4) Official Pentagon history: Top generals resisted JFK’s peace policies in 1963

Michael Swanson, an investment adviser turned JFK researcher, called my attention to “Council of War,” a fascinating official history of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The study documents the Pentagon’s resistance to, and resentment of, President Kennedy’s foreign policy, especially on Cuba and Vietnam.

Published by the JCS, the history presents an unvarnished view of an unprecedented mistrust between White House and Pentagon in the year before Kennedy was violently removed from power.

“Read this book and you are reading a real history of the American empire and defense establishment written for future leaders of the Pentagon and armed forces,” writes Swanson, who plans to publish his own study of the Cold War from 1945-1963 in the fall.

Some highlights from “Council of War:”

After the Bay of Pigs debacle JFK felt ill-advised by the JCS on the CIA’s invasion plan.

“Attempting to clear the air, Kennedy met with [the chiefs] in the Pentagon on May 27, 1961. Though no detailed records of the meeting survived, Kennedy at one point apparently lectured the chiefs on their responsibility for providing him with unalloyed advice, drawing on a paper [Gen. Maxwell] Taylor wrote earlier. But the response he got was “icy silence.” (p. 216)

JFK and the JCS barely communicated during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

JFK w/generals
JFK and his generals

“To manage the crisis, Kennedy improvised through an ad hoc body known as the Executive Committee, or ExCom … Even though the Joint Chiefs were actively engaged in contingency planning throughout the crisis, they were not directly privy to ExCom’s deliberations or even much of the information that passed through it. General Taylor was the sole JCS member on the ExCom and one of its few members with significant military experience … In his memoirs, Taylor acknowledged that some of the chiefs distrusted him. He added, however, that over the course of the crisis he repeatedly volunteered to arrange more meetings with the President, but that none of the Service chiefs showed any interest.” (p. 229)

JFK did not ask the JCS to assess his deal to end the missile crisis.

“The Joint Chiefs were never consulted, nor were they given an opportunity to comment on the strategic implications of this settlement. General LeMay was disappointed that the President, with a preponderance of strategic and tactical nuclear power on his side, had not demanded more concessions from the Soviets. ‘We could have gotten not only the missiles out of Cuba,’ LeMay insisted, ‘we could have gotten the Communists out of Cuba at that time.’” (p. 232)

The JCS thought JFK’s peaceful resolution of the crisis had actually helped the enemy.

“The consensus on the Joint Staff was that the United States had come out on the poorer end of the bargain.” (p. 233)

By the end of 1962, the Pentagon felt its relations with the White House had never been worse.

“By the time the Cuban missile crisis ended, relations between the Kennedy administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Taylor excepted) were at an all-time low. In contrast, Kennedy’s public stature and esteem had never been higher. Lauded by his admirers and critics alike for showing exemplary statesmanship, fortitude, and wisdom in steering the country through the most dangerous confrontation in history, the President emerged with his credibility and prestige measurably enhanced. But to end the crisis he made compromises and concessions that his military advisors considered in many ways unnecessary and excessive.” (p. 233)

The JCS felt that JFK’s successful drive for a partial nuclear test ban treaty in the summer of 1963 diminished its influence even further.

Gen. Maxwell Taylor
Gen. Maxwell Taylor with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and JFK

“In contrast, the overall authority, prestige, and influence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a corporate advisory body had never been lower than by the time the test ban debate drew to a close. Though JCS views still carried considerable weight on Capitol Hill, the same was not true at the White House and elsewhere in the executive branch.” (p. 236)

In the fall of 1963, the JCS resisted JFK’s plans to withdraw from Vietnam.

“Shortly before his death, President Kennedy said publicly that he was confident most U.S. advisors could leave Vietnam in the foreseeable future and turn the war over to the ARVN. But he had no fall-back strategy in case he found withdrawal ill advised and remained averse to putting pressure on North Vietnam, other than through limited, indirect means, to cease and desist its support of the Viet Cong. Though the Joint Chiefs grudgingly accommodated themselves to the President’s wishes, they had yet to be convinced that a policy of restraint would succeed. What they saw evolving was an ominous repetition of the stalemate in Korea — a remote war, offering no sign of early resolution, consuming precious resources, and diverting attention from larger threats. Hence their support for a more aggressive, immediate strategy to confront the enemy directly with strong, decisive force.” (p. 281)

“Council of War,” it is worth noting, makes no mention of Operation Northwoods, a JCS scheme to provoke a U.S. invasion of Cuba with deception operations that JFK rejected in March 1962.


