Today, Carl Cannon reminds us at Real Clear History that this day marks the fifty-second anniversary of the beginning of the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. After briefly recapping the story of the “far-fetched scheme,” he concludes:
The finger-pointing began immediately, but over the years a consensus has emerged that the plan JFK inherited was a mess; that the CIA “intelligence” on Cuba was an oxymoron; and that if Kennedy was going to approve the plan he probably should have gone into the Bay of Pigs, well, whole hog.
Bad puns aside, this is a fair assessment of how much of a disaster the operation was from start to finish, and how poorly conceived the plan was. As historian Robert Dallek wrote in reviewing newly declassified documents in 2011, even “the CIA task force in charge of the paramilitary assault did not believe it could succeed without becoming an open invasion supported by the U.S. military.”
But while it’s fair to critique the (many) tactical errors made and to insist that if the invasion was going to happen, it should have been done “whole hog,” the broader question is: Why was official Washington so convinced that regime change in Cuba was a necessity in the first place? One answer is that this position naturally flowed from the country’s prevailing Cold War orthodoxy. As Jim Rasenberger put it in his book The Brilliant Disaster, the fiasco was “produced by two administrations, encouraged by countless informed legislators, and approved by numerous men of high rank and intelligence.” Rasenberger writes that all of these men
were operating under conditions that made the venture almost impossible to resist. At a time when Americans were nearly hysterical about the spread of communism, they simply could not abide Castro. He had to go.
This helps explain why, after the invasion’s failure, the Kennedy administration wasted no time continuing its drive to oust Fidel Castro, both through the subsequent Operation Mongoose, which attempted to sabotage and destabilize the Cuban regime, and through attempts to assassinate Castro himself. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy even said in January 1962 that overthrowing Castro was “the top priority in the United States Government.”
It’s worth remembering the consequences that these kinds of ventures, and this drive for regime change overseas, can have. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, one event that happened in its wake which cannot be ignored is the following year’s Cuban missile crisis. In the words of Michael Dobbs, “By authorizing the Bay of Pigs invasion, followed by Operation Mongoose, Kennedy had given the Soviets every reason to believe that he was determined to get rid of Castro once and for all.” It is hardly a surprise that, in response, Castro would want a form of deterrent and the Soviets would want to protect their client state. And so Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made the wildly reckless decision to send nuclear weapons to Cuba, precipitating the famous “thirteen days” of the crisis in October 1962.
To this day, the Cuban missile crisis remains perhaps the closest that the world has ever come to apocalyptic nuclear war. And while Khrushchev no doubt bears the largest share of the responsibility for that crisis, the Bay of Pigs is also an essential part of the story of how we got there.