Bay of Pigs Invasion

An attempted invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained guerrilla force ended with the invaders’ crushing defeat. The incident was a major embarrassment for the government of the United States and for the fledgling administration of President John F. Kennedy.

Summary of Event

In 1959, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary forces overthrew Cuba’s government, establishing a socialist regime in its place. Lands formerly owned by members of the upper classes and by U.S. companies were seized and redistributed, and many Cubans fled to the United States—primarily Florida—in exile. Bay of Pigs invasion
Cold War;Cuba
Central Intelligence Agency;Cuba
[kw]Bay of Pigs Invasion (Apr. 17-19, 1961)
[kw]Invasion, Bay of Pigs (Apr. 17-19, 1961)
Bay of Pigs invasion
Cold War;Cuba
Central Intelligence Agency;Cuba
[g]Caribbean;Apr. 17-19, 1961: Bay of Pigs Invasion[06910]
[g]West Indies;Apr. 17-19, 1961: Bay of Pigs Invasion[06910]
[g]Cuba;Apr. 17-19, 1961: Bay of Pigs Invasion[06910]
[c]Cold War;Apr. 17-19, 1961: Bay of Pigs Invasion[06910]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 17-19, 1961: Bay of Pigs Invasion[06910]
Bissell, Richard Mervin, Jr.
Miró Cardona, José
Castro, Fidel
Dulles, Allen
Kennedy, John F.
[p]Kennedy, John F.;and Cuba[Cuba]
Stevenson, Adlai E.

In March, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Cuba[Cuba] authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), headed by Allen Dulles, to train and equip a group of Cuban exiles as a guerrilla force for the purpose of infiltrating Cuba and joining the anti-Castro underground. With the cooperation of Guatemala’s government, the CIA soon established training camps in that country, and the training of exiled Cuban volunteers began. By November, 1960, the CIA operation, under the supervision of Deputy Director for Plans Richard Mervin Bissell, Jr., had changed from the training of guerrillas to the preparation of an invasion force. After that date, guerrilla training ceased, and a small army was trained in conventional assault landing tactics.

Meanwhile, in the Cuban exile community in Miami, Florida, the United Revolutionary Front was formed. Headed by José Miró Cardona, who it was planned would become provisional president of Cuba upon the exiles’ return, the group in Miami managed the recruitment of soldiers for the expeditionary force, although the operation was completely directed by the CIA. Volunteers were screened for political acceptability, and leftists were discouraged or rejected. Consequently, the force in training took on a conservative character.

The CIA-directed operation ran into severe problems from the start. Numerous political conflicts that threatened to undermine the entire operation erupted among the volunteers. U.S. involvement in the affair was supposed to remain covert, but in Miami the existence of the invasion force and the Guatemalan camps, as well as the CIA’s direction of the operation, were common knowledge. Increasingly, the American press reported on the preparations in progress for an invasion of Cuba. Castro, premier of Cuba, also knew of the exile army being trained in Guatemala.

In February, 1961, the invasion plans underwent an important change. Originally, the CIA had specified the city of Trinidad as the landing point for the exile force. However, the newly elected president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, decided that the invasion plans could proceed only if U.S. support troops were better camouflaged. The site at Trinidad was judged too risky. In its place, the Bay of Pigs, one hundred miles to the west of Trinidad on the south-central coast of Cuba, was chosen.

Tactically, Trinidad was the better of the two proposed invasion sites, because in the event of failure, the invasion force could retreat into the Escambray Mountains with little difficulty. The beaches at the Bay of Pigs, on the other hand, were surrounded by the Zapata swamps. Escape to the mountains some eighty miles to the east would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In the event that the exiles could not establish a defensible beachhead at the Bay of Pigs, the only retreat route realistically available to them would be in the direction from which they came: to the sea.

By April, 1961, the invasion plans had taken shape. Castro’s air force was to be destroyed on the ground by two scheduled air strikes against Cuban air bases. The invasion force of fifteen hundred troops would disembark under the cover of night and acquire the advantage of complete surprise. Meanwhile, paratroopers would be dropped to establish advance positions, from which they could scout approaching Cuban forces and cut off transportation routes. With the skies to themselves, the exile forces initially would be resupplied at the Playa Girón airfield, close to the Bay of Pigs. Simultaneously, a diversionary landing would occur on the eastern coast of Cuba in an attempt to deceive Cuban forces about the exiles’ real intentions.

