The Bay of Pigs Invasion: The US Fails to Overthrow Communist Cuba

Many have heard the phrase “bay of pigs” to refer to a situation that went awry. Where did this phrase come from, and how did it affect the United States?

Jun 8, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

bay pigs invasion us communist cuba


In 1958, a revolutionary named Fidel Castro launched a communist revolution in the island nation of Cuba. Less than 100 miles from the coast of Florida, Castro’s actions quickly caught the attention of the US government. Shortly after taking power, Castro made decisions that put him increasingly at odds with the United States. After the communist leader nationalized US property on the island, many in Washington DC felt that it was time for Castro to be deposed. As the CIA had enjoyed recent successes in making this happen elsewhere, a plan was launched for a CIA-backed regime change in Cuba. In April 1961, an army of Cuban exiles was sent home to spark an anti-communist revolution.


Setting the Stage: Regime of Fulgencio Batista

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Fulgencio Batista (above) was the controversial leader of Cuba prior to the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1958. Source: WGBH Educational Foundation


The island nation of Cuba, less than 100 miles from the shores of the US state of Florida, has had a tumultuous political history. Originally, the US became embroiled in Cuban affairs in the 1890s during the Cuban war for independence against Spain, which became part of the Spanish-American War. After a brief period as an American colony, Cuba was granted its complete independence only in 1934. During the 1930s, an army officer named Fulgencio Batista became the de facto leader of Cuba before winning the presidential election in his own right in 1940.


Although Batista initially allowed free elections and even stepped down as president when he lost the 1944 election, he changed his mind in 1952 and seized power once again in a coup d’état. Batista’s new administration was focused on turning Cuba into an island “paradise” for wealthy tourists and gamblers, which involved making alleged deals with American organized crime syndicates. In a political amnesty in the mid-1950s, Batista released two brothers – Fidel and Raul Castro – from prison. By then, the population had largely turned against Batista, weakening his control over the country.


Setting the Stage: Communism in Latin America

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A mural revealing the appeal of Marxism in Mexico during the early 20th century. Source: Dartmouth University


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Communism was exported to Latin America following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The region was often receptive to communism and similar leftist movements due to widespread poverty and political corruption, with many citizens feeling ignored or abused by their governments. During the 1930s and the worldwide Great Depression, communist parties in Latin America often worked with other leftist political movements. Communist Party members were able to hold some formal power in Latin American legislatures until the end of World War II, while the Soviet Union was an Allied power.


As the Cold War began, the United States began applying pressure on Latin American countries to limit the power afforded to communists. Nevertheless, populism was a powerful ideology in nations that were still very economically undeveloped. There were often power struggles between the lower classes and the land-owning elites. Between the 1940s and 1960s, many populist leaders – most of whom were not communists – emerged in Latin America by openly siding with the urban poor. Thus, while most of Latin America never became communist, the rise of populism set the stage for the possible rapid expansion of communism, making the US and its allies wary.


Setting the Stage: Communist Revolution in Cuba

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Supporters of the communist revolution in Cuba sought to overthrow the Batista government. Source: International Center of Photography


After several abortive starts, the communist revolution in Cuba began in earnest during the summer of 1958. Ironically, its rise was aided by a US arms embargo of Batista’s regime, which had been committing violence against civilians. By December of 1958, the once-small movement led by Fidel Castro had grown to the point that entire army units were surrendering rather than resisting. In January 1959, the July 26th Movement – the name of Castro’s organized uprising – entered the capital city of Havana. After brief resistance, the remainder of Batista’s regime allowed itself to be incorporated into Castro’s new communist government.


Quickly, Fidel Castro set about implementing typical communist reforms, such as land redistribution. Private holdings were limited to 1,000 acres, which meant breaking up many American-owned farms hundreds of times that size. Although this angered wealthy Cubans and foreigners, it greatly increased Castro’s popularity with rural peasants. By the summer of 1959, many of Cuba’s former elite class were fleeing the country. By the autumn, tribunals of Batista’s former security forces had largely purged Cuba of any political opponents of Castro’s new government.


