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Operation Pluto: The Impact of Strategic Decisions on the Bay of Pigs Operation

Info: 7795 words (31 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Warfare

Operation Pluto: The Impact of Strategic Decisions on the Bay of Pigs Operation

“We always had the impression, absolutely that we would have the full support of the US government to include aircraft and air support and the Navy in case the situation got bad. We all really believe this and everyone trusted the Americans very much.”[1]


Operation Pluto was the code name for the 1961 CIA led operation to unseat the Castro regime. Commonly known as the Bay of Pigs operation, or in some cases, fiasco, the failed invasion set the tone for future relations with Cuba and arguably, the rest of Latin-America. This case study examines the Bay of Pigs operation from the perspective of an unconventional warfare campaign and examines the causal links between strategic level decisions and their effect on outcomes.  Employing qualitative techniques that include archival research and semi-structured interviews of veterans of the operation, this paper identifies several key factors that influenced outcomes.  This research concludes with a cautionary tale to practitioners and generates several potential hypotheses worthy of future study.

Key Words

Bay of Pigs, Operation Pluto, Brigada 2506, Cuba, CIA, Kennedy


The overall research topic is the role and impact of U.S. strategic decision making on the outcome of special operations when applied as a solution to a national security challenge. For clarity, strategic decision making is the blanket term that includes those policies, actions and guidance that emanate from the executive branch of government with inputs from the National Security Advisor, the National Security Council and staff, and other informal contributors serving as part of the President’s advisory team.

This topic addresses a shortfall in current scholarship and uses a slightly different aperture to examine the Bay of Pigs operation. The bulk of the literature on special operations focuses on explaining success or failure by examining tactical and operational variables. The unique qualities of personnel, specialized training, key leader personalities and access to cutting edge technology are among the variables considered. While this approach is not wrong, it is incomplete and does not address how strategic factors play a role. Additionally, much of the literature on special operations is considered gray literature and is published in journals that require minimal if any peer review and generally target a small practitioner audience.

Employing case study methodology to dissect the Bay of Pigs operation, assumes a unique precondition that the operation must be viewed as a special operation. Specifically, an unconventional warfare campaign.[2]

Operation Pluto

Conceived by the CIA in the final years of the Eisenhower administration, Operation Pluto (later renamed Zapata) was the CIAs proposed course of action for dealing with an increasingly militant and communist leaning Fidel Castro.  The operation was initially conceived as a counter-revolution, taking advantage of the large number of Cubans dissatisfied with the increasingly dictatorial tendencies of Fidel Castro. The CIA initially infiltrated small teams to establish communications points on the island and report on conditions in their area. These teams would act as the focal point for later infiltrations of larger and more capable guerilla units that would organize, train, and lead the local Cuban resistance movement.

The original plan was a classic unconventional warfare approach that had a reasonable chance of success.  Just two years after seizing power, Castro had imposed severe restrictions on individual liberties, had seized and nationalized an enormous amount of private property, and through an increasingly aggressive security apparatus, arrested hundreds of political opponents. By the time of the Bay of Pigs operation in April 1961, thousands of Cubans were in jail for opposing the regime, firing squads had eliminated over five thousand former government officials and political opponents, and 800,000 had fled the island (Lynch, 2000) . In this environment, organizing a resistance should have been a straight forward campaign.

Two major circumstances, a change in the U.S. Presidential Administration and the Soviet Union’s increasing willingness to provide military aid to the Cubans, prompted a change in plans. The original operation was conceived during the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower, the former General who served as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War, was both an experienced executive and leader who was used to making hard decisions. His replacement, John F. Kennedy, had minimal military experience; he famously commanded a patrol torpedo boat that was sunk in the Pacific Theater (P.T. 109), and while his personal courage and tactical experience were never in question, he had no executive or strategic experience.

As the change of administration approached, the CIA became aware that part of the military aid promised to Cuba by the Soviets, was a shipment of modern fighter aircraft and a training package to prepare Cuban pilots. The potential ability of the Cuban Air Force to interdict resupply flights for the guerilla campaign was deemed a significant enough threat to make the guerilla option untenable.