The main invasion force would advance into Matanzas province with the goal of securing a defensible area of Cuban territory. With this goal accomplished, the leaders of the United Revolutionary Front would be flown to Cuba to establish a provisional government. It was hoped that the local Cuban population might join the invaders in their fight against the Castro regime. With this possibility in mind, the supply ships accompanying the invasion force were to be stocked with arms and ammunition for a force of four thousand.

From the beginning, Operation Pluto Operation Pluto , as the invasion plan was called, went badly. On April 15, 1961, eight B-26 bombers, supplied by the United States and disguised as Cuban air force planes, departed from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and attacked Cuban airfields in an attempt to destroy the Cuban air force. The bombing raid was unsuccessful. Although considerable damage was done to Cuba’s small air force, the attack left unharmed two or three T-33 trainer jets, three Sea Furies, and two B-26’s.

At the United Nations, Raúl Roa Roa, Raúl , Cuba’s foreign minister, charged that the attack was a prelude to invasion from the United States. Adlai E. Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, replied that the attacking planes were of Cuban origin. Because one of the planes had landed in Florida after the raid, Stevenson was able to produce photographs showing a B-26 bomber displaying the insignia of the Cuban air force. Stevenson actually believed the Cuban pilots to be defectors from Castro’s own forces; he was unaware of the deception. The trick was soon discovered, however, when reporters pointed out certain differences in the nose cones of the Cuban B-26’s as compared with the one that had landed in Florida. U.S. complicity in the air strike was apparent, and President Kennedy, at the recommendation of Secretary of State Dean Rusk Rusk, Dean and Special Assistant for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy Bundy, McGeorge , canceled the second air strike, scheduled for dawn on April 17.

In the early-morning hours of Monday, April 17, the invasion force (now named Brigade 2506 Brigade 2506 ) began to disembark at two beaches on the Bay of Pigs: Playa Girón and Playa Larga. Contrary to advance intelligence reports that the area was virtually uninhabited and that militia in the area had no communications with Havana, the invaders were spotted almost immediately, and news of the invasion was relayed quickly to Castro’s headquarters. Thus, the dangerous night landing was conducted under fire from the very start. The unloading of troops and arms progressed more slowly than planned, and at dawn there were still invasion forces on the ships. The element of surprise had not been achieved, and the force of the undestroyed Cuban planes soon would be felt. Throughout the day on Monday, events continued to go against the invaders.

Cuba’s air force, particularly the jets, proved to be the decisive factor in the battle. Two of the exiles’ escort ships, the Rio Escondido
Rio Escondido (ship) and the Houston, Houston (ship) were sunk with arms, ammunition, and supplies on board. The exile air force (the Free Cuban Air Squadron Free Cuban Air Squadron ), which consisted of sixteen B-26 bombers, lost half its planes. Flying from Nicaragua, the B-26’s carried extra fuel and had no tail guns. Unable to maneuver quickly, they made easy targets for the T-33 jet trainers.

At sea, the escort vessels that were not sunk by Cuban planes were forced to withdraw from the invasion area. On the ground, the invasion forces fought well but were hampered by wet communication equipment and a scarcity of ammunition. Only one of the paratroop drops succeeded. The other failed, because the paratroopers were dropped too close to the invasion area and because their heavy equipment was dropped into the swamps, where it remained inaccessible for the duration of the battle.

The Bay of Pigs region was politically one of the worst possible sites for a successful counterrevolution in Cuba. What before 1959 had been an exclusively agricultural zone peopled by woodcutters was being developed by the revolutionary government as a future tourist haven. New roads, markets, and schools had won Castro the support of the populace, and few welcomed the invaders, who represented the middle and upper classes of Havana. Once the invasion foundered, the men of Brigade 2506 could not count on the local inhabitants to give them refuge.

The U.S. planners of the invasion, through wishful thinking, had misread the mood of the Cuban people in the spring of 1961. Almost all of those dissatisfied with the revolution had already departed for the United States, and the bombing of Cuban airfields by the exile air force rallied public opinion behind Castro. The national uprising that the CIA was counting on to coincide with the debarkation of the exile force never occurred. The Cuban army and militia remained loyal to the regime, and between April 15 and 17, Castro ordered the arrest of more than 100,000 opponents of his government, eliminating dissident elements in the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban press and destroying the CIA’s underground network of agents. With all of the problems at the Bay of Pigs, it probably made no difference to the final result that the diversionary landing on the eastern coast of Cuba never took place.

