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John Kennedy and
Nuclear Militarism

The atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima exploded with only slightly less impact among America’s civilian institutions. Yet only a small minority at the time appreciated its implications. The public at large, the military and the statesmen united in a mood of patriotic awe and pride at the immensity of our achievement, and few persons, in high place or low, had the vision to recognize its true significance. Plainly, however, such super-destructive power rendered all the old criteria of power obsolete; clearly, the ruthless employment of that power to obliterate 80,000 men, women and children in one blinding flash meant that all considerations of morality, all moral restraint, had now become archaic concepts; and this combination—the possession of the limitlessly lethal weapon, the demise of morality—signified that naked force had been enthroned over the world as never before. This stark fact carried with it inevitable corollaries. The final enthronement of force spelled inevitably the beginning of the world’s most awesome arms race in which each nation would seek to possess that force; and it virtually insured the complete dominance of the military since only the military would be supposed to know all the answers in the realm of force.

—FRED COOK, The Warfare State
(New York, The Macmillan Co.,
1962), pp. 115-16.

The consequence of the development of the ultimate weapon in time would be the militarization of America. By the time President Kennedy took his oath of office, sufficient change had occurred to make unacceptable for long any serious attempt to enforce genuine civilian control over the military. Conflicts between the Pentagon and the White House with regard to fundamental military strategy—and even with regard to foreign policy—no longer could be resolved by a unilateral decision at the White House. This is not to say that the military would allow the fact of the change to become apparent. The protocols, like the uniforms, would remain the same.

The acquisition of absolute destructive power presented, in turn, new alternatives with regard to basic military strategy. There were now available the options of employing the new nuclear force in the event of conflict or of continuing to employ the traditional non-nuclear fire-power.

Historically, any conflict of arms necessarily was contained to some degree by the inherent limitation of the weaponry. For a nation possessing nuclear capability the new option was whether or not to turn away from limited war to a policy of unlimited war.

During the Eisenhower years the employment of nuclear weapons was canonized by his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and massive retaliation was announced as the basis of American military strategy.

Massive retaliation contemplates resolving international disputes by incineration. Its implicit, broader basis is the essential rejection of serious consideration of peaceful coexistence between such opposing superpowers as America and Russia.

Ironically, however, America no longer held a monopoly on nuclear weapons. The development of the capability of nuclear counterstrikes on the part of nations which might be struck by atomic attack really made peaceful coexistence no longer an optional matter. Inasmuch as the launching of a nuclear attack by one superpower against another would result in the eventual destruction of both countries, peaceful coexistence now had become imperative.

One of the most articulate opponents in Congress of the government’s official adoption of the policy of massive nuclear retaliation as an answer to the threat of Communist aggression was the junior Senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy. In 1958 he called for consideration of alternative methods in dealing with the Communists.

Senator Kennedy was equally vociferous in his opposition to signs that America was on the eve of being drawn into war in Southeast Asia. Inasmuch as the impression seems to have been created since his murder that he was one of the initiators of our disastrous adventure in Southeast Asia (an impression which has done much to obscure the motive for his assassination), it is worth noting that an examination of the record reveals that Kennedy voiced strong feelings against getting involved in a war which he believed could threaten the survival of civilization.

Even as a young Senator, John Kennedy spoke out against the American government’s embrace of nuclear warfare and against its drift toward military involvement in Asia. Even then he could hardly have been the Pentagon and CIA’s cup of tea. One can imagine the consternation in those quarters when, not too much later, he vaulted from his role in the Senate as an opponent of the new militarism to become their Commander in Chief.

From his point of view as President, the new American militarism would be, from the outset, an unending source of problems. He found himself saddled with an endless variety of military commitments around the globe. An even worse problem would be the inflexibility and obstruction encountered because of the general paranoia which had come to exist with regard to Russia and the Communist world:

“Over the past 15 years the American people have been whipped into a state of hatred and fear of Communism reminiscent of the religious wars in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.... President Kennedy is to a considerable extent a prisoner of this public attitude: his freedom of maneuver is limited. Nor is he entirely the master of his own government. There is always the possibility that in a moment of crisis the wild men in the Pentagon or the Central Intelligence Agency may take matters into their own hands. This is, in fact, the most dangerous of all potentialities in the present situation.” (From the Toronto Globe & Mail, August 9, 1961, as quoted in Cook, op. cit., p. 165.)

