When Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in November of 1963, he knew that in order to accrue political capital he would initially need to champion goals and policies that Kennedy had already been pursuing. Not long before his death Kennedy had scrawled the word "poverty" on a piece of paper and circled it multiple times; this note fell into the hands of his brother Robert and became a symbolic justification for Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty, early in 1964. Similarly, many of the things that Johnson pushed through Congress in his first two years as President—such as an $11 billion tax cut, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the 1965 laws that brought Medicare and Medicaid into existence and that poured billions of federal dollars into primary and secondary education—can readily be seen as extensions of the avowed policies of the Kennedy Administration. The details might have been different—and Kennedy might well have had more trouble than Johnson passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965—but historians generally agree that if Kennedy had lived out his first term and won a second, America would have witnessed something similar to the early years of Johnson's Great Society.
On foreign policy, too, Johnson at first strove consciously to follow his predecessor. And some historians have argued that in this realm as well, LBJ indeed pursued a course that JFK had already plotted. If Kennedy had lived, according to this line of thinking, he would have continued a policy of antagonism toward Cuba and steady escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Johnson certainly believed that this was what Kennedy intended to do.
Flashbacks: "A Near Miss" (October 24, 2002)
Articles on the Cuban missile crisis by Walter Lippmann, Jerome B. Wiesner, and Sheldon M. Stern remind us how close we came to disaster.
But what if it wasn't? Some Kennedy aides have always insisted that Johnson misread JFK's plans for Vietnam. They say that Kennedy had begun to rethink the U.S. presence in Indochina, and was reluctant to increase it. Johnson's defenders have tended to see this argument as wishful thinking by those who seek to exculpate JFK from what happened in Vietnam while laying all the blame on LBJ. The argument can never fully be put to rest. But newly available documents, along with a reappraisal of the existing record—especially of Kennedy's concern about press reports from Saigon—suggest that Kennedy's aides are correct: what Kennedy envisioned for U.S. policy in Vietnam was substantially different from what Johnson thought it was. Perhaps more surprising—given that at the time of Kennedy's death the Cuban Missile Crisis was not long past, and that the CIA was still plotting to kill Fidel Castro—JFK appears to have been moving toward the idea of accommodation with Cuba.
A consideration of likely post-1963 Kennedy policies must begin with JFK's views on how political and military leaders make decisions about armed action. Why England Slept, his Harvard senior thesis, which was published as a book in 1940, showed a healthy skepticism regarding the astuteness of both political and military officials in assessing foreign threats. He also doubted the effectiveness of a purely military approach to many political problems, especially in light of what he observed during his extensive travels to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia in the late 1930s and after World War II. "If one thing was borne into me as a result of my experiences in the Middle as well as the Far East," Kennedy said after a trip as a congressman in 1951, "it is that communism cannot be met effectively by merely the force of arms." And his own military experience as a young man had convinced him that military chiefs were not necessarily the best judges of when and how to fight a war. As a junior naval officer in 1943 and 1944, he marveled at the incompetence of many of his superiors. In a letter to his parents from the South Pacific, where he was serving as a PT Boat commander, he wrote that the Navy had "brought back a lot of old Captains and Commanders from retirement and ... they give the impression of their brains being in their tails." He complained in a letter to a friend of "this heaving puffing war machine of ours," and lamented the "super-human ability of the Navy to screw up everything they touch." Later in life his reading of history, especially Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August (1962), about World War I, reinforced his doubts.
Misgivings about the wisdom of military responses to communism, however, were not enough to deter Kennedy from authorizing the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, in April of 1961. In the aftermath of the invasion, which fizzled when a brigade of CIA-trained Cuban exiles were captured on the beach, the CIA's inspector general ascribed the failure to "bad planning," "poor" staffing, and "fragmentation of authority," and to the false assumption that "the invasion would, like a deus ex machina, produce a shock ... [and] trigger an uprising." Although he publicly accepted blame for the defeat, Kennedy privately wondered how he could have been so stupid as to trust CIA and military assurances about the likely success of the attack.
Paul Nitze, who in the 1950s worked with Secretary of State Dean Acheson on defense issues, and who served in the Kennedy Administration as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's assistant secretary for international security affairs, said in his oral history of the Administration that President Kennedy "was always troubled with ... how do you obtain military advice; how do you check into it; how do you have an independent view as to its accuracy and relevance?" A tape of a 1962 conversation with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and Undersecretary of State George Ball makes clear that Kennedy had a low opinion of many U.S. diplomats and Defense Department officials. He described career envoys as weak or spineless. "I just see an awful lot of fellows ... who don't seem to have cojones," he said. "[Whereas] the Defense Department looks as if that's all they've got. They haven't any brains ... I know you get all this sort of virility over at the Pentagon, and you get a lot of Arleigh Burkes [a reference to the chief of naval operations]: admirable, nice figure, without any brains."
His experiences with the Joint Chiefs of Staff deepened Kennedy's reservations about the advice he was receiving from the military. One incident that alarmed him came shortly after the Bay of Pigs debacle, when the Joint Chiefs urged Kennedy to authorize the use of air and land forces in Laos to avert a communist takeover. Kennedy wanted to know what they intended if such an operation failed. The Joint Chiefs answered, in the words of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, "You start using atomic weapons!" Lyman Lemnitzer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, promised that if they were given authorization to use nuclear weapons, they could guarantee victory. Kennedy saw Lemnitzer's assurance as absurd. Later he said, "Since he couldn't think of any further escalation, he would have to promise us victory." Kennedy and the Soviets ultimately reached a negotiated settlement in Laos. But the disagreement with his advisers would set a pattern.