In Washington, the discouraging news from the Bay of Pigs led President Kennedy to reinstate the second air strike that he had canceled earlier. The planes of the Free Cuban Air Squadron based in Nicaragua were commanded to strike the San Antonio de los Baños airfield at dawn on Tuesday, April 18. The following morning, six B-26 bombers piloted by Cuban-exile pilots were over the designated target, but the bombers were forced to return to Nicaragua without dropping a single bomb by fog and cloud cover.

On the ground, Castro was moving twenty thousand troops toward the Zapata swamp region, as Brigade 2506 was running out of ammunition. Because the Cuban air force still commanded the skies, there was no chance to unload the remaining arms, supplies, and troops aboard the two remaining escort ships at sea.

In the early-morning hours of Wednesday, April 19, President Kennedy authorized an “air-umbrella” at dawn over the invasion area. He gave permission for six unmarked jet fighters from the USS Essex
Essex (ship) in the Caribbean to protect a B-26 attack from Nicaragua and to cover the unloading of the exile escort ships at sea. This final attempt to help the invading forces also failed. Probably because of confusion about the difference in time zones between Cuba and Nicaragua, the B-26 bombers from Nicaragua arrived an hour early over Cuba and were shot down by the Cubans; only one escaped. The jets that were to have provided air cover never left the Essex.

Later that day, the invasion was finally crushed. Facing overwhelming opposition and out of ammunition, the leaders destroyed their heavy equipment and ordered a retreat into the swamps. Only a handful of exiles escaped to the sea; the remainder were rounded up by Castro’s forces and imprisoned. Of 1,297 brigade members who had come ashore, 1,180 were captured. Cuban losses are difficult to estimate. Although Castro admitted to losing fewer than a hundred men in battle, a more accurate estimate would be 1,250 casualties.


The Bay of Pigs invasion was a serious embarrassment for the U.S. government and for the Central Intelligence Agency. In the eyes of the international community, it made the United States look at once unreasonably aggressive and incompetent. Because it was an anticommunist operation, the invasion exacerbated Cold War tensions generally, and it helped place Cuba at the center of those tensions. Cuba would soon find itself at the center of one of the central standoffs of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bay of Pigs invasion
Cold War;Cuba
Central Intelligence Agency;Cuba

Further Reading

  • Bissell, Richard M., Jr. Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. Memoir of the CIA deputy director for plans who oversaw the Bay of Pigs invasion. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Draper, Theodore. “How Not to Overthrow Castro.” In Castro’s Revolution: Myths and Realities. New York: Praeger, 1962. Offers a useful postmortem discussion of how a misunderstanding of the radical nature of Castro’s revolution on the part of the United States government led to military failure.
  • Hunt, Howard. Give Us This Day. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973. A personal account of why the invasion collapsed by a Central Intelligence Agency officer. A valuable inside look at how the Cuban exile force was trained and how political factions tore it apart before it reached Cuba.
  • Powers, Thomas. Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to al-Qaeda. New York: New York Review Books, 2002. Analysis of the Bay of Pigs invasion alongside other CIA successes and failures throughout the Cold War and the post-Cold War period. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Trumbell, Higgins. The Perfect Failure: Kennedy, Eisenhower, and the CIA at the Bay of Pigs. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. A study of the decision-making process that led to the invasion. Argues that the CIA’s success at ousting other leftist regimes during the early years of the Cold War led Kennedy to believe the Castro government would collapse easily.
  • Welch, Richard E. Response to Revolution: The United States and the Cuban Revolution, 1959-1961. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Concludes that Kennedy was not a reluctant warrior but legally and morally responsible for the invasion debacle.
  • Wyden, Peter. Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979. A narrative history, sometimes hour-by-hour, of how the invasion was planned and fought as seen by the participants in Washington, D.C., Miami, and Havana.

Cuban Revolution

Eisenhower Doctrine

U-2 Incident

Kennedy Is Elected President

Cuban Missile Crisis

Cuba Signs a Commercial Agreement with the Soviet Union