by August 5, 2013
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (to be posted)
I served on the staff of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) from August of 1995 through September of 1998, during the final three years of its limited four-year lifespan — and was promoted from a Senior Analyst position on the Military Records Team, to that of “Chief Analyst for Military Records,” halfway through my tenure at the ARRB.The ARRB was an independent federal agency created by the JFK Records Act of 1992; our mission was to locate any and all records that could “reasonably” be considered related to the assassination of the 35th President, and to ensure their declassification (to the maximum extent possible, as defined within our Congressional mandate), followed by their release and subsequent placement within a special open collection (the “JFK Records Collection”) at the National Archives. The JFK Act required all agencies and branches of the government to transfer assassination records directly to the National Archives (in an “open in full” status), unless there were portions of those records that an agency wanted to redact (or withhold) in part, or in full. It was the ARRB’s job to define what constituted an assassination record; to do all we could to ensure that agencies conducted full and honest searches for assassination records; and to review those records which agencies did NOT want released in full. At the end of the ARRB’s lifespan, we had reviewed about 60,000 records that government agencies wanted partially or fully redacted. Our five VIP Board Members, who served part time, voted on the disposition of these 60,000 records that were under dispute, after first receiving and considering the staff’s recommendations; and their votes essentially determined which portions of those disputed records would see the light of day. [Agencies had to comply with the formal decisions of the ARRB regarding document release, and act accordingly, or else appeal to the President. President Clinton never upheld any agency objection over any of the Review Board’s recommendations; some compromises were reached, at the suggestion of the President’s chief counsel, but no ARRB decision to release information was ever overturned by appeal.] It was a noteworthy exercise in “citizen review,” and the ARRB went into its task with all assassination records benefiting from the presumption of full and immediate disclosure, unless an allowable criterion for redaction (established by the JFK Records Act) was established. The five board members overwhelmingly and routinely voted to release disputed records, whenever presented with a choice, unless stringent conditions for exceptions to this policy, outlined in our legislative charter, were met. As a result of the JFK Records Act and the activities of the ARRB (the “search and enforcement arm” created by the Act), there are now about 6 million pages of records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the JFK Records Collection at the National Archives.
During my three years on the staff of the ARRB, and while subsequently researching the manuscript for my five-volume book, Inside the Assassination Records Review Board, I became increasingly aware of the broad levels of conflict between President Kennedy and his own national security establishment — those officials within the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council (NSC), and the CIA who helped him to formulate and carry out the nation’s foreign and military policy around the world. This internal conflict over just what our nation’s foreign and military policies ought to be, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, commenced early in the first year of JFK’s presidency, and continued to escalate during the 34 months of his administration. Although John F. Kennedy gave a robust inaugural address that seemed in the eyes of many to establish his credentials as a traditional, mainstream Cold Warrior, his ensuing behavior early in 1961, and his increasing and open skepticism, throughout his first year in office, toward the bellicose and inflexible advice he was receiving from within the federal bureaucracy, signaled a growing gulf between the young 35th president and the national security establishment that was supposed to serve him and implement his policy decisions.
By the end of November 1961, profoundly dissatisfied with his own national security advisory apparatus, President Kennedy had firmly pushed back against the national security establishment (in this case the NSC, the State Department, and the CIA) by purging and/or reshuffling many of the civilian hawks in his own administration into other positions, and by placing officials more in line with his own views into key positions. [A change in the top leadership at the Pentagon was to come later, in 1962.] Throughout 1961, the new president had painfully but quickly learned to be quite skeptical of the advice he was receiving, pertaining to matters of war and peace, from his hawkish advisors; and as 1961 progressed, John F. Kennedy repeatedly demonstrated what the hawks in government (the majority) no doubt considered a disturbingly independent (and increasingly all-too-predictable) frame of mind in regard to the national security recommendations he was receiving from the “sacred cows” and “wise men” in Washington, D.C. As I shall demonstrate in this essay, by the end of 1962, the national security establishment in Washington D.C., which had quickly come to know JFK as a skeptic during 1961, had come to view him as a heretic; and by November of 1963, the month he was assassinated, they no doubt considered him an apostate, for he no longer supported most of the so-called “orthodox” views of the Cold War priesthood. Increasingly alone in his foreign policy judgments as 1963 progressed, JFK was nevertheless proceeding boldly to end our “Holy War” against Communism, instead of trying to win it. In retrospect it is clear that the national security establishment wanted to win our own particular “jihad” of the post-WW II era by turning the Cold War against the USSR into a “hot war,” so that we could inflict punishing and fatal blows upon our Communist adversaries (and any other forces we equated with them) on the battlefield. It was this desire for “hot war” by so many within the establishment — their belief that conventional “proxy wars” with the Soviet Bloc were an urgent necessity, and that nuclear war with the USSR was probably inevitable — to which President Kennedy was so adamantly opposed. And it was JFK’s profound determination to avoid nuclear war by miscalculation, and to eschew combat with conventional arms unless it was truly necessary, that separated him from almost everyone else in his administration from 1961 throughout 1963, as events have shown us.
This essay will explore, one year at a time, the seminal events in JFK’s ongoing and escalating conflicts with the national security hard-liners in his own administration. At the essay’s end, I will address the inevitable question that arises today, fifty years after his death: Did these internal conflicts over the conduct and very future of the Cold War with the USSR lead to JFK’s death? Did powerful forces and individuals within his own administration cast a veto on his presidency, and his life, over reasons of state policy at the height of the Cold War? These are the questions the reader should keep in mind while reading this essay.
1961, Part 1
The Inaugural Address
John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 1961, intentionally sent mixed messages to many audiences. The Democratic Party’s nominee for president during the previous two elections, liberal Adlai Stevenson, had badly lost two consecutive elections (in 1952 and 1956) to a national hero, the iconic General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the Supreme Allied Commander on the Western Front in Europe during the last two years of World War II (in 1944 and 1945). Eisenhower was twice entrusted by the electorate to safeguard the nation, because of his military experience on the winning side in World War II. Kennedy therefore ran as a centrist, not a liberal, and advocated a strong national defense, second to none, during the campaign in 1960. (His strong advocacy in closing what was perceived as a “missile gap” between the U.S. and the USSR — a supposed gap in which the prevailing fears in 1960 were that the USA was behind in this area of strategic weaponry, and therefore vulnerable — was not the cynical manipulation of a fearful public by a politician who knew otherwise, as JFK’s detractors have claimed. The 1957 Gaither Report, leading journalists, and Air Force intelligence had all declared that the missile gap was real — and that we lagged far behind the Soviets in this crucial mode of delivering nuclear warheads to the target — and JFK did not find out that the reverse was true until after he had been elected.)
As Jack Kennedy began to formulate his inaugural speech, he was presented with a problem. Not only had Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a bellicose speech on January 6, 1961, supporting foreign wars of liberation from colonialism (which some had interpreted as a call for worldwide Communist revolution), but Jack Kennedy’s father (President Franklin Roosevelt’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom) had been discredited in 1940 and 1941 as a defeatist and an appeaser — Joe Kennedy had cozied up to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and supported his attempt to appease Hitler at Munich in 1938, and then, after appeasement had failed and Great Britain and France had gone to war with Germany, had wrongly predicted England’s quick defeat. FDR had lost patience and had finally, in 1941, replaced Joe Kennedy with another ambassador more interested in supporting Prime Minister Churchill than in opposing him. Old Joe Kennedy knew a lot about business and making money, but almost nothing about politics or international relations; his political instincts were non-existent. Although Joe Kennedy’s political career had ended in 1941 with him discredited, his second son had now been elected president of the United States — the job old Joe had always coveted — and many of the insiders in Washington D.C. were nervously wondering if Jack Kennedy, the son, was going to be an “appeaser” like his father had been.
John F. Kennedy not only had to reassure a nation that no longer had the revered General Eisenhower as president that its defense was still in good hands, but he also had to assure those who distrusted his father’s judgment that he was not going to simply be a mouthpiece for old Joe Kennedy — that he would not be an “appeaser” like his father had been in supporting the 1938 Munich Pact.
Thus, we find some stirring and staunchly “orthodox” Cold War expressions in the inaugural address, such as this famous excerpt early in the speech:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and success of liberty.
With the above remarks JFK sought to respond to both Nikita Khrushchev and to critics of his father — as well as to reassure the nation that even though Eisenhower was no longer president, that the nation and its role as “leader of the free world” during the Cold War was in safe hands.
And yet, lest one-sided historians or superficial mainstream journalists tell you that JFK had made a “bellicose speech,” consider these other, balancing concepts in the additional excerpts printed below. (As above, I have italicized what seem to me to be the most significant phrases.)
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.
