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.

TAKING CONTROL

During the early weeks of his presidency, another source of tension between Kennedy and the military chiefs was a small landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Laos looked like a proving ground for Kennedy’s willingness to stand up to the Communists, but he worried that getting drawn into a war in remote jungles was a losing proposition. At the end of April 1961, while he was still reeling from the Bay of Pigs, the Joint Chiefs recommended that he blunt a North Vietnamese–sponsored Communist offensive in Laos by launching air strikes and moving U.S. troops into the country via its two small airports. Kennedy asked the military chiefs what they would propose if the Communists bombed the airports after the U.S. had flown in a few thousand men. “You [drop] a bomb on Hanoi,” Robert Kennedy remembered them replying, “and you start using atomic weapons!” In these and other discussions, about fighting in North Vietnam and China or intervening elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Lemnitzer promised, “If we are given the right to use nuclear weapons, we can guarantee victory.” By Schlesinger’s account, President Kennedy dismissed this sort of thinking as absurd: “Since [Lemnitzer] couldn’t think of any further escalation, he would have to promise us victory.”

The clash with Admiral Burke, tensions over nuclear-war planning, 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. Articles in Time and Newsweek that portrayed Kennedy as less aggressive than the Pentagon angered him. He told his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, “This shit has got to stop.”

Still, Kennedy couldn’t ignore the pressure to end Communist control of Cuba. He wasn’t ready to tolerate Castro’s government and its avowed objective of exporting socialism to other Western Hemisphere countries. He was willing to entertain suggestions for ending Castro’s rule as long as the Cuban regime demonstrably provoked a U.S. military response or as long as Washington’s role could remain concealed. To meet Kennedy’s criteria, the Joint Chiefs endorsed a madcap plan called Operation Northwoods. It proposed carrying out terrorist acts against Cuban exiles in Miami and blaming them on Castro, including physically attacking the exiles and possibly destroying a boat loaded with Cubans escaping their homeland. The plan also contemplated terrorist strikes elsewhere in Florida, in hopes of boosting support domestically and around the world for a U.S. invasion. Kennedy said no.

Policy toward Cuba remained a minefield of bad advice. By late August 1962, information was flooding in about a Soviet military buildup on the island. Robert Kennedy urged Rusk, McNamara, Bundy, and the Joint Chiefs to consider new “aggressive steps” that Washington could take, including, according to notes from one discussion, “provoking an attack against Guantanamo which would permit us to retaliate.” The military chiefs insisted that Castro could be toppled “without precipitating general war”; McNamara favored sabotage and guerrilla warfare. They suggested that manufactured acts of sabotage at Guantánamo as well as other provocations could justify U.S. intervention. But Bundy, speaking for the president, cautioned against action that could instigate a blockade of West Berlin or a Soviet strike against U.S. missile sites in Turkey and Italy.

The events that became the Cuban missile crisis triggered Americans’ fears of a nuclear war, and McNamara shared Kennedy’s concerns about the military’s casual willingness to rely on nuclear weapons. “The Pentagon is full of papers talking about the preservation of a ‘viable society’ after nuclear conflict,” McNamara told Schlesinger. “That ‘viable society’ phrase drives me mad … A credible deterrent cannot be based on an incredible act.”

The October 1962 missile crisis widened the divide between Kennedy and the military brass. The chiefs favored a full-scale, five-day air campaign against the Soviet missile sites and Castro’s air force, with an option to invade the island afterward if they thought necessary. The chiefs, responding to McNamara’s question about whether that might lead to nuclear war, doubted the likelihood of a Soviet nuclear response to any U.S. action. And conducting a surgical strike against the missile sites and nothing more, they advised, would leave Castro free to send his air force to Florida’s coastal cities—an unacceptable risk.

