1963: JFK’s Quest for Peace
I could easily write three separate articles about the third year of JFK’s Presidency, but I’ve decided to wrap up this series of essays with one final installment. The assumption here is that the reader has already read parts 1 through 6, and therefore understands the context of the events described in this final essay. I’ve taken the title of this final chapter about JFK’s ongoing war with his own national security establishment from a wonderful new book by Jeffrey D. Sachs released this year, titled: To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. Jeffrey Sachs, a world renowned professor of economics and advisor to the United Nations — perhaps America’s leading humanitarian intellectual — has written a beautiful, poetic book which places what JFK was trying to accomplish in the third year of his presidency in the proper perspective. Throughout 1963 President Kennedy was attempting to end the Cold War, and establish a sustainable peace with the Soviet Union; in striving for this goal, he was opposing the prevailing belief in the Pentagon, and among the civilian hawks in his own government, that confrontation with the Communist enemy was necessary, and that nuclear war with the USSR was inevitable. (He was also fighting the pessimism underlying the existing Cold War paradigm, the suffocating and dispiriting assumption that mankind was probably doomed.) As Sachs explained in the book’s preface:
Kennedy campaigned for peace on three fronts: with Khrushchev, both an adversary and a partner; with the U.S. allies, who were never simple and often divided on key issues; and with the U.S. political system, which was deeply entrenched in the Cold War and not easily moved toward peace. Kennedy’s peace campaign found its greatest eloquence during the summer of 1963, leaving us a legacy of words and deeds of historic proportion.
Sachs admitted that he had only come across the “Peace Speech,” the American University commencement address of June 10, 1963 — which JFK researchers have been writing about for decades — quite recently, in the middle of the previous decade. Sachs wrote that he believes it has previously been overshadowed by the Inaugural Address, and by the Civil Rights speech given the very next day, on June 11, 1963. But as Sachs has so eloquently written in his new book:
In reviewing the history and context of the Peace Speech, my esteem for it and for Kennedy has only grown. I have come to believe that Kennedy’s quest for peace is not only the greatest achievement of his Presidency, but also one of the greatest acts of world leadership in the modern era…. Words can move us to great deeds. In Kennedy’s case, the words inspired both Americans and Soviets to take the risk for peace by adopting a treaty on nuclear testing, which had proven elusive till then and which was opposed strenuously by hardliners on both sides. Kennedy’s words shaped a common understanding of what was possible for mutual benefit, helping to break the hammerlock of fear and loathing.
I recommend this book by Jeffrey Sachs to everyone reading these essays. I wrote extensively about the Peace Speech in chapter 16 of my own book, Inside the Assassination Records Review Board; and authors Jim Douglass and Peter Janney wrote about it extensively in their own recent works, JFK and the Unspeakable, and Mary’s Mosaic, respectively. So have many other JFK assassination researchers and JFK biographers. Today the speech has finally garnered the attention it deserved, but did not receive in the United States at the time it was given, by a skeptical, and even hostile, Cold War establishment.
This essay will review, in roughly chronological order, the many concrete actions President Kennedy took during 1963 during his “quest for peace,” and will examine the extent to which he bravely positioned himself against the traditional “wisdom” of the day, and the established Cold War patterns of thought within his own government. Jeffrey Sachs avoided talking directly about the assassination in his book, but the implications are obvious. JFK was actively upsetting the apple cart in 1963, by challenging the orthodox religion of America’s national security state. Disgusted by the poor advice he had received from the Pentagon from the day he took office through the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis; completely distrustful of the CIA; and wary of all of the “wise old men” in government who had counseled repeatedly in favor of war (in Cuba, in Laos, in Vietnam, and over Berlin) from the time he took office, President Kennedy knowingly and courageously became an agent of change throughout 1963, what Sachs calls his annus mirabilis. While Sachs chose to focus on Kennedy’s positive legacy — and properly so — my final essay in this series will focus on how upsetting JFK’s words and actions must have become to the national security establishment during the final year of his life. He was undoubtedly viewed by most of those around him in the Pentagon and the intelligence community as a dangerous change agent — a naïve leader who was irresponsibly attempting to change the status quo in the midst of our own Holy War against Communism — and as someone who had to be stopped, before he could get reelected and make his proposed changes to the world order permanent. The veto on his life that sprang from the national security establishment’s extreme dissatisfaction with how he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis can only have gained in momentum throughout 1963, as President Kennedy attempted (unsuccessfully) to exorcise his own government’s principal demon: obsession with invading Castro’s Cuba; signaled (and then ordered) America’s future withdrawal from Vietnam; proposed ending the Cold War; enacted the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; began to discuss disarmament in public speeches; once again (as in 1961) secretly rejected a proposed nuclear first-strike on the Soviet Union; publicly proposed ending the Space Race with the USSR and instead, suggested cooperating with the Soviet Union to achieve a joint, manned lunar landing; and initiated secret, back-door attempts to achieve a stunning rapprochement with Castro’s Cuba.
Operation Mongoose Is Disestablished, and JFK Forms an Ad Hoc Committee to Determine a New Policy Toward Cuba, in the Wake of the Missile Crisis
Historian Lawrence Freedman wrote in Kennedy’s Wars that Operation Mongoose had “ended in a shambles midway through the missile crisis.” The CIA’s covert operations representative on the task force, the mercurial William Harvey, had decided to send commando teams into Cuba via submarine during the missile crisis without first informing or receiving the permission of General Edward G. Lansdale (the operations officer for Mongoose) or Robert Kennedy. Freedman wrote that Mongoose was suspended on October 26, 1962 as the Cuban Missile Crisis neared the breaking point, and at the end of October, ExComm cancelled all “sabotage or militant operations during negotiations with the Soviets.” [Those negotiations continued through late November, until Khrushchev agreed to remove all of the IL-28 medium bombers from Cuba.] Freedman wrote that at the start of 1963, McGeorge Bundy (JFK’s national security advisor) declared: “….there is well nigh universal agreement that Mongoose is at a dead end.” Harvey’s relationship with Robert F. Kennedy was so bad that he was subsequently banished to the CIA station in Rome; and one can only imagine how General Lansdale felt about the end of Mongoose. Edward Lansdale had been offered the post of Ambassador to South Vietnam by JFK early in 1961, and had then had the offer withdrawn when Rusk strongly protested the move; now, Lansdale’s new sand box, Cuba, was effectively denied him with the disestablishment of Mongoose at the end of October 1962.
Early in 1963 President Kennedy formed another one of his ad hoc committees in an attempt to redefine American policy on Cuba by developing a true consensus. It was called the “ICCCA,” which stood for the Interdepartmental Coordinating Committee on Cuban Affairs. Chaired by Sterling Cottrell of the State Department, participating members included DOD, CIA, USIA, and the NSC. Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance acted on the committee as the Executive Agent for the Department of Defense, and he, in turn, was represented on the ICCCA by Army General Counsel Joseph Califano, who was a meticulous record keeper. An as-yet still classified U.S. Army treasure trove of documents referred to in 1997 by the National Archives as “the Califano papers” became known to the ARRB staff that year, and as head of the ARRB’s Military Records Team, I focused assiduously on the declassification of these ICCCA records. They provide us with an insider’s view of the different and competing viewpoints on Cuba within the U.S. government throughout 1963.
The basic position of the United States laid out by Cottrell in a January 14, 1963 memo was that the ultimate objective of the U.S. was still to overthrow the Castro regime; that we would use all feasible diplomatic, economic, psychological, and covert actions to do so; that the U.S. would still provide materiel and training support to Cuban exiles seeking Castro’s overthrow; but that “invasion by the U.S. should not be undertaken in the absence of aggression that threatens the peace and security of the Western Hemisphere….” [my emphasis] The no-invasion pledge made by JFK to help resolve the missile crisis would remain in effect providing no offensive weapons were reintroduced to Cuba; that was the clear message here. The annex of proposed actions against Cuba in Cottrell’s memo did not include premeditated invasion or unilateral military intervention.
Throughout the spring of 1963, however, the military and civilian hawks in the Pentagon began to insist, through memos circulated within the ICCCA, that the U.S. should still be prepared to plan for “contingencies” (per Paul Nitze) “in response to a revolt incited by the U.S., or in response to a contrived incident which will provide an opportunity to overthrow Castro.” Navy Captain Elmo Zumwalt wrote: “There must be a plan capable of getting us from where we are now to where we want to go, by gradually increasing pressures until the objective is achieved…. An invasion force should be kept in readiness for use, if required to save the resistance … if Castro initiated a suitable warlike act … pressures should be escalated to the maximum immediately rather than gradually.” [my emphasis]
Later that spring, on April 22nd, the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote; “…the United States should be prepared to support any spontaneous revolt in Cuba showing a reasonable promise of success,” and continued: “It might prove desirable, under some circumstances, to apply the full force and power of CINCLANT OPLANS 312 and 316.” These were the Cuban invasion contingency plans considered and partially activated during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In spite of the January 1963 guidance issued by Chairman Cottrell of State, the Pentagon’s dreams of invading Cuba just would not die. The JCS wrote in this April 22, 1963 policy statement that the U.S. should maintain the capability to reinstate the blockade against Cuba within 72 hours, and should maintain a capability to undertake a full-scale invasion of Cuba within 18 days. This document makes it clear that there was no consensus within the ICCCA, and that the U.S. military leadership still hungered for a full-scale invasion of Cuba.
Even worse, JFK’s most trusted general, Maxwell Taylor — the man he had installed to replace the troublesome Lyman Lemnitzer as JCS Chairman — believed that pretexts for invading Cuba should still be generated, even though JFK had rejected “Northwoods” back in March of 1962. On March 25, 1963 Taylor (acting now as Chairman of the JCS) wrote in instructions to subordinates at the Pentagon: “…it will always be extremely difficult to contrive a timed uprising in proper relation to U.S. preparations to exploit it.” Hence, “consideration should be given to the advantages of engineering an incident as a cause for invasion rather than trying to generate and coordinate action from the inside involving many Cubans of doubtful reliability.” He wrote that CINCLANT had forwarded a proposed concept for a “Cuban revolt well conceived, timed, executed, and supported overtly by U.S. military forces….” An internal Pentagon document sent back to Taylor on May 1, 1963, in response to his tasking, stated it was responding to “a request from the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, to provide comment and recommendation concerning the requirements for and the desirability of fomenting a revolt in Cuba, giving consideration to the advantage of engineering an incident as an alternate cause for invasion.” [my emphasis]
The shocking report sent to Maxwell Taylor on May 1, 1963 included the following verbatim points:
- The United States should intervene militarily in Cuba and could (a) engineer provocative incidents ostensibly perpetrated by the Castro regime, or (b) foment a revolt in Cuba. [my emphasis]
- The United States should:
-Initiate a coordinated program to create a pretext for overt U.S. military intervention in Cuba. [my emphasis]
-At a propitious time [note: after sabotage activity and the creation of a framework for guerilla activity], launch appropriate military action to remove the Castro Communist government. [my emphasis]
Appendix B to the May 1, 1963 document, addressed to the Secretary of the Army (in his capacity as DOD representative on the ICCCA), reads as follows:
The Joint Chiefs of Staff have considered the courses of action that might be taken by the United States to contrive a pretext for U.S. military intervention in Cuba. They are of the opinion that the discussion in the appendix hereto would be useful to you in your capacity as Executive Agent of the Department of Defense for policy toward Cuba.