To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support — to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective — to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak — and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction. We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that that they will never be employed. But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course — both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter the uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war. So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but as a call to bear the burden of a long, twilight struggle, year in and year out…a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
As the year 1961 began, the JFK of the opening segments of the inaugural seemed to predominate: after much discussion, he approved the pre-existing Cuban-exile invasion concept presented to him by the CIA (while insisting upon a few modifications), and sought an increase in overall defense spending. But as the year progressed, President Kennedy was confronted by duplicity and incompetence from within the U.S. government, from both the CIA and the Pentagon, during the searing crucible of the Bay of Pigs fiasco; he received flawed and dubious advice on several occasions from the Pentagon, the National Security Council (NSC), and from Cold War hawks in the State Department about both Laos and Vietnam; and he was directly confronted by the USSR with a serious international challenge over the future of Berlin (which tested the integrity of the NATO alliance, and threatened to escalate to nuclear war, if not managed properly).
Because of the unsound and bellicose recommendations he received repeatedly that year from within the nation’s national security establishment, John F. Kennedy became quite openly skeptical of “expert advice,” and distrustful of the knee-jerk, mainstream, orthodox Cold War mind sets of the majority of the “wise men” in Washington D.C. By the end of the year, JFK had emerged as the supreme skeptic of all conventional wisdom in Washington; and insiders felt he had already betrayed his promises in the inaugural to “pay any price, bear any burden … support any friend, oppose any foe.” By year’s end, the orthodox, hard-line Cold Warriors in the national security establishment were convinced that they were working for a weak president who didn’t have what it would take to win the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Here is how the initial estrangement between JFK and his own bureaucracy came about.
The Bay of Pigs Fiasco and the “Lessons Learned”
In March of 1960 President Eisenhower directed the CIA to take down the Castro regime in Cuba; the CIA’s plan to assassinate Castro using Mafia assets proceeded at the same time that the CIA was simultaneously planning for the covert infiltration into Cuba of anti-Castro guerillas. This infiltration plan soon morphed into a proposed invasion of Cuban exiles, sponsored by the CIA, using U.S. logistic assets. In November of 1960 President Eisenhower, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer, “ordered that everything feasible be done to assist the project with all possible urgency.” Never mind that Castro, the revolutionary, had turned to the Soviet Union for economic and military support because he had first been rebuffed by the United States; he had been declared a Communist as soon as Cuba became an economic client state of the USSR, and so Cuba had become an important chess piece on the Cold War game board. On January 3, 1961, Eisenhower terminated diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, setting the stage for the paramilitary invasion. President-elect Kennedy had learned of the proposed invasion (by about 1400 Cuban exiles training in Guatemala) on November 17, 1960, after his election. Eisenhower left the invasion to his successor to implement.
New to office, and perhaps overly solicitous toward the CIA (which planned the invasion, and had never yet failed to take down a target regime) and the Pentagon (which appeared to have approved it, after reviewing the CIA plan), President Kennedy had many questions about the invasion, but never directed that planning stop, or that the invasion should not take place; and no one in President Kennedy’s new cabinet recommended to him that he not conduct the invasion. Secretary of Defense McNamara and Secretary of State Rusk later claimed to have had private reservations, but neither man raised them in any planning meetings, nor did they speak to the president privately to express their concerns. (Only Senator William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had opposed it.) JFK was concerned that the operation was becoming too big — resembling a big World War II amphibious invasion — so big that it would be almost impossible to mask U.S. sponsorship; so he himself scaled down some of the invasion plans, and changed the invasion site from Trinidad, a large town situated in the middle of Cuba’s southern coast, to the more isolated Bay of Pigs (also on the southern coast, but a little closer to Havana), in the hope that “plausible deniability” could be maintained.
“Plausible deniability” — the authorized telling of lies by government officials, i.e., the ability to convincingly deny official involvement in sensitive or illegal covert operations — was an integral part of the secret game plan for the Cold War, and had been sanctioned by the National Security Council in 1948 as a routine way of conducting covert operations against our Cold War adversaries. While the CIA (and President Kennedy) hoped that the U.S. role in sponsoring the exile invasion could remain a secret, the Cuban exiles in training could not keep any secrets whatsoever, and Castro received firm intelligence that there was a U.S. sponsored, planned exile invasion weeks before it occurred. He began to complain loudly and publicly that he was about to be invaded by the United States. This foreknowledge on his part ruined any chances that the exile invasion would stimulate a “spontaneous uprising” that would topple his regime (as the CIA had predicted); indeed, after the Cuban exile air force (eight World War II vintage B-26 medium bombers) launched its first air strike against the Cuban Air Force on April 15, Castro immediately jailed twenty thousand people, and then rushed his forces to the small beachhead at the isolated swamp called the Bay of Pigs, as soon as the invasion began on April 17.
President Kennedy, extremely concerned to counter Castro’s claims of an impending U.S. invasion, declared publicly, shortly before the invasion began, that no U.S. military forces would be used in any Cuban invasion. He had never approved the direct use of any U.S. military forces anyway, and had only approved providing logistic support for an invasion of Cuban exiles, who were attempting to retake their own country from a revolutionary regime that had solicited, and then accepted, economic and military support from America’s Cold War adversary, the USSR. So by publicly denying that there would be any U.S. military involvement, Kennedy was not changing any of the current plans for the paramilitary operation, but hoped to maintain plausible deniability. Once he made this public announcement — reinforcing instructions given in many classified planning meetings — President Kennedy was henceforth (as the paramilitary invasion began to collapse) determined that he would rather be criticized as a warmonger and aggressor, than destroy the credibility of the presidency by being a liar. It is for this reason that the subsequent attempts by the military leadership, during the crisis, to persuade Kennedy to escalate, and intervene with overwhelming U.S. military forces, fell on deaf ears.
For numerous reasons, the exile invasion that began at Playa Giron in the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, was (as the CIA later called it) “a perfectly executed failure,” in which almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. JFK did indeed cancel a second air strike by the small Cuban exile air force the night before the invasion (following the advice of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in an attempt to maintain “plausible deniability”). But the invasion was doomed to fail anyway, for numerous reasons. One primary reason was inadequate logistics to support the beachhead for very long, and the other was inadequate force levels. With Castro having jailed about 20,000 Cubans suspected of possibly being in sympathy with the invading exiles, there was no spontaneous uprising possible. The CIA’s assassination attempts against Castro had fizzled long before the invasion. Castro’s army and militia, a combined force some 200,000 strong, with vehicles and tanks provided by the Soviet Union, quickly overcame the small invading force of 1,400 exiles and the paltry five light tanks that had been landed as part of the CIA invasion. Because a beachhead was never secured, the “government in exile” that the CIA had assembled in Florida was never landed in Cuba. Because they were never landed, they could not claim even partial success, nor could they formally get on the air, via radio, and publicly ask for assistance from the United States. Eventually, and with great difficulty, the Joint Chiefs obtained permission from President Kennedy to launch one flight of unmarked A-4 fighter-bombers from the USS Essex to provide combat air patrol over the landing zone — they were authorized only to harass Cuban aircraft, but not to engage in acts of war — but because of a time zone screw-up, the flight arrived one hour too late to do any good anyway.
Of the 1400 Cuban exiles who had landed at the Bay of Pigs, 114 were killed and 1,189 were captured; about 100 were not accounted for and are presumed to have escaped. (The exile brigade and its B-26 aircraft killed 1,250 members of Castro’s forces and wounded more than 2,000, but never came close to accomplishing its mission of toppling the Castro regime.) Many of the Brigade’s CIA trainers had improperly promised them U.S. air support from the carrier USS Essex during training in Guatemala, and had told them that U.S. Marines would be standing by to assist; these false promises did not represent the official policy of the commander-in-chief, but the exiles believed them, so great bitterness ensued after the debacle and still exists today in the Cuban exile community. The debacle was a major international embarrassment for the United States. U.S. foreign policy in its own hemisphere had suffered an egregious defeat due to poor planning, bungled execution, lousy intelligence, wishful thinking, and poor political judgment. Eventually, in December of 1962, the Kennedy administration finally succeeded in ransoming the captured brigade prisoners, using 62 million dollars worth of food and medicines from the United States, arranged through intermediaries. (President Kennedy and the first lady showed considerable courage by personally meeting the returned prisoners at a public ceremony in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, after working for their release for a year and a half.)
Once it became apparent that the invasion had been a total failure with no real chance of success, President Kennedy was furious and humiliated, but publicly took all the blame on himself, saying on April 21 at a press conference, “I am the responsible officer of the government,” and then shutting down public discussion of what had happened. His most commonly heard remarks by his aides afterward were, “How could I have been so stupid? How could any of us have believed that this would work?” Privately, he launched an intense investigation of what had gone wrong, headed by retired General Maxwell Taylor, an urbane and scholarly World War II hero who had once been President Eisenhower’s army chief of staff. The results of the post mortem were stunning.
President Kennedy, who had openly advocated more support for “Cuban freedom fighters” during his election campaign — and who therefore seemed very unlikely to disapprove or cancel the operation — had been very poorly served by the CIA (which had dreamed up the invasion), and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who had approved it). On January 11, 1961, the Pentagon had been fully briefed on the Cuban paramilitary invasion plans by the CIA, and the Joint Staff concluded in a report that only overt U.S. military intervention, either unilaterally, or in concert with the Cuban exile invasion, would guarantee success. This was never communicated to either the outgoing President Eisenhower, or to the new president, John F. Kennedy. In late January of 1961, after JFK had assumed office, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer was given an internal military assessment that belied the claims of CIA Director Allen Dulles that there had recently been an upsurge in popular opposition to Castro within Cuba. The report given to Lemnitzer stated: “In view of the rapid buildup of the Castro government’s military and militia capability and the lack of predictable future mass discontent, the possible success of the [CIA’s] paramilitary plan appears very doubtful.” He never relayed this information to President Kennedy at a subsequent key meeting late in January, or at any other time.