Kennedy rejected the chiefs’ call for a large-scale air attack, for fear it would create a “much more hazardous” crisis (as he was taped telling a group in his office) and increase the likelihood of “a much broader struggle,” with worldwide repercussions. Most U.S. allies thought the administration was “slightly demented” in seeing Cuba as a serious military threat, he reported, and would regard an air attack as “a mad act.” Kennedy was also skeptical about the wisdom of landing U.S. troops in Cuba: “Invasions are tough, hazardous,” a lesson he had learned at the Bay of Pigs. The biggest decision, he thought, was determining which action “lessens the chances of a nuclear exchange, which obviously is the final failure.”

Kennedy told his paramour something he could never have admitted in public: “I’d rather my children be red than dead.”

Kennedy decided to impose a blockade—what he described more diplomatically as a quarantine—of Cuba without consulting the military chiefs with any seriousness. He needed their tacit support in case the blockade failed and military steps were required. But he was careful to hold them at arm’s length. He simply did not trust their judgment; weeks earlier, the Army had been slow to respond when James Meredith’s attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi touched off riots. “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and their split-second timing, but it never works out,” Kennedy had said. “No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.” Kennedy waited for three days after learning that a U-2 spy plane had confirmed the Cuban missiles’ presence before sitting down with the military chiefs to discuss how to respond—and then for only 45 minutes.

That meeting convinced Kennedy that he had been well advised to shun the chiefs’ counsel. As the session started, Maxwell Taylor—by then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—said the chiefs had agreed on a course of action: a surprise air strike followed by surveillance to detect further threats and a blockade to stop shipments of additional weapons. Kennedy replied that he saw no “satisfactory alternatives” but considered a blockade the least likely to bring a nuclear war. Curtis LeMay was forceful in opposing anything short of direct military action. The Air Force chief dismissed the president’s apprehension that the Soviets would respond to an attack on their Cuban missiles by seizing West Berlin. To the contrary, LeMay argued: bombing the missiles would deter Moscow, while leaving them intact would only encourage the Soviets to move against Berlin. “This blockade and political action … will lead right into war,” LeMay warned, and the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps chiefs agreed.

“This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” LeMay declared. “In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”

Kennedy took offense. “What did you say?”

“You’re in a pretty bad fix,” LeMay replied, refusing to back down.

The president masked his anger with a laugh. “You’re in there with me,” he said.

After Kennedy and his advisers left the room, a tape recorder caught the military brass blasting the commander in chief. “You pulled the rug right out from under him,” Marine Commandant David Shoup crowed to LeMay. “If somebody could keep them from doing the goddamn thing piecemeal—that’s our problem. You go in there and friggin’ around with the missiles, you’re screwed … Do it right and quit friggin’ around.”

Kennedy, too, was angry—“just choleric,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Gilpatric, who saw the president shortly afterward. “He was just beside himself, as close as he ever got.”

“These brass hats have one great advantage,” Kennedy told his longtime aide Kenny O’Donnell. “If we … do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

BETTER “RED THAN DEAD”

Jackie Kennedy told her husband that if the Cuban crisis ended in a nuclear war, she and their children wanted to die with him. But it was Mimi Beardsley, his 19-year-old intern turned paramour, who spent the night of October 27 in his bed. She witnessed his “grave” expression and “funereal tone,” she wrote in a 2012 memoir, and he told her something he could never have admitted in public: “I’d rather my children be red than dead.” Almost anything was better, he believed, than nuclear war.

Kennedy’s civilian advisers were elated when Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles. But the military chiefs refused to believe that the Soviet leader would actually do what he had promised. They sent the president a memo accusing Khrushchev of delaying the missiles’ departure “while preparing the ground for diplomatic blackmail.” Absent “irrefutable evidence” of Khrushchev’s compliance, they continued to recommend a full-scale air strike and an invasion.

