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On This Day: US Launches Disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion

Written By Josh Katz
Last updated: February 15, 2023

On April 17, 1961, Cuban exiles invaded Cuba with U.S. government backing in a failed effort to overthrow Fidel Castro. The invasion was an embarrassment for the Kennedy administration and caused U.S.-Cuba relations to deteriorate.

Cuban Exiles Routed in Ill-Conceived Invasion

Fidel Castro usurped power in Cuba from dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Castro’s leftist-leaning beliefs pit him against President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration.

When John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, CIA director Allen Dulles informed him about a plan to remove Castro that was conceived at the end of Eisenhower’s term. Kennedy, who had previously attacked Eisenhower and Richard Nixon for “losing Cuba,” did not want as much overt U.S. involvement as Dulles suggested.

On April 17, about 1,400 well-armed Cuban exiles trained by the United States landed at the Bay of Pigs on the island’s south coast. Before their arrival, U.S. planes had failed to neutralize the Cuban air force, leaving the mercenaries vulnerable to heavy air attack. More importantly, the invasion did not incite the Cuban people to rise up and join the rebellion, as had been predicted. Castro routed the mercenaries within 72 hours.

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The Kennedy administration tried to downplay the significance of the invasion and its role in planning it, but the invasion’s failure was a public embarrassment. “The defeat, as all the world sensed, was a tragedy not only for Cuba’s exiles. It was a debacle for the U.S. as well,” wrote Time.

The affair pushed Castro closer to the Soviet Union and gave Nikita Khrushchev the confidence to send missiles over to Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis occurred in October 1962, and President Kennedy made sure not to rely on a small cadre of intelligence officials to make his decision. The United States’ relationship with Cuba has remained tense to the present day.

Key Players: Castro and JFK

Sources in this Story

  • American Heritage: The Fiasco at the Bay of Pigs
  • John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: JFK in History: The Bay of Pigs
  • Time: The Massacre
  • The Council on Foreign Relations: U.S.-Cuba Relations
  • The BBC: Castro: Profile of the great survivor
  • University of Virginia: Miller Center of Public Affairs: John F. Kennedy

Fidel Castro
Castro was born to a wealthy farming family. He became a political activist during his years as a student and gained the approval of the Cuban people when he promised to restore the constitution. He led a leftist revolution in Cuba in the 1950s, eventually seizing power in 1959.

Some of the more radical policies that followed his ascension to power disappointed his former sympathizers and opened rifts with the United States. “He was soon snubbed by US President Dwight Eisenhower and claimed he was driven into the arms of the Soviet Union and its leader, Nikita Khrushchev,” writes the BBC. “Cuba became a Cold War battleground.”

Castro stayed in power for the terms of nine American presidents before his ailing health forced him to cede power to his brother Raul in February 2008.

John F. Kennedy
At 43, Kennedy was the youngest man to become president and his inexperience was apparent in his tumultuous first year, which included the Bay of Pigs disaster and the construction of the Berlin Wall by an emboldened Khrushchev.

Kennedy’s skillful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in September 1962 displayed an improvement in his foreign diplomacy. In 1963, he negotiated the Partial Test Ban Treaty with Khrushchev, which limited aboveground nuclear testing. It “signaled the success of Kennedy’s efforts to engage the Soviet Union in constructive negotiations and reduce Cold War tensions,” writes the Miller Center for Public Affairs.

Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, ending a presidency marked by triumphs and controversies in both domestic and foreign affairs.

Learn more about Kennedy and his presidency.

Reference: Bay of Pigs Documents

George Washington University’s National Security Archive features declassified government documents and audio recordings.

Source: National Security Archive

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The CIA presents documents from internal reports on the invasion written by the CIA inspector general and the directorate of plans.

Source: CIA

Charles Eames

Josh Katz was a writer for findingDulcinea from July 2007 until March 2009. Josh wrote a weekly column for Cornell's daily newspaper for three years, covering topics such as the conflict in the Middle East and college life. Josh later worked for a production company making a historical documentary for PBS, and then spent some time as a paralegal. He has a B.A. in History and American Studies from Cornell University. For more about Josh read Ever Heard Of It?, Josh’s personal blog.

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