On February 3, 1961, as requested by President Kennedy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a Top Secret report to the secretary of defense evaluating the chances for success of the CIA’s invasion plans, and stated: “Despite the shortcomings pointed out in the assessment, the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that timely execution of this plan has a fair chance of ultimate success and, even if it does not achieve immediately the full results desired, could contribute to the eventual overthrow of the Castro regime.” General Earle Wheeler, then director of the Joint Staff (soon to become army chief of staff and later, chairman of the JCS) inserted the words “fair chance of success” even though he knew from the Pentagon’s personal liaison with the CIA’s invasion planners, General Gray, that the true chances of success were only about 30 per cent, and the chances of failure were 70 per cent. (The use of the word “fair” would only have been appropriate if the chances had been reversed, with a 70 per cent chance of success and a 30 per cent chance of failure.) Maxwell Taylor was told by one officer who had been sent to Guatemala to assess the Cuban Brigade in person that he had gauged the chances of success at only 15 per cent, prior to the invasion. After the invasion site was changed from Trinidad to the Bay of Pigs, General Gray, the Pentagon’s expert on the CIA plan, estimated the chance of its success had fallen from 30 percent, to only 20 per cent. This information also never reached President Kennedy. Prior to an April 4 planning meeting presided over by the president, Lemnitzer “argued vigorously” against the planned exile invasion with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Mann, and yet kept silent during the meeting presided over by JFK. Unaccountably, Lemnitzer later wrote in his own hand, in an unpublished hand-written account of the debacle, speaking of himself in the third person, “General Lemnitzer then refrained from raising this issue with the Chief Executive.”
The question is, WHY? Consider this: Lyman Lemnitzer, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and Richard Bissell (Deputy Director of Plans at CIA, or Director of Covert Operations) were all close associates; Lemnitzer and Dulles from as long ago as the end of World War II, and Lemnitzer and Bissell throughout much of the 1950s. The Bay of Pigs operation was Richard Bissell’s project. Was Lemnitzer trying to keep secret from the president information that might have invited cancellation of the pet project of his close associates at the CIA?
Veteran newsman Daniel Schorr provided his answer to this question in March 2001 on the NPR radio program All Things Considered, after attending a conference on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, almost 40 years after the event:
…the CIA overlords of the invasion, director Allen Dulles and deputy Richard Bissell, had their own plan of how to bring the United States into the conflict. It appears they never really expected an uprising against Castro when the liberators landed, as described in their memos to the White House. What they did expect was that the invaders would establish and secure a beachhead, announce the creation of a counterrevolutionary government, and appeal for aid from the United States and Organization of American States. The assumption was that President Kennedy, who had emphatically banned direct American involvement, would be forced by public opinion to come to the aid of the returning patriots…In effect, President Kennedy was the target of a CIA covert operation that collapsed when the invasion collapsed. [author’s emphasis]
Historian Jim Douglass confirmed this interpretation by quoting the unpublished draft of an article written by former CIA Director Allen Dulles, in his book JFK and the Unspeakable:
The major players in deceiving Kennedy were his CIA advisors, especially Director Allen Dulles. As Arthur M. Schelsinger, Jr. [an historian and a former JFK aide] observed, “the Joint Chiefs of Staff had only approved the Bay of Pigs. The CIA had invented it.”
At his death Allen Dulles left the unpublished drafts of an article that scholar Lucien S. Vandenbroucke has titled “The ‘Confessions’ of Allen Dulles.” In these handwritten, coffee-stained notes, Dulles explained how CIA advisors who knew better drew John F. Kennedy into a plan whose prerequisites for success contradicted the President’s own rules for engagement, that precluded any combat action by U.S. military forces. Although Dulles and his advisors knew that this condition conflicted with the plan they were foisting on Kennedy, they discreetly kept silent in the belief, Dulles wrote, that “the realities of the situation” would force the President to carry through to the end they wished:
“[We] did not want to raise these issues — in an [undecipherable word] discussion — which might only harden the decision against the type of action we required. We felt that when the chips were down — when the crisis arose in reality, any action required for success would be authorized rather than permit the enterprise to fail.” [author’s emphasis]
JFK’s private opinion about what had really happened was expressed to his old Navy buddy, ‘Red’ Fay, who was serving as Undersecretary of the Navy in his administration. ‘Red’ Fay quoted JFK’s heated remarks about the Bay of Pigs fiasco in his book, The Pleasure of His Company:
Nobody is going to force me to do anything I don’t think is in the best interests of the country,” he [President Kennedy] said. “I will never compromise the principles upon which this country is built, but we’re not going to plunge into irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in the country puts so-called national pride above national reason.… Do you think I’m going to cause a nuclear exchange — for what? Because I was forced into doing something that I didn’t think was proper and right? Well, if you or anybody else thinks I am, he’s crazy…. By God, there will be no avoiding responsibility nor will there be any irresponsibility. When the time comes, action will be taken.
Action was indeed taken. Within one year, JFK had fired CIA Director Allen Dulles, CIA Deputy Director Charles Cabell, and Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell. Dulles and Bissell were officially “retired” in face-saving public ceremonies (and received medals as fig leafs), and USAF General Cabell was sent packing back to the Pentagon. It was nearly a wholesale housecleaning at the upper levels of the CIA. And henceforth, the President’s brother Robert, nominally the attorney general of the United States, would — unknown to the public — spend about half of each workday at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, deeply involved in the agency’s Cuba business, serving as an unofficial “shadow director” and direct presidential representative in matters involving covert operations against Cuba.
JFK later said to ‘Red’ Fay:
Looking back on the whole Cuban mess, one of the things that appalled me the most was the lack of broad judgment by some of the heads of the military services. When you think of the long competitive selection process that they have to weather to end up the number one man of their particular service, it is certainly not unreasonable to expect that they would also be bright, with good broad judgment. For years I’ve been looking at those rows of ribbons and those four stars, and conceding a certain higher qualification not obtained in civilian life. Well, if [Lemnitzer] and [Burke] are the best the services can produce, a lot more attention is going to be given their advice in the future before any action is taken as a result of it. They wanted a fight and probably calculated that if we committed ourselves part way and started to lose, I would give the OK to pour in whatever was needed. I found out among other things that when it comes to making decisions I want facts more than advice…. I can see now why McNamara wants to get some new faces over there in the Pentagon. [Lyman Lemnitzer and Arleigh Burke are my presumed — and the only obvious — candidates for the names that “Red” Fay elected not to publish in his memoir.]
In their book Johnny, We hardly Knew Ye, authors Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Powers (both close aides to the president) wrote this about the Bay of Pigs:
“I’ll take the defeat,” he [President Kennedy] said that night to the generals and admirals, “and I’ll take all of the blame for it.”
…The President said … that the plan was so far advanced when he came into office in January that that it seemed almost impossible to cancel it…. The government of Guatemala had asked President Kennedy to get the Cubans out of his republic before the end of April, which was less than two weeks away…. The rebels had to stage their attacks before the Russian planes [MiG jets with Cuban pilots trained in Czechoslovakia] were available for duty in Cuba. The President said he had finally agreed with some reluctance to approve the plan and the date of the landings, Monday, April 17th, after the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff accepted his strict stipulation that no American forces could take part in the invasion…all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Allen Dulles were in favor of the expedition. Dulles was a legendary figure in government, never known to have made a mistake…Soon after the collapse of the invasion attempt, when he began to find out about the details, the President was shocked to discover that there had been no plans for a coordinated revolt in Cuba. The leaders of the organized anti-Castro underground movement in Havana did not even know the date of the landings. “Everybody in Miami knew exactly when those poor fellows were going to hit the beaches,” President Kennedy said to us, “but the only people in Cuba who knew about it were the ones working in Castro’s office.”
…The absence of any preparations for an organized uprising in Cuba, and the assurances of military support given to the rebels of the landing force, led President Kennedy to a bitter conclusion: the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA must have been assuming all along that President would become so worried at the last minute about the loss of his own prestige that he would drop his restriction against the use of U.S. forces and send the Marines and the Navy jets into the action.
How else, the President asked us, could the Joint Chiefs approve such a plan? “They were sure I’d give in to them and send the go-ahead order to the Essex,” he said one day to Dave Powers. “They couldn’t believe that a new President like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face. Well, they had me figured all wrong.”
As General Douglas MacArthur remarked privately to the President, he was lucky to have learned so much about the value of his military advice from an operation like the Bay of Pigs disaster, where the strategic cost was so small.
