The epitaph for the disastrous April 17–19, 1961, attempt to overthrow communist dictator Fidel Castro by invading Cuba with 1,500 amateur soldiers and a handful of piston-engined B-26 ground-attack bombers was spoken soon afterward by President John F. Kennedy. “How could I have been so stupid?” he asked an aide.
A better question might have been, How could the Central Intelligence Agency have bungled things so badly? The answer is that the CIA—which planned the operation, trained its participants and helped execute its amphibious landings and air strikes —performed more amateurishly than the Cuban invaders. But the agency’s senior leaders were so enamored of the plan they ignored its obvious flaws. Worse, two presidential administrations, numerous legislators, and plenty of smart generals and admirals also signed off on the scheme.
The plan was to land a brigade of anti-Castro rebels on a remote Cuban beach and hopefully incite widespread rebellion within the island nation. The invaders would hold the beachhead and await help from locals while a provisional government was ferried ashore. There was scant intelligence to suggest a popular uprising might actually occur, but it sounded like a good idea at the time. Kennedy, wanting to conceal any hint of U.S. involvement to avoid offending Castro’s Soviet supporters, ordered the last-minute grounding of half the B-26 air support, without which the invasion was certain to fail. Kennedy also initially forbade the intervention of the U.S. Navy, which had a carrier battle group near Cuba.
Of course, the invasion failed. Rebel troops and tanks began landing early on April 17. By the evening of April 19 the invasion brigade had been crushed by Castro’s armor, heavy artillery and small but unopposed air force, which included four Lockheed T-33 jet trainers that, much to the CIA’s surprise, were fitted with weapons.
The end result of the ill-fated expedition included 114 men of Brigade 2506 killed and more than 1,200 captured. In those years before Vietnam some observers called the Bay of Pigs the worst defeat suffered by the United States since the War of 1812.
Don’t fall in love with your plan. The CIA invested too much time and resources to admit to any flaws. CIA planner Richard Bissell modeled the invasion on the 1944 Anzio landing, apparently unaware Anzio had been an operational mess.
Don’t change horses in midstream. Initial plans called for a landing near the foothills of the Escambray Mountains. Kennedy rejected the site as too overt for “plausible denial.” Planners changed the landing to the Bay of Pigs, a marshy site near an airstrip the invaders could use.
Loose lips sink ships. Cuban intelligence knew the invasion was coming. The CIA learned the Soviets even knew the date, but it kept that information from Kennedy.
Once committed, follow through. Kennedy pulled air cover and declined naval support after troops were on the ground—the proverbial nail in the operational coffin.
Assume nothing. The CIA believed once troops were ashore, the administration would do anything to keep the invasion from failing. It didn’t.
Monday morning quarterbacking can be a bitch. CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick issued an internal postmortem that deemed the operation, among other things, “uncoordinated,” “improvised” and “wasteful.”
Defeat can be a great teacher. The Bay of Pigs taught Kennedy to trust his advisers rather than the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff. That got him, and the nation, through the Cuban Missile Crisis 18 months later.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.