Historians have dedicated much attention to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early sixties, and for good reason - it was the time in our history when the world came closest to nuclear war, which was a dramatic event worthy of serious attention from both historians and the general public. Less visible, however, is the communist revolution that rocked Cuba during most of the fifties; and the "Bay of Pigs" incident that was fairly prominent in the minds of both sides during the later crisis. It is not often that these events are covered together, since any one of these things is a complex topic in its own right; but these events in Cuba would nonetheless seem to be linked together (at least somewhat); and by more than just their closeness in time and place. The common theme running through all of them would seem to be the great worldwide struggle known as the "Cold War" - a war that was fought in Cuba ferociously during these tumultuous times, and which had importance far beyond the island itself on more than one occasion.
Picture from the Cuban War of Independence, 1898
Background for the communist revolution
Before it became a pawn in this great superpower "chess game" of the Cold War, Cuba had been a colony of Spain that had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with the mother country - an uneasy relationship that was manifest in three wars of liberation from it during the 1800's; and it was in this environment that the American control of the island began to assert itself in the Spanish-American War of 1898. After Spain then relinquished control of the island in the peace treaty, Cuba exchanged one set of colonial masters for another, as the United States began its dominance over Cuban internal affairs which was so resented by the Cubans; and which continued even after the "Republic of Cuba" had become an otherwise-independent country in 1902, with the continued American dominance built-in to the country's new constitution. It was thus in this environment that the communist revolution began in 1953 - some fifty years after the Republic of Cuba had become (at least partially) independent in the first place.
Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, 1952 (the year before the revolution started)
Fidel Castro under arrest after attack on the Moncada barracks, 1953
Communist revolution in Cuba
The 26th of July Uprising that began the revolution was led by Fidel Castro, the man who eventually became the communist dictator of Cuba - and continued to be such until his death in 2016. Although he was undoubtedly a communist, one of the ironies of this revolution is that the ruler whom they ousted, the Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, had once been supported by the Communist Party of Cuba - the very group that would eventually replace him in this massive revolution that spanned over the 1950's. Batista, though, had become an anti-communist in a bid to continue receiving the support of the United States; which was staunchly opposed to communism, and was thus unwilling to support him as long as he practiced it. Furthermore, as late as the year 1959, Fidel Castro was declaring that he was not a communist when he visited the United States that year; and he still actually claimed to be only a socialist when his own organization renamed itself in 1962 as the "United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution." Only in 1965, I should note here, did it change its name officially to the "Communist Party of Cuba"; the state-sponsored party that has been in charge of Cuban internal affairs since that time - a testament to how communists are not always visible as such, until after the damage has been done (and even then, can be hard to detect).
Fidel Castro visits United States, 1959
Fulgencio Batista standing next to a map of the Sierra Maestra mountains,
where Fidel Castro's rebels were held up - 1957
The Bay of Pigs: A fiasco for the Americans
The communist revolution ended on New Year's Day 1959, when the previous leader actually fled the country by air for the Dominican Republic - a sign that the revolutionaries had won the last battle of the war, and that this war which had lasted for some five and a half years had officially (and finally) ended. But the turmoil resulting from this revolution, it seems, was not over yet; as the United States was not happy with how things had turned out in Cuba, and would eventually be launching an invasion of Cuba in April 1961. The invasion took place at a location called the "Bay of Pigs," I should note here; and it is from this location that this invasion of Cuba gets its popular name today. I should note that the invasion is notorious even in the country that launched it (the United States); and the reason for this is quite simple: The invasion was a complete failure, which ended in a disastrous surrender only three days after it was launched - a far cry from the outcome that the Americans had been expecting with this invasion plan. Although the "Bay of Pigs" fiasco had been planned during the administration of President Kennedy's predecessor in the job (Dwight Eisenhower), Kennedy does deserve the brunt of the blame for this ill-fated invasion of Cuba, because he was the one who actually ordered it; and he acknowledged this openly with the American people at this time - something that was undoubtedly a humiliating defeat for him (and may have even been the low point of his presidency), and it figured prominently in the thinking of both sides when the Cuban Missile Crisis began the year after this in 1962.
