Analysis: The lessons Kennedy had learned from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs were to stand him - and the world - in good stead during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Cuban-American relations still remain complex sixty years later.

Sixty years ago, on 17 April 1961, a brigade of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trained Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs. These exiles were part of a covert US plan, developed in the final year of the Eisenhower administration, to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro. Eisenhower had previously used the CIA to overthrow problematic regimes in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954.

In January 1960, the CIA set up a Task Force WH4, Branch 4 of the Western Hemisphere Division, to deliver upon President Eisenhower's request for an ambitious covert programme to topple the Castro government.

In early April 1961, John F. Kennedy, less than three months into his presidency, reluctantly approved an invasion plan of Cuba that had its origins in the setting up of this CIA Task Force. Kennedy later claimed that the invasion plan was so advanced by the time he had entered into office, on 20 January 1961, that it seemed impossible for him to cancel it.

Though some of the rookie President’s key advisors were sceptical that the invasion plan would succeed, they were not forthright in their criticism of it and some of them held their counsel.

The invasion plan was for 1,400 Cuban exiles, launched by boat from Guatemala and Nicaragua, to establish a beachhead at the Bay of Pigs and to set in train from south-west Cuba a popular uprising against Castro. What ultimately transpired was a military disaster and, over three days beginning on 17th April 1961, the invading Cuban exiles were routed by the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces.

Castro had been prepared for a US-sponsored invasion and, taking personal military command, he speedily mobilised a militia of 200,000 men and dispatched large numbers to the beachhead. At the same time, Castro ordered the rounding up of 100,000 suspected Cuban dissidents, stymieing American hopes of a popular uprising.

Despite poor CIA planning, the invasion might still have succeeded had President Kennedy been prepared to authorise US air-strikes, as the conflict at the Bay of Pigs quickly turned against the invading exiles.

Kennedy declined to do so as he wanted to conceal US involvement from the world, but America’s key role in the failed invasion would soon be revealed in the press and discussed at the United Nations.

Fidel Castro


By 20 April 1961, all of the CIA-trained exiles had surrendered. 118 of them had been killed in combat and a number more of them would later be executed by the Castro regime. Kennedy was rattled by the whole experience. He was not used to setbacks in a political career that had gone from success to success.

A close aide later wrote that he had unintentionally observed Kennedy crying in the arms of his wife in the private quarters in the White House, as the military operation was failing.

Publicly, JFK took full responsibility for this foreign policy disaster. He told a press conference on 21st April: "There’s an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan. ... I am the responsible officer of the government."

Behind closed doors, the President was livid, railing that "we took the beating of our lives" and querying whether "the CIA and the Pentagon are stupid?" Kennedy was also critical of himself and his own personal advisors – or at least those of whom he had kept in the loop about the covert invasion – wondering aloud, on a number of occasions, why nobody had talked him out of it.

Kennedy’s greatest ire was reserved for the CIA, who he felt had bounced him into the invasion and had given him incomplete information. JFK reportedly said to his aides that he "wanted to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds" and while he did not follow through on this threat, he did ensure heads rolled.

Soon after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy effectively fired CIA director, Allen Dulles and also forced the resignations of two of Dulles’s closest aides, Deputy Director for Plans Richard M. Bissell Jr. and Deputy Director Charles Cabell, both of whom were central to the botched planning of the invasion.

A group of Cuban counter-revolutionaries, members of Assault Brigade 2506, after their capture in the Bay of Pigs, Cuba in April 1961. Photo: Getty Images

Far-reaching ramifications

The Bay of Pigs failure had far-reaching international ramifications in the Cold War world. Apart from the global damage done to American prestige, the fact that the Kennedy administration was blatantly implicated in an attempt to bring about regime change in Cuba pushed Castro more firmly into the arms of the Russians.

Concerns about the possibility of Kennedy attempting a further invasion of Cuba are central to understanding why both Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were prepared to place Soviet ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba.

These missiles were intended to act as a deterrent to a further invasion attempt, but when the Kennedy administration became aware of the deployment of these Soviet nuclear-armed missiles just 90 miles from US shores, it gave rise to the Cuban Missile crisis in October 1962.

People across the globe nervously watched while the US and the USSR engaged in a 13-day political and military standoff. Ironically, the lessons Kennedy had learned from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs were to stand him - and the world - in good stead.

Kennedy was sceptical of hardline advice emanating from the US military and intelligence agencies and he interrogated and second-guessed every morsel of information provided to him throughout the crisis.

