1961: President Kennedy Rejects Both Nuclear War, and Combat Troops in Vietnam
Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay Expresses Disloyalty to President Kennedy and Publicly Proclaims His Belief in the Inevitability of Nuclear War Before the End of 1961
By the time President Kennedy attended the public swearing-in of General Curtis LeMay as the new Air Force Chief of Staff on June 30, 1961, LeMay was already a revered American icon to many. He had courageously led large elements of the 8th Air Force in Europe during World War II, and had personally designed, and commanded, the horrific firebombing campaign against Japan’s cities that had virtually razed that nation to the ground during 1945 (and in this role, his bombers had dropped the first two strategic nuclear weapons ever used in combat on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Following World War II, LeMay had overseen the establishment of the Rand Corporation (whose primary job was to research ways to conduct nuclear war); had been in charge of the Berlin Airlift during 1948; and had then taken over the Strategic Air Command (SAC) during its infancy, in 1948, when it was an immature, ineffective organization. For almost nine years (from 1948 through 1957), LeMay headed SAC and took the organization through its adolescence and into adulthood, transforming it into the most feared arsenal of destruction in the history of the earth. At this time, before the advent of ICBMs and Polaris nuclear missile subs, LeMay’s SAC was America’s nuclear deterrent. LeMay believed that America was already at war with the USSR, and drilled this mindset into everyone at SAC while he was its commander; he not only built up an overwhelming strategic superiority in long-range nuclear weapons delivery systems during the 1950s, but (unknown to the public) believed nuclear war with the USSR was inevitable, and through the use of many provocative “reconnaissance” overflights of the Soviet Union, attempted to provoke Soviet reactions and overreactions to these provocations that would have justified a preemptive first strike on the Soviet Union by the United States. After retirement, in his memoirs, he expressed a kind of poignant regret that the United States had failed to obliterate the USSR during the early-to-mid 1950s, when it could have done so without any losses to SAC except those due to normal in-flight accidents, and when the Soviet Union would have been unable to place any strategic weapons on U.S. soil, in response. LeMay’s concept of nuclear war was total: he believed in what he called the “Sunday punch,” or throwing everything you had at the enemy at the very beginning of hostilities — an attack from all directions, with the majority of your own weapons — that would go on without stop, for several days. His concept of nuclear war was orgiastic, and Wagnerian.
So when LeMay assumed the job as USAF chief of staff on June 30, 1961 — as the Berlin Crisis was heating up — JFK was appointing a man with a formidable reputation for drive and efficiency, and someone who had already been serving as vice chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force since 1957 — and the one man who had personally built up America’s nuclear deterrent to a maximum level during the 1950s, and who already had his own “personality cult.” (Not only was LeMay uncritically revered by tens of thousands of WW II veterans and members of SAC, but a fictionalized version of LeMay had been lionized in the Hollywood Cold War propaganda film Strategic Air Command, in 1955.) What JFK presumably did not know was that he was also installing someone who was contemptuous of civilian control over the military, and who had already exhibited personal disloyalty to him, the 35th President, within the halls of the Pentagon — presumably while serving as vice chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.
In a revealing and significant footnote in his excellent book Dark Sun, author Richard Rhodes quoted from an obituary written in the New York Times in 1993 about journalist and novelist Fletcher Knebel, who authored the number one 1962 national security best-seller Seven Days in May (about the possibility of a military coup in the United States). [The book was later turned into a tightly scripted, on-screen thriller of the same name in 1963, with President Kennedy’s encouragement.] The New York Times obituary for the book’s author stated that Knebel “said he got the idea for Seven Days in May while interviewing General Curtis LeMay, onetime Air Force Chief of Staff, who went off the record to accuse President Kennedy of cowardice in his handling of the Bay of Pigs crisis.” My assumption here is that this background interview probably took place in April or May of 1961, immediately after the Bay of Pigs, and before LeMay was installed as chief of staff. (Presumably, no chief of staff who valued his job would have been so openly disloyal to the President who had appointed him.)
This comment to Knebel by General LeMay seems entirely consistent with the Curtis LeMay so well-known today by historians. As author Dino Brugioni wrote in Eyeball to Eyeball, “his beetle brows, jutting jaw, sagging jowls, shock of slicked down black hair, and ubiquitous brown cigar” gave him the visage of a bulldog in a bad mood. LeMay was intentionally blunt and profane, to an extreme degree: crude, bull-headed, inflexible, and used to getting his own way.