Bay of Pigs on the map of Cuba
The Cuban Missile Crisis: A close call with nuclear disaster
The Cuban Missile Crisis may be the part of this story that has received the most attention (and rightly so), because it had ramifications far beyond the coastlines of the island of Cuba, and brought two massive superpowers into the area in an international situation that almost became a world war - a war that would have been fought with nuclear weapons. To the generation that was born since the Cold War ended, it is easy to forget that this was a real possibility at this point; so a brief review of this situation may be appropriate here, as I tie in my previous discussion to the most tense event of the Cold War's long (and complicated) history - a tension that is nigh to shattering. The crisis began when an American U-2 reconnaissance plane obtained photographic evidence of nuclear missiles in Cuba, which had been put there by the Soviets in a rare agreement with the Cuban government to station their forces there - something that the communist countries of this time seldom trusted one another to do, which made this something of a first. I won't try to cover all the details of this story here, since I go into detail about this in one of my other posts; but suffice it to say here that it was a fairly ticklish situation, which was only narrowly averted by the diplomacy between the two superpowers - and only after a blockade, a shot-down plane with a killed pilot, and a few other delicate incidents that could have escalated further.
U.S. blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
How the communist revolution affected the Cuban Missile Crisis
A few other comments may be in order here about the effect of these prior events on the thinking of the two sides: One, the communist affiliations of Cuba at this time - although they were not official until three years after the crisis - are what caused these ties with the Soviet Union to be close enough for the Cubans to allow the Soviets to bring their missiles onto Cuban soil, with the heartland of the United States well within range of them. Although it may not have been politically possible for the United States to do what was necessary to prevent the communist revolution from happening, American interests might have been well-served by such a prevention, if it had indeed been actually possible - the expansion of communism put its menace ever closer to the United States and its shores; and threatened every free nation that depended on American military might - including, especially, the nuclear weapons - for its support and continuance.
President Kennedy meeting with Robert McNamara, 1961
The Bay of Pigs affected American thinking in the Cuban Missile Crisis
Second, the "Bay of Pigs" invasion was also reasonably important in the thinking of the United States; since the Kennedy government that was in office at that time was fully conscious of how humiliated it had been in its prior attempt to invade Cuba; and must have been thinking a great deal about it when they contemplated making another invasion attempt during the alarming events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the "Bay of Pigs" invasion, the United States had not given its operatives the air cover they needed to win a victory; because they wanted to conceal the extent of American involvement in this undertaking from both friends and foes alike. This decision proved in retrospect to be a disaster; and it must have driven home the lesson to Kennedy that if another invasion were to be attempted during this time, there could be no half-hearted measures. Thus, the forces that the Americans did deploy were all loaded for bear - ready to unload all that firepower on the Soviets at the first sign of provocation; since they had no way of knowing if this dreaded "ultimate step" would have to be taken after all.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, 1961
The Bay of Pigs affected communist thinking in the Cuban Missile Crisis, too
Third, the "Bay of Pigs" invasion was also important in the thinking of the communists in both the Cuban and Soviet camps; who may have taken the American failure at the "Bay of Pigs" as a sign that the Americans would again be using half-hearted measures, and that they would not have the necessary nerve to press any belligerent actions far enough to get the needed results. As they soon learned, though, the Americans felt provoked enough that they were willing to press these actions to a significant extent; and were gradually losing their patience in this continued standoff with the Soviets - something the Soviets eventually realized, I should note here, when they saw their tough stance was not getting them the results they wanted - something which could have proved a dangerous miscalculation on their part.
Kennedy meeting with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, 1961
Can a missile crisis like this happen again?
Thus, the frightening events of the Cuban Missile Crisis still continue to haunt us today, as the proliferation of nuclear weapons could well make it increasingly likely that a nuclear crisis of some kind will happen again (and not necessarily in Cuba). Thus, we return often to this case study for clues about what to do, in a future crisis involving nuclear weapons.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
My post about the Cuban Missile Crisis itself
JFK and RFK
Cold War series
Part of a series about
Communism in theory: Why Marxism can never work
The "Communist Manifesto" (and how Marxism got started)
Marx's "labor theory of value" (and why it doesn't work)
Problems with equalizing income (even in theory)
Problems with rewarding good behavior (under communism)
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property
Communism in practice: The results of the experiments
Revolution in Russia: How the madness got started
History's horror stories: The "grand experiments" with communism
Germany and Korea: The experiments that neither side wanted
Civil war in China: How China was divided
Chaos in Cuba: Castro and the communist revolution
Actually, communism has been tried (and it doesn't work)