TAKE ME TO JFK STORY #5: The CIA’s propaganda assets converged on the unwitting Oswald in the summer of 1963





38 thoughts on “4) Official Pentagon history: Top generals resisted JFK’s peace policies in 1963”

  1. Pingback: John F. Kennedy: Seven Days That Changed the Course of History

  2. I strongly suggest reading Robert Dallek’s essay ‘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.”

  3. It’s worth noting again that this book–said to scathing of the military–was published by the JCS. It would be interesting to compare with any similar works on other presidents to compare the level of friction.

  4. It’s my regret that none of the JFK assassination researchers reached out to former members of the Joint Staff from the Kennedy administration for interviews, apparently. The last remaining ones died just in the past few years. None of the principals involved were ever asked about Operation Northwoods, or about any concerns they had about their Commander in Chief at the time, or questioned at all on his assassination.

  5. Photon is.right – if JFK was killed by a deranged lone nut then all of the records on the JCS and CIA Cuban ops or JFK administration records will have nothing to do. With his death.

    BUT if Lee Harvey Oswald was not a deranged loner, but a very effective covert operator, and the assassination was a covert intelligence operation designed to protect the actual sponsors, then THAT should be evident from the official records even if the operation as designed to be deceptive.

    And I am finding support for this view from the released records and expect more as the still secret files are released and some lost or thought destroyed are found.

    And if this view is confirmed then our national security is at risk for figuring out what really happened because people like Photon propagated and continues to promote the discredited cover story for the Dealey Plaza operation.

    Bill Kelly

  6. “Council of War documents hostility to JFK in 1963”

    Council of War does not document JCS hostility to Nixon very well:

    “an unseemly episode in 1971 involving the mishandling of classified documents by a Navy yeoman assigned to the NSC”… “Whether the yeoman, Charles E. Radford, was spying for the JCS or acting on his own was never conclusively ascertained.”

    Mishandling documents ? Never ascertained?

    In Nixon and the Chiefs (The Atlantic) , James Rosen does a much better job describing the spying:

    “6:09 on the evening of December 21, 1971, President Richard Nixon convened a tense and confidential meeting in the Oval Office with his three closest advisers—John N. Mitchell, his Attorney General; H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff; and John D. Ehrlichman, his top domestic-policy aide. Notably absent was Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national-security adviser. The men had come together to discuss a crisis unique in American presidential history—”a federal offense of the highest order,” as Nixon would put it in the meeting. Just days before, Yeoman Charles E. Radford, a young Navy stenographer who had been working with Kissinger and his staff, had confessed to a Department of Defense interrogator that for more than a year he had been passing thousands of top-secret Nixon-Kissinger documents to his superiors at the Pentagon. Radford had obtained the documents by systematically rifling through burn bags, interoffice envelopes, and even the briefcases of Kissinger and Kissinger’s then-deputy, Brigadier General Alexander Haig. According to Radford, his supervisors—first Rear Admiral Rembrandt C. Robinson and then Rear Admiral Robert O. Welander—had routinely passed the ill-gotten documents to Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and sometimes to Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the chief of naval operations. It was, in short, an unprecedented case of espionage that pitted the nation’s top military commanders against their civilian commander in chief during wartime. Nixon and his advisers had gathered to consider how to react. ”


    1. Anonymous, here’s a history of the Viet Nam War from an Army Intel Officer:

      The U.S. military crushed the NVA and the VC. The ARVN picked it up in April 1972 with U.S. help. That’s the short version.

      When the U.S. hiked from Viet Nam and cut off resupply, it doomed South Viet Nam.

      I can tell you, I still cry over this debacle.

  7. Charles Beyer

    In what I’ve been reading on a few other websites (apparently generated from Jeff Morley’s publishing here at JFK Facts)there is 1 radio communication from the Pentagon looking for General Lemay on the AF-1 tapes plus a couple of follow-up responses from others while several potions of communications between SS agents onboard AF-1 & Jerry Behn at the White House are edited & incomplete; some cut off in mid sentence. While the absence of additional Pentagon communications is a red flag, I doubt seriously the Pentagon would have left the hunt for Gen Lemay on the tape if it was a competent censurer. It appears to me that the AF-1 tapes were edited by the Secret Service & the Gen Lemay portion was left in as a red herring to divert attention away from the many SS communication edits. Whatever was said that was excised probably had something to do with the SS destroying its own motorcade records IMO.

