Bay of Pigs: A Case Study in Strategic Leadership and Failed Assumptions

Introduction

The Bay of Pigs invasion was President John F. Kennedy’s most controversial foreign policy mistake, and it serves as a useful case study in strategic miscalculation and faulty critical analysis. The failures in the planning and conduct of the operation highlight the leadership challenges and inherent difficulty in attempting to covertly overthrow another government deemed hostile to National Security interests. Planned initially during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration and executed by President Kennedy’s administration, the Bay of Pigs was devised as an attempt to foment a popular uprising against the government of the newly triumphant Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro.

Operation Zapata was a covert effort led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to organize and train expatriate Cubans as a direct action force to invade Cuba and establish a base of operations that would incite a general revolt against Castro.[1] The CIA had been responsible for the successful, covert coups d’état in Iran under Operation Ajax in 1953, and in Guatemala under Operation Success in 1954, proving a U.S. aptitude for this type of operation.[2] To maintain plausible deniability, President Kennedy wanted it to be executed under the auspices of rich Cuban dissidents who were willing to pay for the cost of the invasion themselves.[3] In the end, the operation was overly complex, based on multiple unsubstantiated assumptions, and underwent too many last minute changes, which ultimately rendered it impossible for the operation to comply with an absolute requirement that the U.S. maintain plausible deniability of its participation.

The Bay of Pigs invasion begins when a CIA-financed and -trained group of Cuban refugees lands in Cuba and attempts to topple the communist government of Fidel Castro. (History on the Net)

The operation began on April 15, 1961 (D-2), when eight B-26 bombers, piloted by the US-backed Cuban Expeditionary Force, also known as Brigade 2506, flew from Nicaragua to designated targets in Cuba. Originally, Operation Zapata called for fifteen bombers, but this was reduced to eight the day prior at the request of President Kennedy in an effort to reduce the overall signature of the strike.[4] After the B-26 bombers attacked Cuba, a single, bullet-ridden B-26 bomber with Cuban markings landed at Miami International Airport to complete a ruse that the attack was being launched by defectors from within Castro’s Cuba and that a tipping point had been reached.[5] This diversion was meant to signal that the U.S. played no direct role in the attack and maintain the veneer of plausible deniability in advance of the invasion, which the U.S. could then publicly support as an oppressed people’s call for democracy.

On April 16, 1961, President Kennedy ordered the cancellation of a second planned series of the Cuban Expeditionary Force’s aerial bombings meant to establish favorable conditions for the amphibious landings due to confusion about its operational necessity.[6] The invasion officially began with the beachhead landing at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. Officially reported available forces for the operation included 1,511 men, fifteen B-26 bombers, ten C-54 transports, five C-46 transports, two Landing Craft, Infantry; three Landing Craft, Utility; four Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel; seven chartered commercial freighters; and one 165-foot Cuban coastal steamer.[7] It was soon evident that the (D-2) aerial bombings failed to significantly incapacitate the Cuban Air Force, leaving the invasion force to deal with stiff resistance.

By April 19, 1961 the invasion force was becoming combat ineffective, so President Kennedy authorized additional air cover from six unmarked U.S. jets for one hour to support the invasion forces’ B-26s.[8] The two elements, however, never rendezvoused because the CIA and Pentagon failed to plan for the time difference between Nicaragua and Cuba. Complicating matters further, four U.S. military service-members were killed while piloting Cuban Expeditionary Force B-26s, which contradicted President Kennedy’s order against U.S. personnel participating directly in the fight.[9] Between April 17-20, Castro’s military and militia battled Brigade 2506, ultimately defeating them and taking approximately 1,197 prisoners, killing 89, downing nine B-26 bombers, and sinking two 5,000-ton boats; one communication boat; three Landing Craft, Utility; and five for troops.[10] The evidence indicating U.S. involvement after the Brigade’s defeat was almost impossible to suppress, and, although not publicly acknowledged by the government, it was universally understood that President Kennedy had lied to the world, both during the operation and in its aftermath.