1959: Fidel Castro Visits the United States

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A photograph of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in New York City in April 1959, shortly after overthrowing the Batista government. Source: The World


Fidel Castro was no stranger to the United States and had even honeymooned in New York City in 1948! When Castro first visited the US as Cuba’s new leader in April 1959, many did not see him as a stalwart communist. In fact, many Americans praised Castro for overthrowing Batista, who was seen as a brutal friend of organized crime. As a fluent speaker of English, Castro was very popular with journalists. Although US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was allegedly busy at the time, Castro did meet with Vice President Richard Nixon in an encounter that was cool at best.


Although the American public was taken with the tall and relatively handsome Cuban, the US government was apprehensive. At the time, Castro did not claim to be a communist, and some argue that Cuba did not become a true communist state until after the United States began antagonizing it. Others argue that Castro was a de facto communist before launching his successful uprising against Batista, and these were the voices that were carried in Washington DC prior to Castro’s visit. Thus, despite public interest in Cuba’s new leader, the stage was set for a political clash between Havana and Washington.


1960: Castro Nationalizes US Property in Cuba

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An oil refinery, similar to those nationalized by Cuba in 1960 after American-owned refineries refused to refine Soviet oil. Source: American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM)


In April 1960, the United States stopped selling oil to Cuba. To get oil, Castro turned to the Soviet Union and exchanged sugar, of which Cuba was a major exporter, for petroleum. When the Soviet oil arrived in Cuba, however, American- and British-owned oil refineries refused to handle it. This prompted Castro’s government to nationalize, or seize for government ownership, these foreign-owned oil refineries. Not unexpectedly, both the American and British governments were outraged. Quickly, the nationalization of the oil companies led to escalating sanctions between the US and Cuban governments.


After the US banned the sale of Cuban sugar in the country, cutting off a major source of foreign revenue, Cuba responded by nationalizing the rest of American-owned businesses on the island. In response to the mass nationalization of American property, the Eisenhower administration placed a partial trade embargo on Cuba. Only food and medicine could be imported from the United States to Cuba. This forced Cuba to look to the Soviet Union for increased economic support. In September 1960, at a visit to the United Nations in New York City, Castro defended his growing friendship with the USSR, blaming it on the United States.


Recent CIA Successes in Regime Change

The flag of the Central American nation of Guatemala, where the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew a communist government in 1954. Source: Boston University


Upset at the situation in Cuba, the United States began to explore options for removing Fidel Castro from power. This planning had begun as early as March 1960, even before the wave of nationalization of American property in Cuba. The plans were drawn up by the US Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, which had enjoyed a recent string of successes in affecting change in foreign governments. In 1953, the CIA had successfully toppled a left-wing government in Iran, replacing it with a conservative, pro-American monarchy led by the Shah.


The following year, the CIA was able to topple the allegedly communist government of Guatemala. Unlike the prime minister of Iran in 1953, the president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, was relatively popular. The CIA launched a propaganda blitz, portraying Arbenz’s government as a communist threat to the entire region, especially the American-owned Panama Canal. Simultaneously, the agency recruited a rebel army to oppose Arbenz, and fighting began in June 1954. Within a few weeks, Arbenz resigned and fled the country, leaving American-backed rebels to create a new government for a total mission cost of three million dollars.


Kennedy Approved the Bay of Pigs Invasion

A White House photo of US President John F. Kennedy, an anti-communist elected in 1960 who chose to continue plans to overthrow Castro. Source: The White House


Although Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, did not win the 1960 presidential election, the victor was just as anti-communist as Eisenhower. John F. Kennedy, the young Democratic US senator from Massachusetts, had been a supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) along with Nixon back when both were members of the US House of Representatives. Now president, Kennedy decided to continue with Eisenhower’s plan to replace Castro. The CIA had been training a 1,400-man force of anti-Castro Cuban exiles to return home and spark a popular overthrow of the communist leader.


