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Will: Lessons from the Bay of Pigs invasion

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

At 4 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1959, an hour when there never were commercial flights from Havana, David Atlee Phillips was lounging in a lawn chair there, sipping champagne after a New Year's Eve party, when a commercial aircraft flew low over his house. He surmised that dictator Fulgencio Batista was fleeing because Fidel Castro was arriving. He was right. Soon he, and many others, would be spectacularly wrong about Cuba.

According to Jim Rasenberger's history of the Bay of Pigs invasion, “The Brilliant Disaster,” Phillips was “a handsome 37-year-old former stage actor” who “had been something of a dilettante before joining the CIA.” There, however, he was an expert.

And in April 1960, he assured Richard Bissell, the CIA's invasion mastermind, that within six months, radio propaganda would produce “the proper psychological climate” for the invasion to trigger a mass Cuban uprising against Castro.

The invasion brigade had only about 1,400 members but began its members' serial numbers at 2,500 to trick Castro into thinking it was larger. Castro's 32,000-man army was supplemented by 200,000 to 300,000 militia members. U.S. intelligence was ignorant of everything from Castro's capabilities to Cuba's geography to Cubans' psychology.

Fifty-two years and many misadventures later, the invasion still fascinates as, in historian Theodore Draper's description, “one of those rare events in history — a perfect failure.” It had a perverse fecundity.

It led to President John Kennedy's decision to demonstrate toughness by deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Rasenberger writes that three weeks after the April 1961 invasion, Kennedy sent Vice President Lyndon Johnson to Saigon: “Johnson's assignment was to deliver a message to South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem that the United States intended to fully support the South Vietnamese effort to beat the Communists.”

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