At this point, the CIA shifted the plan to an overt invasion of the island by a force comprised entirely of Cuban exiles. The plan was predicated on the landing force of approximately 750 fighters seizing sufficient territory to establish an airfield, and allow the announcement of a new provisional government. This condition would serve as a rallying cry across Cuba to the thousands of disenfranchised and unleash a massive revolt against the Castro Government. At some point in this developing scenario, the U.S., ostensibly uninvolved up to this point, would recognize the provisional government, throw its full support behind it, and lobby the Organization of American States to do the same.

Despite the changing nature of the operation and the increasing complexity of what was looking more and more like a full-blown military operation, The Department of Defense was largely placed in a secondary role. Requests to provide logisticians to assist in the planning stages were politely but firmly rebuffed by the Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles. Additional recommendations by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to conduct a U.S. unilateral operation were also ignored.

In implementation, things did not go smoothly. In large part, the operation, and U.S. involvement, were poorly kept secrets. The Castro government had been rallying citizens with warnings of a U.S. invasion since late in 1960. The location and photos of the training camps in Guatemala used by the invasion force were published in U.S. newspapers a month prior to the landings. Just days prior to the invasion the Miami Herald printed a story indicating that the training camps were empty and intimating that this spelled the end for Fidel.

The invasion force, Brigada 2506, consisted of a ground component primarily trained as infantry with a small contingent of tanks, an air component equipped with World War II era B-26 Marauder medium bombers, and a maritime component of converted merchant transports. The unit was reasonably well trained but never exercised above the small-unit level nor as a combined arms team incorporating their air arm and armor formations. Additionally, they never trained for or practiced the techniques necessary to conduct an amphibious assault. The ships that transported them to Cuba were poorly converted merchant vessels and not configured for landing operations. The small boats used to transport the troops to the beaches were, as one participant described them, “the little aluminum boats that you buy from Sears Roebuck”[3].

The planned air attacks to destroy the small air force that Castro had available, were only partially successful and subsequent attacks were cancelled because of White House concerns that U.S. involvement would be revealed. With three to four World War II vintage prop aircraft and converted jet trainers, the remaining Cuban Air Force managed to sink two of the landing ships on the first day of the operation and essentially established air superiority over the battle space. Most significantly, one of the ships that was sunk, carried the entire ammunition resupply for the Brigada.

With the landings delayed by air attacks and an unanticipated coral reef blocking access to the beach, the bulk of the combat forces didn’t start coming ashore until 3:00 P.M. Initial successes were short lived and a vigorous counterattack by Cuban Army and Militia forces quickly isolated the attacking force to the area surrounding the beach landing zones. Cuban reinforcements armed with newly acquired Soviet tanks and artillery maintained a constant pressure on the shrinking Brigada positions.

Faced with a looming disaster and repeated requests to intervene with U.S. forces, President Kennedy allowed minimal indirect support to the force; unmarked U.S aircraft were permitted to overfly the invasion beaches (but take no action) and U.S. Destroyers were authorized to move in to assist with evacuating the wounded.

By day three it was all over. The surviving Brigada 2506 members, facing 20,000 to 40,000 Cuban soldiers, out of ammunition, and having fought without sleeping or eating for three days, surrendered. Held incommunicado by the Castro regime, a small number were summarily executed and the remainder were sentenced to 30-year prison terms. Their sentence was used as a bargaining ploy when the Castro government successfully negotiated for 52 million dollars in food and medical aid to secure their release in December of 1962.

Introduction to the research question

This is a hypothesis generating study intended to tease out potential linkages between strategic decisions, the way in which those decisions were operationalized, and the resulting outcome. The anticipated findings include both a confirmation that strategic decisions impact the outcome of special operations and which decisions are most impactful. This method will provide raw material to assist in generating hypotheses for further study. Using the case study approach and focusing on the Bay of Pigs operation, the primary research question that this paper will attempt to answer is:

How did the policies, actions and guidance of strategic decision makers impact the outcome of the Bay of Pigs operation?

