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JFK’s War With the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated, Part 2


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1961: Laos and Berlin Dominate the Foreign Policy Stage Following the Bay of Pigs

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.

JFK continued:

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

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