  8. This is why JFK wanted the book Seven Days in May made into a film.

    “A voice next to me said, “do you intend to make a movie out of Seven Days in May?”
    I turned. President Kennedy! “Yes, Mr. President.”
    “Good.” He spent the next twenty minutes, while our dinner got cold, telling me that he thought it would make an excellent movie.” (Kirk Douglas, Ragman’s Son, p349)

    The president’s friend Paul Fay, Jr., told of an incident that showed JFK was keenly conscious of the peril of a military coup d’etat. One summer weekend in 1962 while out sailing with friends, Kennedy was asked what he thought of Seven Days in May, a best-selling novel that described a military takeover in the United States. JFK said he would read the book. He did so that night. The next day Kennedy discussed with his friends the possibility of their seeing such a coup in the United States. Consider that he said these words after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and before the Cuban Missile Crisis: ” It’s possible. It could happen in this country, but the conditions would have to be just right. If, for example, the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back, but this would be written off as the usual military dissatisfaction with civilian control. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, ‘Is he too young and inexperienced ? ‘ The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation, and only God knows j ust what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment. ” Pausing a moment, he went on, “Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs, it could happen. ” Waiting again until his listeners absorbed his meaning, he concluded with an old Navy phrase, ” But it won’t happen on my watch. ” (Fay, The Pleasure of His Company 190)

  9. Larry Hancock

    Hans, whoever your source was on the actual practices and protocols for nuclear release was quite wrong. In 1963 atomic weapons could be released only under direct and confirmed orders from the national command authority – which specifically was the President and Secretary of Defense. With JFK’s wounding and death only Robert McNamara could have issued such an order via the Joint Chiefs and he did indeed the time following the events in Dallas with the Chiefs. One good source for how atomic weapons were targeted and managed is “Stockpile” by Admiral Jerry Miller, who was personally involved with the planning and targeting (SIOP) for the entire atomic arsenal…I strongly recommend it.

    1. Ooops…missing words in my post, sorry about that…it should read that McNamara did spend time with the Joint Chiefs that afternoon, at the Pentagon in their communications center. The military commands were advised of the attack on the president but there is no sign of any breakdown of central command and control. Individual service commands were raised to an increased level of alert but that was about it.

    2. Nathaniel Heidenheimer

      Larry I disagree. I do not think the nuclear situation was nearly so clear cut as you describe it. Many historians have described a pretty frightening degree of de facto autonomy for SAC and also the growing possibility that NATO shenanigans might lead a nuclear escalation in response to an attack in Europe…. without checking with Washington first. Witness one of the most contentious moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis when JFK has to battle Nitze over the latter’s struggle for greater NATO autonomy in responding to an attack in Europe during the CMC. See Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun, Wizards of Armageddon by Fred Kaplan, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement 1945-1963 by Mark Trachtenberg and History and Strategy also by Trachtenberg.

  10. A kind poster at a website I sometimes visit posted this link about Pentagon plans for a full nuclear response in the event the President was either killed or disappeared (kidnapped):


    I’m no expert in these things but it appears to me the Pentagon had the authorization to strike both Russia & China when JFK fell dead across the back seat of his parade car. The plans don’t say anything about the V.P. or Speaker of The House normal chain of command either.

    I have always been curious as why LBJ was being lead by the SS and following their directives to be sworn in immediately (Love Field) when technically LBJ WAS in charge the moment JFK died with the same power JFK had when alive.

    Why the Pentagon did not immediately strike Russia & China & who held them at bay is something I hope to learn more about in the future. As I understand it, there was a concern about being unable to locate Gen Curtis Lemay after the assassination. Perhaps the Pentagon was waiting on him to “push the button”?

    It’s also interesting that these plans mentioned in the link provided were created during the Eisenhower administration. It goes to show just how much paranoia & bad blood existed between the US & the 2 dominant communist giants.

    1. Great link, thanks. As for “why LBJ was being lead by the SS and following their directives to be sworn in immediately,” see Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power. It is doubtful that the Secret Service dictated this aspect of the transition. LBJ was keenly aware of the symbolism relating to his taking office, from the judge who administered the oath to LBJ’s personally positioning the people in the iconic photo (including Jackie Kennedy).


      1. I’ve read Caro’s “Passage of Power” but also “LBJ: Mastermind of JFK’s Assassination” by Phillip Nelson. Having read those books and others, I’m convinced that Lyndon Johnson staged the entire post-assassination crisis drama, including having the plane wait on the tarmac even though everyone was aboard, including JFK’s casket, in order to have himself sworn in by a Texas Judge. From the get-go, LBJ was said to be in command, and this is reported in Caro’s book as well as in others. He acted paranoid, saying this could involve the Soviet Union, which I think was an ACT on his part to play the part of the innocent victim/bystander/take charge politician and not the evil usurper that I think history will show him to have been. He didn’t have to be sworn in on the plane, he knew that. He did it for symbolic reasons, to solidify right away that he was ‘in charge’ and that he would control events, including how the casket was handled, the autopsy and complete, rapid transfer of power—necessary on his part if he was to keep the Kennedy team from asking difficult questions about the assassination that could cause the entire lone nutter/possible communist linked to Cuba and/or the USSR to fall apart. Incidentally he got foiled by Jackie when she insisted on riding in the same hearse with her dead husband, Robert Kennedy saying she could and should do so. But that was just a minor inconvenience for LBJ, and he still controlled the entire process of autopsy and “investigation” through the Warren Commission’s published whitewash document, released conveniently just in time before the presidential election in 1964. Once the screws were put into place, there wasn’t a whole lot anyone, including an out-of-power Bobby Kennedy, could do about it. The key was that LBJ had the Joint Chiefs, J. Edgar Hoover, CIA and the Warren Commission (mostly through Allen Dulles) on his side, and it goes without saying that the Secret Service was on his side too. He knew what he was doing, and there is no doubt in my mind about that.