Members of Assault Brigade 2506, after their capture in the Bay of Pigs, Cuba. (Miguel Vinas/AFP/Getty Images)

To understand how the Bay of Pigs materialized as an operation is to understand the mentality of the U.S. political atmosphere of the time. Communism appeared to be spreading globally and its ideology seemed to be in direct opposition to the U.S., both militarily and economically. The only acceptable position for any political candidate was that the U.S. had to assume leadership and proactively combat communism around the globe.[11] The desire to pursue a covert operation was born out of the evolutionary shift in U.S. foreign policy that occurred after the end of World War II. It was in this era when the U.S. began to experiment with covert operations as a tool of foreign policy to shape geopolitical situations without committing military forces. Central to the success of this approach was the necessity to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability of involvement. President Eisenhower believed in the almost infallible capacity of covert action as a means to shape events and his personal success in the Guatemala Coup of 1954 led him to lean on key members from the Operation Success CIA team to initiate plans for a covert coup attempt in Cuba in the same manner.[12]

President Kennedy was a product of the early Cold-War years and approached his presidency in a manner similar to President Eisenhower. Kennedy possessed a strong sense of duty to confront Communism using the full spectrum of actions available to him as a president. This approach was reinforced by Kennedy’s electoral success, fueled in part by his decision to appear more anti-Communist than his electoral opponent, Vice President Nixon.[13] President Kennedy’s platform for Latin America was essentially the same as Eisenhower’s had been when he was elected, which was to admonish the previous administration for not paying attention to the region and promising to do so under his own administration. On the key topic of covert action, Kennedy did not differ from Eisenhower on the philosophy of its usefulness to combat communism. A key difference however, was Kennedy’s lack of experience or understanding of covert operations. As result, he endorsed Operation Zapata's somewhat hastily and relied heavily on advisors for key analysis and critiques. When viewed in hindsight, advisors failed to communicate to President Kennedy key information about the operation. Furthermore, the impacts of decisions he was making to critical components of the operation seem to have not been discussed or considered.[14]

In understanding the shortfalls that plagued the operation what emerges is a patchwork of restraints and assumptions at the strategic level which directly impacted the tactical situation and led to what Jim Rasenberger eloquently called “the brilliant disaster.” Rasenberger described this as the perfectly planned failure by intelligent men all committed to the defense of democracy.[15] The restraints, identified as strategic priorities, embody the factors which President Kennedy and the operation needed to put in place in order set the parameters for how the invasion was to be conducted. The assumptions embody the accepted knowledge of the situation that could not be verified, but were thought to be generally understood, on which all other decisions were predicated upon.

Strategic Priorities

The strategic priorities for both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations began with stemming the spread of Communism and preventing further radicalization in Latin America. The fight against communism was the global effort espoused by the U.S. and constituted the only policy direction given by President Eisenhower towards Latin America.[16] To accomplish this, President Eisenhower successfully pursued the use of covert action in Guatemala. President Kennedy accepted this viewpoint and decided to move forward with the covert Cuban invasion planned by his predecessor on the premise that it was the preferred means to stem communism in Cuba.

The second strategic priority President Kennedy elevated was the improvement of relations with the Soviet Union. Close to the timeframe that the invasion was supposed to occur, Kennedy solicited a commitment to hold his first U.S.-Soviet Summit to discuss the status of the strained relationship.[17] President Kennedy understood that any U.S. association with a coup attempt could derail talks. Perhaps more importantly, Kennedy believed that such an action, made public, could provide a pretext for the Soviet Union to overtly take action in West Berlin. President Kennedy, however, wanted to move forward with the operation because of reports that the Cubans were getting increasing military support from the Soviet Union, and the situation necessitated action.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy. (JFK Library)

The third strategic priority adopted by the Kennedy administration was plausible deniability. President Kennedy had attacked the Eisenhower administration for abandoning President Roosevelt’s promises to Latin America, and he did not want to mar his presidency at its outset by implicating the U.S. in another intervention. Kennedy was sensitive to the negative perception of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Latin America and was not willing to upset an already tenuous relationship in the region by engaging in an overt overthrow of Cuba.[18] President Kennedy’s assessment of what had transpired in Guatemala thus led him to trust the CIA with the covert operation, as evidenced by the continued service of Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell, the two most responsible for Operation Success.

The last strategic priority the President Kennedy imposed was the need to take action quickly. During his presidential campaign he made promises to be aggressive, and this self-imposed pressure, coupled with an immature understanding of how complex the operation was, led him to act hastily.[19] These four priorities ensured that the only feasible option to remove Castro was immediate covert action.

