Jon Wiener: Bay of Pigs, 50 Years Later: The Lessons Kennedy Never Learned

Roundup: Talking About History

Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine.  His most recent book is Historians in Trouble.

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, April 17-18, 1961, when a CIA-trained army of Cuban exiles were sent by President Kennedy to overthrow Fidel Castro. Their humiliating defeat showed the world that Cubans would fight to defend their revolution, especially against an invasion sponsored by the United States. But that’s not the lesson Kennedy learned from his first great defeat as president.

Kennedy had campaigned in 1960 promising to remove Castro from power. The defeat at the Bay of Pigs did not change his mind about that. Instead, he ordered the CIA to find other ways to get rid of Fidel—ranging from sabotage of the Cuban economy to assassination. And planning began for another invasion, one that wouldn’t make the mistakes of the Bay of Pigs.

As the 1962 mid-term elections approached, Republicans denounced what they called Kennedy’s “do-nothing” policy toward Fidel since the Bay of Pigs. Reagan, Goldwater and William Buckley led conservatives in arguing for a new invasion, doing it right this time—using American troops instead of Cuban exiles, with massive firepower and bombing. The Senate and House both passed resolutions authorizing the use of the US military in a new invasion...

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