In this lesson, we will examine the relationship between communism and the country of Cuba. We will focus specifically on the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro's rise to power, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Cuban Revolution
Because Cuba is a mere 90 miles from the United States, events in Cuba are critical to American interests. This was never truer than during the 1950s and 1960s. In the context of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, Cuba took center stage and became the subject of dramatic confrontations. Let's explore how this tiny island played a major role in the Cold War and brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.
Let's begin with the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban Revolution took place from 1953-1959 and resulted in the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista and the creation of a new communist government under Fidel Castro. But revolutions don't just pop up out of nowhere. What led to the Cuban Revolution?
In 1940, Fulgencio Batista came to power as president of Cuba. Initially, he was relatively progressive and had the support of many on the left. Over time, however, he became increasingly autocratic and anti-communist. His anti-communist stance allowed him to garner American support. Batista also made deals with the American Mafia and wealthy American investors, causing many Cubans to see him as an exploiter of Cuban capital. To many Cubans, the corrupt Batista was a 'sellout.'
Facing certain defeat in the 1952 election, Batista assumed dictatorial powers. He suspended the 1940 Constitution and cracked down on any who opposed him. Batista ruled Cuba for the next few years, even as communist revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara rose up against him. Fidel Castro and his brother Raul emerged as leaders of 26th of July Movement, which was a leftist revolutionary organization committed to ousting Batista. The organization was named after their first assault against Batista's government, an attack that happened on July 26th, 1953.
This attack was an utter failure, resulting in the imprisonment of the Castro brothers. Within a year or two, they were released, and they then fled to Mexico where they recruited members for their cause. In 1956, they returned to Cuba to continue their revolution. Hiding in the hills of Cuba, the movement engaged in years of guerrilla warfare against Batista's government. In early January 1959, the movement succeeded in ousting Batista. Batista's government was replaced by a communist government headed by Fidel Castro.
One quick side note. Earlier I mentioned Che Guevara. In case you are not sure who he is, he is the communist revolutionary who, in recent years has managed to become famous for randomly appearing on hipster t-shirts. You know, with long hair and a beret. Yeah, that guy. Yes, he was a leading figure of the Cuban Revolution until he was hunted down and executed in 1967. But that's a whole other story.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion
During the revolutionary years and immediately afterward, Castro tried to make his movement seem less radical than it actually was. He even toured the United States in 1959 and denied that he was a communist. For a time, he even had the support of some Americans. But it was not long before his true color appeared, and that was red, of course. In the aftermath of the revolution, Cuba and the Soviet Union became allies, further alienating the United States.
Concerned over the coziness between Cuba and the Soviet Union, American President Dwight D. Eisenhower came up with a secret plan to invade Cuba and have Castro removed from power. The plan was coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and it involved assistance from the American Mafia and other anti-Castro groups in Cuba. The plan involved CIA-sponsored training of anti-Castro Cuban exiles.
When John F. Kennedy became president following the election of 1960, he was informed of the plan. He gave his consent, and the Bay of Pigs Invasion took place from April 17-19, 1961. The invasion was preceded by an air strike in which light bombers attacked Cuban airfields in an attempt to disable the Cuban air force. On April 17, roughly 1,500 CIA-backed Cuban exiles launched an amphibious assault in the Bay of Pigs. After an initial success against local militia, the assault teams were driven back by Castro's forces.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a complete failure. Later government reports cited a variety of reasons for the fiasco, including poor planning and inadequate supplying. The attempted invasion was also a huge embarrassment for the newly elected President Kennedy. To his credit, he took full responsibility for the invasion. He later negotiated with Cuba for the release of most of the captured Cuban exiles.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
The botched Bay of Pigs Invasion further pushed Castro's Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union. The tiny island nation was in need of a powerful ally who could guarantee its survival. The Soviet Union also recognized the advantage of having an ally so close in proximity to the United States.
See, the United States had military bases and missile sites throughout Europe, most notably in Turkey. If you know your geography, Turkey borders the Soviet Union. This posed a direct threat to the Soviet Union. It gave the United States a tremendous strategic advantage. Many Soviet officials doubted the accuracy and reliability of Soviet long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It was thus in the Soviet Union's best interest to establish medium-range and intermediate-range missile sites in the Western Hemisphere, and what better place than 90 miles from the U.S. mainland?
In the early summer of 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev persuaded Fidel Castro to permit the construction of strategic missile sites in Cuba. Under the guise of agricultural and industrial specialists, Soviet missile experts began arriving in Cuba in July. In early September, the first batch of Soviet R-12 missiles arrived in Cuba. These intermediate-range missiles were capable of being armed with nuclear warheads.
Throughout August and September, the CIA had been collecting intelligence on the missile sites. On October 14, 1962, a U-2 spy plane flying a reconnaissance mission over Cuba captured photographs of missile site construction. Within days, this information was brought to the attention of President Kennedy. To deal with the crisis, Kennedy convened the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or EXXCOMM.
EXXCOMM was a group of advisors who offered insight into the crisis in Cuba. Members of EXXCOMM proposed a variety of tactics to deal with the missile threat, including an air strike, land invasion, and a naval blockade. Some also suggested the United States should do nothing at all. Most advisors suggested a full-scale invasion of Cuba, but Kennedy was inclined to show more restraint. He called for a 'quarantine' of Cuba, which was essentially a blockade, but it sounded less threatening. The quarantine was designed to halt the shipment of any more missiles. He also demanded the destruction of the current missile sites.
On October 22, Kennedy went public with the crisis, appearing on television and informing the American people. The news shocked many Americans. Many historians regard the 'Thirteen Days' in October 1962 as the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. American and Soviet military forces were put on high alert as the world held its breath.
Meanwhile, secret negotiations were taking place between Washington and the Kremlin. A deal was worked out in which the Soviets agreed to dismantle their missile sites in exchange for a pledge that the United States would never again invade Cuba. As part of the deal, the United States also agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey, although this deal remained classified for years.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it is called, lasted from October 14-28, 1962. In the end, it was resolved peacefully, although it brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war. The seriousness of the crisis resulted in the creation of the Moscow-Washington Hotline, a direct link of communication between the two superpowers. This hotline was intended to give American and Soviet leaders the opportunity to directly negotiate future crises. American public opinion was generally favorable toward Kennedy's handling of the situation.
Let's review what we've learned about Cuba during the Cold War. The Cuban Revolution took place from 1953-1959. It resulted in the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista and the creation of a new communist government under Fidel Castro. During the revolution, the 26th of July Movement waged years of guerrilla warfare against Batista's government.
Between April 17-19, 1961, President Kennedy authorized the Bay of Pigs Invasion, in which anti-Castro Cuban exiles launched a full-scale invasion of Cuba in an attempt to oust Castro. The invasion was a total failure. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, between October 14-28, 1962, President Kennedy convened EXXCOMM, a group of advisors to help resolve the crisis. Although it brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war, it was resolved peacefully through secret negotiations.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Recognize the rise to power of Fidel Castro in Cuba in the late 1950s
- Recall the Bay of Pigs disaster by American backed anti-Castro forces
- Describe the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 'Thirteen Days' of October