JFK vs. the Military

President Kennedy faced a foe more relentless than Khrushchev, just across the Potomac: the bellicose Joint Chiefs of Staff argued for the deployment of nuclear weapons and kept pressing to invade Cuba. A presidential historian reveals that Kennedy's success in fending them off may have been his most consequential victory.
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In 1962, President Kennedy watches B-52 bombers in FLorida as their pilots show their readiness for war. General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff and JFK's frequent antagonist, looks over his shoulder. (Associated Press)

Every enlisted man dreams of it: pulling rank on the military’s highest brass. The heroics of John F. Kennedy, lieutenant, junior grade, in the South Pacific after his PT‑109 was sunk in 1943 eased his way, 17 years later, to being elected the nation’s commander in chief. In the White House, he fought—and defeated—his most determined military foes, just across the Potomac: the members of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Here was a president who had no military experience at all, sort of a patrol-boat skipper in World War II,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer later said of Kennedy. Mutual respect, from the first, was in short supply.

In comparison, Nikita Khrushchev was a pushover, at least during the events that brought President Kennedy’s most-notable achievements. By persuading the Soviet leader to remove missiles from Fidel Castro’s Cuba and agree to a ban on nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space, Kennedy avoided a nuclear war and kept radioactive fallout from the air and the oceans, thereby earning the country’s enduring regard for his effectiveness as a crisis manager and negotiator. But less recognized is how much both of these agreements rested on Kennedy’s ability to rein in and sidestep his own military chiefs.

From the start of his presidency, Kennedy feared that the Pentagon brass would overreact to Soviet provocations and drive the country into a disastrous nuclear conflict. The Soviets might have been pleased—or understandably frightened—to know that Kennedy distrusted America’s military establishment almost as much as they did.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff reciprocated the new president’s doubts. Lemnitzer made no secret of his discomfort with a 43-year-old president who he felt could not measure up to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former five-star general Kennedy had succeeded. Lemnitzer was a West Point graduate who had risen in the ranks of Eisenhower’s World War II staff and helped plan the successful invasions of North Africa and Sicily. The 61-year-old general, little known outside military circles, stood 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, with a bearlike frame, booming voice, and deep, infectious laugh. Lemnitzer’s passion for golf and his ability to drive a ball 250 yards down a fairway endeared him to Eisenhower. More important, he shared his mentor’s talent for maneuvering through Army and Washington politics. Also like Ike, he wasn’t bookish or particularly drawn to grand strategy or big-picture thinking—he was a nuts-and-bolts sort of general who made his mark managing day-to-day problems.

To Kennedy, Lemnitzer embodied the military’s old thinking about nuclear weapons. The president thought a nuclear war would bring mutually assured destruction—MAD, in the shorthand of the day—while the Joint Chiefs believed the United States could fight such a conflict and win. Sensing Kennedy’s skepticism about nukes, Lemnitzer questioned the new president’s qualifications to manage the country’s defense. Since Eisenhower’s departure, he lamented in shorthand, no longer was “a Pres with mil exp available to guide JCS.” When the four-star general presented the ex-skipper with a detailed briefing on emergency procedures for responding to a foreign military threat, Kennedy seemed preoccupied with possibly having to make “a snap decision” about whether to launch a nuclear response to a Soviet first strike, by Lemnitzer’s account. This reinforced the general’s belief that Kennedy didn’t sufficiently understand the challenges before him.

Admiral Arleigh Burke, the 59-year-old chief of naval operations, shared Lemnitzer’s doubts. An Annapolis graduate with 37 years of service, Burke was an anti-Soviet hawk who believed that U.S. military officials needed to intimidate Moscow with threatening rhetoric. This presented an early problem for Kennedy, in that Burke “pushed his black-and-white views of international affairs with bluff naval persistence,” the Kennedy aide and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. later wrote. Kennedy had barely settled into the Oval Office when Burke planned to publicly assail “the Soviet Union from hell to breakfast,” according to Arthur Sylvester, a Kennedy-appointed Pentagon press officer who brought the proposed speech text to the president’s attention. Kennedy ordered the admiral to back off and required all military officers on active duty to clear any public speeches with the White House. Kennedy did not want officers thinking they could speak or act however they wished.