Failed Assumptions

In adhering to the above priorities, Kennedy moved forward with seemingly benign assumptions about his understanding of the situation and confidence in the input from his advisors that proved fatal to the chances for success of Operation Zapata.

Incipiently, the President and his group assumed that they were properly assessing all the data and that was just not the case. The first and most important failed assumption was that the group inherently felt it was being thoroughly critical of all facets of the problem. The concept of groupthink was born out of the study of major disasters, of which the Bay of Pigs would become a primary case.[20] The President and his senior leaders needed to be more skeptical of the operation and of likely outcomes based on changing conditions Kennedy kept imposing, such as the cancellation of the second B-26 bomber run. The ability for the group of individuals around President Kennedy to be in almost complete harmony about such a complex operation and approve its execution without raising critical objections is staggering in hindsight.

The group’s self-confidence in its decision-making ability directly resulted in the failure of the operation. There were objections to the operation first voiced in an unnamed CIA memo noting that the circumstances surrounding the success of the coup in Guatemala did not translate to the circumstances in Cuba. The memo highlighted that Fidel Castro enjoyed popular support, unlike the Guatemalan president, and that there was a “unique coincidence of favorable factors” and “unbelievable luck” that had allowed the Guatemalan coup to succeed.[21] Objections were again noted in more detail by the president’s Special Assistant Arthur Schlesinger; in this case, however, he was preparing President Kennedy to deal with the potential aftermath of the operation rather than persuading him to cancel the it.[22]

The second failed assumption was Kennedy’s belief that he could adequately rely on the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff for tactical advice and good feedback on his last minute changes. Unfortunately, the CIA's Operation Zapata Director, Richard Bissell, failed to communicate in concrete terms the impact Kennedy’s changes would have on mission success.[23] President Kennedy’s late decision to forbid any U.S. participation during the invasion, the initial reduction in B-26s and subsequent cancellation of the second air strike, dramatically changed the character of the operation. The potential impacts on the operation were never clearly communicated to the President until after each event had occurred. The Joint Chiefs, for their part, failed to analyze closely the operation because it did not belong to them, so their affirmations only served to enhance that the plan was sound no matter what changes were made.[24]

A subset of this miscalculation, internal to the CIA, but profound nonetheless, was the fact that the secrecy of Operation Zapata was such that the analytical branch of the CIA never provided insight into its conception.[25] Therefore, CIA feedback was devoid of its own critical analysis before reaching the President, which compounded the issue of faulty advice directly begin given to the president. Kennedy thus, made tactical decisions under the restraint of maximizing plausible deniability, which fundamentally changed the capacity of the invasion force and compounded the difficulty experienced, all without much objection from the true tactical experts.

  Cuban leader Fidel Castro sits inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs invasion. (AP)

Cuban leader Fidel Castro sits inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs invasion. (AP)

The final key failed assumption was the estimate of the Cuban situation. The government’s capacity to mobilize support, the loyalty of the armed forces and the strengthening of the Cuban-Soviet relationship all coalesced to create a scenario where a popular uprising instigated by a small invasion force, without direct support from the U.S., stood no chance of success.[26] There was no popular uprising because the Cuban Underground movement did not even know that the invasion was occurring. Castro had full knowledge of the impending invasion because the very process of recruiting Cubans in Miami simultaneously alerted Castro’s informants. By the time of the invasion the Soviet Union solidified a relationship with Castro and supplied equipment and arms for the Cuban defense. These failed assumptions directly informed decisions on the tactical priorities and amplified already existing tactical miscalculations ultimately resulting in the operation’s failure.

Conclusion

The priorities President Kennedy had identified were all based on the political and geopolitical threats his administration faced, and they informed the decisions he made about all aspects of Operation Zapata. A litany of failed assumptions, arising from several sources ultimately doomed the operation to failure. These fundamental assumptions, such as the belief that the advice to the President was thoroughly and completely vetted by relevant agencies, that each advisor actually believed in the likelihood of success they purported, and the belief that the situation in Cuba itself was well-defined, were all deeply flawed. In hindsight, they amplify the need for executive leadership to conduct vigorous critiques of the operation each time changes were made. The phenomenon of groupthink pervaded the operation and led to the acceptance of conditions that made the tactical situation unwinnable.