At his press conference on April 21, 1961 in which President Kennedy accepted sole public blame for the debacle, he said: “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.” The president told special assistant Arthur Schlesinger it was just an old saying, but subsequent research showed no evidence that the saying had ever been said or written by anyone before JFK. President Kennedy was a much wiser chief executive and commander-in-chief after the Bay of Pigs, but he had made serious enemies. Another famous JFK quote emanating from the Bay of Pigs episode was his vehement aside to an aide that he wanted “to splinter the CIA in[to] a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” The top three men in the CIA were headed toward the exit door, and they knew it; and JFK’s initial tendency to trust the Joint Chiefs had been transformed into deep skepticism, possibly even mistrust. By year’s end his relationship with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer would degenerate to the point where they both were barely able to conceal their mutual distrust and contempt for each other.
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Douglas Horne served on the staff of the Assassination Records Review Board and is the author of Inside the Assassination Records Review Board.
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Explore Freedom » JFK’s War against the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated, Part 2
by August 6, 2013
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (to be posted)
1961, Part 2
JFK Receives Bad Advice on Laos from the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Laos was a small, landlocked country in the middle of the Southeast Asian peninsula, in-between Thailand and South Vietnam. As JFK came into office, there was a Communist-led insurgency there by the Pathet Lao against the country’s king and his U.S.-trained and equipped forces. From the beginning, it had been aided by military advisors from North Vietnam and, commencing in December of 1960, by a substantial Soviet logistical airlift. Strategically, Laos was important because North Vietnam could supply its growing insurgency inside South Vietnam via a supply conduit (the Ho Chi Minh trail), if the Pathet Lao came to control significant parts of southern Laos. Furthermore, the Cold War’s “bible,” NSC 68 [approved by President Truman at the end of September 1950, which posited that the Soviet Union had in mind a goal of world domination] — combined with the prevailing “domino theory” of the time, which postulated that if one country in a region fell to Communism, then all other nearby countries might fall too, “like a row of dominos” — made the potential “loss” of Laos to the Communist side in the Cold War seem apocalyptic to most within the American national security establishment.
Before he left office, President Eisenhower warned President-elect Kennedy that he would almost certainly have to go to war against the Communist insurgency in Laos to “save” that country. In contrast, Eisenhower mentioned nothing about Vietnam. John F. Kennedy had his own ideas, stating at his first press conference that Laos should be an “independent” country free of domination from either side in the Cold War. JFK’s plan was for true neutrality, which could be negotiated by the Laos government from a position of strength after it defeated the Communist insurgency. This plan was defeated when the Pathet Lao launched its own offensive against the Laos government in early March of 1961, before General Phoumi could launch the government’s offensive, resulting in a series of routs of the King’s forces and territorial gains by the Pathet Lao. With the forces of General Phoumi in full retreat, the insurgents would not agree to a cease-fire or begin negotiations with the government. Later in March 1961, the State Department recommended putting 26,000 troops into Laos — half American troops and half Asian troops from various nations — not to launch any offensives, but simply to hold onto remaining territory, so as to force the Pathet Lao to the negotiating table. During two days of contentious NSC meetings on Laos on March 21-22, Walt Rostow, the NSC’s expert on Southeast Asia, recommended a small U.S. military “blocking force” in the Mekong River valley as a deterrent against further Pathet Lao advances, and as a bargaining chip in any future negotiations. He was adamantly opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who insisted on large-scale, rather than limited, intervention. As Rostow wrote afterwards, the Chiefs wanted “60,000 soldiers, air cover, and even nuclear weapons, or else stay out.” The conventional Cold War thinking at the time was that if the Laos domino fell, that Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam would be next.
President Kennedy was not willing to commit combat troops to Laos or to rush to engage the United States in combat operations there, but he was willing to move U.S. Navy ships and U.S. troops on the global chessboard in order to obtain political objectives. JFK held a news conference on March 23 in which he announced the following U.S. military movements that were intended to impress the Communists and pressure them into negotiations to form a coalition government: 3 aircraft carriers with 1,400 Marines onboard were sent steaming toward the South China Sea; 150 Marines were rushed to Udorn, Thailand, across from the Laotian border; and another 2,600 Marines on Okinawa were made ready for possible deployment to Laos. U.S. forces in the Philippines and Japan were reinforced. Meanwhile, as these diplomatic signals were being sent, the U.S. administration began to focus almost exclusively on the upcoming Bay of Pigs invasion, and then the immediate fallout after the exile invasion failed. Although the USSR agreed to a cease-fire in Laos on April 24, four days after the U.S. had publicly acknowledged failure at the Bay of Pigs, the Pathet Lao continued and even accelerated its offensive, attempting to subdue the rest of Laos by force before negotiations commenced. Following on the failure of the Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, this created a crisis atmosphere in Washington.
Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Arleigh Burke, serving as acting Chairman of the JCS (in the absence of General Lyman Lemnitzer, who had been sent to Southeast Asia on a mission to assess the situation in Laos and South Vietnam), jumped the gun after an indecisive cabinet meeting on April 26th and cabled CINCPAC in Honolulu to be prepared to stop Chinese intervention (if that occurred), strike intermediate Pathet Lao bases in North Vietnam, and, if necessary, strike bases in China that could support operations against Laos.
The next day, April 27, 1961, was one of prolonged crisis meetings on Laos, which were eventually expanded to include eight Senators and seven Congressmen. Walt Rostow of the NSC later said of the advice provided by the Pentagon, “I never saw a worse performance by our military,” and also told Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger that in his opinion it was the worst White House meeting of the entire Kennedy administration.
Why? Because Admiral Arleigh Burke, as acting JCS Chairman, told those assembled that if the U.S. did not fight in Southeast Asia it would lose the entire region; he further stated that if the U.S. did fight, it would be a long war and the U.S. would have to use nuclear weapons “to win.” Burke advocated activation of SEATO Plan 5, an existing contingency plan for the introduction of a large force of U.S. and Asian combat troops to both Laos and South Vietnam to defend all of Southeast Asia from the Mekong Valley, but warned that this number of troops would not be enough. John Newman, Ph.D., author of the seminal work JFK and Vietnam, writes that Burke “… said more troops would be necessary, but that strategic reserves were insufficient to win in Southeast Asia without resorting to nuclear weapons. Army Chief of Staff Decker and Marine Corps Commandant Shoup then undercut Burke’s plan to implement SEATO Plan 5 by pointing out that only 1,000 men per day could be put on the ground in Laos due to logistic constraints; they stated that this force would be insufficient to defend the capital, Vientiane, and that the forces landed would actually be in danger because they would not be strong enough to defend themselves.” Newman then quotes Charles Stevenson, a scholar who interviewed most of the meeting’s attendees, as saying this about the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Their plans in the case of Chinese intervention, however, were quite frightening. These called for the seizure of Hainan Island, which was defended by three Chinese divisions; deployment of 250,000 U.S. troops to South Vietnam; followed by operations across North Vietnam into Laos to block Chinese intrusions. If these forces were in danger of being overrun, the Chiefs expected to use nuclear weapons.
President Kennedy expanded the meeting by bringing in the aforementioned members of Congress; Admiral Arleigh Burke again made his plea in favor of intervention, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, and JFK then asked for the views of those present. Only Vice President Lyndon Johnson agreed with Burke; the CNO was met with almost unanimous opposition from everyone else in the room who was not a member of the JCS. Burke’s argument did not win the day, but afterwards he wrote a memo to the president again pressing his case for massive intervention, and got thrown out of the White House later that same day when he delivered it to President Kennedy, who told him, “This is settled.” JFK made no formal decisions that day, but in his mind President Kennedy had made the essential decision not to intervene militarily.
Newman writes that by April 29 JFK’s national security advisors had reached a consensus that some form of intervention was necessary in Laos, but were split on whether or not American military intervention would trigger a Chinese military response, as it had in Korea. President Kennedy ordered the military to make plans to intervene should he give the order, with two brigade-sized units of 5,000 men each, that would be landed in Thailand and South Vietnam, and which would then launch operations into Laos if needed. JFK again waited, and would not be rushed into a decision. Newman quotes Ted Sorensen, JFK’s foremost policy aide and speechwriter, as saying the president “combined bluff with real determination in proportions he made known to no one.”
During further NSC meetings about Laos on May 1 and 2, there was an overwhelming sentiment by Kennedy’s bureaucracy in favor of military intervention, using the 10,000 troops that he had ordered to be at the ready for possible introduction into Thailand and Vietnam. According to Ted Sorensen, the Joint Chiefs crumbled under JFK’s probing interrogations during these two days of deliberations; the commander-in-chief was not nearly as trusting as he had been prior to the Bay of Pigs. By May 4 the issue was dead.
John Newman writes: “His suspicions raised by the Cuban experience, Kennedy took a closer look at the Laos problem and was ‘appalled,’ says Schlesinger, ‘at the sketchy nature of American military planning for Laos — the lack of detail and the unanswered questions.’“ Kennedy looked at the Cuban failure as a lesson well learned; Newman writes that on May 3he told Schlesinger:
“If it hadn’t been for Cuba, we might be about to intervene in Laos.” Waving a sheaf of cables from Lemnitzer, he added, “I might have taken this advice seriously.”
Professor Newman then quoted Ted Sorensen again:
“Thank God the Bay of Pigs happened when it did,” he [the President] would say to me in September….”Otherwise we’d be in Laos by now, and that would be a hundred times worse.”
