The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis

In January 1959, following a coup on the Caribbean island of Cuba, President Fulgencio Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. For much of the 1950s he had run a police state that favored the wealthy. Fidel Castro led the Cuban rebels — known as “the bearded ones” — along with his second-in-command, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Triumphant, they took Havana, the capital, making Castro the Cuban leader.

The United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in early 1961, and Castro turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. This brought the threat of Communism within ninety miles of U.S. shores, and it was an unsettling factor for both the outgoing Eisenhower and incoming Kennedy administration.

On April 19, 1961, approximately 1,500 Cuban exiles returned to the island to mount an invasion they hoped would incite an uprising and topple the Castro regime. Although no U.S. forces were deployed, U.S. support of what became known as the Bay of Pigs incident was undeniable. The CIA had trained antirevolutionary exiles under the Eisenhower administration, and Kennedy approved the invasion. Armed with U.S. weapons, the exiles landed at the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on Cuba's southern coast. Castro's army quickly discovered them, killing about ninety and taking the rest as prisoners. The invasion was not only a failure, but also an embarrassment for the Kennedy administration, which was blamed for not fully supporting it and for allowing it to occur in the first place. Although the captured Cuban exiles were later let off with ransom, the entire incident set the world stage for increased tensions between the superpowers.

This unease culminated the next year when U.S. reconnaissance missions flying over Cuba photographed Soviet-managed construction work and spotted a ballistic missile in October 1962. Castro, certain that the United States would try another invasion, had agreed to Soviet missiles for his island's protection.

Without alarming the nation, President Kennedy consulted his top advisors to discuss options — an invasion, air strikes, a blockade, or diplomacy. Kennedy demanded the immediate dismantling and removal of the missiles, and chose a naval blockade to prevent new missiles from arriving on the Caribbean island. The United States would intercept and inspect any ships believed to be carrying weapons, and members of the Organization of American States supported this action.

For several tense days during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev communicated through diplomatic channels. The world held its breath for fear of nuclear war between the superpowers. The crisis was solved after the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles and allow U.S. on-site inspection in return for the guarantee not to invade the island nation. Kennedy accepted, agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey, and suspended the blockade, but Cuba refused to permit the promised inspection, out of anger at Soviet submission. Aerial photography did reveal that the missile bases were being dismantled. The entire incident revealed the young president's grace under extreme pressure. Kennedy had needed to redress the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs.

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