Key statements from the “discussion” are reproduced verbatim below:
- It is unlikely that an effective spontaneous revolt will occur in the near future. [my emphasis]
- There appears to be little likelihood that the Castro regime will risk a direct provocation that could be used as a pretext for U.S. intervention. [my emphasis]
- Unless the United States intervenes militarily, the Castro government will become more firmly entrenched and its efforts and ability to spread international Communism will increase.
- The United States should intervene militarily in Cuba and could (a) engineer provocative incidents ostensibly perpetrated by the Castro regime to serve as the cause of invasion, or (b) foment a revolt in Cuba which would call for U.S. military intervention. [my emphasis]
Concurrent with all of this, CINCLANT’s contingency OPLAN (380-63) called for insertion into Cuba of unconventional warfare units about mid-January of 1964; accelerated operations by these forces about mid-June of 1964; and commencement of the full OPLAN 312 (air strikes) on July 26, 1964; followed by D-Day OPLAN 316 (invasion) on or about August 3, 1964. CINCLANT’s plan was for the invasion to culminate in Castro’s overthrow by U.S. forces, and the establishment of a Cuban government friendly to the United States (i.e., a puppet regime), by October 1, 1964. (All in time for the 1964 Presidential elections; perhaps the authors of the OPLAN thought this timing would make it more palatable to President Kennedy.)
I have three points to make here. First, President Kennedy would never have approved a sneak air attack on another nation’s independence day — and July 26 was Cuba’s independence day. Second, the final page of this massive CINCLANT OPLAN for invading Cuba indicates it was withdrawn from consideration on October 4, 1963. [The record seems to suggest that McNamara got wind of it, and probably expressed his disapproval.] My third thought is that if JFK had known that Maxwell Taylor was spinning plans to generate pretexts for invading Cuba within the Pentagon in the spring of 1963, it probably would have meant the end of Maxwell Taylor’s military career. His actions in this regard appear completely disloyal to President Kennedy’s stated no-invasion pledge following the Cuban Missile Crisis, and contrary to the instructions of the ICCCA Chairman, Sterling Cottrell.
After President Kennedy’s assassination, on December 30, 1963, DOD Executive Agent Cyrus Vance sent to Maxwell Taylor the ICCCA’s final work product, titled: “Contingency Plan for a Coup in Cuba.” It had been prepared jointly by State and Defense, in coordination with the CIA. It was a deeply conflicted document, which talked out of both sides of its mouth. It was official doubletalk.
Its basic policy considerations were:
- The U.S. does not contemplate either a premeditated full-scale invasion of Cuba (except in the case of Soviet intervention or the reintroduction of offensive weapons) or the contrivance of a provocation which could be used as a pretext for such action. [my emphasis]
- It is not U.S. policy to encourage unorganized and uncoordinated mass uprisings since these could be too easily crushed by indigenous Cuban military forces.
- Once a revolt begins, if Soviet forces become involved, the U.S. would immediately implement OPLANs 312 [air strike] and 316 [invasion]. [my emphasis]
The sequence of operations envisaged by the plan included:
- A “special team” was to be inserted into Cuba to foment a coup.
- U.S. forces would prepare to reestablish a blockade of Cuba, and would commence generating and positioning forces to implement OPLANs 312 and 316.
- A recommendation to intervene would be made to the President.
- When authorized by the President, the special team will direct the coup leaders to publicly proclaim a provisional government and openly request U.S. and OAS assistance. The President would then announce isolation of Cuba by air and sea blockade.
- The U.S. would complete positioning of forces to implement OPLANs 312 and 316.
- The U.S. would probably have to introduce conventional forces incrementally as required to sustain the uprising and should be prepared to and would implement portions or all of OPLANs 312 and 316, as required. [my emphasis]
My analysis: In spite of the sanctimonious statement at the beginning of the document, the State Department clearly had not won the argument, or carried the day, within the ICCCA. The intent was clear: the CIA would instigate the coup (if possible) and control its timing, and implementation, by inserting the “special team;” the new provisional government would overtly request U.S. assistance; and the U.S. would launch air strikes and an invasion. The Pentagon had won the argument. The obsession of the national security establishment with Cuba had continued unabated all throughout 1963, in spite of JFK’s no-invasion pledge, and in spite of the fact that he had installed an ally, Sterling Cottrell, as Chairman of the ICCCA.
Many assassination researchers, including myself, have suspected that JFK’s assassination (supposedly accomplished by a Castro-loving Marxist who was a former defector to the USSR) was designed as the ultimate “pretext” for a Cuban invasion. President Kennedy’s assassination failed to trigger the national outrage against Cuba necessary to justify such an invasion, but the architecture of the official cover story indicates that this was probably the intent of the American coup plotters. In the aftermath of their failure to provoke a Cuban invasion with JFK’s assassination, the hawks in government clearly hoped that this ICCCA document was the blueprint whereby the new President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, could be persuaded to support an invasion of Cuba. But JFK’s successor had already double-crossed them, by using widespread fear of nuclear war over Cuba as the excuse to strong-arm a rather blatant and crudely executed cover-up the JFK assassination. Furthermore, LBJ made it clear to the principal officers of the government in December of 1963 that the whole subject of Cuba was “radioactive” to him, and that regardless of any plans cooked up by the Pentagon and the CIA and blessed by the ICCCA, he had no interest in an invasion of Cuba. In compensation, Johnson would give the Pentagon and the CIA the proxy war with Communism they wanted in Vietnam. (More on this at the end of the Vietnam section of this essay.)
JFK’s Decision to Disengage from Vietnam Is Announced to the Pentagon and the CIA in May of 1963
Secretary of Defense McNamara chaired a series of nine SECDEF conferences on Vietnam between December of 1961 and November of 1963. During this period, the senior military leadership of the United States involved with Vietnam — JCS Chairman General Maxwell Taylor, Army Chief of Staff General Earle Wheeler, and Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, General Paul Harkins — engaged in a coordinated series of lies, misrepresenting the way the South Vietnamese war against the Viet Cong was going (exaggerating enemy death counts and South Vietnamese “successes”), and also misrepresenting the progress of the American advisory effort, in training and motivating the South Vietnamese to fight. In spite of the Pentagon’s repeated claims that the South Vietnamese were “winning” their civil war, the American military kept insisting on more and more U.S. advisors and more and more U.S. equipment. By March of 1963, this repetitive story of increasing success by the South Vietnamese was wearing pretty thin with President Kennedy, who had learned in 1961 during the Bay of Pigs, and the discussions over the fate of Laos, to be skeptical of the advice he received from his own military leadership. Historian John Newman documented this web of lies in his landmark book, JFK and Vietnam. The lies were felt necessary by the Pentagon in order to prevent President Kennedy — who had already said “no” to U.S. combat troops in November of 1961 with NSAM 111 — from terminating the advisory effort and pulling out of Vietnam altogether.
On April 1, 1962 U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith met with President Kennedy and questioned the importance of Vietnam in U.S. strategic thinking, and advised JFK to pursue a neutralist solution, as he was in Laos. At the President’s urging Galbraith met with McNamara and Averill Harriman and put his thoughts in writing on April 4, 1962. On April 6th, JFK discussed the memo with Averill Harriman (his negotiator on Laos) and Michael Forrestal (an NSC staff member and the son of former Secretary of Defense James Forrestal). According to Forrestal’s memo of the meeting, President Kennedy “wished us to be prepared to seize upon any favorable moment to reduce our commitment.” As Newman wrote, the JCS objected strenuously to this proposal in discussions with McNamara. On May 8, 1962 McNamara surprised General Harkins (Commander, MACV) at one of the SECDEF conferences by asking him when the South Vietnamese would be ready to take over the war effort. Jim Douglass wrote in JFK and the Unspeakable:
Following President Kennedy’s instructions, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara orders General Paul Harkins at a Saigon conference “to devise a plan for turning full responsibility [for the war in Vietnam] over to South Vietnam and reducing the size of our military command, and to submit this plan at the next conference.”
McNamara was loyally carrying out JFK’s wishes, and furthermore, was using the military’s own claims of battlefield success by the South Vietnamese as the justification to begin thinking about leaving.
Meanwhile, President Kennedy held discussions with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield late in 1962 and again in 1963 about Vietnam, in which Mansfield advised Kennedy to stop sending more U.S. troops and equipment there, and told JFK to withdraw from that country’s civil war. During a second discussion with Mansfield about Vietnam in the spring of 1963, presidential appointments secretary Kenneth O’Donnell heard President Kennedy tell Mansfield that he had reevaluated the U.S. policy in Vietnam and that he agreed with Mansfield on the need for a complete military withdrawal. O’Donnell quoted President Kennedy at this meeting in his memoir:
“But I can’t do it [completely withdraw] until 1965 — after I’m reelected,” Kennedy told Mansfield. Kennedy explained, and Mansfield agreed with him, that if he announced a withdrawal of American military personnel from Vietnam before the 1964 election, there would be a wild conservative outcry against returning him to the Presidency for a second term.
After Mansfield left the office, the President said to me, “In 1965, I’ll become one of the most unpopular Presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. But I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m reelected. So we had better make damn sure that I am reelected.”
Mansfield confirmed this version of events in interviews he conducted in 1975 and 1978.
Historian John Newman has expressed his opinion that in the autumn of 1962, both McNamara and Kennedy believed the reports of success coming out of Vietnam; he is also convinced, however, that by March of 1963, President Kennedy — privy to information on the progress of the South Vietnamese war effort in Vietnam from outside the chain-of-command — had figured out that the “success story” coming regularly out of Vietnam was a deception, and that the U.S. advisory effort was in reality a failure. President Kennedy, says Newman, decided to use the Pentagon’s fraudulent reports of battlefield success to justify the beginning of the withdrawal he was planning.