To clarify some of the elements of this question: Policy is the byproduct of a relationship between an overarching national objective and the decision to employ a military or para-military option as a solution – an example of this was the U.S. policy to oust Panamanian Dictator Manuel Noriega.  Action is the term used for internal control measures – examples might include reporting requirements or the designation of a lead agency.  And finally, guidance is the term that reflects constraints or limitations placed on those charged with executing the campaign; examples might be limiting the number of U.S. personnel or restrictions on their maneuver.

There is an important distinction worth noting –  The importance of decisions like the proxy force only, the air support, and deniability of involvement, can’t be denied. However, they can be overstated. The “sweet spot” for this research is holistically understanding how those decisions are operationalized and how that operationalization translates into a causal chain that influenced the effect of success or failure. At the strategic level operationalization is viewed as “big muscle movements” that represent how policy, actions, or guidance, come into play.  Policy is the thing that sets conditions and makes a military or para-military option start rolling; Actions at this level are not the same as actions on the front line. Actions at this level are internal management events; designating the lead agency, directing reporting requirements, etc.

How each of these operationalized muscle movements effects the outcome is the essence of the forensics on this case. Literature on special operations generally focuses on specialized tactics, personnel, or technology when explaining success or failure. While these ideas are valid, they are not necessarily useful in explaining how strategic decisions influence the outcomes – or if they do. In this case, there has to be a causal chain that links independent variables like the constraint of having to remain covert (deniable) or the limitation on using direct U.S. air cover to support the landings and how this translated to an effect on the outcome.

Existing Scholarship

Current literature on strategic decision making generally focuses on discrete crisis type events (Anastasi, 2001; Calin, 2015; Redd & Mintz, 2013). In most cases, the theoretical approach examines explanatory theory and models ranging from structural and classic approaches to psychological and psychoanalytic theories with little or no discussion on the operationalizing aspects of the decisions or their impact on outcomes (Bar-Joseph & Kruglanski, 2003; Cohen & Gooch, 1991;  Volkan, 2013).

Literature explaining the success or failure of special operations is generally focused on tactical level factors (Arquilla, 1996; Kiras, 2006; McRaven, 1995) or offer narrow case populations to bolster findings (Kiras, 2006; Linnington, 2013).  Finally, with the exception of Lucien Vandenbroucke, most historians fail to address the Bay of Pigs as a special operation and miss the value that this unique perspective provides.  Vandenbroucke (1993)  rightly flags the poor intelligence, lack of interagency coordination, and micro-management of key operations from the White House.  Notably, the Bay of Pigs operation “checks” most of the boxes for an Unconventional Warfare operation involving: a proxy force, trained by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces, conducting an operation conceived and planned by the CIA, executed covertly and with the intent of overthrowing an illegitimate government.  This is a near picture perfect example of a large scale Unconventional Warfare campaign.

Theoretical frameworks and models that examine decision making run a broad gamut from the individual to the organizational level. While the scope of these theories and academic foundations are very comprehensive – psychology, sociology, strategic studies, political science, international relations and anthropology, all contribute, they generally fall short with respect to the focus of this research.

Individual decision making theories tie significant causal weight into the organizational and group influences that shape the key decision maker as well as that individual’s world view and experience. The structural school within this community places significant weight on the influence of structural factors. Similarly, individual psychological models place great explanatory weight on belief systems and psychological and emotional processes.(Levy & Thompson, 2010)

Organizational decision making theories and models that show some explanatory promise include organizational and bureaucratic process models. In general, both models place decision making power in a small inner-circle of elites influenced by either their position or the interests of the sub-organization they represent(Levy & Thompson, 2010) . Borrowing from broader organization theory, the organization process model – essentially, organizations do what they want, offers some explanatory value for the CIA’s behavior in the days leading up to the Bay of Pigs operation.

