidate his power and pushed him further into the arms of the Soviets. In December 1961, he boldly declared an outright alliance with the Soviet Union, at which point Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned that he would defend Cuba against American aggression, even to the point of thermonuclear war.
Castro allowed the Soviets to secretly build bomber and missile bases on the island. But American spy planes discovered the construction before the missiles were deployed, precipitating the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the world’s two nuclear superpowers stood “eyeball to eyeball,” as tough-talking Cold Warriors said at the time, each waiting for the other to blink.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.