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A flag of the Cuban exiles who invaded their home country with the training of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in April 1961. Source: The International Spy Museum, Washington DC


The CIA trained the exiles on a private island off the coast of Florida, using instructors from various military branches. However, in retrospect, it was likely that some of the 1,400 trainees were actually double agents who reported back to Castro’s government, giving advance notice of the plot. The plan was to conduct a few days of aerial bombings – almost 40 of the 1,400 exiles were pilots – before a ground invasion commenced. Ideally, the bombings and ground invasion would convince civilians to rise up against Castro’s government and convince much of Castro’s military to defect.


April 17-20, 1961: Bay of Pigs Invasion

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Military units during the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion. Source: PBS


In March 1961, President Kennedy abruptly ordered the invasion landing site changed, as he wanted to avoid the US being linked to the plot. Unfortunately, the new landing site at the Bay of Pigs made the CIA’s job more difficult: it was isolated from either civilian populations or easy escape routes. On April 15, 1961, the proposed aerial bombings took place as planned, but Castro quickly realized that an invasion was imminent. Cuba called an emergency meeting of the United Nations, where America’s denial of involvement quickly unraveled.


With the air strikes having been discovered as American-planned, Kennedy canceled the remainder. As a result, the ground invasion on April 17 had only minimal air support by Cuban exile pilots. Unfortunately for the invaders, tough tides and unexpected coral reefs made getting ashore difficult…and Castro’s military awaited them. Additionally, the bombings on April 15 had not been as successful as anticipated, meaning Cuba’s own air force was attacking the beachhead. For a few days, the invaders and the Cuban military faced off, neither side committing to heavy casualties.


Aftermath: Failure of Invasion Humiliates the US

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Captured exiles marching through lines of Cuban soldiers and militia after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. Source: US Naval Institute


Although some of the invaders were able to swim back out to sea and seek rescue from awaiting US Navy destroyers, about three-quarters were captured by Castro’s military. The failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion was a political victory for Fidel Castro, who strengthened his position as leader of Cuba. President Kennedy took responsibility for the situation, which strengthened his own popularity ratings. Fortunately, Kennedy vowed to learn lessons from the failure of the invasion, which allegedly resulted in improved decision-making that would pay dividends a year and a half later during the Cuban Missile Crisis.


While the Kennedy administration tried to reduce groupthink in the aftermath of the invasion, the Soviet Union enjoyed a public relations bonanza by portraying the United States as an imperialist tyrant. Quietly seething, the US opened a new covert operation to try and remove Castro: Operation Mongoose. Led by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s younger brother, the operation would look at all possible covert methods to remove Castro from power. However, Mongoose failed to achieve any results and was avoided by other members of the Kennedy administration. Some feared that any future detections of US operatives in Cuba would provoke more Cold War hostilities.


Aftermath: Strengthened Cuban-Soviet Alliance

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A flag of the Soviet Union flying over Cuba. Source: Voice of America (VOA)


Fidel Castro first met Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in New York City during his September 1960 visit to the United Nations. The two men embraced and went on a visit to Harlem, allegedly signaling a geopolitical break from the upper-class, predominantly white power structure. After the Bay of Pigs, Soviet aid was eagerly accepted by Cuba, which now feared an American invasion. Operation Mongoose only increased tensions further, giving the Soviet Union almost unrestricted military access to the island as protection against American machinations.


Ultimately, the USSR and Cuba reached an agreement in July 1962 to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, allegedly to deter any American invasion. The US quickly noticed the military buildup and issued a public warning against placing offensive weapons on the island on September 4. A month later, aerial reconnaissance captured clear photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba, prompting the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. Even after the crisis abated, with the Soviets removing their missiles in exchange for American promises not to attack Cuba or attempt to assassinate Castro, the USSR provided significant aid to Cuba until its collapse in 1991.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.