The real lesson to be gleaned from this example is that strategic leadership must not be content in merely believing that because an operation is justified and well-planned that those characteristics can be counted on as a guarantor of success.

The real lesson to be gleaned from this example is that strategic leadership must not be content in merely believing that because an operation is justified and well-planned that those characteristics can be counted on as a guarantor of success. No level of intelligence, no degree of importance and no magnitude of immediacy can immunize risky operations, such as covert coups d’état from failure. The Bay of Pigs is but one case study when all the variable factors converged into situation of grandiose failure. However, as the anonymous CIA memo noted, “favorable factors” and “unbelievable luck” can also lead to great success. Guatemala succeeded in large part due to the deposed government of Arbenz believing that U.S. would follow the insurgent revolt with military support. In Cuba, Castro was prepared for a fight and welcomed it to further his own cause. Leaders ultimately, are the stopgap to these types of critical failures.


Vincent Dueñas is an active duty U.S. Army Western Hemisphere Foreign Area Officer with multiple deployments to Latin America and Afghanistan. He is an Associate Member of the Military Writer’s Guild and earned his graduate degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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Header Image: President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy at the white house on Oct. 1, 1962 in Washington, D. C. (Chicago Tribune)


Notes:

[1] Col. Jack Hawkins, “Clandestine Services History: Record of Paramilitary Action Against the Castro Government of Cuba,” Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, April 5, 1961, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/clandestine-services-history-record-paramilitary-action-against-castro (accessed April 24, 2017), 4, 58-59.

[2] Jim Rasenberger, The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America's Doomed Invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs (New York: Scribner, 2011), 44.

[3] Haynes Bonner Johnson, et al, The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders' Story of Brigade 2506 (New York: Norton, 1964), 380.

[4] Bay of Pigs/Playa Giron Chronology of Events: 40 Years After. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/bayofpigs/chron.html (accessed October 13, 2016); Col. Jack Hawkins, “Clandestine Services History: Record of Paramilitary Action Against the Castro Government of Cuba,” Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, April 5, 1961, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/clandestine-services-history-record-paramilitary-action-against-castro (accessed April 24, 2017), 51.

[5] Bay of Pigs/Playa Giron Chronology of Events: 40 Years After.

[6] “Taylor Report,” Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, August 15, 1961, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp80b01676r001900160002-5 (accessed April 24, 2017), 3; Col. Jack Hawkins, “Clandestine Services History: Record of Paramilitary Action Against the Castro Government of Cuba,” Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, April 5, 1961, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/clandestine-services-history-record-paramilitary-action-against-castro (accessed April 24, 2017), 40-41.

[7] Hawkins, “Clandestine Services History,” 32-33.

[8] Bay of Pigs/Playa Giron Chronology of Events: 40 Years After.

[9] Bay of Pigs/Playa Giron Chronology of Events: 40 Years After. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/bayofpigs/chron.html (accessed October 13, 2016); “Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation: Volume 1 Part 2”, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, September 1979, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/official-history-bay-pigs-operation-volume-1-part-2 (accessed April 24, 2017), 57-59.

[10] Bay of Pigs/Playa Giron Chronology of Events: 40 Years After.

[11] Thomas G. Paterson, Kennedy's Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 407.

[12] Ibid., 407.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Peter Kornbluh, Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba (New York: The New Press, 1998), 339.

[15] Rasenberger, The Brilliant Disaster, xviii-xix.

[16] Rasenberger, The Brilliant Disaster, 460.

[17] JFK Library, “50th Anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion,” Performers Timothy Naftali, Peter Kornbluh, Alfredo Duran, et al, streaming video, 1:30:34, https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/mDT9kKj0dEaYkORl3AiPJg.aspx (accessed October 13, 2016)

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Irving L.Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), 349.

[21] Rasenberger, The Brilliant Disaster, 460.

[22] Ibid., 460.

[23] JFK Library, “50th Anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion.”

[24] Rasenberger, The Brilliant Disaster, 460.

[25] Kornbluh, Bay of Pigs Declassified, 339.

[26] JFK Library, “50th Anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion.”