Although civilian NSC staff member Walt Rostow did not favor the use of nuclear weapons, he was extremely pro-intervention regarding Laos. He made repeated attempts to get President Kennedy to reconsider military intervention in Laos in July and August, to no avail.
After working for a nonmilitary, political solution in Laos for over a year, Ambassador-at-Large Averill Harriman finally negotiated a “neutral” settlement in Laos on July 23, 1962, that many have criticized because a leftist coalition ended up in control of that small country, and the Ho Chi Minh trail was wide open for use by North Vietnam in the pursuit of its civil war against the South. But JFK’s decision in 1961 to work toward that settlement also prevented the hasty introduction of U.S. combat troops into a situation where they could not be adequately supported logistically; where there was no clear military plan of operations; where the U.S. military leadership favored what was essentially an open-ended war encompassing as much of Southeast Asia as was necessary; and in which the American military leadership was openly advocating the use of nuclear weapons to “win.”
President Kennedy’s first refusal to take the United States to war in 1961 occurred when he elected not to permit the U.S. military to be drawn into a shooting war in Cuba to bail out the CIA’s Bay of Pigs fiasco. His second and third refusals to commit the United States to War in 1961 occurred when he twice rejected the bellicose and apocalyptic advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and virtually all of his civilian national security advisors, to intervene militarily in Laos late in March 1963, and again between April 27and May 2. The year 1961 was turning out to be a rough one for the new 35th president, and it was to get much more stressful before it was over.
JFK Lectures the Joint Chiefs of Staff About Their Poor Performance
On May 27, 1961, President Kennedy motored over from the White House, across the Potomac River to the Pentagon, and informed the Joint Chiefs of Staff personally of his dissatisfaction about their limited points of view and poorly thought-out advice given in the councils of state. They had proven to be politically tone-deaf prior to and during the Bay of Pigs debacle, and throughout the Laos deliberations as well, and had worn very large blinders that seemed to prevent them from considering the international or global strategic and military implications of the advice they had rather narrowly advocated in each of these crises.
JFK followed up this verbal chastisement with National Security Action Memo (NSAM) 55 on June 28, 1961, addressed from the president to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Lyman Lemnitzer), in which he said, in part:
I look to the Chiefs to contribute dynamic and imaginative leadership in contributing to the success of the military and paramilitary aspects of Cold War programs…. I expect the Joint Chiefs of Staff to present the military viewpoint in governmental councils in such a way as to assure that the military factors are clearly understood before decisions are reached … while I look to the Chiefs to present the military factor without reserve or hesitation, I regard them to be more than military men and expect their help in fitting military requirements into the overall context of any situation, recognizing that the most difficult problem in government is to combine all assets in a unified, effective pattern. [author’s emphasis]
To emphasize the seriousness of his message, President Kennedy signed NSAM 55 himself. Many NSAMs were signed for him by his National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy; but not this one. Any National Security Action Memorandum signed personally by a president carries special emphasis, and after President Kennedy’s uncomfortable meeting with the Chiefs on May 27, the importance of NSAM 55, issued one month later, was surely unmistakable. It was the direct result of the post mortem of the Bay of Pigs conducted for him by General Maxwell Taylor, and of JFK’s personal unhappiness over the horrendous advice he had received during the crisis over what to do about Laos.
The Berlin Crisis Tests JFK’s Resolve as “Leader of the Free World” and JFK’s Response Reveals That He Was No Appeaser, and No Weakling — Nor Was He Reckless or Foolhardy
President Kennedy had a contentious and unpleasant summit meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, in early June of 1961. As historian Philip Zelikow has stated, Khrushchev was a man of peasant origins who had spent a quarter of a century working in the upper echelons of the Soviet Union’s leadership structure — much of that time within the brutal, murderous Stalinist regime; and accordingly, was a man who had personally ordered and witnessed many executions. The French President, Charles de Gaulle, had personally warned JFK of the Soviet Premier’s brutality during JFK’s visit to Paris (immediately before the U.S. president moved on to Vienna for the summit), but in retrospect it is hard to see how John F. Kennedy, with his life of material privilege and his ivy league background, could have properly understood Nikita Khrushchev prior to meeting him and personally negotiating with him (or vice-a-versa). While it is true that Khrushchev had publicly denounced Stalin’s many crimes beginning in the mid-1950s, and hoped to increase the standard of living in the USSR by reducing the size of its conventional military forces, he was still a bully and a Communist ideologue, who fervently believed in his own political/economic system with the religious fervor of the true believer. At Vienna, Mr. “K” failed to heed the advice in JFK’s inaugural, and apparently confused civility with weakness. Part of the reason for this was no doubt the Bay of Pigs fiasco; part of it was surely Kennedy’s relative youth; and part of the reason may have been his resentment that Kennedy had grown up in a rich family, a son of privilege.
Khrushchev had an inferiority complex for more reasons than those involving his personal psyche and upbringing: those in the USSR’s power structure were painfully aware of the overwhelming U.S. superiority in numbers of strategic nuclear weapons and in long-range delivery systems, and had therefore lived in fear of a “preventive nuclear war,” a first strike launched by the United States, throughout all of the Cold War, from 1948 through 1961, when the Vienna summit took place. Khrushchev’s response was to bluff — to greatly exaggerate the Soviet Union’s nuclear power and the number of missiles it had — in order to attempt to prevent such a first strike by the United States. (The Kremlin’s fears in this regard were not a paranoid fantasy. Some key players in the Pentagon and in the civilian national security establishment had advocated such a “preventive war,” or surprise first strike on the USSR — before the Soviet Union could build up its nuclear forces to parity with the United States — throughout the 1950s, to both President Truman and President Eisenhower, as revealed by Richard Rhodes, in his magnificent book Dark Sun.)
The Soviet Premier’s other major source of irritation was over the fact that Berlin, the former capital of Nazi Germany — the nation which had invaded the USSR and caused 27 million deaths — was still a divided city, with half of its territory occupied by Great Britain, France, and the United States. Berlin was deep inside East Germany, the half of that partitioned state occupied by the Red Army — and yet to Khrushchev’s irritation, the Western Powers had by treaty, at the end of World War II, been granted free rights of access to West Berlin through East German territory. This was particularly galling to the nation that had not only been savaged by Germany during World War II, but which had fought its way to the German capital and captured it alone, all on its own. From Khrushchev’s standpoint, the Americans must surely understand it was the equivalent to having a small part of the Soviet Union inside Iowa. Khrushchev announced to Kennedy at Vienna that Berlin was the bone in his throat, and that he wanted it out. He told JFK on June 4, 1961, the second day of the conference at Vienna, that within 6 months he intended to sign a peace treaty with the Communist East German government that would incorporate ALL OF BERLIN into the East German state. Kennedy understood that such a development would effectively halt Western access to that city, and would terminate the rights of the three occupying powers — Great Britain, France, and the United States — in that half of the city.
And this intended action by Khrushchev wasn’t just the normal irritation that one would expect of the victor in a bloody, exhausting war who wanted the enemy capital under his sway after the war’s end; there was a more practical reason for the Soviet Union’s desire to close off Berlin to the Western Powers, one that Khrushchev was loathe to discuss, but which was very real. During the spring and summer of 1961, sometimes as many as 1,000 East Germans per day were fleeing their country — a nation of only two million — via East Berlin, into the Western Sector of Berlin (“West Berlin”), managed since World War II by the British, French, and American occupiers. These refugees from East Germany were then free to either stay in West Berlin, or move to West Germany (via air transportation, or via the 110 mile long access road guaranteed by treaty at the end of WW II), where the standard of living was far superior to that in East Germany. This was a “brain drain” of serious proportions, gutting the entire East German middle class, as teachers, scientists, lawyers, and other professionals were leaving the Communist German state in droves. Approximately 3,500 physicians alone had fled East Germany during the two years prior to the summer of 1961. Unless the population drain and the “brain drain” could be halted, East Germany would collapse as a state, and as a society, within the foreseeable future. This was the true reason, and the deeper reason, behind Khrushchev’s agitation and anxiety over Berlin. In Cold War terms, how could Communism be declared to be “on the march,” if the East German state were to publicly collapse in the near future due to an ongoing “brain drain” and population deficit?
