April 15: The attack begins in the early hours of a Saturday morning. The CIA-backed brigade of Cuban exiles sends eight B-26 bombers from Nicaragua to Cuba to destroy Fidel Castro’s air force on the ground. Staged to look like an internal revolt by Castro’s own men, the air raid is only partly successful. At least six of Castro’s fighter planes survive. That afternoon, Adlai Stevenson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insists America had nothing to do with the air raids. He soon comes to learn that he has been misled by his own government.
April 16: At a funeral ceremony for Cubans killed in the air raids, Fidel Castro rails at the United States and announces, for the first time, that Cuba is a socialist state. That evening, John Kennedy, at his country house in Virginia for the weekend, cancels follow-up air raids on Cuban airfields. At least one CIA official immediately grasps the implications: “The Cuban Brigade was doomed.”
April 17: Shortly after midnight, approximately 1,400 Cuban exiles, known as Brigade 2506, begin to land on the coast of southern Cuba, in and around the Bay of Pigs. At dawn, they come under attack from the surviving planes of Castro’s air force. Two key supply ships are quickly sunk. Meanwhile, in the United States, life goes on. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment wins an Academy Award for Best Picture that evening in Los Angeles.
April 18: With their supply ships sunk or AWOL, and coming under heavy fire from Castro’s air force and artillery, the Brigade begins to run out of ammunition and options. Desperation sets in on the beach, in CIA headquarters, and in the White House, where John Kennedy asks himself, “How could I have been so stupid?” At the Bay of Pigs, brigade leaders beg for help from nearby American warships. President Kennedy refuses to grant permission for the navy to engage.
April 19: With ammunition gone and no help from the Americans forthcoming, the brigade collapses and takes refuge in swamps around the Bay of Pigs, where they are soon flushed out by Castro’s troops. In Cuba and around much of the world, Castro is celebrated as the David who beat Goliath. In Washington, a shaken John Kennedy and his stunned advisors take stock and try to figure out how to recover from what one American general calls “the worst American defeat since 1812.” Among steps taken by Kennedy to regain lost ground will be his appointment, the following day, of a presidential task force to devise “a program of action to prevent communist domination of South Viet-Nam.”