Kennedy’s biggest worry about the military was not the personalities involved but rather the freedom of field commanders to launch nuclear weapons without explicit permission from the commander in chief. Ten days after becoming president, Kennedy learned from his national-security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, that “a subordinate commander faced with a substantial Russian military action could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative.” As Roswell L. Gilpatric, Kennedy’s deputy defense secretary, recalled, “We became increasingly horrified over how little positive control the president really had over the use of this great arsenal of nuclear weapons.” To counter the military’s willingness to use nuclear weapons against the Communists, Kennedy pushed the Pentagon to replace Eisenhower’s strategy of “massive retaliation” with what he called “flexible response”—a strategy of calibrated force that his White House military adviser, General Maxwell Taylor, had described in a 1959 book, The Uncertain Trumpet. But the brass resisted. The stalemate in the Korean War had frustrated military chiefs and left them inclined to use atomic bombs to ensure victory, as General Douglas MacArthur had proposed. They regarded Kennedy as reluctant to put the nation’s nuclear advantage to use and thus resisted ceding him exclusive control over decisions about a first strike.

The NATO commander, General Lauris Norstad, and two Air Force generals, Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power, stubbornly opposed White House directives that reduced their authority to decide when to go nuclear. The 54-year-old Norstad confirmed his reputation as fiercely independent when two high-profile Kennedy emissaries, thought to be Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, visited NATO’s strategic military command in Belgium. They asked whether Norstad’s primary obligation was to the United States or to its European allies. “My first instinct was to hit” one of the Cabinet members for “challenging my loyalty,” he recalled later. Instead, he tried to smile and said, “ ‘Gentlemen, I think that ends this meeting.’ Whereupon I walked out and slammed the door.” Norstad was so clearly reluctant to concede his commander in chief’s ultimate authority that Bundy urged Kennedy to remind the general that the president “is boss.”

General Power, too, was openly opposed to limiting the use of America’s ultimate weapons. “Why are you so concerned with saving their lives?” he asked the lead author of a Rand study that counseled against attacking Soviet cities at the outset of a war. “The whole idea is to kill the bastards … At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.” Even Curtis LeMay, Power’s superior, described him as “not stable” and a “sadist.”

The 54-year-old LeMay, known as “Old Iron Pants,” wasn’t much different. He shared his subordinate’s faith in the untrammeled use of air power to defend the nation’s security. The burly, cigar-chomping caricature of a general believed the United States had no choice but to bomb its foes into submission. In World War II, LeMay had been the principal architect of the incendiary attacks by B‑29 heavy bombers that destroyed a large swath of Tokyo and killed about 100,000 Japanese—and, he was convinced, shortened the war. LeMay had no qualms about striking at enemy cities, where civilians would pay for their governments’ misjudgment in picking a fight with the United States.

During the Cold War, LeMay was prepared to launch a preemptive nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. He dismissed civilian control of his decision making, complained of an American phobia about nuclear weapons, and wondered privately, “Would things be much worse if Khrushchev were secretary of defense?” Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter and alter ego, called LeMay “my least favorite human being.”

The strains between the generals and their commander in chief showed up in exasperating ways. When Bundy asked the Joint Chiefs’ staff director for a copy of the blueprint for nuclear war, the general at the other end of the line said, “We never release that.” Bundy explained, “I don’t think you understand. I’m calling for the president and he wants to see [it].” The chiefs’ reluctance was understandable: their Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan foresaw the use of 170 atomic and hydrogen bombs in Moscow alone; the destruction of every major Soviet, Chinese, and Eastern European city; and hundreds of millions of deaths. Sickened by a formal briefing on the plan, Kennedy turned to a senior administration official and said, “And we call ourselves the human race.”