There was, to be sure, a strong anti-Communist attitude on the part of millions of Americans. However, this did not mean that they desired war with Russia or even that they took it for granted that war was inevitable. Most of the American people saw no cause for war and did not want a war. Undoubtedly, this was equally true of the Russian people.

On the other hand, the anti-Communism of dominant elements of the military was very nearly theological in character. They implicitly assumed not merely the inevitability but even the desirability of a nuclear war with Russia. This had become apparent in their complete adaptation to massive retaliation. As became apparent quickly enough when the Kennedy team took over, no machinery had been retained for alternatives, measures contemplating the resolution of disagreements by actions short of disintegrating Moscow or Peking (not to mention Washington).

The rise to dominance of the military theologians—men who regarded limited war as a compromise—had been reflected in the resignation from their high positions in the military structure of men such as Generals Maxwell Taylor, Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin. These were men as dedicated to their country as any; and they strongly insisted that we should not abandon all our capabilities for fighting smaller—and, therefore, survivable—wars.

They had resigned from the military, in which they had spent their lives, while the theologians and their stockpiles of nuclear weapons remained. Ironically enough, however, when Eisenhower himself left office not long after these significant resignations, he made a revealing comment about the new thunderhead of power which had developed:

... The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government.

In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist....

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.... (From the “Farewell Address of President Dwight D. Eisenhower,” January 17, 1961.)

These were the unprecedented circumstances which awaited President Kennedy. At the outset he moved to change the Pentagon’s massive retaliation posture.

... When McNamara called [at the Pentagon] for the basic defense plans, he found that they still rested on the assumption of total nuclear war.... “The Pentagon is full of papers talking about the presence of a viable society after nuclear conflict,” he once said. “That viable society phrase drives me mad. I keep trying to comb it out, but it keeps coming back.” Kennedy now charged McNamara with the problem of devising strategies to deal with a world in which total nuclear war was no longer conceivable. This called for a shift from massive retaliation to a capability for controlled and flexible response, graduated to meet a variety of forms and levels of aggression. (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days [Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965], p. 315.)

The nuclear militarists must have expected the worst, for even as a junior Senator, Kennedy had strongly attacked their most sacred theologies. Nevertheless, his attack against their citadel of power and against their dogmatic philosophy contemplating the destruction of millions of human beings was prompt and forceful. Resentment toward the so-called “defense intellectuals” by those elements of the military which regard civilian control with suspicion was pronounced.

President Kennedy scarcely had arrived in office when the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion collapsed in disaster. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved the poorly conceived and poorly executed invasion. Nevertheless, the new President unhesitatingly publicly accepted the blame for it. Subsequently the relationship between President Kennedy and the high brass in the Pentagon would become worse.

Communications between the Chiefs of Staff and their Commander in Chief remained unsatisfactory for a large portion of his term. Enjoying a popular novel, Seven Days in May, about a fictional attempt by a few military brass to take over the country, the President joked, “I know a couple who wish they could.” (Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy [New York, Harper & Row, 1965], pp. 606-7.)

The problem of the conflict between a President committed by his own nature to human concerns and military leaders suspicious of him for just that reason was aggravated by an additional factor. Because of commitments made by his predecessor on Pentagon recommendations, Kennedy found himself committed, to an extent, on a course of action which they had helped initiate and which he had opposed even as a Senator. The American presence in Vietnam was not to his liking at all. On the other hand, as the military later made apparent by its prompt aggressiveness in Southeast Asia after his death, it did not share his concern about American military involvement in Vietnam. However, that adventure could not occur until his death because of his opposition to the use of our combat troops there.

Yet Kennedy had inherited a commitment to support South Vietnam:

Whether the domino theory was valid in 1954, it had acquired validity seven years later, after neighboring governments had staked their own security on the ability of the United States to live up to its pledges to Saigon. Kennedy himself, who had watched western policy in Vietnam in the early fifties with the greatest skepticism and who as President used to mutter from time to time about our “overcommitment” in Southeast Asia, had no choice now but to work within the situation he bad inherited. Ironically, the collapse of the Dulles policy in Laos had created the possibility of a neutralist solution there; but the survival of that policy in South Vietnam, where the government was stronger and the army more willing to fight, left us in 1961 no alternative but to continue that effort. (Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 538.)

The President recognized his inherited obligation and increased the American advisory contingent in South Vietnam. However, he never budged from his refusal to send over American soldiers for combat in its swamps and jungles:

“They want a force of American troops,” he told me early in November. “They say it’s necessary in order to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.” The war in Vietnam, he added, could be won only so long as it was their war. If it were ever converted into a white man’s war, we would lose as the French had lost a decade earlier. (Ibid., p. 547.)

