The invasion was a disaster. Troop landing craft hit coral reefs and capsized. Promised air cover never materialized. Cuba's air force sank or chased away the force's supply ships, and within days the Bay of Pigs invaders, out of ammunition, surrendered.
"It was an event that still resonates in U.S.-Cuban relations, and certainly one of the most extraordinary chapters of the Cold War," says Peter Kornbluh, an expert on declassified Bay of Pigs documents with the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
This week, the invasion that reshaped Cuban-American relations is being marked with an equally extraordinary event: For the first time since 1961, the men who crafted the anti-Castro plot at the side of former Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and a handful of the men who fought in the doomed 2506 Brigade, have come to Cuba to sit down with their former adversaries -- including Castro -- to finally clarify what happened.
Some of the disclosures in Thursday's first day of talks were eye-openers, including revelations that the CIA purposely pushed Castro toward alliance with the Soviets, looking for an excuse for intervention against his government.
Castro pulled out declassified Cuban documents suggesting that the Bay of Pigs landing was not an invasion intended to succeed but one whose failure was intended by the CIA to push then-President John F. Kennedy into sending U.S. troops.
"I completely agree," said Alfredo Duran, a spokesman for the returning brigade fighters. "This plan was to provoke U.S. intervention. I expected the Marines to be behind me."
U.S. participants in the conference, which runs through Saturday, include Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin, close aides to President Kennedy, and John Nolan, an aide to Robert Kennedy, as well as Robert Reynolds and other top former CIA officials involved in the invasion plan. Five fighters from the 2506 Brigade have traveled to Cuba, as have top U.S. scholars on the era and Kennedy family members Jean and William Kennedy Smith.
The Cuban government, for the first time in 40 years, has declassified hundreds of pages of documents related to the Bay of Pigs invasion, following the lead of the U.S., which in the 1990s released many of its documents related to the event.
Using those resources, academics, former soldiers, former commanders and Kennedy-era officials from both governments are trying to answer lingering questions about the invasion: Why did Kennedy withhold air support that might have changed the outcome of the invasion? Did he consider sending the Marines to rescue the embattled 2506 Brigade? Were Cubans aware of a related CIA plot to murder Castro?
"This is an extraordinary meeting, a rare opportunity to revisit history from all sides and show that even the most bitter of antagonists can sit and discuss the past, without rancor," said Kornbluh, who spent more than five years trying to organize the meeting.
One highlight of the conference is expected Saturday when the participants return to Playa Giron -- the invasion landing site flanked by mangroves and swamp forest -- to walk the beach and share memories.
In three days of fighting at Playa Giron and at a second front inland at San Blas, 114 Cuban-American fighters died and another 1,189 were taken prisoner. They would spend 18 months in prison before being freed in exchange for a $53 million shipment of food and medical supplies from the United States.
On the Cuban side, the death toll was higher, with 161 men killed by the time the three-day invasion ended on April 19, 1961.
Duran, a politically moderate Cuban-American from Miami, is one of those who spent 18 months imprisoned in a crowded cell in the Castillo del Principe, an 18th-Century Havana castle. He came to the conference despite radio death threats from exiles in Miami who oppose contact with Castro.
The former fighter, who founded the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association in Miami, said he returned for two reasons: to try to organize a memorial at Playa Giron for brigade members who died, and to set straight the historical record on the group's motivations.
"Up to now the people who went on the Bay of Pigs [invasion] have been seen as mercenaries, people working for the CIA," he said. "But it's more complex than that. We were patriots. We really believed in what we were doing, and we want a chance to tell our story."
Rewriting the history of the Bay of Pigs, Kornbluh says, will be a major focus of the conference, as participants' firsthand stories are combined with newly released documents to draw a clearer picture of the conflict.
"There are a lot of big questions, exploring the motivations of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the politics behind Kennedy's decision to go forward, assumptions by the CIA which turned out to be false," he said.
"How much did the Cubans know in advance about the invasion?" he asked. "A couple of intelligence reports [the Cubans] are declassifying don't show extensive knowledge but they do show some knowledge. Did the Soviets Union provide some intelligence of the invasion? There's some indication they intercepted news of the invasion a week before it happened, but no knowledge of whether they passed that on."
At Thursday's talks, Castro, with great glee, read an April 1959 declassified State Department report suggesting that "it would be a serious mistake to underestimate this man [Castro] with all his appearance of naivete, unsophistication ..."
At that point Castro paused, looked at the crowd and nodded in mock seriousness as they nodded back. "'Yes, naivete, unsophistication and ignorance of many matters. He is clearly a strong personality and a born leader of great personal courage and conviction,'" he read.
Thomas Blanton, head of the National Security Archive, laughed, telling the story later. "I think the entire table of 48 veterans and scholars thought, 'Yup, that got it about right.'"
Another newly discovered British document, recounting a 1959 conversation between the British ambassador to the U.S. and former CIA Director Allen Dulles, noted that Dulles asked England not to sell Hunter fighter planes to Castro's government in hopes of pushing Castro's government to the Soviets.
A CIA plot
A shipment of Soviet-bloc weapons to Guatemala had been all the excuse the CIA needed to overthrow a leftist regime there. If England cooperated in withholding weapons to Castro, the ambassador wrote, it might "lead directly to a Soviet offer to supply. Then [the CIA] might be able to do something."
In 1998, the United States declassified a CIA assessment of the ill-fated invasion. It revealed large-scale bumbling by the agency, which incorrectly predicted the invasion would lead to a popular uprising in Cuba, failed to advise Kennedy of the substantial likelihood the plan would fail, and fumbled a cover-up of U.S. involvement.
So serious were the CIA failings that several officials, including Jake Esterline, the Bay of Pigs project director, urged the plan be abandoned.
The men said the anti-Castro plot, which originally focused on a quiet guerrilla incursion at Trinidad, near the Escambray Mountains on Cuba's south coast, was doomed when it became a large-scale invasion and shifted to Playa Giron, far from the mountains where organizers had hoped to foment an anti-Castro revolution.
For the Cubans, Kornbluh confirmed, the conference is an opportunity to assert their own place in a history written primarily by the United States.
"History is usually written by the victors. But in the case of the Bay of Pigs it has mostly been written by the losers," he said. "It hasn't incorporated at all that the Cubans came and fought."