Bay of Pigs

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(HOST) Today marks the anniversary of something most Americans prefer to forget. Commentator Vic Henningsen believes its worth remembering and discussing.

(HENNINGSEN) It’s a familiar story. Concerned about a power-
mad dictator, an American president considers an invasion to topple the tyrant, bring democracy to an oppressed people,
and prevent the spread of a fanatic ideology in a region critically important to American security.

Intelligence reports from the CIA and the Defense Department predict that the invaders will be greeted as liberators. Ignoring voices urging caution, he authorizes the attack.

Forty-five years ago this morning, on April 17th, 1961, a battalion of Cuban exiles, secretly backed by the CIA, landed at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in an effort to overthrow Fidel Castro. Poorly planned, based on faulty intelligence and wishful thinking, the operation was a catastrophe. The invaders died or were captured on the beach.

Historians agree that the Bay of Pigs was an unqualified disaster that damaged American credibility around the world. What’s rele-
vant today is their disagreement about the impact the abortive invasion had on the President who approved it: John F. Kennedy.

Many historians portray Kennedy as unsure about the projected invasion, but who went ahead because he reluctantly trusted the “experts” of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When disaster struck, they argue, Kennedy showed real leadership, refusing to make a bad situation worse by authorizing American air support and publicly taking personal responsibility for the failure.

More importantly, by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, Kennedy had learned the hard way not to place unqualified trust in those same experts. He resisted pressure from the Joint Chiefs for a quick armed response in favor of more nuanced efforts at resolution.

Had JFK followed hard-line advice, these historians argue, the U.S. would have engaged in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

Other historians disagree, suggesting that Kennedy welcomed optimistic predictions of success for a covert invasion of Cuba because they fit his own views of the world and of how tough leaders should act. The failed invasion, they point out, deepened tensions in the Cold War and led directly to American confrontation with the Soviet Union in Berlin and, in 1962, again in Cuba. Far from swearing off efforts to destabilize unfriendly governments, Kennedy was more enthusiastic than ever, funding a CIA-backed counter-insurgency effort in Laos as well as Operation Mongoose, the famous plan to undermine the Cuban government that included over thirty unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Castro.

So which interpretation is a more accurate reflection of reality? Did the Bay of Pigs debacle give Kennedy the wisdom to avoid nuclear catastrophe in the Cuban Missile Crisis or did it reinforce a recklessness that intensified the Cold War and led directly to a nuclear near-miss over Cuba? Or, perhaps, a bit of both?

Our answers to these questions matter. The parallels to our current situation are not exact, but they’re sufficiently obvious to merit attention. What presidents learn from their experience is not just for historians to debate.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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