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5 Reasons Why the Bay of Pigs Invasion Failed

Briage 2506 surrender
Members of Brigade 2506, the counter-revolutionary military unit that tried to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, surrender after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Just months after Fidel Castro and his communist revolutionaries took power in Cuba in 1959, the United States government secretly began to plot his downfall. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the CIA recruited Cuban exiles in the U.S. to form a counter-revolutionary army at a covert CIA training camp in Nicaragua called "Happy Valley." The group was known as Brigade 2506. When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he inherited a convoluted scheme to invade Cuba using 1,500 of these anti-Castro Cubans trained by the CIA.

The mission, known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, was doomed from the start and is widely regarded as one of America's worst foreign policy failures. The attack began the morning of April 15, 1961, with what was supposed to be an aerial bombardment of Castro's small air force. But the CIA-trained pilots, who flew World War II-era B-26 bombers painted to look like Cuban planes, failed to destroy all of Castro's aircraft.

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That's when things really started to unravel, says Jim Rasenberger, author of "The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America's Doomed Invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs". Here are five reasons why the Bay of Pigs Invasion went so spectacularly wrong.

1. Journalists Spotted the CIA's Fake Plane

While eight of the B-26 bombers were sent to destroy Castro's airfields, a ninth flew directly to Miami, Florida, where "the CIA came up with this cockamamie idea," says Rasenberger.

The B-26 pilot in Miami claimed to be a defector from Castro's air force who had risen up with his comrades to attack the communist regime. The CIA took pains to make his plane look legit, complete with a Cuban air force serial number and a nose cone riddled with fresh bullet holes, but savvy journalists on the ground quickly saw through the ruse.

"There was still tape on the gun barrels to keep the dust out and his guns were mounted in the nose of the plane, while Castro's were under the wings," says Rasenberger. "It gave away the whole game right there."

Suddenly, with one bad fake job, it was plain to everyone that the U.S. was clearly behind this invasion. The Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was furious and Kennedy was backed into a corner. If he admitted U.S. involvement, he risked starting World War III.

2. Kennedy Canceled the Second Airstrike

With the world watching, Kennedy made a difficult decision to cancel a second round of airstrikes planned for the early hours of April 17. Those airstrikes were supposed to destroy the rest of Castro's air force and clear a path for the amphibious pre-dawn landing of 1,500 men.

"The moment Kennedy canceled those airstrikes, he doomed the invasion," says Rasenberger. "Castro still had half of his planes left. For the invasion to have any chance of succeeding, those planes had to be taken out."

Rasenberger doesn't think Kennedy got "cold feet," as some critics alleged, but rather made a rational decision that a second airstrike wasn't worth going to war with Russia. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the mission's undoing, leaving the invading force and supply ships vulnerable to devastating airstrikes from Castro's remaining pilots.

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Cuban army celebrate
Cuban militiamen and members of the Revolutionary Army celebrating their victory over U.S. mercenaries at Playa Girón, in what became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. They are gathered in a launch belonging to the captured mercenaries. Keystone/Getty Images

The CIA had been planning the amphibious landing on Cuba's Playa Girón for months. Spy planes took dozens of aerial photographs of the landing site, but somehow the CIA officers missed a major obstacle — an offshore expanse of razor-sharp coral.

"The aerial photos showed something in the water, but CIA experts had explained it away as seaweed," says Rasenberger.

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The plan was for the 1,500 CIA-backed Cuban fighters to slip quietly on to the beach before dawn, unload supplies from support vessels and establish a beachhead before Castro's army even woke up. But the coral threw everything into chaos, sinking some of the landing craft and slowing the amphibious landing to a crawl.

"By the time the first light came up, all those men were supposed to be on the beach and the support vessels out of sight," says Rasenberger. "The whole thing got completely screwed up."

Castro's air force, still intact after Kennedy's canceled airstrike, strafed the invasion force like it was target practice, not only killing men, but sinking two of their supply ships and sending the rest fleeing to international waters.

"The result was that all of the supplies for these 1,500 men were taken away," says Rasenberger. "Medical supplies, arms, vehicles. Everything they needed to survive on the beach was gone."

4. There Was No Spontaneous Cuban Uprising

It's unclear exactly what the CIA hoped would happen after the exiled Cuban fighters secured the beachhead at Playa Girón, but one of the political assumptions was that once news of the invasion reached Havana, it would inspire a spontaneous uprising from Castro's underground enemies.

"That didn't happen," says Rasenberger. "By the spring of 1961, all the anti-Castro Cubans had either left the country or were in jail in Cuba."

At this point, the survivors of the botched beach landing were pinned down on Playa Girón while Castro's army closed in from the surrounding swampland. No counter-revolutionaries were going to come out of the woodwork to save them, assuming they could have crossed the swampland. But the survivors could still count on their CIA backers, right?

5. A Time Zone Snafu Ruined the Rescue

At this point, the CIA and the U.S. Navy were begging Kennedy to send U.S. Air Force fighters to shoot down Castro's planes and clear a supply route for the pinned down troops. Kennedy rejected the idea of direct attacks by U.S. planes, but eventually authorized one hour of cover by six unmarked American Skyhawk jets from the U.S.S. Essex, an aircraft carrier patrolling nearby.

The Skyhawks wouldn't engage Castro's planes directly but would provide defensive cover for B-26 bombers flown in from Happy Valley. As it turned out, those B-26s weren't flown by Cuban exiles this time, but by U.S. airmen from Alabama who were in Nicaragua as trainers.

"What happened next was really strange. There was a time screwup," says Rasenberger. The time agreed upon was 6:30 a.m. EST but for some reason the B-26s launched an hour early. The jets immediately flew after them but they couldn't reach the invasion area in time to offer protection.

When the American-piloted B-26s flew over Cuba expecting Navy jets to be protecting them, they were all alone. Two of the jets were shot down and four of the American pilots were killed. Castro recovered one of the bodies and kept it as proof of America's hand in the failed plot. Seventy-five percent of Brigade 2506 ended up in Cuban jails. They were freed in 1962 in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine.

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