On April 18, 1963 Robert McNamara, in a meeting of the Vietnam working group, spoke quietly in Washington about withdrawing 1,000 troops from Vietnam by the end of the year.
The pivotal event in the Vietnam saga occurred at the Eighth SECDEF Conference on Vietnam held in Honolulu on May 6, 1963. John Newman wrote about this conference in his book, but only had a summary written by one of its attendees to evaluate what happened there. Fortunately, as a member of the ARRB’s military records team, I established a close working relationship with members of the Joint Staff Secretariat in the Pentagon in 1996, and they conducted a search for, and located, the full, official meeting minutes of this 8th SECDEF Conference on Vietnam, confirming in great detail everything that Newman thought had transpired at that meeting; those meeting minutes are now in the JFK Records Collection at the National Archives II building in College Park, Maryland. In short, McNamara reviewed the “Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam” prepared for him by General Harkins, and expressed his dissatisfaction: future plans for assistance were too expensive, and plans to disengage and phase out the U.S. advisors were too slow. McNamara ordered an acceleration of plans to eventually withdraw all U.S. forces, and “concrete plans” to withdraw 1,000 U.S. troops by the end of 1963. He used the fiction of battlefield success by the South Vietnamese, so laboriously fed to him and President Kennedy ever since early 1962, to justify his directives. The meeting minutes are 213 pages long, and are proof that JFK’s intent to disengage from Vietnam — hinted at in 1962 at a SECDEF conference, and within the corridors of power in Washington — were now delivered as an unambiguous order to MACV (General Harkins) by the Secretary of Defense. The most noteworthy elements in the minutes were the order to “draw up plans for the RVNAF [South Vietnamese armed forces] that will permit us to start an earlier withdrawal of U.S. personnel than proposed under the plan presented;” and the order to withdraw 1,000 U.S. troops by the end of 1963, “in one package.”
The order to withdraw 1,000 men from South Vietnam by the end of the year, and the timetable stating that all U.S. forces would be removed by the end of 1965, were codified and formalized by the then Top Secret NSAM 263, signed by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy on October 11, 1963. That NSAM was justified by, and was the approval for, a report submitted to the President by Robert McNamara and Maxwell Taylor following their return from a Vietnam trip on October 2, 1963 — a report that was actually reviewed, massaged, and rewritten for them in Washington while they were returning from their trip. The press reports issued by press secretary Pierre Salinger after their return announced the 1,000 man withdrawal by the end of the year, and the full withdrawal by 1965, as being conditional upon the continued “success” of the advisory effort. However, as John Newman has pointed out, there was nothing conditional about NSAM 263: it was an order that was to be carried out, and its execution was not conditional upon the battlefield success of the South Vietnamese armed forces. McNamara and JFK had begun discussing and telegraphing the likelihood of withdrawal in the Spring of 1962, and the Eighth SECDEF Conference of May 1963 was the crucial meeting where President Kennedy’s serious intent to withdraw was presented to the military by McNamara. NSAM 263, on October 11, 1963 was simply the formal confirmation, by the President and his National Security Advisor, of the orders relayed by Robert McNamara to the Pentagon in May of that year.
Newman wrote eloquently about the dangers inherent in JFK’s strategy. He was telling the Pentagon that since their effort was supposedly going so well in South Vietnam (turning the fiction of battlefield success back upon them), that we should be completely out by 1965; in this way he was hoping to avoid a backlash from the right. President Kennedy’s statements to the media and the public about Vietnam were somewhat contradictory in 1963, saying things that both the left and the right wanted to hear. For example, on September 2, 1963, in the first 30-minute evening news broadcast in the United States, JFK gave Walter Cronkite of CBS the following contradictory statements, saying on the one hand:
I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the [South Vietnamese] government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it….
And saying on the other hand, in the same interview:
But in the final analysis it’s the people and the government themselves that have to win or lose this struggle. All we can do is help, and we’re making it very clear. But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake, that would be a great mistake.
Disingenuous? Yes. But necessary politically to prevent another “Joe McCarthy red scare” that would prevent JFK from being reelected.
On September 9, 1963 JFK was asked by anchorman David Brinkley of NBC whether he doubted the domino theory, and specifically, “That if Vietnam falls, that the rest of Southeast Asia will go with it?” President Kennedy responded:
No, I believe it. I believe it…What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say because they don’t like the government in Saigon, that we should withdraw. That only makes it easier for the Communists. I think we should stay. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw.
Clearly Kennedy did not believe in the domino theory, or he would not have been talking about withdrawal in private, to his closest advisors, since the spring of 1962. This is another clear example of President Kennedy saying the opposite of what he truly believed about Vietnam, to avoid a backlash that would ruin his reelection. This was a subterfuge on his part — in retrospect, a rather shocking and blatant one — to mollify and reassure the right in America, and to buy time until he could get reelected in 1964 and do what he knew had to be done — withdraw from Vietnam. His actions in issuing NSAM 263 on October 11th belied this answer to Brinkley, and the second portion of the earlier answer to Cronkite. By making NSAM 263 Top Secret, and by ordering its contents withheld from President Diem in South Vietnam, JFK was disguising his true intentions — namely, to withdraw from Vietnam, come hell or high water.
On September 12, 1963 at a press conference, JFK said, in part:
In some ways I think the Vietnamese people and ourselves agree: we want the war to be won, the Communists to be contained, and the Americans to go home. That is our policy.
On October 31, 1963 — one day before the coup against Diem — JFK said this at a press conference:
Well, as you know, when Secretary McNamara and General Taylor came back, they announced we would expect to withdraw a thousand men from South Vietnam before the end of the year and there has been some reference to that by General Harkins. If we were able to do that, that would be our schedule. [my emphasis]
My analysis: even though President Kennedy had orally approved the 1,000 man withdrawal on October 5th, and NSAM 263 ordering implementation of the withdrawal had been issued on October 11th, he did not feel it was politically safe to acknowledge that he had already agreed to this timetable. He was concerned to make it appear that U.S. withdrawals were linked either to success on the battlefield by the South Vietnamese against the Viet Cong, or to the success of the U.S. advisory effort.
After the violent overthrow of President Diem and his brother on November 1, 1963, in a military coup backed by the CIA and U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, JFK was no longer talking about winning the war — he was only talking about withdrawal:
Now, that is our object, to bring Americans home, permit the South Vietnamese to maintain themselves as a free and independent country, and permit democratic forces within the country to operate…. [my emphasis]
JFK acknowledged himself that the violent and unexpected murders of Diem and his hated brother Nhu, in the November 1st American-backed coup, made the situation in South Vietnam more difficult for the U.S., and imposed upon us greater responsibility for South Vietnam. But there is no indication that he intended to reverse his formalized order to withdraw by the end of 1965. JFK’s primary concern was clearly getting through the 1964 election without Vietnam becoming a powderkeg issue. All public statements were simply political theater, a balancing act with JFK on a tightrope between the left and the right. His intent to withdraw had been quietly signaled within the government in 1962; had been orally ordered by McNamara in May of 1963; and had been codified and formalized by NSAM 263 in October of 1963.
The most important issue here is not the “what if” so often posed by historians and journalists about whether JFK would really have withdrawn from Vietnam after his reelection; that is the wrong question for the purpose of this essay. What matters, in relation to his assassination, is that everyone in the know, within the national security establishment in Washington D.C., was absolutely certain he was going to withdraw from South Vietnam — and they all knew this from May of 1963, and the 8th SECDEF Conference, until the time of his death.
The new President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, made his intentions clear to aide Bill Moyers after meeting with Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, and Henry Cabot Lodge on November 24, 1963, two days after JFK’s assassination. According to three respected journalists — Tom Wicker, Stanley Karnow, and David Halberstam — LBJ told his VIP audience that day: “I’m not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.”
In an article LBJ aide Bill Moyers authored himself called “Flashbacks,” in the February 10, 1975 edition of Newsweek, Moyers quoted LBJ as making the following statements immediately after his meeting with the power structure on November 24th:
…they’ll think with Kennedy dead we’ve lost heart…they’ll think we’re yellow and we don’t mean what we say…The fellas in the Kremlin. They’ll be taking the measure of us. They’ll be wondering just how far they can go…I’m going to give the fellas out there the money they want. This crowd today says a hundred or so million will make the difference. I told them they got it — more if they need it. I told them I’m not going to let Vietnam go the way of China….
According to Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam:
At a White House reception on Christmas Eve 1963 … he [LBJ] told the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Just get me elected, and then you can have your war.”
History shows that while JFK was disguising his true intent to withdraw from South Vietnam by pretending to believe in the domino theory and by publicly opposing a precipitate withdrawal, Lyndon Johnson — the new President — painted himself as the peace candidate in 1964 and successfully tarred Barry Goldwater, his opponent in the 1964 election, as a warmonger — even though LBJ’s firm intention, from the weekend of the assassination, was to escalate in Vietnam. The irony of this situation is stunning, and profoundly depressing.
The actions and decisions of individual leaders can, and often do, make a difference. The tale above about Vietnam is a cautionary one for those who disparage, and tend to deny, the influence of great men on the course of history. After all, isn’t this why we have elections? History is more than some abstract amalgam of economic and political forces forcing mankind down irrevocable paths of action. We have elections, and care about them so much at the time, because we recognize that key decisions, made by national leaders on important issues, can powerfully affect the course of history.
As we wrap up discussion of Vietnam in these essays, consider this sobering Post Script: On October 2, 1963 the Washington Daily News published an article by journalist Richard Starnes titled: “Arrogant CIA,” in which Starnes wrote about the CIA’s “unrestrained thirst for power” in Vietnam, citing a “very high American official” in Saigon who “likened the CIA’s growth to a malignancy, and added he was not sure even the White House could control it any longer.” Historian James Douglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable, writes:
Starnes had also cited an unnamed U.S. official who spoke of a possible CIA coup in Washington. The official said prophetically, the month before John Kennedy’s assassination, “If the United States ever experiences a Seven Days in May, it will come from the CIA, and not the Pentagon.” [my emphasis]
The very next day, October 3, 1963, columnist Arthur Krock of the New York Times quoted extensively from Starnes’ article in his own piece on the opinion page, titled: “In the Nation: The Intra-Administration War in Vietnam.”
Jim Douglass also writes that on December 22, 1963, one month to the day after JFK’s assassination, former President Harry Truman published a powerful statement in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that was a clear warning, as well as an indictment:
I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency — CIA…. For some time I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas. We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.
