Lying only 300 km (200 mi) from the US mainland, the Caribbean island of Cuba had become an increasingly irritable thorn in America’s side since Fidel Castro had led a popular revolution in 1959 to overthrow the dictatorship of General Batista. Castro helped to finance the socialist policies he introduced, including universal health care and free education, by nationalizing US-owned businesses in Cuba. America’s response was to impose a crippling trade embargo and to cut all diplomatic ties.
The loss of influence and commercial opportunities in Cuba continued to rankle, and the embers of resentment were fan the large population of Cuban exiles in Florida: supporter beneficiaries of the old regime who had fled the island. In 1 CIA devised a covert plan to use these exiles to oust Castro and restore a pro-American government. This became one of the first issues confronting the new president, John F Kennedy, when he took office in January 1961. Kennedy initially was unconvinced but was persuaded to sanction the operation when a smokescreen of ‘plausible deniability’ was put in place to protect his reputation. Following a successful US bombing raid on Cuba’s airfields, on April 17 1961 five US merchant ships landed 1,500 armed Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs, an inlet on Cuba’s south coast 145 km (90 mi) southeast of Havana.
The operation was bungled from the outset: two transports were sunk, jeeps were landed without fuel, the troops had inadequate maps of the island and ended up firing on each other. Worst of all, the CIA’s assumption that the invasion would spark a popular uprising against Castro proved a disastrous misjudgment. The invaders were soon surrounded and pinned down on the beach by Castro’s militia; within 72 hours they had all surrendered.
When: April 17-20 1961
Where: Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), Cuba
Death toll: 118 members of the invasion force were killed and over 1,200 taken prisoner. Although the Cuban military prevailed, its losses were high; over 2,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or listed as missing in action.
You should know: The Bay of Pigs operation was a strategic as well as a military fiasco inasmuch as it drove Fidel Castro even further into the welcoming arms of the Russians. Just 18 months later the world narrowly avoided nuclear catastrophe in the Cuban Missile Crisis.