His well-known views about the inevitability of general nuclear war with the Soviet Union have been confirmed in multiple interviews given by Robert McNamara late in his life. Consider this one example of LeMay’s extreme mind-set, from the book Brothers by David Talbot:
The Air Force Chief of Staff stunned the capital in July [of 1961] when Washington Post columnist Marquis Childs reported that he casually predicted that nuclear war would break out in the final weeks of the year. LeMay made the hair-raising announcement to a Senator’s wife at a Georgetown dinner party, telling the shocked woman that war was “inevitable” and that it would likely incinerate such major U.S. cities as Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit, as well as level most Soviet cities. Asked by the Senator’s wife if there was anywhere she could flee to safety with her children and grandchildren, LeMay advised her she might try deserted sage brush country in the far West. After the ensuing uproar in Washington, LeMay felt compelled to deny the story. But Kennedy officials knew it reflected the Air Force general’s true beliefs.
Given the poor judgment demonstrated by LeMay on the Georgetown social circuit, perhaps he did speak to Fletcher Knebel with such rank disloyalty even after he had been installed as Air Force chief of staff. All we know for sure is that the incident occurred in 1961, since Seven Days in May was published early in 1962; we certainly know that the interview took place after April 20 (the date the Bay of Pigs exile invasion was openly acknowledged to be a failure).
We will speak much more about Curtis LeMay in a future installment of this essay, about the events of 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the seeds of antagonism between LeMay and President Kennedy — a serious personal and professional animus — were planted in 1961.
The Joint Chiefs Lecture President Kennedy on the Favorable Opportunity for a Pre-Emptive First Strike — “Preventive War” — Against the Soviet Union; In Disgust, JFK Walks Out of the Meeting
On July 20, 1961, at a National Security Council meeting, JFK was compelled to consider the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. This meeting occurred in the context of the escalating Berlin Crisis with the USSR. During this meeting he was briefed on the Single Integrated Operational Plan for general nuclear war, SIOP-62. [The SIOP plans were named after the fiscal year for which they were effective; fiscal year ’62 commenced in July 1961.] This plan represented the philosophy of General Curtis LeMay, promoted throughout the 1950s by SAC, and first implemented as a “SIOP” (a national plan for all the armed services) in 1960 by his chosen successor as SAC’s commander, General Thomas Power. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy later disapprovingly referred to SIOP-62 and its predecessors as “a massive, total, comprehensive, obliterating strategic attack … on everything Red.” It called for the overwhelming destruction of all Communist Bloc nations — both military bases and urban/industrial centers — in the event of war with any one of its members. (Thus, China would have been destroyed in the event of war with the USSR — as well as little Albania.) It allowed for no flexibility once nuclear general war — the use of strategic weapons — began.
A seminal article was written about this meeting in the fall 1994 issue of The American Prospect, co-authored by Heather A. Purcell and James K. Galbraith [the son of JFK’s former ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith], titled: “Did the U.S. Military Plan a Nuclear First Strike for 1963?” Key information in the article was obtained from a memo written for LBJ by his military aide, USAF Colonel Howard Burris, as well as from an oral history interview of Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatrick in 1970.
Historian James Douglass has written in detail about the meeting in his book JFK and the Unspeakable:
At the July 20, 1961 NSC meeting, General Hickey, chairman of the ‘Net Evaluation Subcommittee’ of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented a plan for a nuclear surprise attack on the Soviet Union “in late 1963, preceded by a period of heightened tensions.” Other presenters of the preemptive strike plan included General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and CIA Director Allen Dulles. Vice President Johnson’s military aide, Howard Burris, wrote a memorandum of the meeting for Johnson, who was not present.
…While the Burris memorandum is valuable in its revelation of the first-strike agenda, it does not mention Kennedy’s ultimate disgust with the entire process. We know that fact from its disclosure in an oral history by Roswell Gilpatric, JFK’s Deputy Secretary of Defense. Gilpatric described the meeting’s abrupt conclusion: “Finally Kennedy got up and walked right out in the middle of it, and that was the end of it.”