Six months later Truman restated his bold critique of the CIA, in a written response to the editor of Look magazine, who had sent Truman the latest issue with a piece on the CIA:
Thank you for the copy of Look with the article on the Central Intelligence Agency. It is, I regret to say, not true to the facts in many respects. The CIA was set up by me for the sole purpose of getting all the available information to the President. It was not intended to operate as an international agency engaged in strange activities.
I have always felt it was inappropriate, and too simplistic, to refer to the assassination of President Kennedy as either a “CIA” plot, or a “Pentagon” coup. The record makes clear that the Pentagon and the Agency were of a like mind when it came to their feelings about what Vietnam policy should be (U.S. combat troops), and what our Cuba policy should be (a U.S. invasion, which would overthrow the Castro regime). The information cited above — the newspaper stories from early October of 1963 — make it clear that the CIA was as much in favor of the United States taking over the Vietnam war, as the Pentagon was. With the exception of a few lone voices of dissent like Senators Mike Mansfield and Wayne Morse, Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, and George Ball of the State Department, President Kennedy was bucking virtually the entire establishment in Washington, with his no-combat-troops and withdrawal-by-the-end-of-1965 Vietnam policy. NSAM 263, issued on October 11, 1963, cannot have pleased either the hawkish Pentagon or the “malignant” CIA. And sadly, the record shows that the Robert McNamara who so faithfully implemented JFK’s restrained Vietnam policy from 1961 through 1963, flipped immediately and began advocating increased U.S. military activity in Vietnam — covert operations against the North — shortly after JFK’s death. Let us not forget that less than 100 Americans had been killed in the Vietnam conflict when JFK was assassinated. The overwhelming majority in the national security establishment — the Pentagon and the CIA — got what it wanted in Vietnam, the U.S. takeover of the war; and the American people, and the people of Southeast Asia, were the losers.
The “Peace Speech” at American University
In To Move the World, Jeffrey Sachs wrote that after two years of unending crises for President Kennedy in 1961 and 1962, Kennedy had learned quickly and grown as an executive and as a leader. He then summarized the importance of what he views as the seminal event in the first two years of JFK’s presidency:
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the catharsis and turning point. From then until the end of his life a year later, Kennedy led. He became a master of events, not their pawn. He envisaged a pathway to peace, and achieved it. He was a changed man, and he changed the world. In his final and commanding year, Kennedy implemented a strategy of peacemaking, deeply grounded in both concept and experience. He was both idealist and realist, visionary and arm-twisting politician.
Kennedy began to emphasize in the Peace Speech at American University (the commencement address delivered June 10, 1963 titled “The Strategy of Peace”) that there would be huge mutual benefits for both sides in the Cold War from cooperation; this challenged the traditional view that the Cold War was a zero-sum game. He also went out of his way in this address to emphasize the humanity of our Cold War adversary, instead of demonizing the USSR. On the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and just one decade after Senator Joe McCarthy’s red scare, this was a remarkable approach that required considerable courage and vision. (It was also an approach guaranteed to infuriate the entrenched Cold Warriors in his administration: the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Richard Helms and James Jesus Angleton at the CIA; General Edward Lansdale; J. Edgar Hoover; and Paul Nitze and Walt Rostow, just to name a few of JFK’s principal antagonists.)
After meeting with Nikita Khrushchev following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Saturday Review editor and peace activist Norman Cousins (JFK’s informal emissary among himself, Nikita Khrushchev, and Pope John Paul XXXIII) encouraged Kennedy to take a “breathtaking new approach toward the Russian people, calling for an end to the Cold War and a fresh start in American-Russian relationships.” The principal topic of discussion between Kennedy and Khrushchev in their private “pen pal” correspondence following the missile crisis was the mutual desire to finally consummate a nuclear test ban treaty between the U.S. and the USSR. As Sachs has expressed it, recognizing “that there was humanity, decency, and valor on both sides of the Cold War divide” was not only something Kennedy believed, but getting the American people to acknowledge this would help to make a nuclear test ban treaty possible (that is, would make its ratification in the Senate possible), and at the same time would undoubtedly materially improve relations, and reduce tensions, between the two superpowers. JFK’s receipt of Pope John XXIII’s April 11, 1963 Papal Encyclical, “Peace on Earth,” about eight weeks before the Pope’s death, likely had an influence on the American University address as well. JFK would approach the concept of peace as a moral imperative, and as a basic human right.
Sachs writes that the speech was prepared by a very tight circle, and that the draft was closely controlled, “lest a more skeptical administration member try to derail it or water it down.” JFK’s principal speechwriter and intellectual alter-ego, Ted Sorensen, worked on the draft with McGeorge Bundy, Karl Kaysen, and William Foster. Rusk, McNamara, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn Thompson saw it with less than a week to go. JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor and AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg were shown only the sections proposing a nuclear test ban treaty with only a few days to go. Sachs writes that Maxwell Taylor told Karl Kaysen, after he saw part of the draft, that it would not be a good idea to show the draft to the other Joint Chiefs, because their comments [i.e., strong opposition] would be predictable and no good purpose would be served by doing so. John F. Kennedy was about to deliver a hammer-blow to the Cold War paradigm, and was doing all he could to avoid telegraphing those intentions to his many opponents within the U.S. government power structure.
The two authors who have written most powerfully about the Peace Speech are Jeffrey Sachs (in To Move the World) and Jim Douglass (in JFK and the Unspeakable). Each historian and author who writes about this, the most significant of Kennedy’s speeches, has his favorite passages. Here are some of mine:
I have … chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived — yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace. What kind of a peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.… I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women…. [my emphasis]
Most Americans probably did not realize it at the time, but JFK was responding directly to a speech made by his nemesis, the very embodiment of the apocalyptic Cold War mindset, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay. According to author Dino Brugioni in Eyeball to Eyeball, LeMay loved to discuss how Roman strength had produced Pax Romana; how the British, through their naval and military strength, had achieved Pax Britannica; and with stunning hubris, how “his bombers” had achieved “Pax Atomica.” Brugioni related that once, during a lecture, LeMay actually resorted to the term “Pax Americana.” Based on this information, it is obvious that Kennedy was responding directly to LeMay in the opening of the most important speech of his career. Curtis LeMay can hardly have failed to notice. At this point — JFK could barely stand to be in the same room with LeMay and almost had “a kind of fit” (according to historian Richard Reeves) anytime someone mentioned LeMay’s name — Kennedy and LeMay remind me of two powerful WW II battleships, exchanging broadsides at long range. (The analogy may be apt, for in May 1941 the big, bad Bismarck got in a lucky shot and blew up the Hood — the world’s most elegant and beloved warship — at long range, sinking the pride of the British Fleet, in a stunning blow that emotionally crippled the British people.)
President Kennedy continued:
I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all of the Allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn….
I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men…. Let us reexamine our attitude our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable — that mankind is doomed — that we are gripped by forces beyond our control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made — therefore, they can be resolved by man. And man can be as big as he wants…Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable.…
Let us reexamine our attitudes toward the Soviet Union…. No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue…. we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements — in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and acts of courage.
Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least twenty million lost their lives…. A third of the nation’s territory, including two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland — a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.
Today, should war ever break out again — no matter how — our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first twenty-four hours….
In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race…And if we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal. [my emphasis]
The words of this speech still stir me whenever I read them, or listen to them. The difference in tone between this speech, and the McCarthy/HUAC “witch hunt” era of just one decade earlier, or for that matter, even with the tensions during the recent Cuban Missile Crisis the previous October, are stunning. Khrushchev was stunned too; he declared it the greatest American speech since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, and the Soviet government stopped jamming the Voice of America broadcasts to allow the Peace Speech to be played in full on the air. The Soviet government also printed the entire text, uncensored, in both Pravda and Izvestia.
After exhorting Americans to “reexamine our attitude toward the Cold War,” JFK went on to announce that the United States and Great Britain were sending negotiators to Moscow to make a serious attempt to consummate a nuclear test ban treaty with the USSR. This had been an elusive goal since the late 1950s, because both sides were afraid that the other side would engage in espionage during the enforcement phase, and would also cheat. President Kennedy, in his “pen pal” correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev since the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, had been exploring ways to make a test ban treaty achievable, and they both sensed that a test ban treaty was now possible — and furthermore, that there was a limited window of opportunity, which had to be taken advantage of during this temporary thaw in U.S.-USSR relations. JFK would remain deeply involved, at a personal level, with all details of the negotiations in Moscow throughout June and July of 1963.
The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union initialed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Moscow on July 25, 1963. (Agreement on stopping underground testing was not included in the agreement, because the two nations could not agree on the on-site inspection provisions inside each other’s countries.) But henceforth, nuclear test explosions by all signatories to the treaty would be banned in the ocean, in the atmosphere (including on the surface, or above ground), and in outer space. It was a remarkable achievement.
On July 26, 1963, President Kennedy made a nationally televised address about the agreement reached the previous day. Some of the key language is excerpted below:
I speak to you tonight in a spirit of hope. Eighteen years ago the advent of nuclear weapons changed the course of the world as well as the war. Since that time, all mankind has been struggling to escape from the darkening prospect of mass destruction on earth. In an age when both sides have come to possess enough nuclear power to destroy the human race several times over, the world of Communism and the world of free choice have been caught up in a vicious cycle of conflicting ideology and interest. Each increase of tension has produced an increase of arms; each increase of arms has produced an increase of tension….
Yesterday, a shaft of light cut into the darkness. Negotiations were concluded in Moscow on a treaty to ban all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. For the first time, an agreement has been reached on bringing the forces of nuclear destruction under international control…the treaty initialed yesterday … is a limited treaty which permits continued underground testing and prohibits only those tests that we ourselves can police…. It will prohibit … the atmospheric tests which have so alarmed mankind; and it offers the world a welcome sign of hope … but the achievement of this goal is not a victory of one side — it is a victory for mankind…. This treaty is not the millennium … but it is an important first step — a step toward peace — a step toward reason — a step away from war.
President Kennedy then spoke of four broad areas of benefit from the treaty: (1) it would reduce world tension and make possible broader areas of agreement; (2) it would be a major step toward freeing the world from the fears and dangers of radioactive fallout; (3) it could be a step toward preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to nations that did not yet have them; and (4) it could limit the nuclear arms race in ways which would strengthen our security far more than the continuation of unrestricted testing. Perhaps the most memorable quote from the speech is the harrowing passage below:
A full-scale nuclear exchange, lasting less than sixty minutes, with the weapons now in existence, could wipe out more than 300 million Americans, Europeans, and Russians, as well as untold numbers elsewhere. And the survivors, as Chairman Khrushchev warned the Communist Chinese, “the survivors would envy the dead.” For they would inherit a world so devastated by explosions and poison and fire that today we cannot even conceive of its horrors. So let us try to turn the world away from war. Let us make the most of this opportunity, and every opportunity, to reduce tension, to slow down the perilous nuclear arms race, and to check the world’s slide toward final annihilation.
