One of the last-minute changes came when Kennedy told Bissell to keep the number of aircraft involved to the minimum. It was agreed that there would be two air strikes against the Cuban air bases. The first took place using eight B-26s launched from Nicaragua on Friday, 14 April. The aircraft arrived in the early hours of Saturday morning and struck to only marginal effect. Apparently Kennedy received a sufficiently optimistic assessment of the results of this strike, which, combined with a report from the marine colonel with the brigade exuding confidence in their motivation and capability, convinced him to give final approval for the whole operation.
Although the planes flew a path designed to give an impression of a defection from Cuban airfields, this fooled few, especially when one of the planes had to make an emergency landing in Key West. Specialists soon spotted the difference between Cuban and American B-26s. Matters were not helped by the lack of the diversionary attack scheduled for that night. It apparently failed to take place because of second thoughts by the leader of the group. At the United Nations, a furious Adlai Stevenson found himself trying to deny the undeniable. He had been poorly briefed and opened his defense of the American position actually believing the cover story. The timing could not have been worse, with a UN General Assembly debate on Cuba a couple of days away. Washington soon heard of his fury.
On Sunday, 16 April, General Cabell, Dulles’s deputy, in charge of the agency while the director was out of town (itself part of the cover), made a fateful intervention. Cabell was not au fait with the details of the operation, and on being told that a second raid was about to be launched, he thought that he had better check with Rusk. This raid had entered the plan at a late stage, and neither the State Department nor the White House had fully taken it on board. With the cover blown, little chance of a second air attack being attributed to defectors, and Stevenson irate, Rusk soon concluded that yet another raid would put the United States in an untenable position internationally. He recommended to Bundy that no further strike should be authorized until the planes could fly (or appear to fly) from the airstrip that was supposed to be available on the beachhead. He assumed that another air strike was not vital at this time and that the supply ships would unload under cover of darkness.
At 9:30 P. M. on 16 April Bundy phoned Cabell to inform him that there should be no more air strikes unless actually launched from the beachhead. Any further discussion should be with Rusk. Bissell and Cabell immediately went to Rusk to persuade him to get the strike reinstated. They warned of the risks to the shipping supporting the operation and the brigade itself. Rusk relented but only so far as more strikes in the immediate beachhead area, where a continuous cover of two B-26s was laid on. He was not only concerned about Stevenson’s delicate situation; from his own wartime military experience he could not see how a couple of air strikes could make sufficient difference. They even discussed calling off the landing, but Bissell said it was now too late.
Rusk rang the president and explained the CIA’s objections while sustaining his own recommendation. Kennedy accepted Rusk’s advice. When the two officials were offered the opportunity to telephone the president directly, they declined. Kennedy later claimed that if the case had been argued properly to him, he would have approved the strike. The Joint Chiefs were not informed of the cancellation and so were unable to comment.
Forty sorties had originally been planned. Only eight were eventually allowed, and these had already taken place, with only modest results. It is unclear whether further raids would have achieved much more. It has been claimed that Castro had concentrated his remaining aircraft in one field, and as sixteen CIA aircraft were supposed to target this field, it is not inconceivable that the Cuban air force could have been effectively disabled. However, it has also been suggested that after the first raid Castro dispersed his aircraft and once the invasion began moved antiaircraft guns into the area, thereby inhibiting air support operations. It is unlikely that this cancellation was a decisive, fatal blow, though the contrary view was soon propounded as the main explanation for the fiasco.
The CIA must now have suspected that more overt U. S. involvement would soon be necessary to rescue the operation. Cabell arranged with Admiral Arleigh Burke, chief of naval operations, to alert the fleet to a possible requirement for air cover and early warning destroyers. At 4:30 A. M. on 17 April Cabell woke up Rusk with an urgent plea that aircraft from the carrier Essex be used. Rusk reminded him of the president’s explicit statement that no U. S. forces would be involved. This time Cabell was put through to Kennedy, who, after he had spoken again to Rusk, refused the request.
Despite these early setbacks the operation went ahead. Early on the morning of 17 April the brigade of 1,400 men landed. The advance party had already lost tactical surprise. The landing craft floundered through unanticipated coral reefs and in the face of unexpected fire from the shore. Ships carrying men, equipment, and stores came under repeated aerial attack. One battalion was effectively lost when its ship, the Houston, grounded sixty yards from shore and several miles away from their comrades. The other battalion landed without adequate supplies and could not withstand a sustained onslaught by some 20,000 Cuban soldiers. It fought bravely and inflicted severe casualties, but apart from one small airdrop it received no extra supplies. It was obliged to surrender by the end of the third day.
A ten-day supply of ammunition along with communications equipment and vital food and medical supplies was on the freighter Rio Escondido, which was sunk offshore by the Cuban air force, along with the Houston. The loss of the Rio deprived the brigade of signaling equipment, which meant that communications with Washington thereafter were minimal. At this point two other supply ships ran away from the scene and could not be regrouped in time to get back under cover of darkness. The crews were prepared to try again only with a U. S. Navy destroyer escort and jet cover. The convoy commander requested the CIA in Washington to seek help, but the CIA did not appreciate the severity of the situation and called off the convoy.
