Kennedy – A Study in Crisis Decision Making

The style, the affairs, to be sure, but President John F. Kennedy also got much more right than some give him credit for. Looking through the lens of those who were there at the time, one inconsistency was brought to light by journalist David Talbot for a TIME magazine cover story from 2007. This remarkably perceptive story discusses Kennedy in the context of terrorism eight years ago.


“As the U.S. once again finds itself in an endless war—this time against terror, or perhaps against fear itself—the question of Kennedy’s true legacy seems particularly loaded. What is the best way for America to navigate through a world where its enemies seem everywhere and nowhere at the same time? What can we learn from the way Kennedy was trying to redefine the U.S. role in the world and to invite Americans to be part of that change? Who was the real John Fitzgerald Kennedy?

“The conundrum begins with Kennedy himself,” Talbot continues, “a politically complex man whose speeches often brandished arrows as well as olive branches… While Kennedy vowed the nation ‘would pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty’… the young leader also dispensed with the usual Soviet bashing of his time and invited our enemy to join us in a new ‘quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all of humanity.’

“Young Jack Kennedy developed a deep, visceral disgust for war because of his—and his family’s—experiences in it. ‘All war is stupid,’ he wrote home from his PT boat in the Pacific battleground of World War II. That war destroyed the family’s sense of godlike invincibility. His older brother Joe—a Navy pilot—died in a fiery explosion over the English Channel after volunteering for a high-risk mission, and the young husband of ‘Kick’ Kennedy, J.F.K.’s beloved sister, was also killed. …

“But Kennedy and his brothers were also bred to be winners by their father—to never accept defeat. And when he entered the 1960 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, one of the dirtiest fighters in the American political arena, he was prepared to do whatever it took to prevail. At the height of the cold war, that meant positioning himself as even more of a hawk than his Republican opponent. …J.F.K. was determined not to be turned into a weakling on defense, a punching bag for two-fisted GOP rhetoric. So he outflanked Nixon, warning that the country was falling behind Russia in the nuclear arms race and turning ‘the missile gap’ into a major campaign theme. Kennedy also championed the cause of Cuban ‘freedom fighters’ in their crusade to take back the island from Fidel Castro’s newly victorious regime. …

“Looking back, says [speechwriter Theodore] Sorensen today, [of Kennedy’s Inaugural speech], the most important line of that ringing address wasn’t, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’ It was, ‘For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.’ This peace-through-strength message ‘was the Kennedy policy in a nutshell,’ Sorensen observes.

“But the Pentagon and CIA hard-liners… wanted not only the massive arms buildup that the new President promised. They wanted also to employ this fearsome arsenal to push back communist advances around the world. And no enemy bastion was more nettlesome to these national-security officials than Castro’s Cuba, less than 100 miles off U.S. shores.

“Washington’s national-security apparatus,” Talbot writes, “had decided there was no living with Castro. During the final months of the Eisenhower Administration, the CIA started planning an invasion of the island…Agency officials assured the young President who inherited the invasion plan that it was a ‘slam dunk,’ in the words of a future CIA director contemplating another ill-fated U.S. invasion. J.F.K. had deep misgivings, but unwilling to overrule his senior intelligence officials so early in his Administration, he went fatefully ahead with the plan. The doomed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 became the Kennedy Administration’s first great trauma.

“We now know—from the CIA’s internal history of the Bay of Pigs, which was declassified in 2005—that agency officials realized their motley crew of invaders had no chance of victory unless they were reinforced by the U.S. military. But Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell, the top CIA officials, never disclosed this to J.F.K. They clearly thought the young President would cave in the heat of battle, that he would be forced to send in the Marines and Air Force to rescue the beleaguered exiles brigade after it was pinned down on the beaches by Castro’s forces. But Kennedy—who was concerned about aggravating the U.S. image in Latin America as a Yanqui bully and also feared a Soviet countermove against West Berlin—had warned agency officials that he would not fully intervene. As the invasion quickly bogged down at the swampy landing site, J.F.K. stunned Dulles and Bissell by standing his ground and refusing to escalate the assault. …

“A bitter Dulles thought Kennedy had suffered a failure of nerve and observed that he was ‘surrounded by doubting Thomases and admirers of Castro.’ …Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Navy chief, later fumed, ‘Mr. Kennedy was a very bad President… He permitted himself to jeopardize the nation.’

“Kennedy was equally outraged at his national-security advisers. While he famously took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs debacle in public, privately he lashed out at the Joint Chiefs and especially at the CIA, threatening to ‘shatter [the agency] into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.’ J.F.K. never followed through on this threat, but he did eventually fire Dulles, despite his stature as a legendary spymaster, as well as Bissell. …

“This would become the major theme of the Kennedy presidency—J.F.K.’s strenuous efforts to keep the country at peace in the face of equally ardent pressures from Washington’s warrior caste to go to war. Caught between the communist challenges in Laos, Berlin, Vietnam and Latin America and the bellicosity of his national-security élite, Kennedy again and again found a way to sidestep war. In each crisis, he improvised a strategy—combining rhetoric that was alternately tough and conciliatory with aggressive backdoor diplomacy—that found the way to a peaceful resolution.