In the event someone didn’t quite “get it,” JFK added a short time later:
If only one thermonuclear bomb were to be dropped on any American, Russian, or any other city, whether it was launched by accident or design, by a madman or by an enemy … that one bomb could release more destructive power on the inhabitants of that one helpless city than all the bombs dropped in the Second World War.
Both Jeffrey Sachs and Jim Douglass have written extensively about how JFK’s full-court press, in both the private and public sectors, sold the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to the American people, and through the American people, to the U.S. Senate, which had to ratify the treaty, in order for it to become binding on the United States. President Kennedy was determined to avoid Woodrow Wilson’s mistake with the League of Nations, wherein he failed to achieve ratification of U.S. participation in the Senate, after the treaty had been signed in Paris.
Norman Cousins launched a public relations campaign across the nation supporting the treaty and created a citizen’s lobbying group that pushed for its ratification in the Senate. President Kennedy, a former Senator, was very sensitive to the Senate’s mores, and he assiduously courted the Senate in every way possible.
The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was formally signed by Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union on August 5th. JFK formally submitted the treaty for the Senate’s advice and consent on August 8th. He ensured that the treaty was considered first by the favorably disposed Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Chaired by Senator William Fulbright), before hearings were held by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which was antagonistic toward the treaty. The Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of the treaty, 16 to 1. With much less consequence, the Armed Services Committee voted 6 to 1 against it, for by this time Fulbright’s committee had taken the decisive action, and the public was soundly behind the treaty. On September 9th the treaty moved to the Senate floor for debate. President Kennedy delivered a detailed letter of assurances to each member of the Senate on September 10th, and had Minority Leader Everett Dirksen present the letter to the full Senate. This tactic bought Dirksen’s approval, and a reversal of his original position. JFK had also obtained former President Eisenhower’s public support; Eisenhower had attempted to achieve the same goal during his administration, but had not been successful. Eisenhower’s public statement seemed genuine and enthusiastic in its support.
President Kennedy worked around the clock to build public support, including meeting personally with leading newspaper editors and public interest groups. The efforts paid off. As Jeffrey Sachs writes in his book:
A Harris poll soon after Kennedy’s July 26 speech gave 53 percent “unqualified approval” of the treaty, 29 percent “qualified approval,” and 17 percent opposed. By September, the unqualified approval rating had risen to 81 percent. A Gallup poll showed 63 percent approval, 17 percent disapproval, and twenty percent without an opinion.
The Joint Chiefs as individuals hated the treaty. JFK wisely had Robert McNamara, and his deputy Roswell Gilpatric, spend many days convincing the reluctant service chiefs that the test ban treaty would freeze our nuclear superiority in place; after bludgeoning them into submission, only JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor was then allowed to speak before Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee. General Curtis LeMay told Senator Goldwater when he testified before the Armed Services Committee that he might have opposed it if he had been consulted beforehand, but did not do so publicly once it was announced that the treaty had been initialed on July 25th by the three negotiating governments. By this time, no one cared what Curtis LeMay had to say. Both the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” nuclear physicist and primma donna Edward Teller, and former head of the AEC, Lewis Strauss, testified against the treaty in the Senate; but JFK ensured that the head of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Norris Bradbury, countered with a powerful rebuttal. These two men — Teller and Strauss — had destroyed Robert Oppenheimer’s reputation in 1954, and represented the views of the extreme right in America; but their fearmongering and pessimism did not prevail, for President Kennedy had changed the climate in America from one of fear to one of hope.
The final Senate vote came on September 24th, and the vote was 80 to 19 in favor of the treaty. The instruments of ratification were signed by President Kennedy on October 7th.
JFK Again Rejects the Concept of a Nuclear First Strike on the Soviet Union
Jim Douglass writes in JFK and the Unspeakable that on November 20, 1962 — in the immediate wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis — the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a memorandum to Secretary of Defense McNamara which pushed for a buildup of U.S. nuclear strategic forces to a first-strike capability, and which boldly stated: “The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that a first-strike capability is both feasible and desirable…”. McNamara subsequently wrote to President Kennedy, saying:
It has become clear to me that the Air Force proposals, both for the RS-70 [bomber] and for the rest of their strategic retaliatory forces, are based on the objective of achieving a first-strike capability.
McNamara then wrote that a first-strike capability “should be rejected as a U.S. policy objective,” and recommended that the U.S. should not augment its forces to support that objective. [We hardly needed to at that time; in total numbers our nuclear warheads outnumbered the USSR’s by 17:1 at the time of the missile crisis, and our superiority in numbers of long-range bombers and ICBMs was equally formidable. So what McNamara was really objecting to was the thought process which sought to legitimize that kind of dangerous, genocidal thinking.]
Jim Douglass also wrote in some detail about another nuclear war briefing given to President Kennedy on September 12, 1963 at an NSC meeting. The “Net Evaluation Subcommittee Report” presented to JFK at this meeting has not been found, but one of the attendees, from the State Department, wrote down minutes which have survived. This time, Douglass reports, instead of walking out of the meeting in disgust, as he did in 1961, President Kennedy kept his cool and debated with the presenter.
This particular meeting was discussing a 1968 scenario in which the U.S. might launch a nuclear first-strike against the USSR. The estimated Soviet casualties were said to be at least 140 million people. JFK asked if such a first-strike by the U.S. would result in unacceptable casualties in the United States, and the briefer said that it would. The briefer (Air Force General Leon Johnson) then said that if we had more ICBMs, and more accurate ICBMs, we could catch more of the Soviet missiles before they were launched, and thus reduce the level of retaliatory damage to the United States. JFK challenged this overkill philosophy, with the understanding that the briefer was attempting to justify increasing our strategic forces to a full-fledged first-strike capability, something McNamara had advised against in November of 1962, ten months previously.
McNamara defended President Kennedy’s position, pointing out that no such attack by the U.S. could be carried out without inviting unacceptable American fatalities, approximately 30 million dead. President Kennedy, according to the meeting notes, stated:
Preemption is not possible for us. This is a valuable conclusion growing out of an excellent report. This argues in favor of a conventional force [rather than nuclear weapons].
It is apparent from the report of this briefing that the hardliners in the Pentagon had learned nothing from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that they in fact regretted that the U.S. had not used that crisis as a pretext for destroying the USSR once and for all with a nuclear first-strike.
JFK asked during the meeting, “What about the case of preempting today with the Soviets in a low state of alert?” The briefer did not venture a reply, but McNamara stated, “In the studies I have had done for me, I have not found a situation in which a preempt during a low-alert condition would be advantageous.” So what prompted this question? JFK may have recalled from his 1961 NSC meeting on the same subject that the problem studied more than two years previously had been “a surprise attack [by the United States on the Soviet Union] in late 1963, preceded by a period of heightened tensions.” In view of what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963 — “in late 1963” — the problem studied back in 1961 seems particularly disturbing today. Had some of the coup plotters secretly hoped for much more following the assassination than a pretext for simply invading Cuba? Were some of them hoping for, and welcoming, the chance to launch a preemptive war on the USSR during the anticipated period of heightened tensions following the President’s assassination by a “kill-crazy Communist?” This chilling scenario seems like the ultimate apocalyptic fantasy for people like Curtis LeMay, Thomas Power, and Paul Nitze.
President Kennedy Proposes Abandoning the Race to the Moon, and Going There Together with the Soviet Union
President Kennedy, as we all know today, in response to lagging behind in the early space race with the USSR, and in the wake of the national embarrassment following the Bay of Pigs, proposed on May 25, 1961 — in a speech to a joint session of Congress on urgent national needs — that the United States place a man on the moon, and return him safely to the earth, by the end of the decade. The challenge was enthusiastically accepted by the Congress and the American people. The unstated goal of the Apollo program was something that everyone in the world nevertheless understood: beating the Russians to the moon, in a demonstration of American technological superiority that would have powerful Cold War reverberations, and which, if successful, would grant the U.S bragging rights in the global Cold War competition for generations to come. The goal of the moon had specifically been chosen because it seemed difficult enough to accomplish, that the Soviet Union would almost certainly lose that competition.
John F. Kennedy had subsequently accrued great popularity in the U.S. through his association with the Mercury astronauts and their flights, and had shown true managerial diligence, and paid close attention, during the many briefings he had received from NASA about its fledgling moon-landing program. He was deeply engaged with this most visible manifestation of “the new frontier,” and had delivered a truly stirring address about the Apollo program at the Rice University football stadium in Houston on September 12, 1962. It was therefore a great surprise to everyone, when one year later, on September 20, 1963, in his second speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in a powerful address called “The Quest for Peace,” President Kennedy — after eloquently echoing the themes in his June 10th American University commencement address — made a pragmatic plea for peaceful cooperation with the Soviet Union in the arena of space exploration. It was stunning in its implications, for it was nothing less than a call for an end to the space race:
Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity — in the field of space — there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon. Space offers no problem of sovereignty; by resolution of this Assembly, the members of the United Nations have forsworn any claims to territorial rights in outer space or on celestial bodies, and declared that international law and the United Nations Charter will apply. Why, therefore should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries — indeed of all the world — cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries? [my emphasis]
These were striking words, coming just three month after the Peace Speech at American University, and only two months after JFK’s national televised address hailing the agreement with the USSR on the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This bold and unexpected move by Kennedy signaled perhaps as much as anything else he had done, his personal transformation from someone thinking primarily as a Cold Warrior in early 1961, to someone with a global, planetary perspective in 1963, a perspective that trumped nationalism and the parochial concerns of nation states.
Khrushchev and his own hard-liners were initially suspicious of this offer — suspecting an American desire to steal secrets from the USSR in the one technological area where they kidded themselves that they were ahead of the United States — and did not respond to the offer. Khrushchev’s son Sergei, now an American citizen and a scholar at Brown university, has said that his father was about to finally accept the offer of cooperation in a joint lunar landing program, when Kennedy was assassinated. It was then too late, he says.