Kennedy ignored their advice. Hours after the crisis ended, when he met with some of the military chiefs to thank them for their help, they made no secret of their disdain. LeMay portrayed the settlement as “the greatest defeat in our history” and said the only remedy was a prompt invasion. Admiral George Anderson, the Navy chief of staff, declared, “We have been had!” Kennedy was described as “absolutely shocked” by their remarks; he was left “stuttering in reply.” Soon afterward, Benjamin Bradlee, a journalist and friend, heard him erupt in “an explosion … about his forceful, positive lack of admiration for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Yet Kennedy could not simply disregard their advice. “We must operate on the presumption that the Russians may try again,” he told McNamara. When Castro refused to allow United Nations inspectors to look for nuclear missiles and continued to pose a subversive threat throughout Latin America, Kennedy continued planning to oust him from power. Not by an invasion, however. “We could end up bogged down,” Kennedy wrote to McNamara on November 5. “We should keep constantly in mind the British in Boer War, the Russians in the last war with the Finnish and our own experience with the North Koreans.” He also worried that violating the understanding he had with Khrushchev not to invade Cuba would invite condemnation from around the world.

Still, his administration’s goal in Cuba had not changed. “Our ultimate objective with respect to Cuba remains the overthrow of the Castro regime and its replacement by one sharing the aims of the Free World,” read a White House memo to Kennedy dated December 3, which suggested that “all feasible diplomatic economic, psychological and other pressures” be brought to bear. All, indeed. The Joint Chiefs described themselves as ready to use “nuclear weapons for limited war operations in the Cuban area,” professing that “collateral damage to nonmilitary facilities and population casualties will be held to a minimum consistent with military necessity”—an assertion they surely knew was nonsense. A 1962 report by the Department of Defense on “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons” acknowledged that exposure to radiation was likely to cause hemorrhaging, producing “anemia and death … If death does not take place in the first few days after a large dose of radiation, bacterial invasion of the blood stream usually occurs and the patient dies of infection.”

Kennedy did not formally veto the military chiefs’ plan for a nuclear attack on Cuba, but he had no intention of acting on it. He knew that the notion of curbing collateral damage was less a realistic possibility than a way for the brass to justify their multitudes of nuclear bombs. “What good are they?,” Kennedy asked McNamara and the military chiefs a few weeks after the Cuban crisis. “You can’t use them as a first weapon yourself. They are only good for deterring … I don’t see quite why we’re building as many as we’re building.”

In the wake of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev both reached the sober conclusion that they needed to rein in the nuclear arms race. Kennedy’s announced quest for an arms-control agreement with Moscow rekindled tensions with his military chiefs—specifically, over a ban on testing nuclear bombs anywhere but underground. In June 1963, the chiefs advised the White House that every proposal they had reviewed for such a ban had shortcomings “of major military significance.” A limited test ban, they warned, would erode U.S. strategic superiority; later, they said so publicly in congressional testimony.

The following month, as the veteran diplomat W. Averell Harriman prepared to leave for Moscow to negotiate a nuclear-test ban, the chiefs privately called such a step at odds with the national interest. Kennedy saw them as a treaty’s greatest domestic impediment. “If we don’t get the chiefs just right,” he told Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, “we can … get blown.” To quiet their objections to Harriman’s mission, Kennedy promised them a chance to speak their minds in Senate hearings should a treaty emerge for ratification, even as he instructed them to consider more than military factors. Meanwhile, he made sure to exclude military officers from Harriman’s delegation, and decreed that the Department of Defense—except for Maxwell Taylor—receive none of the cables reporting developments in Moscow.

“The first thing I’m going to tell my successor,” Kennedy told guests at the White House, “is to watch the generals, and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”

Persuading the military chiefs to refrain from attacking the test-ban treaty in public required intense pressure from the White House and the drafting of treaty language permitting the United States to resume testing if it were deemed essential to national safety. LeMay, however, testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, could not resist planting doubts: Kennedy and McNamara had promised to keep testing nuclear weaponry underground and to continue research and development in case circumstances changed, he said, but they had not discussed “whether what [the chiefs] consider an adequate safeguard program coincides with their idea on the subject.” The Senate decisively approved the treaty nonetheless.

This gave Kennedy yet another triumph over a cadre of enemies more relentless than the ones he faced in Moscow. The president and his generals suffered a clash of worldviews, of generations—of ideologies, more or less—and every time they met in battle, JFK’s fresher way of fighting prevailed.

Robert Dallek is the author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. This article is adapted from his new book, Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In