The Bay of Pigs invasion began on this day in 1961. Far from overthrowing Fidel Castro and derailing his recent takeover of Cuba, the CIA-led four-day assault was a humiliating failure for the U.S. and an enduring inspiration throughout the region. “Fifty years of the great victory of Bay of Pigs,” tweeted Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in 2011. “Long live Fidel! Long live Socialist Cuba! We will conquer!”
Jim Rasenberger’s The Brilliant Disaster (2011) argues that, however strategically naïve and misguided, the fiasco should not be explained as another example of a CIA “rogue elephant rampaging out of control” (Sen. Frank Church, chairman of the 1975 Select Committee on Intelligence). Rather, it was a herd reaction, a national charge at the red flag that waved throughout the Cold War:
The more complicated truth about the Bay of Pigs is that it was not ginned up by a nefarious band of agents in the bowels of the CIA, but rather produced by two administrations, encouraged by countless informed legislators, and approved by numerous men of high rank and intelligence, even brilliance, who either did know, or should have known, what they were agreeing to. As for why they did this –”How could I have been so stupid?” is how Kennedy phrased the question — the answer is that all of them, from the presidents to the Central Intelligence Agency, from the Pentagon to the State Department, were operating under conditions that made the venture almost impossible to resist. At a time when Americans were nearly hysterical about the spread of communism, they simply could not abide Castro. He had to go.
Finding a Greek tragedy rather than a dark comedy, Rasenberger concludes that the invasion “was the work of mostly decent and intelligent people trying their best to perform what they considered to be necessary emergency procedure of excising Fidel Castro.” The disquieting national lesson “may be the possibility that the Bay of Pigs — or any number of subsequent disasters abroad — was driven by irrational forces and fears in the broad American public” and was a demonstration of “the limits of a democratic government’s ability to respond sensibly to frightening circumstances.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.