THIRTY years ago this month, a group of anti- Castro Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in an ill-fated attempt to drive Castro from power.
They had been secretly recruited, organized, trained, supplied, and transported by the United States. They expected the Cuban populace to rise up and join them in overthrowing Castro. Instead, the populace joined Castro's forces in resisting them. By the third day, all of the invaders had been killed or captured.
When the dismal end came on April 19, 1961, John F. Kennedy, who had given the go-ahead for it, had been president of the US one day short of three months. He had won a squeaker of an election to begin with. Now his first major undertaking, in which the role of the US was supposed to be disguised, was an abysmal failure, the American part in it exposed, the American government painfully embarrassed. In a parliamentary government, Kennedy would certainly have been forced to resign.
Instead, he survived attacks from the left, which berated him for yet another Yankee intervention in Latin America; from the right, which upbraided him for not ensuring success by openly providing US naval and air support; and from the center, where people wondered why anybody thought the plan would work. After some closed hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Homer Capehart, a solid conservative Midwestern Republican, growled privately that he had known Boy Scout troops back in Indiana th at could have organized it better. Now, three decades removed from that traumatic time, it seems that much of the argument over whether to undertake the invasion was simply misdirected.
One argument against the Bay of Pigs was that it would irredeemably tarnish the US image in Latin America. Not so. In December, after the Bay of Pigs in April, Kennedy was greeted with wild enthusiasm by crowds in Bogot'a. Along with Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, his picture was displayed in countless peasant huts in the Andes - and at a time when Castro and Che Guevara were threatening to turn the Andes into ``another Vietnam.''
An argument in favor of the Bay of Pigs was that if Castro was left unmolested, he would entrench himself in power and - worse - construct a communist state ``90 miles from our shores.'' This turned out to be true.
Castro is the longest ruling dictator in the Western Hemisphere and one of the longest in the world. But the consequences are a good deal less dire than predicted.
In urging Kennedy not to undertake the Bay of Pigs, Sen. J.W. Fulbright, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued that Castro's Cuba was ``a thorn in our flesh, not a dagger in our heart.'' That description sounds even better today than it did then.
When a dagger was introduced into Cuba in the form of Soviet missiles, Kennedy stared down Khrushchev and the missiles were removed. Otherwise, the island has been more an annoyance than a threat.
ONE can ask how much the Soviets have benefited from this satellite which more or less fell into their laps so close to the US but so far from the Soviet Union. They have gotten a proxy for some dirty work in Africa. They have gotten a platform for projecting their influence into Latin America. They have gotten a spokesman in the third world - but one who frequently speaks his own mind, not Moscow's.
In short, they have gotten few lasting results. And they have spent hundreds of billions of rubles.
The Soviet experience in Cuba lends point to another argument Fulbright made to Kennedy against the Bay of Pigs: What if we win? As it turned out, the Soviets won and got an expensive client state. The US lost and saved much money.
President Kennedy did not see it that way, of course. Nor did Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush.
Carter at least took some tentative steps toward normalizing relations, but all the others have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make life difficult for Castro. Under Eisenhower and Kennedy, the CIA even had various harebrained schemes to end life for Castro.
None of this is to argue that what happens in Cuba is unimportant to the US; the argument is that what happens is probably a good deal less important than it seems at the time, and if we kept our cool, it would be less important still.