Kennedy’s disgusted reaction to this National Security Council meeting was also recorded in books written by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; McGeorge Bundy; and Dean Rusk. None of them, however, identified the first-strike focus of the meeting that prompted the disgust. They describe the meeting in only the most general terms as “the Net Evaluation, an annual doomsday briefing analyzing the chances of nuclear war” (Schlesinger) or as “a formal briefing on the net assessment of a general nuclear war between the two superpowers” (Bundy). However, as much as JFK was appalled by a general nuclear war, his walkout was in response to a more specific evil in his own ranks: U.S. military and CIA leaders were enlisting his support for a plan to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
Kennedy didn’t just walk out. He also said what he thought of the entire proceeding. As he led Rusk back to the Oval Office, with what Rusk described as “a strange look on his face,” Kennedy turned and said to his Secretary of State, “And we call ourselves the human race.”
The attitude behind the recommendation at the July 20 NSC meeting to seriously consider launching a pre-emptive first strike in 1963 was that which had been advocated by Curtis LeMay throughout the 1950s. Robert McNamara summarized LeMay’s philosophy in the documentary Fog of War, when he said: “LeMay believed that ultimately we were going to have to confront these people [meaning the Soviet Union] in a conflict with nuclear weapons, and by God, we’d better do it when we have greater superiority than we will have in the future.” At various times during JFK’s Presidency, Dean Acheson (one of the “Wise Old Men” of Washington), Paul Nitze, Roswell Gilpatric, and many others within the policy-making apparatus felt the same way.
Consider the growing schism between John F. Kennedy and the national security establishment throughout 1961 over the use of nuclear weapons:
(1) JFK had rejected CNO Arleigh Burke’s recommendation for their use in Laos in April of 1961;
(2) President Kennedy had walked out of his NSC doomsday briefing on July 20, 1961 because the briefer (and key players at the briefing) had recommended that the President consider a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union two years hence, in 1963, during a period of heightened tensions.
(3) General LeMay had been muzzled after shooting his mouth off at a Washington D.C. cocktail party in July about the inevitability of nuclear war in 1961;
(4) JFK (and Robert McNamara) had been engaged in a growing dispute during the fall and winter of 1961 with General Lauris Norstad, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, in opposition to Norstad’s view that the early use of tactical nuclear weapons in the defense of Berlin was both likely, and desirable (and his continuing opposition to emphasizing conventional force options over the use of tactical nukes).
In an atmosphere in which not only the press, but many national security advisors (men like Dean Acheson) viewed the East-West rivalry in the Cold War as a game of “chicken” between Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy — as a personalized “test of wills” — Curtis LeMay, a four-star general in the Pentagon, had called President Kennedy a “coward” in a background briefing for a prominent journalist, and JFK had begun to clash, repeatedly, with some of his highest-level advisors over their rather blasé recommendations calling for the use of nuclear weapons. This situation did not augur well for the future.
JFK Rejects Three Attempts by the National Security Establishment to Introduce Combat Troops to Vietnam During 1961
On May 8, 1961, JCS Chairman Lyman Lemitzer sent a blistering telegram to the Pentagon. Vietnam historian John M. Newman wrote in his book JFK and Vietnam:
Lemnitzer said it appeared the “unhappy sequence of events in Laos” was being repeated, adding that this “can only mean the loss of Vietnam.” In a scathing indictment of the president’s cautious approach to the Communist threat in Southeast Asia, Lemnitzer argued the problem in simple terms: “Does the U.S. intend to take the necessary military action now to defeat the Viet Cong threat or do we intend to quibble for weeks and months over details of general policy … while Vietnam slowly goes down the drain of Communism as North Vietnam and a large portion of Laos have gone to date?”
The backstory on the Vietnam problem reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Following the French defeat on the battlefield in their former colony of Vietnam, the 1954 Geneva accords dictated that there would be a nationwide election in 1956 intended to unify both North and South Vietnam under one leadership. Following the defeat of the French in the Communist North, there was an influx of Vietnamese Catholics into South Vietnam during 1954 and 1955. The recently installed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem (Diem was an exile appointed by fellow-exile Emperor Bao Dai), himself a Catholic, placed fellow Catholic loyalists into all key civilian and military government positions, which commenced the alienation of the Buddhist majority and largely Buddhist middle class. Diem, aware that he had no real political base in the South except for the Catholic minority, cancelled the 1956 elections. He replaced the French presence with an American presence, in support of what had become a true oligarchy based on nepotism. A blatantly rigged election held in 1959 fooled no one. Loud calls from within South Vietnam for political reforms throughout 1960 led to Diem shutting down opposition newspapers and jailing his opponents; Diem had become a true oriental despot. The U.S. ambassador, Elbridge Durbrow, was known to have secretly supported a failed 1960 coup attempt, and so his working relationship with President Diem had ended.
