The Bay of Pigs Fiasco After Fifty Years


Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer at the graduate Diplomacy Studies Program, Tel Aviv University, Israel. He received his doctoral degree in Modern History from Oxford University.

Fifty years ago the Bay of Pigs fiasco marred the beginning of John Kennedy's presidency and led to a reassessment of the foreign policy decision-making process of the United States.

A CIA plan inspired, devised and approved under the former president Dwight Eisenhower, it was aimed at launching an invasion of Cuba by a group of exiles with the aim of overthrowing the regime of Fidel Castro.

The invasion took place on the 17th of April. It lasted only two days. Of the total of 1,400 exiles who took part in the botched invasion most were taken prisoners and around 100 died in battle.

The assumption behind the plan was that the Cuban population would rally round the invaders. As a result of the failed invasion, the Castro regime was actually strengthened, gaining more popular support in the face of what was seen, or portrayed to be, a foreign-led invasion of the country.

Although President Kennedy tried to do his utmost to conceal the role played by the United States, the invasion was largely seen as a US operation.

Kennedy and his close advisers were subsequently angry at the CIA for being so ill-prepared and at the military for not issuing clear warnings of the dangers entailed in the invasion plan.

Kennedy reached a conclusion with far-reaching consequences. From then on, he would never again depend exclusively on the CIA and the military in shaping US foreign and national security policy. Every aspect of US policy, no matter how directly related it might be to intelligence or military matters, would be studied in depth by his civilian national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, and his staff at the White House.

Never again, Kennedy stressed, would the CIA and the military be the sole source of advice before an operational decision is taken.

As a result, a process already conceived by Kennedy prior to the failed invasion of Cuba was reinforced and speeded up: The White House would henceforward become the center of policy-making and the national security adviser and his staff the main assistants to the president in shaping foreign and national security policy.

His national security adviser and his staff were moved from the Executive Building, just outside the White House, to the basement of the White House, near the president and next door to the Situation Room, from which, in a sense, foreign policy would be conducted and supervised.

Furthermore, no decision would be taken without prior consultation with a variety of sources in the administration and beyond it. McGeorge Bundy as national security adviser saw as part of his role to ensure the president was furnished with every opinion on the matter under discussion, even if that opinion were the exact opposite of what he or even the president believed in.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco was more of a political than a military disaster. The image of the United States was tarnished; the reputation of its leaders was adversely affected; and the Castro regime gained much internal support and was filled with enormous self-confidence.

To be sure, Kennedy did not change his negative view of the Castro regime; indeed, the failure to topple it only reinforced his determination to try and bring about its downfall by whatever means possible.

It is in the manner by which policy would be shaped from then on that the Bay of Pigs fiasco left its deepest and most enduring legacy.

When, in October 1962, the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, Kennedy faced what was to be the gravest crisis in the whole history of the Cold War. The way he and his advisers handled that crisis owed a great deal to the lessons learned from the Bay of Pigs operation.

Kennedy himself was aware, even prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 that he should not repeat the mistakes done with regard to the Bay of Pigs operation in any future crisis.


The successful outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was a result of several reasons, a principal one being the way the Kennedy administration managed it. Had it not been for the lessons of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis might have developed differently than it actually did, with unforeseen consequences to the world.

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