Individual and organizational decision making theories offer useful insights into how leaders make decisions. With respect to this case, they fall short in explaining how those decisions are translated into outcomes. The individual approach might help to explain whether Kennedy, in the words of one Bay of Pigs veteran, was guilty of strategic vacillation, or wouldn’t accept advice from his senior advisers. The organizational approach, might offer insights into the interagency dynamics that placed the CIA in a higher status than other agencies. With notable exception, none of these theories contribute to establishing the casual chain from decision to effect; they stop at the decision.

The exceptions to the “stop at decision” phenomenon in most decision making theories don’t represent a radical shift, but rather important nuanced differences. Group think theory, is derived from small group psychology. Janis (as cited in Levy and Thompson) (2010) identifies symptoms of group think that align with the decision making processes during the Bay of Pigs; illusions of invulnerability and rationalizing information that runs contrary to the groups collective beliefs are the most prevalent.

Similarly, lay-epistemic theory[4] offers insights as to why individuals resist challenges to pre-established beliefs despite evidence. This theory was at the forefront of Bar-Joseph and Kruglanski’s research on the Israeli intelligence failures preceding the 1973 Yom Kippur War.(2003)


Collection and Justification

The research design for this study employed qualitative methodology utilizing two specific techniques: Document analysis and semi-structured interviews with participants in the actual operation.  The document analysis of the Bay of Pigs case presented a rich source of data. There has been significant published research, post-action forensics, official investigations and historical accounts of the events. To avoid what Maxwell calls “analytic blinders” the narrative analysis approach for this research will employ what he further refers to as connecting strategies to develop a holistic understanding of the context and the relationships of the various elements (Maxwell, 2013).

The second technique was semi-structured interviews of veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion. This technique allowed for flexibility in uncovering new details and information while allowing the subject to frame the response. Many of the Bay of Pigs veterans are octogenarians and could not be expected to provide concise, data-point like responses; in fact, time and recall bias represented one of the first validity challenges. Additionally, the first-person narratives provided a depth of intimacy that goes beyond triangulation, although that is certainly one of the positive byproducts.  The field site for this portion of the research was virtual, utilizing simple telephone interviews.

Data collection for the content analysis of archival materials employed qualitative analysis and hermeneutics. The content analysis focused on the thematics of strategic decision making and process tracking those decisions to actions that impacted the outcomes in the operational space. The hermeneutic approach proved useful in providing context (historical, personal, and post-facto) of the authors of the various documents. Data sources for the archival materials were:

The Department of State Office of the Historian: This office maintains the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity. Additionally, they maintain copies of all official message traffic that passed between the white house, CIA, U.S. Embassy in Cuba, and departments and agencies involved.  https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v10/comp1

The second source for data content analysis is the New York Times daily editions published during a two-month period around the Bay of Pigs operation. https://query.nytimes.com/search/sitesearch/?action=click&contentCollection&region=TopBar&WT.nav=searchWidget&module=SearchSubmit&pgtype=Homepage#/Cuba/from19610101to19610631/

A final source is the National Security Archive at The George Washington University. This archive houses the transcripts of the 1975 oral interviews of George Bissell and Jacob Esterline by Jack B. Pfeiffer.  Bissell and Esterline were both high ranking CIA officers that played critical roles in the planning and execution of the Bay of Pigs.  http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/

The archival data provided a record of the guidance, policy and controls that shaped the actions of the invasion force and the supporting government agencies. They also allowed examination of the processes through a lens of group psychology theories, bureaucratic decision making theories and the lay-epistemic theory. Of these, group-think as a subset of group psychology and the lay-epistemic theory (essentially stating that all humans apply a set of rules, to which they subscribe, to make conclusions from evidence) seemed to have the most bearing on this study. There was an added benefit from using diverse data sources, in this case the George Washington University Archives, which provided important transcripts from interviews of senior CIA Officers. Finally, the New York Times was the leading daily newspaper in the U.S. at a time when daily newspapers truly mattered. They represent what was the industry standard and allow a reasonable inference of the national reporting on Cuba atmospherics and the Bay of Pigs.