Present throughout the 1950s to personally assist Diem in establishing his power had been U.S. Air Force Colonel Edward G. Lansdale (the Iago of this tale), a former advertising executive who had worked for the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor organization) during World War II, and who had transitioned from the Army into the Air Force following the Second World War. (The fact that CIA Director Allen Dulles later had to personally intervene with General Curtis LeMay to get Colonel Lansdale promoted to brigadier general probably speaks volumes about Lansdale’s true loyalties, and about who his real employer was.) Lansdale helped Diem to thwart two coup attempts in the mid-1950s immediately after he was installed in office, and the two men remained close allies, and friends, thereafter.
Lansdale, who had been attached to the U.S. military mission in Saigon for several years during the Eisenhower administration, was attached to the Office of Special Operations for the Secretary of Defense at the time John F. Kennedy was elected. He traveled to Vietnam at the end of 1960 and wrote a slick report about the problems faced by his close friend, President Diem, essentially recommending someone like himself to be the next ambassador to South Vietnam. Lansdale’s principal sponsor in Washington was Walt Rostow, the Southeast Asia expert on the NSC staff. With Rostow supporting Lansdale’s candidacy, JFK orally indicated to Lansdale, at an NSC meeting on January 28, 1961, his intent to appoint him as the next ambassador to South Vietnam. Lansdale’s friends in Washington were Allen Dulles, Lyman Lemnitzer, and Arleigh Burke; his friends in Vietnam included William Colby (CIA Station Chief in Saigon), and General Lionel McGarr (chief of the U.S. Military Advisory and Assistance Group). But Secretary of State Dean Rusk had been made aware of Lansdale’s close affiliations with the CIA, and by February 14, had scuttled his prospective appointment as ambassador. Lansdale had been described to Rusk as a “lone wolf and operator,” and was an unacceptable choice for ambassador to Defense and State, because of his close ties to the CIA.
On April 20, the same day that the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion was publicly acknowledged, President Kennedy ordered the formation of a three-man Vietnam task force, with Roswell Gilpatric as its head and Lansdale as its operations officer. Cuba was off of the front burner for now, and Laos and Vietnam became the primary focus for the President (until he was confronted with the Berlin Crisis). But McNamara, aware of Lansdale’s plans (with the consent of Gilpatric) to dominate the new task force, cancelled Edward Lansdale’s impending trip to South Vietnam. Lansdale, who had for years supported home-grown, South Vietnamese counterinsurgency actions and “civic action” programs against the Viet Cong insurgency, now switched sides in the policy debate and began advocating the introduction of large numbers of U.S. combat troops (for “training purposes”) into South Vietnam.
John Newman wrote poignantly, almost painfully, in JFK and Vietnam:
Somewhere along the way Lansdale had become emotionally and psychologically attached to Vietnam — and obsessed by the notion that if only he had the chance he could still save the country. Diem did not follow Lansdale’s civic prescription, but Lansdale’s friendship and loyalty to him clouded Lansdale’s vision and he grew ever more committed to preserving Diem…. Lansdale turned into his own worst enemy, relying on the instincts of the “lone wolf and operator” he had become, and alienating key officials as he indulged in the plotting and scheming of which he had become a master.
By the end of April 1961 Lansdale recognized that his dream of bringing Diem around [that is, of persuading him to institute sweeping domestic reforms to build his loyalty base] had already eluded his grasp and it was only a matter of time before Diem would be pushed aside. The obsession with Vietnam remained, however, and the star rising on the policy horizon — despite Kennedy’s reluctance — was American intervention; and Lansdale, driven by his overriding ambition, reached out for it. For Lansdale, being removed from influence by Kennedy was a heartbreaking experience. Under the circumstances, then, it is perhaps not surprising that Lansdale wrote the first document urging a large U.S. troop commitment to Vietnam. He was embracing more powerful patrons, those who would have their way in the end. Lansdale, the civic action advocate, had changed horses, and when the troops finally arrived in 1965, he would be there with them.
