Throughout the Cold War, a sharply-divided Europe always seemed the likeliest place for a full-scale conflict. During the late 1950s and early 1960s though, the Americas saw a rapid increase in pro-Communist sentiment — and most troubling for officials in the United States — nowhere more than in Cuba, just 90 miles from the American coast. Tension only got worse on April 17, 1961, when a group of rebels funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) led the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
For the Republic of Cuba, the first half of the 20th century was dominated by the United States. Following American intervention on the island during the Spanish-American War in 1898, the next five decades were defined by copious investment from the US and Canada. Naturally, the Cuban government became friendly with its trading partners, at times receiving financial and military support to stabilize democracy.
All that changed in March 1952, when General Fulgencio Batista pushed Carlos Prio Socarras out of office through a military coup. The former President of Cuba from the Democratic Socialist Party between 1940 and 1944, Batista immediately installed himself as the head of a new “disciplined democracy.”
Not everyone was pleased with Batista’s return as the head of the country. Correctly identifying his reign as the imposition of a dictatorship, hundreds of Cubans decided armed resistance would be the only way to regain control of the nation. Among them, a lawyer named Fidel Castro founded the 26th of July Movement (MR-26-7) — so named for its attack on an army barracks on July 26, 1953 — and set out to create a strong militia capable of defeating Batista’s forces.
Forced into exile, Castro and his brother, Raul, joined 80 others in Mexico during 1955 to plan a second attempt at taking power. When the men, including Argentine doctor and famed revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, landed on Cuba in December 1956, they seemed an unlikely threat to Batista’s government: many of the men were lost during an ambush days after arriving. Over the course of two years, MR-26-7 and Castro slowly gained support through a guerilla campaign. At the same time, the US cut diplomatic ties with the small island nation and installed an embargo — Batista’s days were numbered.
On January 1, 1959, with his army crumbling around him, Batista left Cuba for the nearby Dominican Republic. The next day, Castro’s army claimed Santiago de Cuba and the capital, Havana. Within hours, Castro’s hand-picked president, Manuel Urrutia Lleo, took office backed by various members of MR-26-7. Six weeks later, Castro declared himself Prime Minister.
Under threat from counter-revolutionary movements, the new Communist government applied pressure to its opposition in much the same manner as Batista had before — opting for psychological torture instead of physical abuse. The CIA, eager to ensure the nascent group of “Bandits” could continue fighting Castro, teamed with a variety of anti-Castro entities to fund and arm the rebels.
In search of resources for his army, Castro looked to Cuban oil refineries for increased production early in 1960. Employed by American companies under pressure from the US government, managers were forced to refuse his demands. Determined to see Soviet crude oil turned into fuel for his battle against the Bandits and other dissidents, Castro brought the refineries and other American-owned businesses under government control, driving President Dwight D. Eisenhower to end all Cuban sugar imports.
The strained relationship was made worse when La Coubre, a French ship filled with Belgian-made weapons, exploded in the harbor of Havana on March 4, 1960. The mysterious circumstances of the event led many to openly wonder if the CIA was directly involved. With at least 75 dead and hundreds wounded, the answer was clear to Castro. In retaliation, he ramped up his policy of seizing corporate interests in Cuba, taking over Coca-Cola and Sears locations by the following October.
In the meantime, the CIA worked diligently to plan an overthrow. Six years before, Director Allen Dulles organized a coup that installed a friendly government in Guatemala, giving him — and more importantly, Eisenhower — confidence the same could be done to Castro. With a 13 million dollar appropriation in August 1960, the CIA put the wheels in motion on a 1,500-man invasion led by exiled Cuban nationals, constantly tweaking the plan for a “Special Group” of the National Security Council.
Using bases in the southeastern US, Central America and Puerto Rico, the CIA trained the guerillas in a variety of military tactics relevant to a sea-based assault on Cuban beaches. Calling themselves Brigade 2506, the revolutionaries would be the first step in replacing Castro: operatives in South Florida were busy gathering Cuban exiles to join the Cuban Revolutionary Council, a de facto provisional government ready to be rushed to Havana after Brigade 2506 captured the capital.
Just days after taking office, President John F. Kennedy received full details of Operation Pluto on January 28, 1961. Though he had been briefed about the planned invasion to some extent following his election as Eisenhower’s successor in November 1960, it was the first time he saw the organization for the 1,000-man assault laid out in full. Kennedy instructed the CIA to continue working, believing the target of Trinidad, Cuba — a known counter-revolutionary locale — to be sound.
Eventually, the State Department called the plan unfeasible, concerned with the impact on foreign relations — it would be difficult for the Americans to deny involvement and, furthermore, the likelihood of civilian casualties was high. On April 4, 1961, an alternative Bay of Pigs invasion was presented to Kennedy, which he quickly approved.
Ten days later, diversionary tactics for Operation Zapata were launched. Cuban Foreign Minister Raul Roa stood before the United Nations on April 15th, decrying the Americans for attacking his homeland. Shortly after midnight on April 17, 1961, he was proved right: four transport ships carrying Brigade 2506 were steaming into the Bay of Pigs with CIA demolition teams out in front to clear the path.
The mission was a disaster. Coral reefs off the coast of Playa Giron blocked the rebel assault on the beach and, tipped off by locals, the Cuban military responded shortly after sunrise. American-made aircraft owned by the Cuban Air Force fired rockets on the advancing rebels, killing dozens just as they reached the sand. Castro’s soldiers moved methodically southward through the jungle to turn back the minor advances made by the invaders.
Over the next two days, Castro pushed his armies toward the coastline. Pilots hired by the CIA attempted to provide air support for Brigade 2506 with little results. The sheer number of tanks and artillery available to the Cuban military left the undermanned revolutionaries with no choice but to retreat to the beach in the hopes of a rescue. Of 1,400 men in the initial assault, only two dozen were recovered — more than 1,200 were captured and imprisoned. (Many would be released in exchange for a 53 million dollar shipment of food and medical supplies.)
In the months that followed, the embarrassment of the Kennedy administration knew no bounds. At an Organization of the American States conference in Uruguay the following August, Che Guevara slipped a note to one of Kennedy’s secretaries: “Thanks for Playa Giron. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it’s stronger than ever.”
The US would never back a direct military intervention in Cuba again, using overflights and the intelligence community to monitor the condition of Castro’s government. This strategy would lead to the discovery of nuclear weapons on the island — and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis — in October 1962.
Also On This Day:
1397 – Geoffrey Chaucer begins reciting The Canterbury Tales at the court of King Richard II of England.
1895 – The Treaty of Shimonoseki brings the First Sino-Japanese War to an end, granting Japan rights to Korea from China.
1949 – At midnight, the Republic of Ireland officially gains independence from the British Commonwealth.
1971 – The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is formed.
1986 – The Three Hundred and Thirty-Five Years’ War between the Netherlands and the Isles of Sicily ends.