But even in the absence of a Soviet response to his United Nations offer, President Kennedy showed he meant business, and was NOT engaging in a mere propaganda ploy at the UN, when he sent National Security Action Memorandum 271 (NSAM 271) to the head of NASA, Texan James Webb, on November 12, 1963: [all emphasis mine]
NATIONAL SECURITY ACTION MEMORANDUM NO. 271
The Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Subject: Cooperation with the USSR on Outer Space Matters
I would like you to assume personally the initiative and central responsibility within the Government for the development of a program of substantive cooperation with the Soviet Union in the field of outer space, including the development of specific technical proposals. I assume you will work closely with the Department of State and other agencies as appropriate.
These proposals should be developed with a view to their possible discussion with the Soviet Union as a direct outcome of my September 20 proposal for broader cooperation between the United States and the USSR in outer space, including cooperation in lunar landing programs. All proposals or suggestions originating within the Government relating to this general subject will be referred to you for your consideration and evaluation.
…[third paragraph deleted for the sake of brevity] I would like an interim report on the progress of our planning by December 15.
/s/ John F. Kennedy
To say that this document is still stunning today would be an understatement. First, making this order a national security action memo indicates that JFK believed détente with the Soviet Union was a key national security issue. Second, he obviously believed that peaceful coexistence and cooperation with the Soviet Union was far more important than any domestic political points he could continue to accrue from the existing space race. Third, President Kennedy signed this document himself — not his National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy (who after all, had even signed NSAM 263 ordering the 1965 withdrawal from Vietnam). By signing the document himself, JFK was signaling to Webb and to other officers of the government that no matter how unpopular this decision might be within the aerospace industry, or within pork-laden Congressional districts, it was his decision, and he had made it.
It is supremely ironic, therefore, that JFK is now lionized for America’s moon landing triumph: we were not only the first to land humans there and return them safely to the earth (and did so six times!), but the Soviets failed in spite of a mighty effort to beat us to the moon, and no other nation has yet matched the feat. Yet the politician who now gets the credit for our Apollo triumph was the same man who was willing to forego all of the potential future glory of winning the race, in exchange for developing both practical, and symbolic, peaceful cooperation with our Cold War adversary and competitor. Can you imagine how symbolic it would have been, and how hopeful, for citizens of the world to have watched an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut step out on the moon together, and plant the flags of both of their countries in the lunar regolith? It would have been an off-scale geopolitical event, and may even have been the capstone on an early end to the Cold War. Surely, that is what JFK had in mind, in view of the Peace Speech, and the September 20, 1963 United Nations address.
This bold move cannot have made anyone in the national security establishment happy, however. The space program was widely viewed at the time as being one of the “front lines” in the Cold War, and as a key component of our propaganda war with the Soviets for the minds and hearts of the Third World. His actions in the space arena from September through November of 1963 would have served as just one more reminder, to his many critics and adversaries in government, of how much he had “turned” from the doctrinaire Cold Warrior they thought he would be, at the time of the inaugural address.
President Kennedy’s Secret Attempt at a Rapprochement with Castro’s Cuba
The entire Kennedy administration exhibited a kind of schizophrenia about the American Cold War obsession, Cuba, during the final year of his presidency. While Kennedy had made a no-invasion pledge to Khrushchev as part of the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he did not pledge to stop sabotage raids, covert action, or psychological warfare — and American-sponsored attempts to damage and even bring down the Castro regime continued throughout 1963, while Kennedy’s own ad hoc committee, the ICCCA, was attempting to hammer out a new Cuba policy that would be acceptable to all components of the government. The agreed-to official U.S. goal throughout 1963 remained the overthrow of the Castro regime. Because Castro was a charismatic leader, and about 150,000 Cubans opposed to him had already fled and emigrated to the United States, no one knew quite how to accomplish this without an invasion. Knowing that a Cuban civil war (the old Mongoose scenario) was unlikely, the ICCCA kept moving toward the hope that there would one day be a coup engineered inside Cuba, i.e., a quick change of leadership at the top (almost certainly engineered with U.S. assistance), and that the coup leaders would quickly ask for U.S. military assistance, justifying a U.S. invasion to “quell the chaos and restore order.” But it seems unlikely that JFK would ever have implemented such a scenario, having already rejected pretexts for an invasion in early 1962, and having opted not to invade Cuba in October of 1962 when he had the perfect justification to do so. I believe he allowed the bureaucrats on the ICCCA to keep planning for their “ultimate contingency” (invasion) simply because he liked to have options, but I do not see any compelling evidence in the historical record that a full-scale U.S. invasion (or even more unlikely, another Bay of Pigs) was seriously considered, or being prepared for, in 1963. Granted, there were even Cuban exile training camps in Nicaragua in the fall of 1963, but there is “no way” President Kennedy would ever have approved another exile invasion of Cuba; no exile invasion could possibly have succeeded on its own against Castro’s large army and militia, and the Soviet troops on the island, unless accompanied by a full-scale U.S. military invasion, the one option JFK had never warmed to, and the one option he had taken off the table.
Historian Lawrence Freedman, in Kennedy’s Wars, describes how the U.S.-sponsored exile raids on Cuba throughout 1963 were sporadic, desultory, largely ineffectual, and certainly poorly controlled (or not controlled at all) by the top levels of the administration. One CIA-sponsored violent anti-Castro exile group, Alpha 66, mounted two attacks on Soviet ships moored in Cuban waters in March, leading to strident Soviet protests. The U.S. government issued a statement deploring “hit and run attacks by splinter refugee groups.” Harassing Castro with sabotage and propaganda raids was apparently acceptable and desirable to President Kennedy, but any raids that interfered with the improving U.S.-Soviet relations were not. Twice in 1963, in the spring and again in September, the United States government, acting on President Kennedy’s orders, took actions on both the U.S. mainland, and at sea, to curtail violent Cuban exile group activity in response to complaints by the Soviet government.
And yet, the president’s own brother, Robert F. Kennedy, remained perhaps the most ardent champion of anti-Castro commando raids within his own administration. RFK was meeting with Cuban exiles and their U.S. intelligence community trainers, and championing such activity, throughout 1963 — and was still doing so in November, the month his brother was assassinated. JFK probably encouraged this kind of “noise,” or “feel good” covert activity up to a point, since he had a political albatross hanging around his neck. After protracted negotiations and the payment of a 53 million dollar ransom in pharmaceuticals and food to Cuba, the captured Bay of Pigs prisoners of war had finally been returned to the United States in December of 1962, and President Kennedy and the First Lady had greeted them in the Orange Bowl in Miami; in his welcoming speech President Kennedy had publicly promised them that the Castro government would be overthrown. “Noise” and some kind of covert activity, aided by the CIA — which was always reported in the newspapers — was helpful to JFK in the sense that it was politically preferable, in his mind, to doing nothing, providing it did not directly threaten Soviet assets or nationals on the island. In short, it was good politics, domestically — providing it did not interfere with the improving American-Soviet relations, which was Kennedy’s principal focus in 1963.
As Lawrence Freedman has written: “With the covert program so halfhearted, one option was to cut losses and reach some sort of accommodation with Castro.” Finally acknowledging that Castro was not going to be overthrown by any spontaneous, internal revolution or civil war or authentic coup — and prompted by hints from Castro that he was tired of being a Soviet satellite — President Kennedy apparently decided to solve the “Cuba problem” by separating Castro from the Soviet Union, rather than by continuing to place any serious hope in all of the quixotic American plans for his removal. So, at the same time that exile raids were continuing (and according to RFK, accelerating under the CIA’s Desmond Fitzgerald in August, September, and October), President Kennedy launched what he believed was an under-the-radar, secret attempt at rapprochement with the Castro government in the fall of 1963, using third party surrogates. The objective was this: if Castro would cut all ties with his Cold War sponsor, the USSR — and remove all Soviet troops from Cuba — all things could be possible with the United States, including a resumption of full diplomatic relations. The “carrot” was the possibility of ending hostilities and resuming normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and an end to the damaging U.S. economic embargo; the “stick” was the indefinite continuation of the Cuban exile raids, continued diplomatic isolation in the Western hemisphere, and the hated embargo.
This “dual track” foreign policy toward Cuba began in September, using U.S. Ambassador to Guinea William Attwood (an old friend of JFK’s from prep school at Choate) as the point man. Lawrence Freedman writes: “In 1959, while editor of Look magazine, he had interviewed Castro and had retained an interest in Cuba.” Attwood himself wrote in his memoir, The Twilight Struggle, that in September of 1963 he was a special advisor on African affairs at the United Nations. A secret alliance between Attwood, Lisa Howard of ABC News (who had interviewed Castro in April), and Carlos Lechuga, the Cuban Ambassador to the U.N., soon developed.
Dean Rusk was unenthusiastic about covert operations, and Averill Harriman had made his displeasure with current U.S. policy toward Cuba known to the NSC, since it aggravated Castro and made the U.S. appear like a bully. Both Harriman and Adlai Stevenson (our U.N. Ambassador) supported the idea of rapprochement with Castro. Attwood discussed the initiative with Lisa Howard and used her apartment to meet with the Cuban Ambassador to the U.N., Carlos Lechuga, on September 23rd. According to Peter Janney in his 2012 book Mary’s Mosaic:
Lechuga told Attwood that Kennedy’s American University address had impressed Castro, and he invited Attwood to Havana to begin a dialogue with the Cuban leader. The CIA, meanwhile, was taking it all in. The Attwood-Howard effort on Kennedy’s behalf became a target of CIA surveillance. According to David Talbot, “In one call to Havana, Howard was overheard excitedly describing Kennedy’s enthusiasm for rapprochement. The newswoman had no sense of the shock waves she was causing within the halls of Washington power.”
The two men met again on September 27th. Attwood’s proposals for improved relations were met with very favorably by Lechuga. Dr. Rene Vallejo, Castro’s friend and personal physician, relayed to Lisa Howard via the telephone that Castro could not leave the country, and was surrounded by hard-line Communists who were watching him closely, and had little room to maneuver; through Howard, Vallejo offered a plane to take Attwood from Mexico to Cuba for a meeting. U.S. government officials all agreed that Attwood could not go to Cuba — the U.S. could not appear to be taking the lead, or of being the supplicant in the matter. Instead, an eventual visit to the United States was approved for Vallejo, so that he could relay any messages from Castro directly to Attwood. On October 7, Adlai Stevenson conferred with Lechuga and set out the conditions for improving relations: cease being an agent of Soviet policy, no external subversion, and restore constitutional rights.