Kennedy later threw Lansdale a bone by allowing him to serve as operations officer for Operation Mongoose (the “dirty tricks” and sabotage campaign designed to destabilize and help overthrow the Castro government) throughout 1962, but that is a story reserved for the 1962 portion of this essay.
The Vietnam Task Force draft report submitted on April 28, 1961, with Lansdale’s Laos Annex attached (recommending the introduction of U.S. combat troops to Vietnam for “training purposes”), was modified by Lansdale and Gilpatric and resubmitted as a draft on May 1, 1961, recommending unilateral U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. McNamara submitted the final version of the Vietnam Task Force report to President Kennedy on May 6, after Roswell Gilpatric had been replaced as task force chairman by the State Department’s Sterling Cottrell, someone with views more to President Kennedy’s liking. The final report of May 6 no longer contained a recommendation for unilateral U.S. military intervention. On May 9, Vice President Johnson, against his wishes, departed on a trip to South Vietnam, as ordered by the President.
On May 10, John Newman writes that the Joint Chiefs of Staff responded to Gilpatric’s request for their recommendations two days earlier:
On that date they delivered a resolute and emphatic recommendation for sending U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. This unique and startling memo deserves a detailed examination here. The Chiefs now argue that if the administration decided to keep Southeast Asia out of the Communist “sphere,” U.S. forces should be “deployed immediately” to South Vietnam, so that they would not be subjected to the kind of combat situation existing in Laos. The Chiefs recommended that a decision to “deploy suitable forces” be made…. In order to accomplish their plans the Chiefs recommended:
President Diem be encouraged to request that the United States fulfill its SEATO obligation, in view of the threat now posed by the Laotian situation, by immediate deployment of appropriate U.S. forces to South Vietnam….
NSAM-52 was implemented on May 11, 1961 following LBJ’s departure, and after a review by JFK one week later, received final approval on May 19. While it did approve the U.S. objective of preventing Communist domination of South Vietnam, it approved only a further-sanitized version of the Vietnam Task Force report which had removed from it any mention of support for agreements to be reached between LBJ and Diem. (Events proved LBJ was freewheeling in South Vietnam and that his goal — working with interventionists in the national security establishment — was to get Diem to request the introduction of U.S. combat troops under the guise of “training,” as well as complete U.S. funding for a 100,000 man increase in the South Vietnamese army. The number of U.S. troops envisaged by McGarr in-country, and Lansdale in Washington, was two “battle groups,” i.e., 16,000 combat troops.) NSAM-52 did commit the U.S. to sending 400 U.S. special forces troops to South Vietnam in a bonafide training role, but expressly forbade their use in combat. It was a resounding defeat for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who wanted a military “foot-in-the-door” that would make it easier for the United States to commit forces to a combat role once they were in-country. Meanwhile, LBJ, freewheeling in Saigon, had foolishly declared Diem “the Churchill of Asia,” and had written an after-action report that equated saving Diem with saving Vietnam, and which melodramatically stated that if Vietnam fell, the U.S. must inevitably surrender the Pacific and take up defenses on its own shores.
John Newman writes that “the scheme engineered by McGarr, Lansdale, and the JCS, brokered by Johnson, and acquiesced in by Diem” was the last straw for President Kennedy. He was now fully alerted to the large numbers of Southeast Asia interventionists around him within his “support structure,” and had become increasingly skeptical, and resistant, to such recommendations.
On August 11, 1961, in the midst of the Berlin Crisis, NSAM-65 was issued, stating that the United States would provide equipment and training assistance for a modest increase in the South Vietnamese army from 170,000 to a total of 200,000 men. Meanwhile, with the southern Laos supply route open to the Viet Cong, increasing areas of South Vietnam continued to fall to the Viet Cong insurgency. On October 11, 1961, a critical NSC meeting was held in which the State Department’s U. Alexis Johnson presented a paper advocating the views of Maxwell Taylor, Walt Rostow, the Southeast Asia Task Force, and the JCS — in favor of U.S. military intervention. Johnson’s paper proposed a total SEATO force of 22,800 combat troops, with 11,000 of them American. Their proposed deployment was to be immediate.
