A May 1963 LIFE Magazine cover shows the Bay of Pigs event in action.
by William “Doc” Halliday
In April of 1961 I was still in high school. I aware of communism, and the Cold War was very cold indeed. The U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union in May of 1960, in South Vietnam, the Vietcong was formed (National Liberation Front for South Vietnam) that year, and in December of 1960 Cuba had openly aligned itself with the Soviet Union and their policies. Just around the corner, so to speak, was the building of the Berlin Wall (in August of 1961) and the Cuban Missile Crises (in October of 1962).
Carlos Prío was the President of Cuba from 1948 until March of 1952, three months before new elections were to be held. He was the first president of Cuba to be born in an independent Cuba and the last to gain his post through universal, contested elections. He was an ally of the United States. This was a time of constitutional order and political freedom.
April 20, 1961, the last of the U.S.-backed Cuban exiles were killed or captured. The attempt to overthrow Castro and free Cuba had failed.
Fulgencio Batista was the elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944. After finishing his term he lived in Florida. Batista returned to Cuba to run for president in 1952. Realizing that he faced certain electoral defeat, he led a coup d’état that preempted the election. When he was back in power, and receiving financial, military, and logistical support from the United States government, Batista suspended the 1940 constitution and revoked most political liberties.
Batista’s increasingly corrupt and repressive government began to systematically profit from the exploitation of Cuba’s commercial interests. They negotiated lucrative relationships with both the Mafia in the United states, who controlled the drug, gambling, and prostitution businesses in Havana, and with multi-national U.S.-based companies who were awarded lucrative contracts.
Fidel Alejandro Castro was the son of a wealthy Spanish farmer. Castro adopted leftist politics while studying law at the University of Havana. He participated in rebellions against right-wing governments in Columbia and the Dominican Republic. Castro planned the overthrow of Cuban President Batista. He initiated an attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 that failed. Castro was captured and spent a year in prison. After his release, he traveled to Mexico where he formed a revolutionary group, the 26th of July Movement.
In December of 1956, 82 men led by Castro landed in Cuba to further the revolution. Batista’s rule became increasingly unpopular among the population, and the Soviet Union began to secretly support Castro. On December 31, 1958, at a New Year’s Eve party, Batista told his cabinet that he was leaving the country. At 3:00 a.m. on January 1, 1959, Batista boarded a plane at Camp Columbia leaving Cuba with Castro in control. Castro turned out to be worse than Batista.
United States President Dwight Eisenhower, was very concerned at the direction Castro’s government was taking, and in March 1960, he allocated $13.1 million to the CIA to plan Castro’s overthrow. In January 1961, the U.S. government severed diplomatic relations with Cuba and stepped up its preparations for an invasion. The CIA proceeded to organize the operation with the aid of various Cuban counter-revolutionary forces, specifically training Brigade 2506 operating in Guatemala. President Kennedy approved the plan after he took office.
Over 1,400 men, divided into five infantry battalions and one paratrooper battalion, assembled in Guatemala. They set out for Cuba by boat on April 13 of 1961. Two days later, on April 15, eight CIA-supplied B-26 bombers attacked Cuban airfields and then returned to the US. On the night of April 16, the main invasion landed at a beach named Playa Girón. The beach is in the Bay of Pigs, within one of the largest wetlands in the world. The invasion force overwhelmed the local revolutionary militia – at first.
There had been air support promised, but as President Kennedy realized the world knew about the U. S. involvement, it was cancelled. As Castro brought in reinforcements, the invasion was squashed. Fifty-six years ago, on April 20, 1961, the last of the U.S.-backed Cuban exiles were killed or captured. The attempt to overthrow Castro and free Cuba had failed. A total of 114 Cuban exiles from Brigade 2506 were killed in action.
William “Doc” Halliday, historian and political commentator can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org