“Kennedy never again trusted his generals and espionage chiefs after the 1961 fiasco in Cuba, and he became a master at artfully deflecting their militant counsel. ‘After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy had contempt for the Joint Chiefs,’ historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recalled… ‘I remember going into his office in the spring of 1961, where he waved some cables at me from General Lemnitzer, who was then in Laos on an inspection tour. And Kennedy said, ‘If it hadn’t been for the Bay of Pigs, I might have been impressed by this.’ I think J.F.K.’s war-hero status allowed him to defy the Joint Chiefs. He dismissed them as a bunch of old men. He thought Lemnitzer was a dope.’

“President Kennedy never thought much of the CIA either, in part because he and his indispensable brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, became convinced that the agency was not just incompetent but also a rogue operation. After the Bay of Pigs—and particularly the Cuban missile crisis—the Kennedys seemed more concerned with defusing Cuba as a political issue at home, where it was a rallying cry on the right, than with actually enforcing a regime change.

“Nor did President Kennedy have a firm hand on the Pentagon. ‘Certainly we did not control the Joint Chiefs of Staff,’ said Schlesinger… It was a chilling observation, considering the throbbing nuclear tensions of the period. The former White House aide revealed that J.F.K. was less afraid of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s ordering a surprise attack than he was ‘that something would go wrong in a Dr. Strangelove kind of way’—with a politically unstable U.S. general snapping and launching World War III.

“Kennedy was particularly alarmed by his trigger-happy Air Force chief, cigar-chomping General Curtis LeMay, who firmly believed the U.S. should unleash a pre-emptive nuclear broadside against Russia while America still enjoyed massive arms superiority. Throughout the 13-day Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy was under relentless pressure from LeMay and nearly his entire national-security circle to ‘fry’ Cuba, in the Air Force chief’s memorable language. But J.F.K., whose only key support in the increasingly tense Cabinet Room meetings came from his brother Bobby and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, kept searching for a nonmilitary solution. When Kennedy – assiduously working the back channels to the Kremlin – finally succeeded in cutting a deal with Khrushchev, the world survived ‘the most dangerous moment in human history,’ in Schlesinger’s words. But no one at the time knew just how dangerous.

“Years later, attending the 40th anniversary of the crisis at a conference in Havana, Schlesinger, Sorensen and McNamara were stunned to learn that if U.S. forces had attacked Cuba, Russian commanders on the island were authorized to respond with tactical and strategic nuclear missiles. The Joint Chiefs had assured Kennedy during the crisis that ‘no nuclear warheads were in Cuba at the time,’ Sorensen grimly noted. ‘They were wrong.’ If Kennedy had bowed to his military advisers’ pressure, a vast swath of the urban U.S. within missile range of the Soviet installations in Cuba could have been reduced to radioactive rubble. …

“Kennedy never made it to the 1964 election, and since he left behind such a vaporous paper trail, the man who succeeded him, Lyndon Johnson, was able to portray his own deeper Vietnam intervention as a logical progression of J.F.K.’s policies. But McNamara knows the truth. The man who helped L.B.J. widen the war into a colossal tragedy knows Kennedy would have done no such thing. And McNamara acknowledges this, though it highlights his own blame. In the end, McNamara says today, Kennedy would have withdrawn, realizing ‘that it was South Vietnam’s war and the people there had to win it… We couldn’t win the war for them.’ …

“J.F.K. was slow to define his global vision, but under withering attacks from an increasingly energized right, he finally began to do so toward the end of his first year in office. Taking to the road in the fall of 1961, he told the American people why his efforts to extricate the world from the cold war’s death grip made more sense than the right’s militaristic solutions. On Nov. 16, Kennedy delivered a landmark speech at the University of Washington campus in Seattle. There was nothing ‘soft,’ he declared that day, about averting nuclear war—America showed its true strength by refraining from military force until all other avenues were exhausted.

“And then Kennedy made a remarkable acknowledgment about the limits of U.S. power—one that seemed to reject his Inaugural commitment to ‘oppose any foe’ in the world. ‘We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, that we are only 6% of the world’s population, that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94% of mankind, that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity, and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.’

“Sorensen… who helped write the speech—calls it today ‘one of Kennedy’s great speeches on foreign policy.’ If J.F.K. had lived, he adds, ‘there is no doubt in my mind [that] we would have laid the groundwork for détente. The cold war would have ended much sooner than it did.’ ”

While a Junior High School student, I clearly remember that Kennedy was criticized relentlessly for both his actions and inactions. History, however, through the eyes of those who were in the room with him, reveals a man more thoughtful about the future than his critics’ words of the present.

Of all the books in my library, 14 are written by or about John F. Kennedy. Historian Richard Reeves 1993 study, President Kennedy – Profile of Power, is an amazing month-by-month examination of his decision making. The book is a riveting character study of a president who dealt with crises with “no evidence whatsoever of strain or of nervousness or of tension,” Representative Hale Boggs observed. “This, in itself, was tremendously inspiring because when you are in a period of real crisis you look, then, to your leadership. And if your leader is nervous and upset and tense, this translates itself to everyone else and you in time translate that feeling to other people.”

“He talked to his enemies,” Talbot writes, “he recognized the limits of American power; he understood that our true power came from our democratic ideals, not our military prowess. He is still a man ahead of his time.”

Had he lived, Kennedy would’ve been 98 today.

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