NSAM 104 was issued by JFK that day, directing that Maxwell Taylor assemble a task force and travel to Vietnam for an assessment visit. (It did not approve the recommendations for combat troops in Johnson’s paper.) Taylor’s entourage arrived in South Vietnam on October 18th, and returned to Washington on November 2. Taylor’s trip constituted the pivotal event leading to the most important decision JFK made on Vietnam during his presidency. John Newman wrote: “In picking Taylor to lead the mission, Kennedy chose a man whom he judged to be an expert in unconventional warfare, an intellectual who quoted Thucydides, and the one general he thought shared his own views and that he could, therefore, trust to carry out his bidding. Kennedy did not want to send combat troops to Vietnam and intended to use the Taylor trip not only for elbow room, but also so help strengthen his case against intervening.” In spite of JFK’s attempts to manage the results of the trip before Taylor’s team left the U.S., he did not receive the recommendations he wanted.
After removing from Taylor’s own draft of his proposed operating instructions all references to studying intervention, command relationships, and CIA operations in Vietnam, JFK inserted the following instructions, which were markedly different from the six paragraphs he had removed form Taylor’s draft:
In your assessment you should bear in mind that the initial responsibility for effective maintenance of the independence of South Vietnam rests with the people and government of that country. Our efforts must be evaluated, and your recommendations formulated, with this in mind.
While the military part of the problem is of great importance in South Vietnam, its political, social, and economic elements are equally significant, and I shall expect your appraisal and your recommendations to take full account of them.
According to Newman, JFK then emphasized his desires by planting a bogus story in the New York Times, including the following statement — which was manifestly untrue, as everyone in the national security establishment who read it knew:
Military leaders in the Pentagon, no less than General Taylor himself, are understood to be reluctant to send organized U.S. combat troops into Southeast Asia. Pentagon plans for this area stress the importance of countering Communist guerillas with troops from the affected countries, perhaps trained and equipped by the U.S., but not supplanted by U.S. troops.
Imagine President Kennedy’s dismay, then, when in spite of his overt and covert instructions to Taylor, his favorite general formally recommended immediately introducing 8,000 U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam under the cover of a “flood relief task force.” In his book The Best and the Brightest, author David Halberstam wrote: “General Taylor failed to live up to his reputation as an intellectual and original thinker, and his report abandoned concepts of a counterinsurgency in favor of conventional warfare, and with some window-dressing, advocated a Korean War-style strategy [i.e., a large, conventional U.S. military force].” Taylor was employing the same “foot-in-the-door” approach that Arleigh Burke had written about to Admiral Felt (CINCPAC) earlier in the year — namely, that if we can get President Kennedy to make some commitment of combat troops now, we can build them up more easily later on to the force levels we really need, because the basic commitment will already have been made. Andrew Krepinevich has written: “…while admitting that the ‘new’ Communist strategy of insurgency bypassed the Army’s traditional approach to war, Taylor offered all the old prescriptions for the achievement of victory: increased firepower and mobility, more effective search and destroy operations, and if all else failed, bombing the source of the trouble (in thought if not in fact), North Vietnam, into capitulation.”
Taylor’s recommendations were first discussed at an NSC meeting on November 4, 1961, two days after his return to the United States. Great skepticism was expressed by those present that the U.S. could easily withdraw combat troops after they had been introduced, even if they had gone to South Vietnam under the cover of flood relief. A caustic exchange occurred the next day, November 5, between President Kennedy and JCS Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer. Notes taken at the meeting, on file at the LBJ Library, reveal that after Lemnitzer defended the action proposed by Taylor, and painted the adverse consequences of not doing so in rather apocalyptic terms, the following exchange took place:
The President asked how he [Lemnitzer] could justify the proposed courses of action in Vietnam while at the same time ignoring Cuba. General Lemnitzer hastened to add that the JCS feel that even at this point the United States should go into Cuba.
This exchange revealed the lingering (indeed, festering) animosity over the Bay of Pigs debacle, and also highlighted the extent to which the 35th President had become isolated within his own national security bureaucracy.
Kennedy had now been pushed into a corner by his own national security establishment over the Southeast Asia problem, and had to fish or cut bait. On November 22, 1961 (ironically) the final version of NSAM-111 was promulgated, and it was the principal position on Vietnam made by JFK during his presidency: it authorized no combat troops for South Vietnam, and no ultimate guarantees to save Vietnam from Communism. In place of these two objectives that had been demanded by the interventionists, JFK approved a significant increase in American advisors and equipment.
