Fifty-three years ago, my father had a meeting on the other side of town in Havana where we lived at the time. Cuba was in turmoil and opposition to Castro was widespread as more and more people saw communists in positions of responsibility.
At mid-morning, my dad called my mom and told her that something was happening in Cuba. Our phone kept ringing as friends and neighbors spread the news.
Humberto Fontova recalls the events of that day:
“”Freedom is our goal!” roared commander Pepe San Roman to the men assembled before him 48 years ago this week. “Cuba is our cause! God is on our side! On to victory!” Fifteen hundred men crowded before San Roman at their Guatemalan training camps that day. The next day they’d embark for a port in Nicaragua, and the day after that would be bound for a landing site in Cuba named Bahia De Cochinos. We know it as the Bay of Pigs.
Their outfit was Brigada 2506, and at their commander’s address the men (and boys, some as young as 16) erupted. A scene of total bedlam unfolded. Hats flew. Men hugged, sang, cheered, and wept. The hour of liberation was nigh – and these men, all volunteers, were putting their lives on the line to see their dream of a free Cuba fulfilled.
The Brigada included men from every social strata and race in Cuba. There were sugar cane planters and cutters, aristocrats and their chauffeurs. Mostly, they hailed from somewhere in between, fitting for a nation with a larger middle class than most of Europe.
“They fought like Tigers,” wrote CIA officer Grayston Lynch, who helped train these Cuban freedom-fighters. “But their fight was doomed before the first man hit the beach.”
Lynch, knew something about fighting – and about long odds. He carried scars from Omaha Beach, the Battle of the Bulge, and Heartbreak Ridge. But in those battles, Lynch and his band of brothers could count on the support of their own chief executive.
At the Bay of Pigs, Lynch and his band of Cuban brothers learned – first in speechless shock and finally in burning rage — that their most powerful enemies were not Castro’s Soviet-armed and led soldiers massing in Santa Clara, Cuba but the Ivy League’s Best and Brightest dithering in Washington. – “
The Bay of Pigs had two terrible consequences. The first one was in Cuba. The second one was for President Kennedy and the US.
Down in Cuba, 1500 men were left on a beach without the assistance promised. They were eventually captured and traded for agricultural supplies a year later. The invasion was also followed by very harsh repression, as any Cuban will tell you. The regime used the moment to crackdown and fill up the political prisons.
Here in the US, President Kennedy was forced to accept responsibility for the failure. A month later, he met Chairman Khrushchev and it did not go well, as George Will wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Vienna meeting:
“On May 25, six weeks after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit Earth, Kennedy said that “extraordinary times” demanded a second State of the Union address. In it he proclaimed “the whole southern half of the globe” a “great battleground,” especially emphasizing a place on few Americans’ minds: Vietnam. Then he flew to Vienna to meet Khrushchev — “Little Boy Blue meets Al Capone,” a U.S. diplomat said.
Khrushchev treated Kennedy with brutal disdain. In excruciating pain from his ailing back and pumped full of perhaps disorienting drugs by his disreputable doctor (who would lose his medical license in 1975), Kennedy said that it was the “worst thing in my life. He savaged me.” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, “For the first time in his life, Kennedy met a man who was impervious to his charm.” Kempe writes, “From that point forward Khrushchev would act more aggressively in the conviction that there would be little price to pay.” Kempe says that when Robert Kennedy met with his brother back in Washington, “Tears were running down the president’s cheeks.”
As Khrushchev turned up the temperature on Berlin, Kennedy studied the modalities of conducting a nuclear war. On July 25, he gave a nationally televised address, referring 17 times to the U.S. commitment to West Berlin, although the entire city was under four-power (U.S., Soviet, British, French) rule.
On July 30, in a Sunday morning television interview, Sen. William Fulbright said: “I don’t understand why the East Germans don’t close their border because I think they have a right to close it.” He was wrong regarding the four powers’ rights, and five days later he apologized for giving “an unfortunate and erroneous impression.” But Kennedy, who did not dispute Fulbright’s mistake, evidently welcomed it.
After Aug. 13, an unsympathetic Kennedy, who never asserted the indisputable legal right of free movement of people throughout Berlin, told New York Times columnist James Reston that East Germans had had 15 years to flee to the West. Reston wrote that Kennedy “has talked like Churchill but acted like Chamberlain.” Clearly, there was a causal connection between Kennedy’s horrible 1961 and the Cold War’s most perilous moment — Khrushchev’s 1962 gamble on putting missiles in Cuba.”
The Bay of Pigs is obviously something of interest to my parents’ generation and those of us who grew up hearing about it.
I’ve met men from Brigade 2506 and they are impressive fathers and grandfathers who now run businesses and recall that fateful day.
The historical value of The Bay of Pigs is that it confirms that the bad guys will always test the US president and push more and more when they sense weakness.
I hope that Valerie Jarrett is letting someone into The Oval Office who is reminding President Obama that weakness will definitely invite aggression.
As a Mexican businessman once said to me about President Reagan: “This guy Reagan is tough. I hope that he stays that way.”
Yes, we need a tough US president. The Bay of Pigs is one example of what happens when he “dithers” rather than leads.
P. S. You can hear my chat with Barry Jacobsen, military historian, & follow me on Twitter @ scantojr.