The problem grew, however, in the form of Pentagon opposition to his restraint:

... The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military “brass” did not like the policy of keeping the struggle in Viet Nam limited or the attempt to emphasize importance of the political aspects of the struggle. But they had not yet moved into open opposition, and there was still a chance that they could be persuaded to go along with the President’s policy. If the JCS and the higher ranking generals did move into open opposition, on the other hand, they could muster powerful support in the Congress and the split inside the American government might develop into the kind of nationwide political civil war that had paralyzed America during the McCarthy era.... (Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation [New York, Doubleday and Co., 1967], pp. 507-8. Mr. Hilsman was one of President Kennedy’s top foreign policy advisers up to the time of the President’s death.)

While it is not generally recognized, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military leaders at the Pentagon have come to have very real power of their own. A President might wish to sweep them out and replace them with men of his own, men who will execute his own policies without question, but the militarization of America has eliminated that as a practical possibility. The theological commitment to destroy Communism, which is representative of the power elite in the Pentagon, has strong support, along horizontal lines, from Congress, from other government agencies and from the public:

... By now the Pentagon was developing what would become its standard line in Southeast Asia—unrelenting opposition to limited intervention except on the impossible condition that the President agree in advance to every further step they deemed sequential, including, on occasion, nuclear bombing of Hanoi and even Peking. At one National Security Council meeting, General Lemnitzer outlined the processes by which each American action would provoke a Chinese counteraction, provoking in turn an even more drastic American response. He concluded: “If we are given the right to use nuclear weapons, we can guarantee victory.” The President sat firmly rubbing his upper molar, saying nothing. After a moment someone said, “Mr. President, perhaps you could have the General explain to us what he means by victory.” (Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 338.)

John Kennedy’s desire to prevent an American war in Vietnam was remembered well by men who were close to him.

“In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it, the people of Viet Nam against the Communists.” (From a press statement by President Kennedy, as quoted in Hilsman, op. cit., p. 578.)

... Introducing American ground forces into Viet Nam and becoming involved in the “land war in Asia” that MacArthur had warned against was one thing everybody knew Kennedy wished to avoid.... (Sorensen, op. cit., p. 504.)

“How can we justify fighting a war with American troops in Southeast Asia, which is nine thousand miles away, when we can’t justify it in Cuba, which is only ninety miles away?” (Comment made by President Kennedy, as quoted in Hilsman, op. cit., p. 546.)

From the recollections of his friends, we are permitted even now to see President Kennedy reflecting aloud about the Vietnam problem. However, these are not soliloquies in which the President debates with himself as if it were a decision still causing him turmoil. We are not hearing him ruminate: “to intervene or not to intervene, that is the question.” Even such an apocryphal inner conflict gives him more credit than has rewritten history. In the contemporary fables of the military state, he is repeatedly depicted as supporting, even helping to implement, the escalation in Vietnam.

To the contrary, we had no equivocating, no Hamlet, here. Kennedy’s familiarity with Southeast Asia dated from the days when he would rise in the Senate, in the heyday of Massive Retaliation, to oppose the early signs of our drift toward military involvement in Asia. These were the words of a man who opposed a venture overloaded with risk and rationally indefensible. These were the thoughts of a man who knew the strategic as well as geographic remoteness of the Vietnam area, who knew that it was, for us, the worst of locales in which to join issue.

These were the words of a man who had the intellect to see that a major intervention by us, no matter how we might trumpet analogies to more justified interventions of World War II, would produce not another heroic rescue by the leader of the free world but rather a polarity of opposition. Our intervention would be met by counterintervention—to which we would counter, to which they would counter our counter; until in the end we would have helped generate a conflict which at best could result only in stalemate.

However, President Kennedy’s resolve never faltered, and in spite of the attitude of the men in the Pentagon, he treated Vietnam as a political problem and prevented it from being used as an opportunity for a new American military adventure. To the contrary, the evidence indicates that he was in the process of working out a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam of the 15,500 Americans there.

In the fall of 1963 he issued an order, over the objections of many around him, to reduce American military advisers in South Vietnam immediately by bringing home one thousand U.S. soldiers before the end of 1963. In the spring of 1963, reports his key White House aide Kenneth P. O’Donnell, he had made up his mind that after his reelection he would at the risk of unpopularity, make a complete withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. “In 1965, I’ll be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser, but I don’t care.” (Life, August 7, 1970, pp. 51-2.) Shortly before his murder, the public announcement was made by Secretary of Defense McNamara that by 1965 all American personnel would be brought back home. McNamara’s announcement was made not from the Pentagon but from the steps of the White House.

