On April 17, 1961, about 1,400 Cuban exiles, armed, trained and financed by the CIA and with the blessings of President John F. Kennedy, landed in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Their goal was to rally Cuban citizenry to rise up and overthrow Fidel Castro.
The mission was ill-conceived, the planning was bad, the execution was worse and the results were disastrous.
The landing force was immediately met with Cuban resistance. More than 100 of the invaders were killed, and another 1,200 were captured.
The official story is that the operation to use Cuban exiles was ordered by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Kennedy inherited it and went along after getting mixed signals on the operation’s chances, even though many of his military advisers told him it stood little chance of success without American air cover. Kennedy informed the exiles ahead of time there would be no American military assistance.
Documents that have come to light since — documents that Kennedy supposedly never saw — indicate the CIA knew the mission would fail without U.S. support, but the agency expected Kennedy to cave once the operation was underway.
Other documents unearthed after Peter Kornbluh of George Washington University’s National Security Archive filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2011 showed that Kennedy did indeed relent to the exiles’ appeal for air power support. In fact, four Alabama Air National Guard pilots died providing support. The document reveals the pilots were instructed by the CIA and White House to claim to be mercenaries if they were captured. The Pentagon took 15 years after the incident to recognize what the men did and hold a medal ceremony, which was kept secret to all but their families.
Kennedy later blamed himself for being naïve enough to believe the CIA and military chiefs who told him the mission could succeed.
And rather than weaken Castro’s strengthening grip on Cuba, the Bay of Pigs disaster solidified his standing throughout Latin America. The U.S. was pilloried in the region for its interference and imperialism. Kennedy was seen as weak and indecisive, which possibly set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis the next year.