Data collection for the second technique employed semi-structured interviews of veterans of the Cuban Resistance Movement that comprised the invasion force known as Brigada 2506. The semi-structured interview approach was supported by snowballing among members of this small group. During the interviews, minimal probing using both the “tell me more” technique and clarification cross-checking (“I’ve heard from other sources…can you tell me anything about that?”) was employed to tease out the granularity on their perceptions and to explore unanticipated revelations.

The participants in the Bay of Pigs operation were an important primary source providing personal observations and perceptions of the events as they occurred. They also represent a quickly shrinking primary source population. In that regard, they come very close to perfectly comprising what Bernard called “the elite members of the community”(Bernard, 2011). This approach deliberately straddled both realist and instrumentalist thinking in terms of research questions.  Questions were crafted with strong consideration to validity concerns (instrumentalist influence) but the perceptions and observations of the respondents had to be considered as valid evidence (realist influence). A copy of the research instrument is included at the end of this paper.


The archived documents in the Office of the Historian represent hundreds of thousands of pages of data. Fortunately, this data has been properly archived and catalogued using both date, region, country and topic as cross-referencing parameters. Several dry-run searches of un-related topics were used to test the schema and proved the system to be both intuitive and trustworthy. The focus of my research was framed by the documents related to Cuba and foreign policy from January 1961 to September 1962 (the end-date was a forced function of the search engine). This initial level of screening produced a selection of 443 documents that were then screened a second time to eliminate routine, administrative and unrelated documents.  A further step segregated the documents into themes (or nodes) discussed in detail in the analysis portion below. This process, while dealing with a large amount of data, was possible because the bulk of the official message traffic is concise, subject focused, and easily readable.

For the New York times, a temporal parameter, beginning one month prior to the invasion and ending one month after, was used to frame the research. This scope offered a good cross-section of reporting on the diplomatic mood and maneuvering (particularly in the United Nations) prior to and immediately after the invasion. The narrow time frame and the focus on Cuba related articles and editorials allowed for a sample of the whole, related to the Bay of Pigs.

Sampling from the Bay of Pigs veterans was facilitated from an initial introduction through a former professional colleague who has routine contacts with members of the still existing Anti-Castro movement. The initial respondent was briefed on the purpose of the research and signed an informed consent prior to being interviewed (this protocol was followed for each respondent). Subsequent respondents were contacted via a snowballing introduction with an interest in finding participants with a variety of experiences. In this case, respondent P01 was an Officer on the Brigada Staff who subsequently became a U.S. Citizen and served in the U.S. Army, retiring at the rank of Colonel. Respondent P02 served as an Infantry Mortarman in the 2d Battalion of the Brigada, became a U.S. citizen completed college and worked as an engineer prior to retirement. Other potential respondents were eager to participate but unwilling or unable to follow the informed consent procedures.

Interviews were conducted telephonically and followed a survey instrument with eleven, open-ended, planned questions with five secondary questions. Respondents were given significant latitude when responding to questions and in some instances provided the answers to multiple questions in a single response. The logistics for these interviews included use of a bluetooth speaker synched to a telephone and a digital recorder. The recording quality was adequate for later transcription. Once interviews were completed the recordings were converted to transcripts by using an equally elaborate combination of the digital recorder, earphones, a separate microphone connected to a laptop and near simultaneous dictation using the voice-to-text feature in google documents. While nothing short of goofy in design, appearance, and implementation, this technique allowed for a one-hour interview to be converted into an initial draft transcript in just under two hours. A subsequent “cleaning” edit resulted in reasonably high quality transcripts. In instances where phrases or words in Spanish appear in the transcripts, an immediate translation was provided in parentheses.

