Cuba: The Bay of Pigs Invasion

Kennedy's Cuban Fiasco

Cuban Defenders during the Bay of Pigs Invasion
Cuban Defenders during the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Three Lions/Getty Images

In April of 1961, the United States government sponsored an attempt by Cuban exiles to assault Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro and the communist government he led. The exiles were well armed and trained in Central America by the  CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). The attack failed because of the selection of a poor landing site, inability to disable the Cuban Air Force and overestimation of the Cuban people’s willingness to support a strike against Castro. The diplomatic fallout from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was considerable and led to an increase of cold war tensions.


Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro had grown increasingly antagonistic towards the United States and their interests. The  Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations authorized the CIA to come up with ways to remove him: attempts were made to poison him, anticommunist groups inside Cuba were actively supported, and a radio station beamed slanted news at the island from Florida. The CIA even contacted the mafia about working together to assassinate Castro. Nothing worked.

Meanwhile, thousands of Cubans were fleeing the island, legally at first, then clandestinely. These Cubans were mostly upper and middle class who had lost properties and investments when the communist government took over. Most of the exiles settled in Miami, where they seethed with hatred for Castro and his regime. It didn’t take the CIA long to decide to make use of these Cubans and give them the chance to overthrow Castro.


When word spread in the Cuban exile community of an attempt to re-take the island, hundreds volunteered. Many of the volunteers were former professional soldiers under  Batista, but the CIA took care to keep Batista cronies out of the top ranks, not wanting the movement to be associated with the old dictator. The CIA also had its hands full keeping the exiles in line, as they had already formed several groups whose leaders often disagreed with one another. The recruits were sent to Guatemala, where they received training and weapons. The force was named the Brigade 2506, after the enlistment number of a soldier who was killed in training.

In April 1961, the 2506 Brigade was ready to go. They were moved to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, where they made their final preparations. They received a visit from Luís Somoza, dictator of Nicaragua, who laughingly asked them to bring him some hairs from Castro’s beard. They boarded different ships and set sail on April 13.


The US Air Force sent bombers to soften up Cuba’s defenses and take out the small Cuban Air Force. Eight B-26 Bombers left from Nicaragua on the night of April 14-15: they were painted to look like Cuban Air Force planes. The official story would be that Castro’s own pilots had rebelled against him. The bombers hit airfields and runways and did manage to destroy or damage several Cuban aircraft. Several people working at the airfields were killed. The bombing raids did not destroy all of Cuba’s airplanes, however, as some had been hidden. The bombers then “defected” to Florida. Air strikes continued against Cuban airfields and ground forces.


On April 17, the 2506 Brigade (also called the “Cuban Expeditionary Force”) landed on Cuban soil. The brigade consisted of over 1,400 well-organized and armed soldiers. Rebel groups within Cuba had been notified of the date of the assault and small-scale attacks broke out all over Cuba, although these had little lasting effect.

The landing site which had been selected was the “Bahía de Los Cochinos” or “Bay of Pigs” on the southern coast of Cuba, about a third of the way from the westernmost point. It is a part of the island that is sparsely populated and far from major military installations: it was hoped that the attackers would gain a beachhead and set up defenses before running into major opposition. It was an unfortunate choice, as the area selected is swampy and difficult to cross: the exiles would eventually become bogged down.

The forces landed with difficulty and quickly did away with the small local militia that resisted them. Castro, in Havana, heard of the attack and ordered units to respond. There were still a few serviceable aircraft remaining to the Cubans, and Castro ordered them to attack the small fleet that had brought the invaders. At first light, the airplanes attacked, sinking one ship and driving off the rest. This was crucial because although the men had been unloaded, the ships were still full of supplies including food, weapons, and ammunition.

Part of the plan had been to secure an airstrip near Playa Girón. 15 B-26 bombers were part of the invading force, and they were to land there to carry out attacks on military installations all over the island. Although the airstrip was captured, the lost supplies meant that it could not be put to use. The bombers could only operate for forty minutes or so before being forced to return to Central America to refuel. They were also easy targets for the Cuban Airforce, as they had no fighter escorts.

Attack Defeated

Later in the day of the 17th, Fidel Castro himself arrived on the scene just as his militiamen had managed to fight the invaders to a stalemate. Cuba had some Soviet-made tanks, but the invaders also had tanks and they evened up the odds. Castro personally took charge of the defense, commanding troops, and air forces.

For two days, the Cubans fought the invaders to a standstill. The intruders were dug in and had heavy guns, but had no reinforcements and were running low on supplies. The Cubans were not as well armed or trained but had the numbers, supplies and the morale that comes from defending their home. Although airstrikes from Central America continued to be effective and killed many Cuban troops on their way to the fray, the invaders were pushed steadily back. The result was inevitable: on April 19, the intruders surrendered. Some had been evacuated from the beach, but most (over 1,100) were taken as prisoners.


After the surrender, the prisoners were transferred to prisons around Cuba. Some of them were interrogated live on television: Castro himself showed up to the studios to question the invaders and answer their questions when he chose to do so. He reportedly told the prisoners that executing them all would only lessen their great victory. He proposed an exchange to President Kennedy: the prisoners for tractors and bulldozers.

The negotiations were long and tense, but eventually, the surviving members of the 2506 Brigade were exchanged for about $52 million worth of food and medicine.

Most of the CIA operatives and administrators responsible for the fiasco were fired or asked to resign. Kennedy himself took responsibility for the failed assault, which severely damaged his credibility.


Castro and the Revolution benefited greatly from the failed invasion. The revolution had been weakening, as hundreds of Cubans fled the harsh economic environment for the prosperity of the United States and elsewhere. The emergence of the US as a foreign threat solidified the Cuban people behind Castro. Castro, always a brilliant orator, made the most of the victory, calling it "the first imperialist defeat in the Americas."

The American government created a commission to look into the cause of the disaster. When the results came in, there were many causes. The CIA and invading force had assumed that ordinary Cubans, fed up with Castro and his radical economic changes, would rise up and support the invasion. The opposite happened: in the face of the invasion, most Cubans rallied behind Castro. Anti-Castro groups inside Cuba were supposed to rise up and help overthrow the regime: they did rise up but their support quickly fizzled.

The most important reason for the failure of the Bay of Pigs was the inability of the US and exile forces to eliminate Cuba's air force. With only a handful of planes, Cuba was able to sink or drive off all of the supply ships, stranding the attackers and cutting off their supplies. The same few planes were able to harass bombers coming from Central America, limiting their effectiveness. Kennedy's decision to try and keep US involvement a secret had much to do with this: he did not want the planes flying with US markings or from US controlled airstrips. He also refused to allow nearby US naval forces to assist the invasion, even when the tide began to turn against the exiles.

The Bay of Pigs was a very important point in relations the Cold War and between the US and Cuba. It made rebels and communists all over Latin America look to Cuba as an example of a tiny country that could resist imperialism even when outgunned. It solidified Castro's position and made him a hero around the world in countries that were dominated by foreign interests.

It is also inseparable from the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred barely a year and a half later. Kennedy, embarrassed by Castro and Cuba in the Bay of Pigs incident, refused to let it happen again and forced the Soviets to blink first in the standoff over whether or not the  Soviet Union would place strategic missiles in Cuba.


Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Coltman, Leycester. The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: the Yale University Press, 2003.

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Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "Cuba: The Bay of Pigs Invasion." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). Cuba: The Bay of Pigs Invasion. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Cuba: The Bay of Pigs Invasion." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).