John Newman has written:
There Kennedy drew the line. He would not go beyond it at any time during the rest of his Presidency. The main lesson of this climactic event is this: Kennedy turned down combat troops, not when the decision was clouded by ambiguities and contradictions in the reports from the battlefield, but when the battle was unequivocally desperate, when all concerned agreed that Vietnam’s fate hung in the balance, and when his principal advisors told him that vital U.S. interests in the region and the world were at stake.
President Kennedy had given (and would give) lip service to the domino theory, but he obviously did not believe it, deep down inside, or else he would have taken Eisenhower’s advice and intervened in Laos. During a November 15, 1961, NSC meeting, JFK is quoted from the meeting minutes at the LBJ Library as saying:
…he [the President] could make a rather strong case against intervening in an area 10,000 miles away, against 16,000 guerillas, with a native army of 200,000, where millions have been spent for years with no success.
President Kennedy’s instincts were correct, on two counts. First, he feared Vietnam was a sinkhole that could swallow up endless amounts of national treasure, and lives (as he had been warned by President de Gaulle of France, and the retired five-star General Douglas McArthur), with nothing to show for it except a damaged U.S. reputation. Second, he intuitively sensed what none of his national security advisors did: that ultimately, the American public and the Congress would not support a massive, open-ended ground war in Asia. History has shown that his reservations were quite prescient.
JFK Shakes Things Up in the Executive Branch with the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre”
Angry, frustrated, and profoundly dissatisfied with the national security advice he was receiving, President Kennedy took strong action on November 26 to “purge” (or rather, reshuffle) the hawks within the National Security Council and the State Department who had been most opposed to him on Laos and Vietnam policy.
At State, JFK did not feel he could politically afford to fire Dean Rusk, so he removed Under Secretary Chester Bowles to shake up the bureaucracy and get its attention. Bowles was replaced as Under Secretary of State by George Ball, who was eminently acceptable to Kennedy because he, too, opposed sending U.S. combat troops to Vietnam.
The State Department’s initiatives on Southeast Asia had been driven by U. Alexis Johnson, the Deputy Under Secretary for Political Affairs, when they should have been driven by Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs McConaughy. Kennedy therefore replaced McConaughy with the ancient but strong-willed Averill Harriman (the diplomat involved in attempting to secure a neutral settlement in Laos through negotiations in Geneva). U. Alexis Johnson was not to get his boss’s [George Ball’s] old seat when Ball was promoted; instead, he was to stay put and instead, the new Under Secretary for Political Affairs would be George McGhee, who like Ball, also opposed sending combat troops to Vietnam.
McGhee’s old job, Chairman of the State Department’s Policy Planning Council, was to be filled by Walt Rostow, the Vietnam interventionist hawk who Kennedy was summarily removing from the National Security Council.
The installment of the replacement for the fired Allen Dulles as CIA Director, Republican John McCone, was timed to coincide with the purge at State, and the brief ceremony was held two days later, on November 28, 1961. Newman wrote:
…the President’s remarks resonated throughout the CIA. He limited his remarks to just four sentences, and the last one was a clear warning: “We want to welcome you here and to say that you are now living on the bull’s-eye, and I welcome you to that spot.” The threatening way in which Kennedy likened the CIA to a big target could not have been lost on McCone — or the rest of the Agency for that matter.
One day earlier, on November 27 — and one day after the Thanksgiving Day Massacre — JFK had held a meeting at the White House in which he had demanded that one person step forward and take personal responsibility for carrying out his Vietnam policy. The person who stepped forward that day was Robert S. McNamara. (And he did faithfully execute President Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam, up until the day of JFK’s death. McNamara did not “flip” on Vietnam until he began working for Lyndon Baines Johnson.)
The meeting at which this occurred was ostensibly held to discuss the policy embodied in the new NSAM-111, promulgated just five days prior, on November 22, 1961. Kennedy had Maxwell Taylor assemble before him none of the newcomers appointed the day before who already supported his “no combat troops” policy for Vietnam, but rather, only the hold-overs who had been opposing him on Southeast Asia policy from the beginning of his administration. The reason soon became clear. [Those absent were McCone, Ball, and McGhee. Those present included Allen Dulles (on his last day as CIA Director), Maxwell Taylor, Walt Rostow, U. Alexis Johnson, McGeorge Bundy, William Bundy (his brother, from the Pentagon), Dean Rusk (a Vietnam interventionist), McNamara, Lemnitzer, and Edward G. Lansdale (the now-discredited Vietnam interventionist, who was about to assume a new role as operations officer for the sabotage and subversion campaign known as “Mongoose” against Fidel Castro’s Cuba).