FIASCO IN CUBA

The tensions between Kennedy and the military chiefs were equally evident in his difficulties with Cuba. In 1961, having been warned by the CIA and the Pentagon about the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s determination to export communism to other Latin American countries, Kennedy accepted the need to act against Castro’s regime. But he doubted the wisdom of an overt U.S.-sponsored invasion by Cuban exiles, fearing it would undermine the Alliance for Progress, his administration’s effort to curry favor with Latin American republics by offering financial aid and economic cooperation.

Nuclear tensions, and the bumbling at the bay of pigs, convinced Kennedy that a primary task of his presidency was to bring the military under strict control.

The overriding question for Kennedy at the start of his term wasn’t whether to strike against Castro but how. The trick was to topple his regime without provoking accusations that the new administration in Washington was defending U.S. interests at the expense of Latin autonomy. Kennedy insisted on an attack by Cuban exiles that wouldn’t be seen as aided by the United States, a restriction to which the military chiefs ostensibly agreed. They were convinced, however, that if an invasion faltered and the new administration faced an embarrassing defeat, Kennedy would have no choice but to take direct military action. The military and the CIA “couldn’t believe that a new president like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face,” Kennedy later told his aide Dave Powers. “Well, they had me figured all wrong.” Meeting with his national-security advisers three weeks before the assault on Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, according to State Department records, Kennedy insisted that leaders of the Cuban exiles be told that “U.S. strike forces would not be allowed to participate in or support the invasion in any way” and that they be asked “whether they wished on that basis to proceed.”When the Cubans said they did, Kennedy gave the final order for the attack.

The operation was a miserable failure—more than 100 invaders killed and some 1,200 captured out of a force of about 1,400. Despite his determination to bar the military from taking a direct role in the invasion, Kennedy was unable to resist a last-minute appeal to use air power to support the exiles. Details about the deaths of four Alabama Air National Guard pilots, who engaged in combat with Kennedy’s permission as the invasion was collapsing, were long buried in a CIA history of the Bay of Pigs fiasco (unearthed after Peter Kornbluh of George Washington University’s National Security Archive filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2011). The document reveals that the White House and the CIA told the pilots to call themselves mercenaries if they were captured; the Pentagon took more than 15 years to recognize the airmen’s valor, in a medal ceremony their families were required to keep secret. Even more disturbing, this Bay of Pigs history includes CIA meeting notes—which Kennedy never saw—predicting failure unless the U.S. intervened directly.

Afterward, Kennedy accused himself of naïveté for trusting the military’s judgment that the Cuban operation was well thought-out and capable of success. “Those sons of bitches with all the fruit salad just sat there nodding, saying it would work,” Kennedy said of the chiefs. He repeatedly told his wife, “Oh my God, the bunch of advisers that we inherited!” Kennedy concluded that he was too little schooled in the Pentagon’s covert ways and that he had been overly deferential to the CIA and the military chiefs. He later told Schlesinger he had made the mistake of thinking that “the military and intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals.” His lesson: never rely on the experts. Or at least: be skeptical of the inside experts’ advice, and consult with outsiders who may hold a more detached view of the policy in question.

The consequence of the Bay of Pigs failure wasn’t an acceptance of Castro and his control of Cuba but, rather, a renewed determination to bring him down by stealth. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s younger brother and closest confidant, echoed the thinking of the military chiefs when he warned about the danger of ignoring Cuba or refusing to consider armed U.S. action. McNamara directed the military to “develop a plan for the overthrow of the Castro government by the application of U.S. military force.”

The president, however, had no intention of rushing into anything. He was as keen as everyone else in the administration to be rid of Castro, but he kept hoping the American military needn’t be directly involved. The planning for an invasion was meant more as an exercise for quieting the hawks within the administration, the weight of evidence suggests, than as a commitment to adopt the Pentagon’s bellicosity. The disaster at the Bay of Pigs intensified Kennedy’s doubts about listening to advisers from the CIA, the Pentagon, or the State Department who had misled him or allowed him to accept lousy advice.

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