The Atlantic has published a fascinating article entitled “JFK vs. the Military” by Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek which details the war that was taking place between President Kennedy and the U.S. national-security state establishment. While this has long been a subject of interest to Kennedy assassination researchers, it’s not the type of thing that mainstream authors and mainstream publications have wanted to confront, especially in an era in which the military and the CIA (and the NSA) have become permanent and exalted parts of America’s governmental structure.
I’d venture to say that very few Americans are familiar with this particular war. It’s certainly not the type of thing that is taught students in America’s public schools. Indeed, I’m willing to bet that quite a few Americans, upon learning of this war, would be shocked. After all, what president would dare to go to war against the part of the government that is considered to be absolutely essential to national security and to the freedom and well-being of the American people?
But that is precisely what Kennedy did. Having come into office as a died-in-the-wool Cold Warrior, sharing the same mindset as most Americans — that the communists were coming to get us and, therefore, that it was absolutely essential to maintain an enormous permanent military and intelligence establishment keep us safe from the communists — by the time he was assassinated, Kennedy’s perspective had completely changed, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA knew it.
What had caused Kennedy to change his Cold War perspective and go to war against the national-security establishment?
His mistrust of both the military and the CIA began with the Bay of Pigs disaster, during which the CIA had tried to manipulate Kennedy into providing air support for the CIA’s regime-change operation, after Kennedy had specifically said he would not do so — and by the Pentagon’s failure to warn Kennedy of the probable military disaster that was about to ensue.
Things only got worse after that. The military wanted Kennedy to conduct a full-scale invasion of Cuba, arguing that America could never survive a communist outpost 90 miles away. The Joint Chiefs of Staff came up with Operation Northwoods, a plan that was kept secret from the American people for some 30 years, until it was uncovered by the Assassination Records Review Board, the agency that was established in the wake of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK.
Operation Northwoods proposed fake terrorist attacks and fake plane hijackings, in order to provide a pretext for invading the island. Kennedy’s job would be to lie to the American people by falsely blaming the terrorism on Cuba, much as President Eisenhower’s job had been to lie to the world about the U.S. spy plane piloted by Gary Powers when it was shot down over the Soviet Union.
Kennedy rejected Operation Northwoods, notwithstanding the fact that it received the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The plan contributed to the deep unease that Kennedy was feeling about America’s military establishment.
Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the Pentagon was recommending a full-scale bombing and invasion of the island and rejecting Kennedy’s attempts to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis. After all, the Pentagon and the CIA now had their justification for an attack on Cuba — the fact that the Soviet Union was establishing nuclear missiles there, much as the United States had done with its nuclear missiles in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union.
In retrospect, it is now a virtual certainty that if Kennedy had followed the Pentagon’s advice, there would have been an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. That’s because, unbeknownst to the Pentagon and the CIA, the Soviet Union had given battlefield authority to Soviet officers in Cuba to use nuclear weapons in the event of an attack.
Kennedy was also under-impressed, to put it mildly, when the Pentagon presented him with a plan for initiating a full-scale, first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, arguing that the United States would win such a war with only 40 million American deaths compared to the full destruction of the Soviet Union.
It was the nearness to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis that seared Kennedy’s soul. At that point, he experienced a breakthrough — one that asked some rather simple but profound questions: Why can’t the Soviet Union and the United States mutually coexist in the world (much like the United States and communist China and communist Vietnam do today)? Why does there have to be a Cold War?
Needless to say, those questions were highly threatening to the U.S. national-security state. In their minds, a communist was a communist and therefore could never be trusted. Thus, any move in the direction of ending the Cold War by mutual agreement was nothing more than surrender to the communists.
By this time, Kennedy had lost all trust and confidence in the national-security establishment. The war was now on. He fired the first shot with his famous peace speech at American University, in which he delivered such lines as the following, which undoubtedly raised the hackles of every official of the national-security state:
What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war, not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace — the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living — and the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women — not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.
Over the reservations of the national-security establishment, he negotiated a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets and secured its passage through Congress.
He also issued an order withdrawing 1,000 U.S. troops from Vietnam and advised close friends of his intention to pull out completely after he won the 1964 presidential election.
Most important and undoubtedly most threatening to the national-security establishment, he entered into highly secret personal negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and sent out top-secret feelers to Cuban leader Fidel Castro with the aim of ending the Cold War. Significantly, he failed to advise the JCS and the CIA of these secret negotiations or bring them in on them. By this time, he had no trust in the military establishment and had already threatened to tear the CIA into a thousand pieces, after having fired CIA Director Allan Dulles (whom President Johnson would later appoint to serve on the Warren Commission), Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell, and Deputy Director Charles Cabell.
Of course, Kennedy wasn’t the only one who entered office believing in a national-security establishment only to later have serious reservations about it. His predecessor Ike Eisenhower had become president with the same mindset, and eight years later would issue one of the most fascinating Farewell Addresses in U.S. history, one in which he warned the American people of the grave danger that the military-industrial complex posed to our nation. Later, 30 days after Kennedy was assassinated, former President Truman, who had signed the National Security Act into law in 1947, published an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting that the CIA had become a dark and nefarious force in American life.
Eisenhower suggested, however, that despite such danger, the Cold War made the military-industrial complex a necessary part of American life. If Kennedy had not been assassinated and had succeeded in ending the Cold War, that would no longer have been the case.