In JFK and Vietnam, John Newman wrote that an angry President Kennedy
unloaded his frustration over the lack of support for his Vietnam policy. The rest of the meeting was short and electrifying. “When policy is decided on,” Kennedy declared, “people on the spot must support it or get out.” Coming after the “massacre” of the previous day, the effect of this comment could not have been lost on those present who still had jobs. The President was not finished; he ordered that there be “whole-hearted support” for his decisions, and demanded to know who, at the Defense Department, would personally be responsible for carrying out his Vietnam program…. McNamara, prepared, answered the question. “Myself and L,” he replied, the “L” referring to Lemnitzer. McNamara was just being kind to Lemnitzer, who would soon be replaced by Taylor as Chairman of the JCS…. McNamara was responding to a demand Kennedy put to his advisors for personal responsibility, a demand coupled with the explicit threat that anyone who did not support his policy should “get out” … at that moment the baton for Vietnam policy passed from Taylor to McNamara….
After the crucible of his first year in office, and tempered by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Laotian Crisis, the long-running Berlin Crisis, and a series of crises over the formulation of Vietnam policy, the young 35th President had come of age; there could no longer be any doubt about who was in charge of the executive branch or foreign policy.
Summary of 1961: A Very Stressful Year for the 35th President
President Kennedy refused to involve the United States in conventional warfare on six different occasions during 1961: once during the Bay of Pigs crisis, when he was pressured to bail out the failed exile invasion with U.S. air strikes and U.S. boots on the ground in Cuba; twice during the discussions about the grave situation in Laos — first in late March of 1961, and again during the late April-early May timeframe; and three more times, when he received separate and distinct recommendations to commit combat troops to South Vietnam (in May, October, and November of 1961).
He also successfully walked the nuclear tightrope over West Berlin, successfully defending both Western control of that half of the divided city, and Western access rights via the air and on the ground, through 110 miles of East German territory. He did so by making the American position eminently and unmistakably clear, while simultaneously not declaring a national emergency or mobilizing for war. It was a delicate balancing act, persuading a bullying Khrushchev that he was serious about Berlin, while not taking precipitate actions that would make a shooting war more likely; but JFK succeeded. In doing so he had passed the litmus test of whether or not he had the credibility to be considered “leader of the free world.”
He survived and grew as a chief executive in the nuclear age, in spite of receiving much bad advice (some simplistic and short-sighted, some ill thought-out, and some duplicitous) from his most intimate national security advisors. That he had to end the year with a purge of some of the more hawkish elements in the national security establishment is an indication of how isolated he had become after less than one year in office.
He now knew who his domestic opponents (and enemies) were within the military and foreign policy arena; his opponents had taken his measure and did not like what they saw, either. Most of those who had emerged at the top of the policy structure following World War II had learned the wrong lessons from that war — the Cold War hawks in the national security establishment viewed most complex international political problems in isolation, without consideration of the possible global repercussions for actions taken in any one particular theater of action; and the hawks saw most international political conflicts as susceptible to simplistic military solutions, to the use of brute force. This was a dangerous mind-set in a nuclear age in which the United States no longer had a nuclear monopoly. Following the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan at the end of WW II, these knee-jerk, simplistic thinkers put a disproportionate emphasis on purely military solutions, and saw only a bipolar world; harkening back to World War II, they tended to view the superpower competition in apocalyptic terms, as a battle between Good and Evil, and to view almost every international problem as one which offered only two choices, or outcomes: “victory” or “surrender.”
In short, President John F. Kennedy saw the world very differently from most of those within America’s national security establishment. His was a more nuanced, more flexible, less dogmatic, and more rational view of the world and our adversaries; whereas his opponents viewed his nuanced views, and his rational caution over the dangers of nuclear war through miscalculation, as weakness (and occasionally even as cowardice). These differences were to become even more accentuated in 1962 — when the Cold War competition over Cuba, the dangerous superpower imbalance in strategic nuclear weapons (in favor of the United States), and the resulting Soviet sense of inferiority and the imminent fear in the USSR of a “preemptive nuclear war” that might be launched by the United States, all brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction.
The next installment published will be for the year 1962.