Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles >> Jim Lindsay: Imagine: You’re president of the United States. Your advisers come to you with a plan to overthrow a hostile government that threatens American security. The plan would solve a major problem if it worked, but you worry that it won’t. What do you do? I’m Jim Lindsay, and this is Lessons Learned. Our topic today is the Bay of Pigs invasion, which began on April 17, 1961. The road to the Bay of Pigs began two years earlier when Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba’s U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Relations between the two countries quickly soured. Castro denounced decades of U.S. political and economic domination of Cuba. He called for revolutions throughout Latin America and he seized properties that US firms owned in Cuba. What especially worried Washington, though, was Castro’s growing ties to Moscow. It was the height of the Cold War and the Soviet Union looked to be on the march around the globe. So President Dwight Eisenhower and his advisors looked at Castro and feared that the Soviets would soon have a beachhead less than 100 miles off America’s shores. By March 1960, Eisenhower had had enough. He authorized a CIA plan to train Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro. The plan, eventually code named “Bumpy Road,” rested on the premise that the attack by Cuban exiles would trigger a popular uprising in Cuba that would overthrow Castro. Eisenhower had reason to be confident the plan would work. Six years earlier the Central Intelligence Agency had engineered the ouster of a leftist government in Guatemala. Operation Bumpy Road could not be executed before Eisenhower left office. The decision on whether to proceed was left to his successor, John F. Kennedy. JFK had doubts about the wisdom of Operation Bumpy Road. He knew that a decision to intervene overtly in Cuba would be criticized at home and especially abroad. But he also knew that ousting Castro would fulfill his campaign promise of a tougher foreign policy and strengthen his hand in dealing with the Soviets. And he saw real political costs to killing the operation. Some of the hundreds of Cuban exiles, and probably a few U.S. government officials as well, would complain to the press that he had walked away from the plan that would have toppled Castro. That would have exposed JFK to damaging charges that he was soft on communism. So JFK gave a green light to Operation Bumpy Road. But in doing so he made two critical decisions. First, because he wanted to minimize overt U.S. involvement, he severely limited the U.S. air support for the mission. CIA and U.S. Air Force officials went along with the restriction because they assumed he would change his mind if the operation ran into trouble. Second, he chose a more remote landing site for the operation, the Bahía de Cochinos—the Bay of Pigs. Unfortunately, it was a lousy spot for an amphibious landing. The invasion force of 1,511 exiles, known as Brigade 2506, landed at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. The operation was a disaster from the start. Castro’s army wasn’t surprised. Ordinary Cubans did not rise in revolt. And JFK refused to send the U.S. military to save the Cuban exiles pinned down on the beaches. On April 19, Brigade 2506 surrendered. The three days of fighting had left 140 exiles dead and nearly 1,200 captured. >> President John F. Kennedy: On that unhappy island, as in so many other arenas of the contest for freedom, the news has grown worse instead of better. I have emphasized before that this was a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator. While we could not be expected to hide our sympathies, we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not intervene in any way. >> Jim Lindsay: The Bay of Pigs was is of the of the biggest U.S. foreign policy fiascoes of the twentieth century. There were many reasons it failed besides JFK’s refusal to authorize air support. The underlying premise that ordinary Cubans would come to the invasion’s aid was flatly wrong. The invasion was poorly organized and managed. It also wasn’t much of a secret, or a surprise to Castro. The New York Times ran two separate stories on its front-page about the U.S. efforts to train a Cuban army in exile. What is the lesson of the Bay of Pigs? Just this: Be prepared for failure and plan accordingly. JFK had doubts about the wisdom of the CIA’s plan, and he knew that he would not order a direct U.S. military intervention. So he put all of his eggs on hoping that Operation Bumpy Road would work. It didn’t. Had JFK thought through the possibilities of failure he might have canceled the operation or fundamentally reshaped it. As it was, he was left to lament: “How could I have been so stupid to let them go ahead?” Presidents don’t want to find themselves asking JFK’s question about their own decisions. So recognizing the potential for failure—and taking steps to minimize it—is a fundamental challenge for all types of foreign policymaking. But it is especially important when talking about decisions to use military force. To take just one example, it is fine to discuss how military strikes might blunt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But that analysis is incomplete unless it also grapples with how a military strike might fail, or create an entirely new problems to handle. So here’s a question to consider: What steps should presidents take to make sure that they are thinking through how their policies might fail rather than simply engaging in wishful thinking about how they will succeed? I encourage you to weigh in with your answers on my blog, The Water’s Edge. You can find it at CFR.org. I’m Jim Lindsay. Thank you for watching this installment of Lessons Learned.