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.
“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.
“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.
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