April 17

This Day in History

Presidential

Apr 17, 1961:

JFK waits for word on the Bay of Pigs invasion

President John F. Kennedy waits for word on the success of a covert plan to overthrow Cuba's government on this day in 1961. Kennedy had authorized Operation Zapata, the attempt to overthrow Cuba's communist leader, Fidel Castro, on April 15. The failed coup became what many have called the worst foreign-policy decision of Kennedy's administration.

When Kennedy entered the White House in January 1961, he inherited from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, an ongoing conflict with the leftist regime in Cuba. Aided by Soviet-bloc weaponry, Castro led a brutal clampdown on human rights and dissent after taking power in 1959. That same year, Eisenhower had implemented a trade embargo on Cuban goods and, in 1960, broke off diplomatic relations with the island nation. Before he left office, Eisenhower had approved, but did not launch, a covert plan devised by his vice president, Richard Nixon, and the CIA to overthrow Cuba's leader, Fidel Castro. When Kennedy assumed the presidency, he retained Eisenhower's CIA and military advisors who had helped plan the mission. At their urging, Kennedy made the final decision to send approximately 1,200 CIA-trained Cuban exiles to land at the bay on Cuba's southern coast called Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). The attempted coup failed miserably, largely due to faulty intelligence. Kennedy and the CIA leaders in charge of the mission (all inherited from Eisenhower) believed that Cuba's people and its military would spontaneously rise up to help the exile army overthrow Castro, a grave miscalculation. Instead, Castro's forces captured most of the exile army, executed some and held the rest prisoner until private American groups raised funds for their ransom.

The CIA and JFK's administration blamed each other for the plan's failure. The CIA cited JFK's failure to order prolonged offensive air strikes against Cuba's air force at the same time as the land operation, while JFK and his advisors blamed the CIA for keeping information from the president, including several analysts' conclusions that the plan's success was dubious. The ensuing tension between the president and his military and intelligence advisors prompted JFK to rely even more heavily on the advice of his brother, Robert F. Bobby Kennedy, who was also his attorney general, when making future foreign-policy decisions.

A former special assistant to JFK, Arthur Schlesinger, has since recorded Bobby Kennedy's recollections of the Bay of Pigs invasion. In a memorandum written in June 1961, Bobby Kennedy concluded that the mission broke down from the incompetency of the CIA and a complete lack of communication. He also noticed that the disaster weighed heavily on his brother, who was concerned about how it would reflect upon his leadership and the nation's credibility. In an oral history interview, Bobby Kennedy recounted that he and his brother had been through a lot of things together, and he was more upset [by the Bay of Pigs failure] than any other.

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