The Ex-Men Did It: 60th Anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion

Today’s post was written by Christen Brown, Archives Technician in the Special Media Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

April 17 to April 20, 2021 marks the 60th Anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion when Cuban refugees banded together to invade Cuba and overthrow the Castro regime.

When the Cuban Revolution successfully overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Fidel Castro, a key figure in the revolt, assumed the position of Cuba’s Prime Minister.  Ties were soon severed between the United States and Cuba leading Castro to align himself with the Soviet Union, led by Nikita Khrushchev. Having distrust and fear of the potential relationship between Castro and Khrushchev, President Dwight Eisenhower funded the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in March 1960 to develop and initiate a plan to invade Cuba.  Shortly before President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, he was informed by the CIA of a plan for displaced Cubans to invade Cuba, with the expectation that Cuban locals would join the cause to overthrow Castro and establish a new non-communist government.

Presidents Kennedy & Eisenhower walking side by side and smiling
President John F. Kennedy meets with Dwight Eisenhower at Camp David, 1961 (NAID 194198)

The CIA recruited Cuban refugees in 1960 – forming Brigade 2506, and conducted tactical military training in Guatemala for more than 13 weeks.  Many of the unit leaders already had experience in revolutions as they fought with Castro against Batista’s government, or later against Castro.  The brigade training cycle lasted from November 1960 to March 1961.  Commanders and key officers attended the pre-staging briefings held at the training base in Guatemala from March 25 to April 7, 1961 to discuss the operation plan.  Contingency plans were discussed but only down to the battalion commanders to “avoid defeatist talk and apprehension concerning success of the operation,” as revealed in Annex No. 17 (NAID 193259).

During the night of April 17, 1961 five combat divers entered the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de los Cochinos) and directed four ships carrying Brigade 2506, composed of about 1,400 Cuban exiles.  Castro was informed a few hours after the invasion started and ordered airstrikes and all units to be on high alert.  The US backed ships started to make landfall but were immediately under attack – at least one ship was already lost due to the early airstrikes Castro ordered. Communication among the exiles was also lost because radio equipment got wet when the brigadiers landed.  Castro’s army maintained full control of Cuba’s airspace and destroyed more than half of the invader’s air support.  Disguised American B-26 planes, ordered by President Kennedy, were ordered to help the brigade’s invasion but arrived too late and were shot down.  Brigade 2506 continued their invasion but with their supplies depleted, two sunken ships, and no reinforcements, they were forced to retreat leading to a failed invasion and capture of about 1,200 brigadiers.

statement from RFK regarding sustained neutrality in spite of Cuban invasion
Statement by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy regarding Cuba and Neutrality Laws (NAID 193990)

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) shortly after the invasion released a public statement describing Neutrality Laws and how the United States did not commit transgressions (NAID 193990).  His statements suggested the Neutrality Laws were not designed for the situation the world was in at the time, namely the Cold War.  He also stated the Laws were never intended to stop someone from leaving the United States to fight for a cause or meet up with like-minded individuals in a neutral area or a second Country to carry out a mission on a third Country.  RFK’s statement explained the actions of those who carried-out the invasion without indicting them as criminals and did not outright deny the United States orchestration and involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Since the Cuban refugees were trained by the CIA, a clandestine agency, and not the United States Military, the Neutrality Laws remained intact as there was no official U.S. government action.  RFK’s statements were viewed as a way to protect the actions of the United States, President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and Brigade 2506.

President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy standing facing each other
President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy standing in front of the Oval Office Doorway (NAID 194221)

The captured brigadiers remained imprisoned for almost two years after the invasion.  The prisoners were released after a deal between the United States and Cuba was made: $53 million worth of food and medicine in exchange for the Cuban exiles.  RFK had a hand in gaining support from companies to supply the goods that were used for the exchange.  After the first prisoners arrived in the United States, President Kennedy invited the brigadiers to the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida on December 29, 1962 expressing appreciation to the Brigade and their flag.

After the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba’s status in the world changed as they became a known and feared force in the middle of the Cold War, especially with their quickly growing relationship with the Soviet Union.