Attwood arranged for a French journalist, Jean Daniel, to meet with President Kennedy early in October, and to serve as an eventual conduit for Kennedy’s views to Castro, during his forthcoming visit to Cuba. Kennedy delivered the message to Daniel that he was sympathetic to the causes and the ideas behind the Cuban revolution, and stated that the real problem between Cuba and the United States was that Castro had become a Soviet agent in Latin America. In his book, Janney quotes Daniel as follows:
When I left the Oval Office of the White House, I had the impression that I was a messenger for peace. I was convinced that Kennedy wanted rapprochement, that he wanted me to come back and tell him that Castro wished the rapprochement too.
On November 18th, President Kennedy made a speech in Miami in which he tried to make Attwood’s job easier by saying:
Every nation is free to shape its own economic institutions in accordance with its own national needs.
JFK then stated that the only thing that divided Cuba from the United States diplomatically was:
…a small band of conspirators … in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics. This, and this alone, divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible.
After waiting three weeks in Havana for a meeting with Castro, it was suddenly granted on November 22nd, four days after this speech, on the eve of Daniel’s departure from Cuba. JFK’s messages were delivered by Daniel, and for his part, Castro appeared to believe Kennedy was a sincere realist. Freedman writes that according to Daniel, Castro told the French journalist:
Personally, I consider him responsible for everything, but I will say this: he has come to understand many things over the past few months; and then too, in the last analysis, I’m convinced that anyone else would be worse…. You can tell him that I’m willing to declare Goldwater my friend if that will guarantee Kennedy’s reelection.
Peter Janney writes:
On the very day of President Kennedy’s assassination, November 22nd, Daniel was meeting with Fidel Castro. “I was happy about the message I was delivering. These two men seemed ready to make peace. I am certain about this! Certain! Even after all these years.” It was during this meeting with Fidel Castro that both men first learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated. According to Daniel, after a long, shocked silence, Castro had said: “This is terrible. They are going to say we did it…This is the end of your mission.”
Lawrence Freedman writes that the initiative petered out soon after JFK’s assassination. According to Freedman:
The Attwood mission was taken seriously by Kennedy, and those in the know considered this to be an initiative of potential importance. [White House Aide] Gordon Chase, who had been following the mission for Bundy, observed immediately after the assassination that “President Kennedy could have accommodated with Castro and gotten away with it with a minimum of domestic heat.”
Freedman writes that the new President, LBJ, asked McGeorge Bundy “how we planned to dispose of Castro,” and spoke of the need to evolve “more aggressive policies.” In February of 1964, Castro sent a message to President Johnson through Lisa Howard; Lawrence Freedman writes that Castro delivered to LBJ the same message he would have delivered to President Kennedy:
He preferred a Democratic to a Republican President and would help even if this meant tolerating hostile words or actions against Cuba and no diplomatic movement until after November. He wished it to be known that he was confident in the strength of the Cuban revolution; nonetheless, the president should know that he wanted to sit down and “negotiate our differences.” In the right atmosphere all “areas of contention” could be settled. The “hostility between Cuba and the United States is both unnatural and unnecessary — and it can be eliminated.”
There is no record of any response. Johnson was already focusing almost exclusively on Vietnam.
But the point here is not so much what President Johnson thought in February of 1964 when Castro repeated Kennedy’s offer back to him — the point is, What did the hawks in the U.S. government think in September and October of 1963, when they became aware, through clandestine surveillance, of President Kennedy’s attempts at a secret rapprochement? Remember, this JFK initiative was happening at the same time the CIA was still trying to instigate a coup in Cuba, and still plotting to kill Castro. On November 22, 1963, the CIA delivered to Rolando Cubela, a Castro associate, a high-powered rifle and a “poison pen” with a lethal hypodermic needle installed inside it. Ask yourself this: what would the emotional reaction have been within the halls of CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, when covert action branch and counterintelligence branch officials learned of JFK’s secret initiative? I doubt that it would have been a very calm or understanding reaction, given the tenuous position of the Agency ever since the Bay of Pigs fiasco. In the twisted, doctrinaire minds of people like James Jesus Angleton and David Attlee Phillips, the words “traitor” and “Communist” were no doubt associated with the name of Kennedy that autumn.
Three Powerful Films Are Made in 1963: One of Them Embodies JFK’s Critical and Skeptical Attitudes Toward the Military Leadership in the Pentagon; and the Other Two Mirror His Overriding Concern with the Dangers of Nuclear War (Either by Miscalculation, or Design)
President Kennedy, who loved Director John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, encouraged him to make a film out of Seven Days in May, the national security bestseller about an attempted military coup in the United States, which was discussed in some detail in part 6 of this essay. During one weekend in 1963, JFK vacated the White House and went to the Kennedy family compound in Massachusetts, so that Frankenheimer and his crew could meticulously photograph the inside of the White House; this was done so that accurate interior sets could later be constructed on sound stages. (A riot scene was also filmed outside the White House that weekend.) The film Seven Days in May was a tight dramatization of the novel, scripted by the talented Rod Serling (perhaps the best writer of teleplays in America in the 1950s). It had an “A list” cast, including: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Edmund O’Brien. Frankenheimer admits on the DVD’s audio commentary that the character of the chief coup plotter in the film, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (played by Burt Lancaster), was modeled largely on Curtis LeMay, JFK’s nemesis at the Pentagon. The film was to have been released the week after JFK’s assassination, but because of the events in Dallas it was considered too disturbing, and its release was delayed until 1964. The message of the film was clearly that a military coup COULD happen in the United States, under certain conditions; in the film, those conditions were created by widespread dissatisfaction within the military leadership over the President’s foreign policy — namely, a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The parallels between the film and the events of 1963 are still chilling, even today. Both the message in the film, and its story line and acting, still stand up today.
Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a dark comedy about a mad USAF general (“Jack Ripper”) who intentionally sends a B-52 bomber wing against the USSR in order to trigger World War III, mirrored JFK’s concerns about nuclear war by miscalculation or madness. The USAF Chief of Staff in the film, played by George C. Scott, was modeled on Curtis LeMay; and the mad Air Force general, played by Sterling Hayden, was modeled after General Tommy Power, the Head of the Strategic Air Command (who had placed all of SAC at DEFCON-2 during the missile crisis, without presidential permission). This film was also scheduled for a 1963 release, and also had its release delayed until 1964 because of the Kennedy assassination. Perhaps because its serious message was hidden within dark comedy, it was more commercially successful than Seven Days in May. What was being portrayed in the film was the genocidal mentality that JFK was combatting in both the Peace Speech, and in his address following the initialing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty later that summer — the belief that nuclear war was inevitable, and winnable. The film successfully lampooned the right-wingers who believed nuclear war was inevitable and even desirable; and certainly showed that it was not winnable. According to Daniel Ellsberg, it also highlighted command-and-control weaknesses within America’s strategic nuclear arsenal, which made this kind of unauthorized first strike a real possibility in 1963.
The second nuclear war film made during 1963, and released for exhibition in 1964, was the deadly serious Fail-Safe, starring “A-list” actor Henry Fonda, and co-starring a talented cast that included Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Ed Binns, and Larry Hagman. The accidental nuclear attack launched on the Soviet Union by the United States in this film was triggered by an electrical failure — and a rigid, unbending command-and-control structure that prevented recall of an attack — not by madness, but its doomsday scenario was no less frightening. Curtis LeMay was so upset about the making of Fail-Safe that he ordered the Air Force buy up all available stock footage of Air Force strategic bombers, so that the film would not have any airplane shots to use. Director Sydney Lumet had to resort to “guerilla filmmaking” to get his airplane shots, shooting (without permission) a B-58 “Hustler” supersonic nuclear bomber taking off from just outside an Air Force base fence line.
Together, these three films reflect the fears and dark forces circulating just beneath the thin veneer of “normalcy” our society hid behind in 1963, and are instructive about the tensions of the time that existed between JFK and his military leadership. Had JFK not been assassinated, there can be little doubt that in one way or another, he would have lent his public support to all three of these films.
Conclusion — An Overview of What Happened in November of 1963
A consensus decision made by the hard-liners in the national security establishment cast a veto on President Kennedy’s life sometime late in 1962, or early in 1963. The proximate cause was undoubtedly his resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis by diplomacy, rather than by war. This was patently unacceptable to the majority opinion among those elites within the U.S. government who churned out the sausage of foreign and military policy; they remained obsessed with invading, and “taking back” Cuba. Other, major contributing factors were undoubtedly his Vietnam withdrawal decision, telegraphed in May of 1963; and the Peace Speech, in June, which proposed ending the Cold War itself, through a series of concrete steps such as a test ban treaty and future disarmament agreements.
Former Senator Gary Hart got it exactly right when he implied in his 1993 book, The Good Fight, that Kennedy was assassinated because he had become a dangerous change agent. Hart summarized: “….it was his success [as a reformer] that proved life threatening.”
Here are some excerpts from Gary Hart’s incisive overview of what happened in 1963:
The post-Bay of Pigs, post-Missile Crisis Kennedy…unlike the “bear any burden” Kennedy of the inaugural, showed distinct signs, principally in the widely noted American University speech, of understanding deeply and intuitively the need for a profoundly different approach to U.S.-Soviet and East-West relations in order to avoid nuclear war…Even the Democratic party — nominally, at least, the reform party — accepted John Kennedy as its leader reluctantly and only after having been dominated by him in the primary and convention season. There were other leaders, such as Stevenson and Humphrey, more liberal; some, such as Symington, more socially acceptable; others, such as Johnson, more politically established — but none threatened the status quo more than Kennedy.
Hart continued his disturbing analysis with unerring insight, as he discussed the devastating impact upon him of Kennedy’s assassination:
For this reformer, all hope, all thought of future activism, seemed futile and pointless. It was not, as Kennedy critics would later endlessly assert, a case of generational hero worship, of uncritical fascination with a magnetic personality at the cost of objectivity…for those seriously drawn to public service and social change, Kennedy’s death suggested something deeper and more sinister. It suggested the presence of ominous dark forces just beneath society’s veneer, forces that if goaded by the threat of institutional change, could rise up and strike down anything or anyone — including an increasingly popular President of the United States — who might threaten the status quo, traditional power structures, ancient political arrangements. The first Kennedy assassination, soon to be punctuated and underscored by more assassinations, had about it a dark, mystical quality. It seemed a warning against straying too near the permissible boundaries of social change. It suggested the presence of forces threatened by Kennedy’s potential, forces angered by his unpredictable energy. He seemed too independent of established power structures and too capable of rearranging networks and agreements carefully arbitrated over time by powerful interests.