The President also refused to be bounced into decisions and he encouraged and listened to dissenting voices from among his advisors and from officials at meetings of ExComm, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council.

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Kennedy’s approach was now one of caution and moderation. JFK had travelled quite a political distance from his posturing in the 1960 presidential campaign. During that election, Kennedy had strongly criticised his opponent, Richard Nixon, for being part of an administration that had allowed Castro to come to power.

In that same campaign, Kennedy had also had promised to take resolute action to overthrow Castro if elected. Two years on, as part of the deal to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy pledged never to invade Cuba.

The Soviets, in turn, agreed to dismantle the missile sites in Cuba. In a separate deal, which remained hidden for more than twenty-five years, the United States also agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Kennedy’s ability to learn political lessons and to compromise were crucial to the future of humanity in those perilous days when a full-scale nuclear war could have been triggered.

It is hard to disagree with the assessment of Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the current President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network that "we owe our very lives to John Kennedy’s grace under pressure in October 1962."

"A mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction"

Kennedy had entered office as a convinced Cold War warrior, but the Cuban Missile Crisis had altered his views and persuaded him of the need for peaceful co-existence with the Communist world. Kennedy had looked down the barrels of nuclear armageddon and this had affected him deeply.

He had come to the stark realisation that both the United States and the Soviet Union had, in his own words, a "mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction." Kennedy recognised that this would involve extending peace-feelers towards Cuba.

In September 1963, he authorised a back-channel of communications with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, via William Attwood, a key official of Adlai Stevenson, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.

The President’s eagerness to arrive at an accommodation with Cuba is evident from the fact that, alongside the Attwood initiative, Kennedy himself also personally opened a second back-channel to Castro. On 24th October 1963, Kennedy met with Jean Daniel, a socialist and noted French journalist, who that November was travelling to Havana.

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Kennedy told Daniel, who he knew would report the conversation back to Castro, that the United States could peacefully co-exist with Cuba and would end the economic blockade if Castro’s regime stopped attempting to export Communism to other countries in the region.

In his memoir, published in 2006, Castro wistfully recalled Kennedy’s assassination as a lost opportunity for United States–Cuban relations. Castro noted:

"He made mistakes, I repeat, but he was an intelligent man, sometimes brilliant, brave and it’s my opinion – I’ve said this before – that if Kennedy had survived, it’s possible that relations between Cuba and the United States would have improved … The day he was killed I was talking to a French journalist, Jean Daniel, whom Kennedy had sent to me with a message, to talk to me. So communications were being established, and that might have favoured an improvement in our relations … when [Kennedy] was taken from the stage he had enough authority in his country to impose an improvement in relations with Cuba."

If the secret peace feelers that Kennedy was extending towards Castro in the final weeks of his life had been revealed at this time, there would have been consternation within the sizeable Cuban community in Florida, one of the southern states Kennedy was prioritising for his 1964 re-election campaign.

Kennedy was prepared to risk this to put in place the foundations for a new direction on Cuba in his second term, at which point he would no longer have to worry about facing the American electorate again.

Kennedy’s peace overtures towards Cuba were part of a wider strategy of engagement with the Communist world, which he planned to roll-out after the 1964 election. By the time of his death, Kennedy had already significantly advanced détente with the Soviet Union and he had also started to "open the door a little bit", to use his own words, to China.

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These peace initiatives ground to a halt after Kennedy’s assassination, a point subsequently recognised by Fidel Castro. Twenty-one years on from Kennedy’s death, Castro stated in a rare interview with an American newspaper that "for Cuba, and for the relations between the US and Cuba, the death of Kennedy was really a great blow, an adverse factor."

In an interview in The Los Angeles Times in 1984, Castro also suggested that both he and Kennedy had politically matured, having learned hard lessons from the events leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sixty years on from the Bay of Pigs, Cuban-American relations still remain complex. In December 2014, President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, announced the beginning of efforts to normalise diplomatic relations between the two countries, including the reopening of respective embassies which had shut down in 1961.

The Cuban thaw, as the media dubbed it, continued apace when Obama became the first US President to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge, but took a step backwards, in June 2017, when President Donald Trump announced a rollback of his predecessor’s policy of warming relations with Cuba, describing this as a "terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime."

Nine days before leaving office, Trump’s administration designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, which was a further reversal of Obama’s rapprochement.

President Joe Biden’s new administration have pledged to review this move, but, as recently as March 2021, the White House confirmed that a broader Cuba policy shift is not currently among Biden’s top priorities. The long shadow cast by the Bay of Pigs has still not fully receded.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