President Kennedy’s problem, when confronted with this demand at Vienna, was that to unilaterally abrogate treaty rights for all the Western Allied Powers that had been in place since 1945 would weaken or destroy the credibility of the NATO alliance and of the United States — and would certainly brand JFK himself as an “appeaser,” just as his father had later been branded after the Munich Pact of 1938 had failed to stop Hitler’s expansion of German territory, and failed to prevent World War II. The overwhelming superiority of the Red Army’s conventional forces in Europe was such that the only way to stop a Red invasion of the West (or the taking of West Berlin, which we considered “Western soil” backed up by the NATO alliance), was for the U.S. Army in Europe to initiate the use of tactical nuclear weapons on a large scale. [It was NATO policy, and U.S. policy, to do so — in response to any overwhelming, offensive use of Soviet conventional military forces. This policy has repeatedly been verified by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in multiple interviews.] So Kennedy could not give in to Soviet demands to incorporate all of Berlin into East Germany without destroying the NATO alliance; and if the Soviets misunderstood American resolve on this issue, they might be tempted to take West Berlin with military force (an easy task since it was 110 miles from the border of West Germany and was surrounded by East German territory, and there was a token force of only 15,000 Allied troops in the city). If the Soviets used the overwhelming conventional forces available to them to take Berlin, the U.S. would feel compelled to employ tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield; such action stood a good chance of quickly escalating, and leading to a full-scale nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the USSR. This was the nightmare scenario — a nuclear war through miscalculation — that JFK truly feared, and which he was concerned enough about to mention in his inaugural address. (The miscalculation he feared was that the USSR might misjudge America’s resolve, and might falsely conclude that the U.S. would not dare use tactical nuclear weapons “just to save the Europeans.”) President Kennedy warned Khrushchev at Vienna that his new stance on the future of Berlin threatened world peace, and said that if a nuclear war resulted over Berlin, 70 million people could die in the first ten minutes; Kennedy tried to convince the Soviet Premier that the two of them had a responsibility to prevent such a calamity from happening. Outwardly, Khrushchev (a master of bluff) appeared unmoved. Deeply concerned that the confrontational and bullying Soviet Premier might not appreciate his resolve to maintain the status quo in West Berlin, President Kennedy warned Premier Khrushchev that in view of his uncompromising and unacceptable demands, “it was going to be a long, cold winter.” JFK left Vienna more than a little depressed, and deeply worried that the hard-nosed Soviet leader had misunderstood him, had misgauged his character, and thought he “could be had.” Khrushchev’s official interpreter, Victor Sukhodrev, confirmed that this was indeed true when he recalled years later that after a long second-day negotiating session between the two leaders at the Soviet Embassy, the Soviet Premier remarked in private: “My God, I pity the American people if they have that kind of President as their head of state.” Khrushchev had been accustomed to Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, openly brandishing America’s nuclear “big stick” through their avowed policy of “massive retaliation,” and their occasional nuclear brinksmanship during various world crises. He clearly misinterpreted Kennedy’s more nuanced “flexible response” doctrine (a rejection of the “massive retaliation” doctrine of the previous administration), and his expressed concern over accidental nuclear war, as weakness. JFK sensed this, and was determined to set the record straight about American resolve in Europe.
President Kennedy immediately went on television to address the nation following his return to the U.S., and in his report on the summit meeting, told the American people on June 6:
I went to Vienna to meet the leader of the Soviet Union, Mr. Khrushchev. For two days we sat in sober, intensive conversation, and I believe it is my obligation to the people, to Congress, and to our allies to report on those conversations candidly and publicly. Mr. Khrushchev and I had a very full and frank exchange of views on the major issues that now divide our two countries. I will tell you now that it was a very sober two days. There was no discourtesy, no loss of temper, no threats or ultimatums by either side, no advantage or concession was either granted or given; no major decision was either planned or taken; no spectacular progress was either achieved or pretended.… I therefore thought it was of immense importance that I know Mr. Khrushchev, that I gain a much insight and understanding as I could on his present and future policies. At the same time, I wanted to make certain Mr. Khrushchev knew this country and its policies, that he understood our strength and our determination … this direct give-and-take [was] of immeasurable value in making clear and precise what we considered to be vital.
For the facts of the matter are that the Soviets and ourselves give wholly different meanings to the same words — war, peace, democracy, and popular will. We have totally different views of right and wrong, of what is an internal affair and what is aggression. Above all, we have wholly different concepts of where the world is and where it is going.
President Kennedy then reported on the gloomy prospects for reaching a comprehensive agreement to ban nuclear tests; and then relayed a bit of positive news about the general agreement arrived at with the Soviet Premier regarding the importance of a cease-fire in Laos, and of seeking a neutral and independent Laos through continuing negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland. Next JFK reported on Berlin, as follows:
But our most sober talks were on the subject of Germany and Berlin. I made it clear to Mr. Khrushchev that the security of Western Europe and therefore our own security are deeply involved in our presence and our access rights to West Berlin, that those rights are based on law and not on sufferance, and that we are determined to maintain those rights at any risk, and thus meet our obligation to the people of West Berlin and their right to choose their own future.
Kennedy did not equate Laos (or Vietnam) in 1961 with Cuba; and he did not equate the status of Cuba with Berlin. Access rights to West Berlin, and the continued occupation of that city by the Western Powers, were non-negotiable to the West, and to the new American president, lest the NATO alliance begin a slide down the “slippery slope of appeasement,” a lesson that was still very fresh in the minds of all who had witnessed the failure of appeasement at Munich in 1938. The Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 imposed by Stalin — and just barely neutralized by a massive and expensive American airlift — was still fresh in everyone’s minds; the problem now was that a repeat of that scenario, in 1961, would be infinitely more dangerous, for the Soviet Union had many nuclear weapons now, but had possessed none back in 1948. JFK shared his gloomy frame of mind with Time-Life correspondent Hugh Sidey shortly after the Vienna summit, expressing his private fear that nuclear war was imminent — that Khrushchev would make a military move on Berlin, and that he would have to respond with nuclear weapons; he feared that there would be a nuclear exchange with the USSR, “sooner rather than later.” This outlook reflected his determination not to compromise over Berlin, which had become the lynchpin in the credibility of the NATO alliance.
Throughout the month of June, an Interdepartmental Coordinating Committee on Berlin contingency planning (set up by President Kennedy) had been meeting about the Berlin Crisis; it included not only cabinet members like Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Defense McNamara, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, but JFK’s new military advisor, General Maxwell Taylor (recalled from retirement); and the two pre-eminent right-wing civilian Cold War hawks, President Truman’s former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and Pentagon official Paul Nitze (the author of NSC 68 in 1950). Earlier in the year JFK had asked Acheson to review NATO alliance policy, and to specifically address our policy on Berlin. Acheson’s strong personality and clearly expressed views dominated the internal debate over Berlin policy throughout June 1961, and he delivered his report on Berlin to President Kennedy on June 28, 1961. Acheson framed the Berlin issue as a test of wills between the Soviet Union and the United States — more specifically, between Khrushchev and Kennedy personally — and essentially viewed the Berlin crisis as a high-stakes, international game of “chicken.” He advocated the declaration of a national state of emergency, numerous strong military reinforcement actions (sooner rather than later), preparation for conventional war, and the unapologetic use of nuclear weapons in Europe if-and-when necessary; and viewed any negotiations over Berlin as a sign of weakness. During this period of crisis about 85 percent of the American public favored going to war, if necessary, over Berlin.
On June 30, President Kennedy installed the bellicose and formidable General Curtis LeMay as the new Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. (LeMay had been the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff since 1957, and had headed the Strategic Air Command from 1948-1957.) Since LeMay was a Cold War hawk, and was the individual who had turned the Strategic Air Command into the most formidable fleet of destruction in the history of the world, this was an overt signal to the Kremlin that if nuclear war became necessary, there was someone in charge of the Air Force who was not hesitant in any way to initiate nuclear combat. (LeMay’s B-29 bombers had devastated 67 Japanese cities with deadly firebombing raids during World War II, and had dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945.)
On July 8, Soviet Premier Khrushchev announced that planned cutbacks in defense spending had been cancelled, and that USSR defense spending would be increased by one third. President Kennedy later responded by sending a request to Congress asking for 3.5 billion dollars (an equivalent amount) in additional military spending; asking for a tripling of the draft and the authority to increase the strength of the Army from 875,000 to 1,000,000 men; and asking for authority to call up the reserves, as needed. Eventually, selected Reserve units were called up, and 90,000 additional Air Force and Navy active duty personnel were dispatched to Europe.
JFK continued to publicly reinforce the American position on West Berlin throughout the summer of 1961, so that there would be no doubting his resolve by Nikita Khrushchev or the Soviet Union’s military leaders and foreign policy experts. In a written statement issued by the White House on July 19, President Kennedy made the following points in a public, written response to the Soviet aide-memoire on Berlin dated June 4:
1. Today there is peace in Berlin, in Germany, and in Europe. If that peace is destroyed by the unilateral actions of the Soviet Union, its leaders will bear a heavy responsibility before world opinion and history….
3. Today the continued presence in West Berlin of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France is by clear legal right, arising from war, acknowledged in many agreements signed by the Soviet Union, and strongly supported by the overwhelming majority of the people of that city….
The Real intent of the June 4 aide-memoire is that East Berlin, a part of a city under four-power status, would be formally absorbed into the so-called German Democratic Republic while West Berlin, even though called a “free city,” would lose the protection presently provided by the Western Powers and become subject to the will of a totalitarian regime. Its leader, Herr Ulbricht, has made clear his intention, once this so-called peace treaty is signed, to curb West Berlin’s communications with the Free World and to suffocate the freedom it now enjoys…. The world knows that there is no reason for a crisis over Berlin today — and that, if one develops, it will be caused by the Soviet government’s attempts to invade the rights of others and manufacture tensions…
Meanwhile, the “brain drain” of East German citizens out of East Berlin into West Berlin continued, day after day.