Ethical concerns centered on the privacy and confidentiality of the Bay of Pigs veterans. These concerns are well founded. Many of the veterans have encountered individuals that they believe are Cuban Intelligence Operatives in the years since the operation. In one case, a veteran had the misfortune of being a passenger on a flight hijacked to Cuba in the 1970s.  Once in Havana he was separated from the other passengers, and questioned for several hours. During the questioning the Cuban security personnel produced a dossier including photos of him taken in three different U.S. cities over the previous years.

To mitigate these concerns each respondent was briefed in detail of the measures in place to protect their identities and reduce the risk of inadvertent disclosure.  These include use of anonymous identifiers in any transcripts, securing any data related to the study for a period of three years, and maintain all records in a locked safe that is in an office that is locked when not occupied.

Validity concerns for this research begin with the nature of case study – external validity is weak as a result of a single case with limited generalizability of findings. It is true that results from one case do not easily transfer or even allow significant inference with respect to other cases but there is some generalizability that can be derived with theory. By examining group-think theory and lay-epistemic theory as foundational aspects of decision making, the external validity issue is at least partially addressed.

Additional validity concerns arise with the archival documents. The authors of those documents had some cognizance that what they produced would ultimately be a part of the official record of events. In some cases, memoranda for record were produced solely to ensure that an individual’s position within a policy debate was officially recorded.  Accordingly, concern about the absolute accuracy, or potential self-serving nature of some of the material must be considered. Armed with that foreknowledge, cross-checking other sources proved to be the most effective mitigation.

With interview participants, subject bias is a significant threat to validity. Almost universally, the Bay of Pigs veterans are staunchly anti-communist and anti-Castro. They harbor strong feelings about the recent reestablishment of relations with Cuba. Additionally, there is a risk that history may have leached into their memories. The Bay of Pigs has been highly studied and most participants have read countless books and articles on the subject that may have unconsciously altered their own memory of the events. In one case during an interview a subject was careful to distinguish information that he learned much later, but that level of care may not be the case with all subjects. Finally, time and recall bias presents a significant challenge. The events in question happened in 1961, and most of the survivors went on to live rich and full lives. No matter how significant the Bay of Pigs was as a key moment in their lives, the details are likely to have faded over time.

Triangulation was the best method to mitigate both the subject and document bias. Using information gathered in semi-structured interviews to validate archival documents, and vice-versa, helped to flag any glaring contradictions. Within the interview process cross-checking also aided in substantiating data. Finally, experience based judgement played a role – the ability to spot an exaggeration or self-aggrandizement as well as discern something that doesn’t quite make sense in a document, proved very useful.


The data analysis typology for this research project employed the grounded theory framework to deconstruct the both the transcripts from interviews of Bay of Pigs Veterans, and the archival materials from the Department of State, the New York Times and the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

The interview transcripts provided an opportunity for primary source analysis employing narrative and thematic analysis. The narrative analysis allowed for an interpretivist approach because of a differentiation that Bryman cites as “how do people make sense of what happened?” (2012, 582). This was an important aspect given interview subjects whose memories of events had likely been tempered over time.  The thematic approach does rely more on perceptions of “what happened” but with a framework that assists in classifying data points into themes and sub-themes.  The archived documents also allowed secondary analysis employing the thematic framework to align data points with themes and sub-themes.

This approach was appropriate because it allowed the best possible use of the robust amount of archival data through identification and categorization of themes.  Additionally, it offered a unique perspective by folding the transcripts of interview subjects into the same analysis. Using this inductive approach took advantage of a Straussian line of application with respect to the “tool chest of analytic devices” (Bryman 2012, 568). This also applied the concept and technique of constant comparison attributed to both Glazer and Strauss to tease out nuance and continuously refine the understanding of the themes and how they relate to the data.