  11. The tension between JFK and the Pentagon has been known for decades. As the years have gone by, the level of tension has appeared increasingly evident as a result of books and documents released since 1965. More recently, the degree of dissatisfaction on the part of the Pentagon with JFK’s policies, and JFK’s growing distrust and willingness to act independently of the Pentagon has become increasingly apparent.

    On October 26, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis a Titan missile was launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base for its “test,” without further orders from Washington, at 4 a.m. (When DEFCON 3 was ordered all the ICBM’s were fitted with nuclear warheads except this Titan missile that had been scheduled for the test launch.)

    JFK was known to have read The Guns of August (about cascading events leading to WW I) and to have feared blundering into a nuclear war through miscommunication or human error. Only hours before the Vandenburg launch, we now know, around midnight on October 25, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center saw a figure climbing the security fence. He shot at it, and activated the “sabotage alarm.” This automatically set off sabotage alarms at all bases in the area. At Volk Field, Wisconsin, the alarm was wrongly wired, and the Klaxon sounded which ordered nuclear armed F-106A interceptors to take off. The pilots knew there would be no practice alert drills while DEFCON 3 was in force, and they believed World War III had started. Immediate communication with Duluth showed there was an error. By this time aircraft were starting down the runway. A car raced from command center and successfully signaled the aircraft to stop. The original intruder was a bear.

    Also on October 26th, another “test” launch of a Titan-II ICBM took place in the afternoon from Florida to the South Pacific. It caused temporary concern at Moorestown Radar site until its course could be plotted and showed no predicted impact within the United States. It was not until after this event that the potential for a serious false alarm was realized, and orders were given that radar warning sites must be notified in advance of test launches, and the countdown be relayed to them. When DEFCON 2 was declared on October 24, solid fuel Minuteman-1 missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base were being prepared for full deployment. The work was accelerated to ready the missiles for operation, without waiting for the normal handover procedures and safety checks. When one silo and missile were ready on October 26 no armed guards were available to cover transport from the normal separate storage, so the launch enabling equipment and codes were all placed in the silo. It was thus physically possible for a single operator to launch a fully armed missile at a SIOP target. During the remaining period of the Crisis the several missiles at Malstrom were repeatedly put on and off alert as errors and defects were found and corrected.

    ( See http://nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/issues/accidents/20-mishaps-maybe-caused-nuclear-war.htm.)

    In Passage to Power, Robert Caro portrays a Lyndon Johnson who was generally supportive of the Pentagon’s approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis and who was marginalized from the Kennedy inner circle even further following the crisis as a result of his perceived distance from JFK’s positions and policy.

    The emergence of the magnitude of the division between the White House and the Pentagon may become increasingly apparent as additional documents are disclosed and declassified.

  12. Re: the JCS and Viet Nam 1963

    The JCS were right about stalemate in Viet Nam. Despite U.S. popular perception, created by flawed press coverage, the U.S. and North Viet Nam were at a standstill as 1972 approached its end. Each side had advantages and disadvantages. The U.S., from a pure power standpoint, held a clear upper hand on the battlefield. But North Viet Nam had a clear edge politically.

    In 1963, the U.S. armed forces were primed for a new war. In particular, the army had developed the doctrine of “air mobility”; had created an air mobile division — the First Cav; had Huey helicopters ready to go; and had brand new Eugene Stoner-based M-16 rifles, truly awesome weapons, despite early ammunition problems.

    War in Viet Nam would be good for the armed services. Weapons, weapon systems, and doctrines could be tested. Many command slots would be created for officers, which were the route to promotions. The JCS was hungry for a big war in 1963.

    So was the country, riding on economic and baby boomer optimism. So was the popular press. What could possibly go wrong?

    Truth is, the U.S. could have maintained a stalemate indefinitely in Viet Nam. It did not have the popular or political will to do so. How, you may ask? Answer by placing the U.S. Fourth Division across the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos, cutting off the flow of men and supplies into the South (together with some other straightforward measures, such as blocking the DMZ).

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