Throughout the continuing policy discussions in July, General Maxwell Taylor sided with Acheson and Nitze over the need for rapid reinforcement of the U.S. military in West Germany and in West Berlin itself; all three men, as well as Vice President Johnson, advocated an early “declaration of national emergency.” (Nitze wanted one by August 1.) But Dean Rusk warned that declaring a state of national emergency sounded very much like mobilization for war; and Robert McNamara played a moderating role by stating that we did not need such a declaration until September 1. When the NSC met on July 19, the idea of a declaration of national emergency was killed. Thanks to McNamara, it was realized that present preparations — without the necessity of such a declaration — could rapidly assemble and deploy six additional Army, and two Marine divisions, from the U.S. to Europe, if necessary. There would be no declaration of national emergency, and no mobilization for war, but preparations would be made for enhancing our overall conventional force military preparedness; and President Kennedy would deliver the U.S. position to the world on July 25 in a key policy speech.
President Kennedy made a major, nationally televised address about the Berlin Crisis on July 25, in which the American position, and American resolve, was made abundantly clear, as these excerpts show:
Let me remind you that the fortunes of war and diplomacy left the free people of West Berlin, in 1945, 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain. We are there as a result of our victory over Nazi Germany — and our basic rights to be there, deriving from that victory, include both our presence in West Berlin and the enjoyment of access across East Germany. These rights have been repeatedly confirmed and recognized in special agreements with the Soviet Union. Berlin is not a part of East Germany, but a separate territory under the control of Allied Powers. Thus our rights there are clear and deep rooted…
Thus, our presence in West Berlin, and our access thereto, cannot be ended by any act of the Soviet government. The NATO shield was long ago extended to cover West Berlin — and we have given our word that an attack upon that city will be regarded as an attack upon us all. [My emphasis]
For West Berlin — lying exposed 110 miles inside East Germany, surrounded Soviet troops and close to Soviet supply lines, has many roles. It is more than a showcase of liberty, a symbol, an island of freedom in a Communist sea. It is even more a link with the Free World, a beacon of hope behind the Iron Curtain, an escape hatch for refugees.
West Berlin is all of that. But above all it has now become — as never before — the great testing place of Western courage and will, a focal point where our solemn commitments, stretching back over the years since 1945, and Soviet ambitions now meet in basic confrontation. [My emphasis]
It would be a mistake for others to look upon Berlin, because of its location, as a tempting target…
…others in earlier times [author’s note: a clear reference to Hitler and the Munich Pact of 1938] have made the same dangerous mistake of assuming that the West was too selfish and too soft and too divided to resist invasions of freedom in other lands….
We cannot and will not permit the Communists to drive us out of Berlin, either gradually or by force. For the fulfillment of our pledge to that city is essential to the morale and security of Western Germany, to the unity of Western Europe, and to the faith of the entire Free World. [My emphasis]
President Kennedy wasn’t kidding here. He knew that the United Kingdom and France had developed their own nuclear weapons programs because they secretly feared that the United States would not risk nuclear war with the USSR over Europe. He knew that if America showed weakness over the Allied position in West Berlin, it would split the NATO alliance asunder, and would likely tempt the Soviet leaders to make further demands in Europe.
We recognize the Soviet Union’s historical concern about their security and concern in Central and Eastern Europe, after a series of ravaging invasions [author’s note: Napoleon in 1812; and the Germans in World Wars I and II], and we believe arrangements can be worked out which will help meet those concerns….
Three times in my lifetime our country and Europe have been involved in major wars [author’s note: World Wars I and II, and Korea]. In each case serious misjudgments were made on both sides of the intentions of others, which brought about great devastation. Now, in the thermonuclear age, any misjudgment on either side about the intentions of the other could rain down more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human history.
Thus, the whole point of this nationally televised prime time address by the 35th president was to impress upon the other side our firm resolve, as well as the dangers of a miscalculation of our national will, such as was made by Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan at the beginning of World War II.
And meanwhile, the real problem, the real crux of the matter for the Soviet Union — the “brain drain” of East Germans escaping daily to West Berlin — continued. About thirty thousand East German citizens escaped to the refugee camps in West Berlin during July, the largest monthly number since 1953.
On August 13, 1961, the East German government, after consultations with the USSR, began erecting the Berlin Wall on East German territory, within East Berlin. (East German leader Walter Ulbricht had been prepared to cut off Allied air traffic to West Berlin as well, but Khrushchev had denied him permission, and had insisted that the Berlin wall remain entirely within the territory of East Berlin.) East German citizens could no longer escape to the West: the “brain drain” problem immediately ceased, except for the small trickle of escapees who dramatically and courageously braved East German guns and barbed wire and minefields, from time to time. It solved the Soviet Union’s biggest problem — the potential collapse of East Germany as a viable state and society — and it was an immediate propaganda victory for the Western Powers: for any system that had to build a wall to keep its people in, was surely an inferior system (and a harsh one).
On August 18, the U.S. tested Western access rights to Berlin by sending Vice President Lyndon Johnson and General Lucien Clay (the hero of the 1948 siege of Berlin by Stalin) along the autobahn from West Germany, through 110 miles of East German territory, to West Berlin, along with a convoy of 1,600 U.S. troops. The Soviets used procedural formalities to delay the convoy but did not prevent its arrival, to the great acclaim of the citizens of West Berlin. The military convoy was only a token reinforcement, but was a symbol, a statement of Western resolve; and a propaganda victory. The Soviet Union countered by breaking the voluntary, informal moratorium on nuclear testing, and resumed nuclear tests in the atmosphere on September 1, conducting three in rapid succession. The American president felt he had no choice but to resume U.S. nuclear tests as well, but they were all conducted underground to prevent atmospheric fallout.
Both publicly, and internally within the U.S. government, the tension mounted during September and October of 1961. General Maxwell Taylor expected Khrushchev to use military force, or the threat of force, to obtain his goals in the Berlin Crisis. On September 19 General Lucien Clay (pulled out of retirement for the crisis) reappeared in Berlin, now as a “special advisor” to President Kennedy; and he immediately exceeded his authority, and began acting as though he were in charge of all the military commanders in West Berlin. Author Lawrence Freedman, in his book Kennedy’s Wars, called Clay “a tough hard-liner, popular with the Berliners as one committed to their cause.” Freedman wrote that Clay’s relations with the other American generals in Europe with responsibility for Berlin were poor, and that he admired Dean Acheson, the super-Hawk in the U.S. Cold Warrior establishment. Clay immediately took the provocative act (on his own authority) of ordering the U.S. Army to build a replica section of the Berlin wall inside West Berlin, and directed U.S. tanks to practice knocking it down. Another U.S. Army general (CINC Europe, General Bruce Clarke) ordered the experiment stopped and the replica dismantled, but photographs of what had happened reached Moscow on October 20, where it was considered a severe provocation and a signal of impending confrontation. East Germans were no longer allowed to leave East Berlin, but Allied military patrols and official civilian visitors were still allowed to enter East Berlin in accordance with the four-power agreement of 1945. On October 25 Clay ordered U.S. army tanks near crossing point Checkpoint Charlie on alert, and on October 27, Clay again sent U.S. Army tanks to the immediate vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie to once again “back up a patrol.” This provocative act was responded to on October 28 by Soviet tanks lining up in opposition to the U.S. tanks, only about 100 yards away, on the other side of the Berlin wall. As Freedman has written,
This was the sort of situation Kennedy dreaded: a contrived incident over a secondary issue [the use or non-use of identification at the Checkpoint Charlie border] that could lead to a tank battle in the middle of Berlin with who knew what consequences to follow.
JFK called Clay and upbraided him on the telephone for his reckless use of the U.S. tanks, as revealed in the DVD of the documentary Virtual JFK. Robert Kennedy [officially the attorney general, but unofficially the “assistant president”] passed a message to Khrushchev via his Washington, D.C., KGB back-door diplomatic contact, Georgi Bolshakov, that if Soviet tanks were pulled back, U.S. tanks would do the same. The Soviet tanks began to pull back one at a time, the U.S. tanks followed suit one at a time, and the threat display, the “exercise in military theatricality,” was resolved. But it could easily have gone awry and resulted in conventional fighting in Berlin, followed by the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and might then have quickly escalated to a full nuclear exchange.
On October 30 the USSR conducted an atmospheric test of the largest thermonuclear weapon (with a 50-megaton yield) ever detonated. This was partly posturing in response to the Berlin crisis, and partly a response to an October 21 speech in which Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric had revealed the truth about America’s overwhelming nuclear strategic superiority:
The destructive power which the United States could bring to bear even after a Soviet surprise attack on our forces would be as great as — perhaps even greater than — the total undamaged forces which the enemy can threaten to launch against the United States in a first strike. In short, we have a second strike capability which is at least as extensive as what the Soviets can deliver by striking first.