For purposes of analysis, a baseline of operational definitions was established to facilitate coding with the initial themes and definitions including:

  • Background and triangulation: Information that informs or confirms other data sources or provides useful background for context.
  • Intelligence shortfalls: Analysis disseminated at any level of participation (tactical to strategic) that errantly influenced decision making.
  • Secrecy /deniability: Decision by strategic decision makers to keep U.S. involvement in the operation a secret and support deniability.
  • Strategic plan: The documented guidance implementing policy and strategy by synchronizing efforts and effects of the lead and supporting departments and agencies of the government.
  • Tactical outcomes: Actions, operations or activities occurring during execution, the outcome of which was directly impacted by strategic decisions.
  • Prioritization: Establishment and dissemination of clear rank ordered objectives for each phase of the operation.

Additional themes emerging in-vivo as a result of analysis included:

  • Operational Security – The actions and activities to deny knowledge of an operation to an adversary; withholding information that could be used to plan an effective counter-strategy.
  • Continuity of planning: Ownership of the planning process from inception to execution. Considered both internal to departments – using the same planners or planning team, as well as across departments – maintaining a single “lead agency”.


Referencing the previously stated intent of holistically understanding how decisions are operationalized into a causal chain that influenced the effect of success or failure, the results of this research do not disappoint. The holistic aspect of the Bay of Pigs operation generally confirms broader intuitive understanding of the influencing factors. The plan was rife with flaws, many of these were known at the time, the Cubans were expecting an attack, and there was a problem with the CIA running a complex military operation, are among the most common and generally accurate disparagements.

Expanding from the overtly innate and using the coding and scoring scheme presented in the methodology section, the most impactful decisions are framed and grouped by theme. In general, decisions related to the strategic plan and continuity of planning had the most effect.  While this is arguably intuitive, it ties in nicely with the theoretical underpinnings of group think theory and lay-epistemics; both theories offer a framework that helps explain why the CIA continued down a path despite mounting indicators that the probability of success was diminishing. What these don’t explain is how the CIA, the National Security Council and the President seemingly let executing the plan become more important than achieving the strategic objective; eliminating a communist government in the western hemisphere.

An early tenet of the strategic plan was influenced by the international political environment that made deniability of U.S. involvement a critical planning criteria. In implementation, this was very poorly executed. As one Bay of Pigs veteran noted, he knew about the recruiting stations for the Brigada before leaving Havana. Despite media reports that revealed details of the invasion force, Kennedy and others clung to the hope of maintaining deniability of U.S. involvement. As a result, decisions about direct support to the invasion force were trumped by a higher priority vestige of wishful thinking. This flies in the face of the advice in a 04 January 1961 memo to the CIA’s Chief of the Western Hemisphere branch from the lead paramilitary planner; “It is axiomatic in amphibious operations that control of air and sea in the objective area is absolutely required. The Cuban Air Force and naval vessels capable of opposing our landing must be knocked out or neutralized before our amphibious shipping makes its final run into the beach”[5].

Additional revelations from the data indicate that strategic intelligence shortfalls, operational security, and secrecy had major impacts on the tactical outcomes.   There was significant unwarranted optimism concerning the likelihood of a mass anti-Castro revolt in Cuba following the invasion. The same memo from Hawkins to Esterline stated; “It is expected that these operations will precipitate a general uprising throughout Cuba and cause the revolt of large segments of the Cuban Army and Militia. The lodgement, it is hoped, will serve as a rallying point for the thousands who are ready for overt resistance to Castro.” The same paragraph goes on to assert,” A general revolt in Cuba, if one is successfully triggered by our operations, may serve to topple the Castro regime within a period of weeks”. These assertions are contradicted by a DoD staff study dated the very next day that states, “massive internal support by the Cuban people of action to overthrow the Castro government cannot be assured”. Viewed through a lens of group think theory, DoD’s status as an outsider held no sway with the CIA’s primacy in the cohesive group and allowed them to discount and rationalize contradictory evidence.(Levy & Thompson, 2010)

Operational security was, in the vernacular of spy movies, “blown” very early in the process. Castro knew months in advance that an attack was coming. As a result of continued coverage in the press, he was probably able to deduce the timing of the invasion to within a matter of days. Perhaps the only bit of critical information that was not easily available to him was the location. Scoring the available data and triangulating other sources and background information all point to a blatant disregard for operational security.