The morning of 18 April was grim. The situation in Cuba was “not good,” Bundy told Kennedy; “the Cuban armed forces are stronger, the popular response is weaker, and our tactical position is feebler than we had hoped.” He warned of imminent pleas for more help “in rapid crescendo, because we are up against a formidable enemy, who is reacting with military know-how and vigor.” The issue was whether to reopen the possibility of further intervention or to accept the high probability that our people, at best, will go into the mountains in defeat.” “In my own judgment,” concluded Bundy, “the right course now is to eliminate the Castro air force, by neutrally-painted US planes if necessary, and then let the battle go its way.”
America’s allies were troubled while its opponents were in the full flow of vituperation. Khrushchev denounced the invasion as “fraught with danger to world peace” and urged the United States to act to stop the “conflagration” from spreading. A so-called small war, he warned, “can produce a chain reaction in all parts of the world.” Kennedy may well have picked on that statement and Khrushchev’s next line about rendering the Cuban people and their government “all necessary assistance in beating back the armed attack” as more of an explicit warning than was intended. That evening a message from the president went back to Moscow, explaining the events in Cuba as part of a continuing struggle by Cubans for freedom, confirming that the United States would not intervene militarily, although it would act “to protect this hemisphere against external aggression.” He added, “I trust this does not mean that the Soviet government, using the situation in Cuba as a pretext, is planning to inflame other areas of the world.” He told Eisenhower after the affair that he had not provided air cover to the rebels because he feared that Moscow “would be very apt to cause trouble over Berlin.”
Yet when, as expected, the CIA and the Joint Chiefs asked Kennedy to reverse his public pledge and openly introduce air and naval power to back the brigade on the beach, Kennedy was initially inclined to agree. His first response to the bad news was “that he’d rather be called an aggressor than a bum.” A clear and credible proposal might have been approved. None was forthcoming. Late that morning Admiral Burke arrived at the cabinet room in the White House to find a “real big mess.” Alert to a likely request to salvage a botched operation, he had already positioned two battalions of marines on ships cruising close to Cuba. But nobody offered a concrete plan and, other than an occasional comment of “Balls,” he felt he himself had little to offer initially. Nevertheless, he at least gave the impression of knowing what he was doing. Because of this, and because most of the possible options involved the navy, Kennedy decided to work directly with him, in effect bypassing Lemnitzer.
That evening, as the principals emerged from the annual congressional reception, (Kennedy still in white tie and tails), Rostow and Bissell returned to the White House with more desperate news and pressure from the CIA team for direct action to rescue the operation. Bundy told Schlesinger that he “would not be able to accept Dick’s estimate of the situation.” This did not stop Bissell from arguing for direct American air support to save the invasion. In this he was supported by Burke, who had spent the afternoon trying to find out was going on and identify options. He had asked Admiral Dennison whether the “anti-Castro forces can go into bush as guerrillas, any possibility that can still break through, can they be rescued by unmarked US amphibious boats?” He had considered how unmarked U. S. aircraft might be used to protect rebel forces. Two unmarked navy planes were prepared for possible combat use. He now proposed using them to engage Cuban aircraft in combat, knock out the T-33s, and so free the brigade’s B-26s to attack Castro’s tanks.
Kennedy was eventually persuaded to try a compromise. At three in the morning he authorized a limited operation for hours later, in the hope that at least it might be possible to evacuate the brigade from the beachhead. Six unmarked jets from the Essex were to fly over the Bay of Pigs for an hour to cover a B-26 airdrop already planned for six-thirty. They were not to engage any Cuban targets on the ground or go looking for a fight. Rusk warned this meant a deeper commitment, a risk of appearing “in the light of being a liar”; the president raised his hand above his nose and said, “We’re already in it up to here.” Unlike Rusk, he was not quite ready to let the operation just die. Having been impressed with Burke, he was inclined to follow his advice, although as ever he was still looking for the minimalist option when the only real possibilities were maximalist in nature. The night found the president in tears.
The next morning the news remained unremittingly gloomy. Dennison had reported back that there was no move to any sort of guerrilla activity and that the idea of evacuation was “fantastically unrealistic” unless he was allowed to put a substantial American force ashore. Notwithstanding this, Burke told him to go ahead, keeping the involvement to as low a level as possible. “Goodness knows this operation is as difficult as possible and we are trying to do all we can without much info and without having been in on all initial stages. I am too irked and tired.” The planned air operation had not taken place; the two air forces had got their time zones mixed, so the B-26s (some with U. S. instructors having taken over from their frightened Cuban pupils) arrived an hour earlier than their American escorts and were soon downed or gone.
The exiles began to surrender. The few who did attempt to flee inland to initiate guerrilla operations were soon captured. In the end 1,189 were taken prisoner, while 140 were killed. The chances of a general uprising had been effectively removed at the start of the invasion. As soon as Castro realized what was going on he ordered as many as a hundred thousand potential dissidents to be rounded up by his security forces. Nobody had bothered to inform the leaders of these groups that an invasion was imminent, and so they had been unable to give support.