Even mainstream historians now recognize that JFK’s foreign policy changed soon after his death, and no longer try to sell us the lie that nothing changed after the assassination, and that LBJ was continuing JFK’s policies in Vietnam and elsewhere. That falsehood has been exploded forever: LBJ was obsessed with war in Vietnam, not JFK — and all attempts at continuing détente with the USSR, and pursing an arms control agreement, and disarmament, died quickly, along with JFK. Some mainstream historians (like Robert Dallek) now even acknowledge JFK’s ongoing war with the national security state, but deny that this was connected in any way with his assassination, as if we are children who must be protected from some terrible truth. (Dallek has proven to be willfully blind about the great mass of assassination evidence proving a conspiracy, and a U.S. government cover-up.) These “guardians of our institutions” — the corporate mainstream media and mainstream historians — seem to feel it is their duty to maintain public support for the fiction of a lone assassin, as if insisting so stubbornly on what obviously cannot be true is somehow “protecting our institutions.” It is doing the opposite, of course. This stubborn, knowingly false insistence that there was no assassination conspiracy, and no cover-up by the U.S. government, flies in the face of the mass of all the evidence, and continues to act as a corrosive acid upon that most precious and fragile commodity in a democracy, the trust of the people in their own institutions and government.
JFK was successfully challenging the existing paradigm of international relations — the pessimism of the day that viewed confrontation and war with our Cold War adversaries as necessary, and nuclear war as inevitable; and he was directly challenging what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address. Regrettably, the orthodox establishment found this reformer so frightening, and so unacceptable, that it removed him from office by the only means available, since his reelection in 1964 seemed assured. The very fact that so many of his military and foreign policies changed after his death is confirmation that, at least in this one case, one individual leader’s importance in shaping the course of history mattered quite a bit.
A key document obtained by the ARRB as a result of its DOD “dragnet” for JFK assassination records was an Air Force logbook saved from oblivion — from the trash — by Air Force civil servant Chuck Holmes. The logbook (kept by the 1254th Air Transport Wing at Andrews AFB) records that the Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay, was actually in Canada, in Toronto, on the day JFK was assassinated. (His biographer has incorrectly stated that he was hunting in Michigan at the time. The Air Force logbook proves that is not true.) A special Air Force flight was sent to retrieve him and bring him back to the United States, and was diverted after it left Andrews AFB, enroute the Toronto destination, to a new pickup location called Wiarton (pronounced “wire-ton”) in Canada (misspelled in the log as “Wairton,” it had been a secret commando training center during World War II). During the flight back to the U.S., the log entries make it clear that LeMay refused an order from the Secretary of the Air Force, Eugene Zuckert, to proceed to Andrews AFB, where all of the senior officers of the government were assembling to meet Air Force One, the new president, and the body of President Kennedy upon arrival from Dallas. LeMay’s military VIP flight landed instead at National Airport (a civilian airport), adjacent to Washington D.C., at 5:12 PM. The same log, and even the heavily edited and censored Air Force One audiotapes, confirm that Air Force One landed at Andrews at 6:00 PM, and was “on the blocks” at 6:04 PM.
As I detailed in my five-volume book Inside the Assassination Records Review Board, President Kennedy’s body — delivered to the Bethesda Naval Hospital complex surreptitiously by helicopter, from Andrews AFB, as part of a covert operation — was driven up to the morgue loading dock at 6:35 PM that evening, twenty minutes prior to the arrival of the motorcade from Andrews AFB containing the empty bronze Dallas casket. Between 6:35 PM and 8:00 PM, prior to the start of the “official autopsy,” in a brazen act that constituted obstruction of justice, President Kennedy’s wounds were severely tampered with during officially sanctioned, clandestine post-mortem surgery; all evidence of frontal shots was either removed or crudely obliterated; and an intentionally misleading set of autopsy skull x-rays and photographs were then exposed, following this illicit post-mortem surgery. The damage shown in most of these skull x-rays and photographs is five times larger than the damage seen at Parkland hospital in Dallas, and is located in the top and right side of the skull, not the right rear of the skull, as seen in Dallas. Other Bethesda autopsy photos, of the back of the head, do not even depict the exit wound in the right rear of the cranium attested to that day either in writing, or orally to the media, by numerous members of the treatment staff at Parkland Hospital. The sham now known as the “official autopsy” — a public charade before a large audience of about 35 people, intended to support the lone assassin cover story — began precisely at 8:15 PM, and ended at 11 PM, when the two FBI agents present departed. Manipulations continued until 11:45 PM, and the conclusions reached before 11 PM changed, after the departure of the FBI agents. A U.S. government medical cover-up following JFK’s assassination is undeniable.
In 1963 Navy Petty Officer Paul K. O’Connor was a Navy Corpsman — specifically, an autopsy technician at JFK’s autopsy, just like Petty Officer James C. Jenkins, his cousin. [Both men have recalled seeing a large exit wound at the right rear of JFK’s head; have vividly recalled seeing a shallow back wound probed which did not, and could not, have transited JFK’s neck; and have described control of the Kennedy autopsy by two Navy admirals (whose identity they knew), and by mysterious civilians (whom they did not know) — civilians who were constantly giving orders, either about what the conclusions must be, or instructions for the pathologists to “stop what they were doing and move on to the next procedure.”] At one point during President Kennedy’s autopsy, pungent cigar smoke could be smelled within the morgue at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and the chief pathologist, Dr. Humes, ordered his young assistant, Paul O’Connor, to tell whoever was smoking to cease and desist. O’Connor approached the bleachers, the “morgue gallery,” and immediately noticed that the miscreant who dared to smoke inside the morgue during the President’s autopsy was General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force Chief of Staff. [LeMay’s arrival at National Airport at 5:12 PM had given him plenty of time to get to Bethesda Naval Hospital prior to the arrival of JFK’s body, at 6:35 PM.] When the nervous young Paul O’Connor approached the intimidating, beetle-browed, bejowled Curtis LeMay, and was about to make his request, he consistently recounted over the years that LeMay leaned forward, and silently but contemptuously blew cigar smoke in his face.
After quickly retreating, and then reporting who the offender was to Dr. Humes in a whispered conversation, O’Connor said that Humes blanched, immediately dropped his objections, and refocused upon the task before him. (For Dr. Humes, discretion was always the better part of valor.) The arrogance LeMay displayed in his behavior toward Paul O’Connor, and Dr. Humes, was consistent with his day-to-day behavior with his colleagues, the other Joint Chiefs of Staff, detailed by Dino Brugioni in his book Eyeball to Eyeball: he was a brutal, intemperate, profane, strong-willed, and impatient bully who was used to getting his own way.
It would seem that LeMay had come to Bethesda to gloat over the death of his nemesis, President John F. Kennedy. At first blush, one might be tempted to say that “LeMay won, and Kennedy lost.” But not really. Fifty years later, LeMay is now recognized for what he was: a brave and pugnacious combat commander in Europe during the early days of the daylight bombing campaign against Germany; the architect of the highly effective but genocidal firebombing campaign against Japan in 1945; the Godfather of SAC in the late 1940s and throughout most of the 1950s; and an absolutely terrible Air Force Chief of Staff from 1961-1965, who was disloyal to his Commander in Chief (President Kennedy) while serving in the Pentagon, and who, in the words of JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor, provided “half-assed” advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis — a man who was not a team player, and who continuously roamed the halls of the Pentagon with a chip on his shoulder, looking for a fight. LeMay (aided by his protégé General Thomas Power, who relieved him as head of SAC) attempted to start World War III more than once during the 1950s, by goading the USSR with provocative overflights, and expressed apparent regret in his memoirs that the United States did not obliterate the Soviet Union with a preventive nuclear war in the early to mid 1950s, when we could have done so with impunity.
History has been much kinder to John F. Kennedy than to Curtis LeMay, who is now recognized as a dinosaur, a man out-of-step with the times that were changing so rapidly around him. By 1962, LeMay had become a cartoon, a reactionary warmonger. In contrast, we now recognize, and marvel at the intense and continuous struggle JFK was engaged in with his own national security establishment from January of 1961 until November of 1963, throughout his entire administration. He battled continuously against those who desired war, and who believed that the pursuit of peace was a show of weakness — and in particular he stood up in bold opposition to the many hard-liners in his own national security establishment who believed nuclear war was inevitable, and winnable. We now recognize that JFK’s restraint during the Cuban Missile Crisis saved the planet from World War III, and the accompanying radioactive fallout plague and nuclear winter that would have ensued. JFK is now recognized as a man who grew and learned quickly; who showed considerable backbone in standing up to the forces and individuals who opposed him; and who became a visionary in the final year of his life, attempting to lead his nation and the world along a saner path in the quest for a sustainable peace with the Soviet Union. JFK was one generation ahead of his time in his attempts to end the Cold War during the 1960s, and I am convinced that if he had lived, he would have succeeded. By November of 1963 — at the time the Miami, Chicago, and Dallas plots against his life were swirling around President Kennedy — all the signs seemed to indicate the quest for peace he began in 1963 would be successful: the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty had been ratified; the American public had received quite favorably his talk about disarmament during his western states conservation tour in the autumn of 1963; a complete Vietnam withdrawal had been ordered in NSAM 263; and he planned an eventual trip to the Soviet Union during his second term to consummate an arms control agreement that would have built upon the Peace Speech and the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. A joint moon landing with the USSR, in the years after he left office following the completion of his second term, would have been the capstone on his efforts to end the Cold War, rather than win it.
Sadly, JFK’s death meant the end of any chance for an early end to the Cold War; and the national security “perpetual warfare” state, always “surrounded by enemies,” lurching from one crisis to another — and a culture of jingoistic militarism which implies as its subtext that opposition to any U.S. foreign or military policies is “unpatriotic” and does not “support our troops” — now reigns supreme in this country, protected by a caste of propagandists in the mainstream media, and by mainstream historians, who apparently value their tenure and job security, over Truth. But the propagandists have failed. Despite this 50th anniversary barrage, this assault on the senses of distorted, dishonest history — and blatant lies — in horribly skewed articles, op-ed pieces, “documentaries” and unconvincing, two-dimensional, and shallow feature films during the past year, a large majority of the American people still don’t believe the lone assassin cover story, and properly respect JFK for what he was attempting to accomplish as he began to move the nation and the world forward, into a brighter future, in 1963. Fifty years after his death, JFK is widely recognized as the change agent and reformer that he had become in the final year of his presidency. The story of John F. Kennedy’s heroic, but ultimately unsuccessful struggle against those who opted for conflict and war — over accommodation, mutual coexistence, and peace — is a cautionary tale for the future of the Republic. It is incumbent upon Americans who care deeply about their country to keep this part of our history alive, and not to forget it.