Secrecy, or the desire to maintain deniability of U.S. involvement, had the most tangible effects on the tactical outcomes. Third party nations were enlisted to provide training bases and launch sites in lieu of U.S. facilities which afforded much greater security. The training base in Guatemala was in close proximity to neighboring villages and trains passed in full view several times a day. One Bay of Pigs veteran whose duties included counter-intelligence was certain that the Cuban intelligence service was monitoring activity at the base.

Following initial airstrikes that only partially disabled the Cuban Air Force, subsequent strikes were cancelled because of White House concerns of revealing U.S. sponsorship. As a result, the Cuban Air Force maintained air superiority over the landing beaches, sank two and damaged several other ships, and continuously attacked the Brigada. The desire for secrecy also precluded President Kennedy from allowing U.S. aircraft from directly intervening until the final day – and only then with severe restrictions.


This research joins others in intimating that the forensics on Operation Pluto provide a primer on what not to do when employing unconventional warfare in support of a national security objective. By looking for causal links from strategic decision makers to tactical executors this paper contributes to the dialogue by uncovering potential hypotheses that demand further scrutiny. Among them, that if strategic planning is anchored to a greater strategic objective the likelihood of success will increase. Concepts like grounding the plan in realistic expectations, a professional cadre of planners, and consistent guidance from leaders, could all be considered as contributory factors in this hypothesis. In this case, the objective seemed to drift as the plan demanded changes instead of the reverse. Unseating Castro and preventing the expansion of the Communist Bloc in the western hemisphere, gave way to ambiguous terms like “it is hoped” and “a reasonable probability of success”. The strategic objective was similarly obfuscated to ideas of maybe starting a revolt, maybe getting a provisional government in place, and maybe setting conditions that would allow the U.S. to act with the sanction of the Organization of American States.

Other potential hypotheses emerging from this case could address the complexity of the secrecy (deniability) issue. A reasonable hypothesis might be: as an operations size and scope increases, the ability to maintain absolute deniability will decrease. At its initial stages, the CIA’s plan to insert small teams of guerillas to act as a cadre for a counter-revolution was sound and maintaining secrecy and deniability were achievable. As the plan shifted to a more overt and larger enterprise, the impetus for secrecy and deniability became an unrealistic expectation.  Despite this, this single factor played a critical role in many of the decisions that ultimately affected the outcome.

Related to secrecy but with more tangible impact on the operation, operational security, or the lack thereof, demands a hypothesis driven inquiry. One possibility is: If active operational security measures are not employed commensurate with secrecy and deniability parameters of an operation, the likelihood of operational compromise will increase. The failure to mask recruiting operations, isolate the invasion forces, employ active counter-measures and even something as basic as controlling press access, made the job of the Cuban Intelligence Service all too easy.

Finally, wishful thinking and an overabundance of belief in the CIAs ability to “pull it off”, turned out to be a poor substitute for professional planning and execution. Much more significant to the outcome of Operation Pluto, was the loss of focus on the strategic objective.

While not providing generalizable findings that can be applied as proscriptive measures, this paper does identify key factors that serve as a cautionary tale. For strategic planners and more importantly, decision makers, the Bay of Pigs should be mandatory reading. For scholars, an in-depth study of incorporating the hypotheses generated in this paper, would be a worthy project.



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[1] Quote from a Brigada 2506 veteran (interview subject P01).

[2] The United States Department of Defense defines unconventional warfare as: activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area

[3] From the interview with subject P02.

[4] Lay-epistemic theory addresses the processes whereby individuals form their knowledge on various matters. This includes all possible contents of knowledge such as attitudes, opinions, beliefs impressions, stereotypes, statistical inferences and causal attributions. (From the University of Maryland https://terpconnect.umd.edu/ )

[5] From a Memorandum from the Chief of Western Hemisphere Para-Military section, Central Intelligence Agency (Hawkins) to the Chief of WH/4 of the Directorate for Plans (Esterline)

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