This was at a time when the early Corona satellite photography had confirmed that there was a “missile gap” all right, but one in favor of the United States, not the Soviet Union (as had been feared by so many during the late 1950s). The CIA’s September 1961 National Intelligence Estimate had confirmed the overwhelming superiority of American strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and the Gilpatric speech was the rather restrained means chosen by the JFK administration to reveal this to the USSR: it was delivered by a second-tier bureaucrat (not by the president, nor by a member of the Joint Chiefs, and not even by a cabinet member) — and in a dry, understated, and non-bellicose manner. Nevertheless, it piqued Premier Khrushchev’s inferiority complex, and in response, he first ordered that a 100-megaton device be tested, before accepting the advice of his scientists and reducing the yield to “only” 50 megatons. The 50-megaton bomb tested could not have been delivered on an ICBM, and it was highly unlikely such a bomb could have been successfully delivered to U.S. soil by one of the USSR’s large, slow bombers (for they had no in-flight refueling capability). It was a terror weapon, a part of the propaganda war surrounding the Berlin Crisis, and as such can be considered perhaps the height of the crisis.
The construction of the Berlin wall defused the crisis that began with Khrushchev’s June 4 ultimatum at Vienna; it did so by mirroring the division between West Germany and East Germany inside the city of Berlin itself. Kennedy understood that as ugly as it was, and as incensed as the citizens of West Berlin and East Berlin were, the Berlin wall solved Khrushchev’s main problem (and Walter Ulbricht’s main problem). The “brain drain,” and the daily mass exodus of the East German population, had ceased. And Western access rights to West Berlin, and the presence of the three Western Allied Powers in West Berlin, had been successfully defended.
But at home (and it is important to understand this) the Right Wing all over the country, and in the media, was critical of President Kennedy for “not tearing down the Berlin wall.” This criticism continued throughout the end of the year, even after the late October standoffs between U.S. and Soviet tanks had ended in Berlin itself. The people who espoused such action were clearly being irresponsible, since: (1) the Berlin Wall was built on what was de facto East German territory (i.e., inside East Berlin, or the Soviet controlled zone of that city); and therefore, (2) attempting to “tear down the Berlin wall,” using U.S. and Allied military forces, could surely have touched off the “nuclear war by miscalculation” that JFK so feared might happen if one side pushed the other too far over Berlin.
At a news conference on January 15, 1962, President Kennedy was asked about this continuing drumbeat within the Right Wing in the United States (some in Congress, some in the media, and some whisperers in the Pentagon) that he had been “too weak” to tear down the Berlin wall. The exchange went as follows:
Q: Mr. President, criticism that we did not tear down the Berlin wall seems to be increasing rather than declining. Just about a week ago the chairman of the Republican National Committee criticized your administration strenuously. I don’t recall that you’ve ever publicly discussed this particular phase of the question. Do you think it would be helpful for you to do so now?
The President: Well, I have discussed it. I stated that no one at that time in any position of responsibility — and I would use that term — either in the West Berlin-American contingent, in West Germany, France, or Great Britain, suggested that the United States or other countries go in and tear down the wall. [Author’s note: what JFK didn’t want to discuss, or acknowledge, was that West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt’s immediate reaction to the wall going up was to privately demand just such action — that the U.S. and its Western Allies tear the wall down by force; fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.]
The Soviet Union has had a de facto control for many years, really stretching back to the late forties, in East Berlin. It had been turned over as a capital for East Germany a long time ago. And the United States has a very limited force surrounded by a great many [Soviet] divisions. We are going to find ourselves severely challenged to maintain what we have considered to be our basic rights — which is our presence in West Berlin, and the right of access to West Berlin, and the freedom of the people of West Berlin.
But in my judgment, I think that [tearing down the Berlin wall] could have a very violent reaction, which might have taken us down a very rocky road. I think it was for that reason — because it was recognized by those people in positions of responsibility — that no recommendation was made along the lines you’ve suggested at that time.
This draws to a close our long discussion of the Berlin crisis, which very gradually subsided after October of 1961. JFK had proven his mettle by vigorously leading the NATO alliance in rejecting and preventing any assimilation of West Berlin by the USSR or its client state, East Germany. And in doing so, he had made the U.S. position sufficiently clear that he had avoided the “nuclear war by miscalculation” that he so feared (in spite of General Clay’s provocations); the USSR was firmly convinced that the West would fight over Berlin if necessary, and so fortunately did not take the reckless step of imposing another Berlin blockade (as in 1948 by Stalin), or of conquering West Berlin, and forcibly evicting the Western occupying forces, with the overwhelming conventional might of the Red Army. Khrushchev and his military understood all too well that to do so — to use military force against Berlin — would have compelled the United States to use tactical nuclear weapons against the numerically superior Red Army on East German soil, and would quickly have escalated (within hours, or days at most) to a full nuclear exchange, in which the USSR and Western Europe would have been destroyed, and the United States would have been only minimally damaged by blast, if at all. (No one knew about nuclear winter yet in 1961; but we now know that even if not one Soviet nuclear weapon had landed on the United States during such a full scale exchange, that the dense pall of smoke from all of the burning cities in the world would have lowered the earth’s temperature in the blacked-out aftermath, and thereby destroyed agriculture, and eventually the food chain, world-wide. The world wide effects of fallout would have been even more devastating, on a long-term basis.) It was this sober realization by the USSR’s leaders that led to the adoption of the Berlin Wall option to solve the East German “brain drain” problem and population exodus, rather than continuing to insist upon absorption of all of Berlin into East Germany, which had been the USSR’s original position on June 4 at the Vienna Summit. The Soviet Union, finally convinced of JFK’s adamant resolve over Berlin (and his general desire to maintain the territorial status quo), consciously opted for a brutal, and even embarrassing, solution to the Berlin “brain drain” problem, rather than risk a suicidal nuclear war.
As Lawrence Freedman wrote,
Berlin obliged Kennedy to address the fundamental questions of war and peace in the nuclear age. He was torn between the need to appear unyielding in the defense of America’s interests and his real fear of sudden lurches into crisis and then war…. The military believed that nuclear options had to be part of Berlin planning and that it was vital for deterrence and the cohesion of the alliance that this be generally understood.
What the public (and the Soviets) did not know was that while NATO was officially committed to a “first-use” policy regarding tactical nuclear weapons if faced by overwhelming use of conventional forces by the Warsaw Pact, Kennedy’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, was privately counseling JFK that this policy never be carried out in practice (due to the dangers of rapid escalation to general nuclear war). McNamara believed NATO had to formally support this “first use” doctrine for purposes of deterrence, but was privately counseling against doing so, in the strongest possible terms. JFK, McNamara, and General Maxwell Taylor (his private military advisor, due to Kennedy’s rapidly growing disenchantment with JCS Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer) favored the doctrine of flexible response to political/military crises, employing a host of graduated conventional military options — rather than the massive retaliation doctrine (the threat of quick escalation to a full nuclear exchange) espoused throughout the 1950s by President Eisenhower and his bellicose secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. In theory, flexible response would offer time to maneuver, both militarily and diplomatically, during a crisis — and would lessen the possibility of suddenly “lurching” toward a full nuclear exchange with the USSR during the early phases of a crisis. As the Berlin crisis progressed throughout 1961, Kennedy and McNamara found themselves being opposed at the most fundamental levels by the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), USAF General Lauris Norstad, America’s most senior general in Europe and the top NATO military commander. General Norstad opposed the conventional force buildups necessitated by the flexible response doctrine because he opposed flexible response. Norstad had long been an advocate of the massive retaliation doctrine, and was a strong supporter of the early use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event of conventional warfare over Berlin. His increasing opposition to President Kennedy’s (and McNamara’s) flexible response doctrine placed him on the road to early retirement; by spring of 1962 JFK had decided to replace him with Lyman Lemnitzer, an action that would solve two problems at once — it would get rid of a non-cooperative general in Europe who had the virtual power of a head of state, and would remove Lemnitzer from Washington. The increasing tensions between the Kennedy/McNamara team and Norstad — exacerbated by the Berlin Crisis and its implications — were known within the Pentagon, and by Washington insiders, throughout the autumn and winter of 1961. The whisper campaign inside what we now call “the beltway” was that JFK was “weak” and privately unwilling to use nuclear weapons, even when doctrine called for them to be used.
In successfully walking the tightrope between defending the Western Alliance, and nuclear Armageddon — the proverbial choices between “holocaust or humiliation,” between “suicide or surrender” — JFK had acquired many critics (beyond just the acerbic Dean Acheson), both within the Right Wing media and amongst Right Wingers in Congress (where people have the luxury of continually pontificating and criticizing, without having the responsibility for actually executing any policy, or doing anything); and among hawks in the Pentagon (Paul Nitze and Curtis LeMay were just two of them; Lauris Norstad was another) who believed nuclear war with the Soviet Union was probably inevitable anyway. To people with this apocalyptic mind-set, Kennedy’s actions on Berlin had been weak; some of them would surely have advocated tearing the wall down even if it did result in nuclear war. There were many within the national security establishment (both men in uniform, and high-ranking civilian policy advisors) who felt nuclear war with the USSR was indeed inevitable, and that we might as well fight such a war sooner, rather than later, before the Soviets would be closer to achieving parity with the United States in strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems. As stated above, one such man was the new Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, who had just been installed by JFK himself on June 30, 1961.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (to be posted)
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