The Bay of Pigs

Oct 6, 2008

Howard Jones's tenth and newest book, The Bay of Pigs, is published by Oxford University Press in its series Pivotal Moments in American History.

Howard Jones's tenth and newest book, The Bay of Pigs, is published by Oxford University Press in its series Pivotal Moments in American History.

Other pivotal moments covered are events such as The Crash of 1929 and The Battle of Antietam. Make no mistake, the event known as the Bay of Pigs was truly important and changed the direction of American history, most specifically the Cold War, for decades. It is entirely likely that the Cuban Missile Crisis, only a couple of years later, was the result of a Fidel Castro who knew, then, that the U.S. was capable of a unilateral invasion of Cuba, no matter what the protestations, and a Nikita Khrushchev emboldened by what he saw as the young American president's indecisive leadership.

While Americans had watched, Fidel Castro had come west out of the mountains, defeated the forces of the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Battista, and thrown out the American Mafia, which controlled the casinos of Havana and had made Cuba into an American playground, not to say America's brothel. Castro then set up a regime that was revolutionary, and leftist, but not yet, for certain, a part of the Soviet-led international communist movement. Castro might well have developed into a kind of Western hemisphere Tito, and taken Cuba, socialist, into the organization of nonaligned states. The invasion at the Bay of Pigs killed any chances of that.

A thumbnail sketch of the events at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 18, and 19, 1961, could be written on a single piece of paper. Cuban exiles were trained by the U.S., mainly by the CIA, in Florida and Guatemala. Landing sites were chosen. It was determined that the invasion would be an amphibious assault at night, which not even the Marines in the Pacific had tried to undertake. Plans had been for unmarked planes to destroy the Cuban Air Force on the ground, in the three days preceding the invasion. Once the troops landed, supported by air cover, some of which would be provided by the Alabama Air National Guard in unmarked planes, the local Cuban population would greet them as liberators and, all together, they would march on Havana, driving Castro's dwindling forces before them.

As most Americans know and many actually remember, it did not work that way at all. The invasion forces were defeated, killed and captured, later ransomed by the U.S. at great expense, the ones who were not shot against a wall. President Kennedy, who had taken office in January, and inherited the deeply flawed plan from the Eisenhower administration, decided that there was insufficient plausible deniability, and changed his mind about the air support.

The actual Bay of Pigs was not a good spot to land, being surrounded by swamps, and there was almost no local population around to rise up and join the invaders, even if any had been foolhardy enough to do so.

One of the many sources Jones has used is a memoir by Albert C. Persons, Bay of Pigs: A Firsthand Account of the Mission by a U.S. Pilot in Support of the Cuban Invasion Force in 1961. (Kingston Press, 1968). "Buck" Persons of the Alabama Air National Guard had helped train the Cuban Brigade and learned only at the last minute that he would not be flying air support. In the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-esque phenomenon that is so often Alabama history, it turns out that Buck Persons was kin not only to Alabama Governor Gordon Persons (1951-55), but also to Alabama writer Truman Capote, born Truman Streckfus Persons.

Jones, University Research Professor of History at UA and the author of Mutiny on the Amistad, tells this story not in a single page but in nearly hypnotic detail. He has researched the events with great care and thoroughness, using now-declassified records from the CIA, Senate committee hearings, and a host of other sources. If there is a flaw in this book, it is that Jones is sometimes too detailed, occasionally repetitious. I think I know why. Jones probably feared that if he did not prove the truth of the assertions he was making to the reader, beyond a reasonable doubt, no one would believe him. The story is too preposterous.

Kennedy had a personal animus towards Castro, and plots were set in motion to assassinate him. At different times Castro was to be shot, his food poisoned, his diving suit infected with botulism, a sea shell containing explosives put in his path while skin diving. The U.S. government, even then outsourcing, involved the Mafia in their plans. If all this seems unlikely, and vaguely un-American, remember: the U.S. did manage to assassinate foreign political leaders in South Vietnam and elsewhere. (Although it has never been proven, a link may exist between Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's assassin, who we know had spent time in Cuba, and Castro, who knew very clearly that Kennedy had set in motion plots to assassinate him.)

Not only were many schemes farfetched, the actual planning was confused. The CIA, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and White House advisors all failed to coordinate plans with anyone else. Although many had doubts, few expressed skepticism?it was not good for one's career. It's hard to believe, isn't it?