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.
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.
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 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.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.