The Cold War: A Fading Memory

Members of Castro’s National Revolutionary Militia (MNR); weapons inspection.

Not long after the end of Soviet Communism in Europe, the academic publication, Journal of Contemporary History (JCH), asked itself what constituted ‘contemporary’ history? Hitherto, the JCH had focused on the period between 1900-1945, particularly on inter-war questions. The JCH decided that as Europe had moved into a post-Soviet age, so it was time for the journal to consider the new period as ‘contemporary’, relegating the inter-war age to just ‘history’. For those of us, like myself, who had lived in the shadow of the Cold War, there was a sense to this, but it was still the case that its tensions and conflicts seemed to be present. Now, over 30 years later, that seems far less so, and it was brought home to me even more by the surprising lack of coverage that the recent 60th anniversary of the ‘Bay of Pigs’ received. The Historian ran a piece about President Kennedy and the failed invasion, but I saw little in the press or media. That surprised me, not least because I had hoped that my recent book, Amateur Armies, which contains a chapter on the events on the shores of Castro’s Cuba in April 1961, might receive a small, very small, spin-off boost from coverage.

In my look at the Bay of Pigs, I attempted to do something different from most previous English language coverage of the failed invasion by Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA. There are some interesting books available about the background to the invasion, the events of those few days, and the aftermath. The focus is largely on the role of President Kennedy, who inherited the project from the Eisenhower administration, the CIA’s role, the fighting itself, and the international political fallout following the defeat of the invading force of Cuban exiles, known as ‘Assault Brigade 2506’. The memoir by Grayston L. Lynch, the CIA officer who was most closely involved, and the oral history account, The Bay of Pigs; the Leaders’ Story of Brigade 2506, give fascinating insights into the inside story, and, particularly in Lynch’s book, the sense of betrayal that most of the exiles came to feel over decisions by Kennedy relating to air strikes. However, in my chapter I shifted the viewpoint to that of the Castro regime and its preparations to defend its still uncertain power.

In early 1961, Castro headed a new regime that was far from stable, and whose continuation was not a foregone conclusion. Opposition from a wide range of sources was strong, not least from former comrades of Castro in the 26th July Movement, his anti-Batista group which had brought down that dictator. The CIA, which was still a relatively new agency, only being established in 1947, was keen to assert its value to Washington policy makers and was attempting to supply anti-Castro forces inside Cuba. The Castro government failed to buy arms from the British, and the US was able to limit other arms sales from Belgium and West Germany. However, the Soviet Union was quick to fill the gap, and weapons of all types were promised and began to be delivered. The immediate problem was that Castro’s regular army was small and many of its officers had been sacked, arrested or had joined over 100,000 exiles. Time was running out, both for the exiled Cuban plotters and the CIA, as well as for Castro’s defences.

The solution to the problem of the defence of the Castro regime was provided by the two most committed Communists in his government, his brother Raúl Castro, and Che Guevara. It was Guevara’s experiences and observations in Guatemala in 1954 which convinced him that any government facing the sort of threat Castro’s regime faced, needed a large, politicised militia. Guatemala was the CIA’s greatest coup in the 1950s, and also informed, erroneously, its thinking into the problem of Cuba. Like many other Latin American countries, Guatemala’s economy was dominated by US business interests. In Guatemala’s case, the United Fruit Company held extensive tracts of the country and drew large profits based on the brutal exploitation of the rural workforce. But in the late 1940s, Guatemalan politics entered a reformist period, with successive governments attempting to bring in land reforms, undertake development projects and improve living standards. The 1950 presidential election was won by Colonel Jacobo Árbenz, who intended to maintain the advances that had been made.  None of those developments were welcomed by US business interests, the CIA, which saw the hand of Communism in the Árbenz government, or, from 1953, the new US president, Eisenhower.

As pressure grew on Árbenz, he realised that he would not be able to rely on Guatemala’s small army to defend his government. Instead, he attempted to establish a pro-government militia, but the steps taken were too late. Using Árbenz’s move to finally ‘prove’ that here was a Communist government in the making, the CIA were able to mount an audacious attack on the Guatemalan government. On 18 June 1954, a tiny force of 200 CIA-backed rebels crossed from Honduras into Guatemala, advanced a few miles then halted. Meanwhile CIA radio stations bombarded the country with propaganda and a few CIA-flown aircraft attacked. Within weeks, the Árbenz government collapsed through a lack of self-confidence, the ineffectual and ill-armed nature of its new militia, and the combination of radio propaganda and a few air attacks. Che Guevara witnessed all these events, and his experiences helped drive the creation, five years later, of the Castroist Cuban National Revolutionary Militia (MNR).

The MNR expanded rapidly, and was, from the outset, a highly politicised force. Its remit was to help enforce the Castro regime, combat urban and rural guerrillas, and mobilise hundreds of thousands of Cubans for the government. Within months, it was able to deploy 150,000 personnel, and was key to the drives against anti-Castro guerrillas operating in the Escambray mountains. By the time of the Bay of Pigs action, the MNR consisted of over 200,000 members, acting as early warning groups along Cuba’s long coastline, and taking a central role in the defeat of the CIA’s attempt to replicate its success in Guatemala. It also suffered heavy losses, particularly to the Brigade’s bombers, in a conflict that demonstrated the power of air attack.

The events of 17-21 April 1961 were world news. The defeat of Brigade 2506 was a major humiliation for the Kennedy presidency, and a significant step in the final consolidation of the Castro regime as a Soviet style Communist country. From then on, with increasing militarily and economic backing from the USSR, the Soviets had both a foothold in the western hemisphere, and a proxy for the wars that it would fight in Africa in the 1970s. Yet all this drama, these historic events, seem to have faded already, if the lack of popular coverage of the 60th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs is anything to go by. That the Cold War should fade so quickly is, for those of us of that generation, a surprise. But, then, that’s history.

A Castroist poster celebrating the role of the MNR militia in defeating the Bay of Pigs invasion.

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