The President’s order to reduce the American military personnel in Vietnam by one thousand men before the end of 1963 was still in effect on the day that he went to Texas, O’Donnell states. (Ibid., p. 52.)

The Vietnam war—with its quarter of a million casualties, its irremediable damage to the image of America throughout the world and its visitation of impending economic disaster within America, itself—came that close to being avoided.

But then suddenly he was dead, the victim, we were told, of a young man whose mind had become ravaged by Communist readings. How curious it was that the man who removed the single tether restraining the theologically anti-communist generals should be discovered to be a Communist:

After President Kennedy’s death the pressure was renewed. General Curtis L. LeMay, Chief of Staff for the Air Force, was particularly vigorous in advocating the bombing of North Viet Nam. “We are swatting flies,” LeMay said, “when we should be going after the manure pile.” General Thomas S. Power said that with conventional bombs alone the Strategic Air Command, which he headed, and its B-52’s could “pulverize North Viet Nam,” and he made a special trip to Washington to plead the case for bombing not only North Viet Nam but the Viet Cong and their bases in South Viet Nam. (Hilsman, op. cit., p. 527.)

The generals now would be given their head in Southeast Asia. Overnight the government would view Vietnam as a military problem, and a great new war market would be made available to the Pentagon and to America’s makers of military hardware.

Soon enough there would materialize in Vietnam a major expeditionary force of more than half a million troops. And soon enough, too, would come the great refrigerated planes making the daily flights back home with the dead young soldiers in their body bags.

We came close, so close to avoiding this most tragic of our wars, this faraway war which may have destroyed America as we knew it:

... in the summer of 1963, Kennedy turned his face resolutely toward life and unmistakably signalled the end of the Cold War. Behind the patriotic façade of nuclear militarism he saw the death of his own children and of all children. In a series of magnificent addresses, he urged us to reconsider our attitudes toward peace, the Soviet Union and the Cold War. He won a treaty ending atomic testing above ground and then paused to wait a little for the more embattled of his cold-war compatriots to catch up with the times.

At that moment he was struck down .... (D. F. Fleming, The Costs and Consequences of the Cold War [Philadelphia, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1966], p. 137.)

He had lived long enough to force the American military to move back from its affair with the inane and suicidal policy of massive retaliation. He had lived long enough to force the Pentagon to reorganize once more in a structure based upon the employment of conventional weapons. He had succeeded in reducing the easy accessibility of the Pentagon to nuclear firearms.

He had pressed hard to attempt to reassert genuine civilian control over the military. He had obtained the removal of the Russian missile sites from Cuba and yet had prevented our own military from bombing Cuba.

He had taken giant strides toward ending the Cold War. He had helped to accomplish the miracle of the nuclear test ban treaty, ending the increasingly dangerous air explosions of nuclear weapons on both sides of the earth.

It is doubtful whether anyone in our time quite so young has ever done quite so much for peace on this earth.

While the Sino-Soviet break was worsening, a detente between the Kremlin and the West was being confirmed. On September 20, 1963, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Kennedy said, “Today we may have reached a pause in the Cold War—but that is not a lasting peace. A test ban treaty is a milestone—but it is not a millennium. We have not been released from our obligation—we have been given an opportunity. If we fail to augment this ... then the indictment of posterity will rightly point its finger to us all. But if we stretch this pause into a period of cooperation—if both sides can now gain new confidence and experience in concrete collaborations of peace—then, surely, this first small step can be the start of a long and fruitful journey.”

And the wonder is that Khrushchev—who had once confronted him in a decisive test and learned to recognize both his determination and his wisdom—also believed it. It’s difficult to know what result their mutual understanding, their agreement on “the rules of the games,” could have achieved, since two months later John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. But Nikita Khrushchev’s reaction to the news of that tragedy showed clearly what hopes he had placed in his understanding, one would be tempted to say his connivance, with the young President. He burst into tears, and according to the testimony of a high Soviet official quoted by Pierre Salinger, “He just wandered around his office for several days, like he was in a daze.” As a matter of fact his sorrow was the sorrow of all humanity. (André Fontaine, History of the Cold War from the Korean War to the Present, trans. by Renaud Bruce [New York, Pantheon Books, 1969], pp. 474-75.)

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