A wise person would wonder why the Pentagon would intentionally provoke Russia by moving NATO all the way to Russia’s borders after the Cold War ended. He would also wonder why the U.S. government failed to restrain its NATO ally Turkey from shooting down a Russian plane for flying over Turkish airspace for a few seconds. A wise person would know that oftentimes things can get out of control, as it they did on the eve of World War I, and that the result could be all-out war between the United States and Russia.
Maybe if Americans were familiar with the national-security establishment’s position vis a vis the Soviet Union during John Kennedy’s presidency, they wouldn’t be so blasé about such matters and so deferential to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the rest of the U.S. national-security establishment.
What was that position? During that period of time, the Pentagon and the CIA wanted nuclear war with the Russians and were doing everything they could to bring it on.
In fact, following the model set by the Japanese military with its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Pentagon was exhorting Kennedy to initiate a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, with the aim of destroying the entire country, including every major city, and severely damaging the Soviet retaliatory capability.
It was all part of the Cold War mentality, one that held that there could never be peaceful coexistence with the Soviets. In the minds of the military — indeed, in the minds of the American right-wing — this was a life or death struggle, with only one victor left at the end.
This sordid story was recounted in the 2013 book Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, a book that chronologically delves into the milieu that existed among the right-wing, the military, and the CIA during the Kennedy administration. The chapter “July 1962” tells about the Pentagon’s plan to initiate a surprise nuclear attack on Russia:
Kennedy walks into the newly created “Situation Room” located underground beneath the White House’s West Wing. It is July 20, and alongside him are his closest aides and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The Joint Chiefs have prepared a special presentation.
General Lyman Lemnitzer begins by explaining that the military has a plan to launch a surprise nuclear attack against the Russians. Using a series of flip charts on easels, Lemnitzer points out which cities will be blasted off the face of the earth. He concedes that a few retaliatory bombs will strike American cities, killing millions of people in this country. He also admits that the resulting radiation will have untold consequences for the planet as a whole. But this is the price America needs to pay in order to win the war against communism.
Kennedy taps his front teeth with his thumb and runs his hand repeatedly through his hair as Lemnitzer speaks. JFK’s aides know that these signals usually indicate his intense irritation.
When the general finishes his presentation, Kennedy gets up and stalks out of the room.
He turns to his secretary of state: “And we call ourselves the human race.”
Going against the national-security establishment, Kennedy later told his advisers: “We’re not going to plunge into an irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in this country puts so-called national pride above national reason.”
Thus, Kennedy began building up America’s conventional forces while, at the same time, proposing a nuclear test-ban treaty to the Soviets, actions that sent the Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was the USAF Chief of Staff, into a frenzy. Minutaglio and Davis write:
Curtis LeMay and other high-ranking officers are convinced Kennedy is naive. LeMay is certain that America will eventually have a nuclear war with Russia— so why not start it now, while we have an overwhelming advantage in weaponry?
LeMay’s sentiments are echoed by Dallas right-wing congressman Bruce Alger, who advocates issuing ultimatums to the Russians, exclaiming, “We must stop the farce of pretending that we can negotiate with Russian leaders.”
Alger’s position is endorsed by the right-wing Dallas Morning News, which editorializes:
Our wisest course should be reliance primarily on strength for nuclear warfare. If, with the first crossing of the West German border by Soviet troops, we can sweep over their heads and strike Moscow with atomic devastation, the Kremlin leaders will have something to think about — if they are still alive to think.
In 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff presented the president with its infamous Operation Northwoods proposal. It called for hijackings and terrorist attacks carried out by U.S. agents posing as Cuban agents. The idea was to provide a pretext for the U.S. national-security establishment to invade Cuba and effect regime change there. Kennedy’s job would have included publicly lying about U.S. involvement in the scheme.
To his ever-lasting credit, Kennedy rejected the plan. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon proceeded to keep Operation Northwoods secret from the American people for decades and has never expressed one iota of embarrassment or regret for having proposed it to Kennedy in a unanimous vote of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In 1963, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Pentagon and the CIA exhorted Kennedy to bomb and invade Cuba, notwithstanding the risk of all-out nuclear war. Documents that the Pentagon kept secret until 2012 reveal that the Pentagon estimated U.S. casualties to be 18,500 in the first 10 days, without nuclear explosions.
According to the National Security Archive, the documents reveal that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Maxwell Taylor told Kennedy that if the Cubans were foolhardy enough to use nuclear weapons to defend themselves, U.S. forces would “respond at once in overwhelming nuclear force against military targets…. “Certainly we might expect to lose very heavily at the outset if caught by surprise, but our retaliation would be rapid and devastating and thus would bring to a sudden close the period of heavy losses.”
At the same time, at the height of the crisis, the CIA, without authority, conducted a secret raid on Cuba, knowing full-well its action could lead to all-out war. At the same time, the Pentagon, without presidential consultation or authorization, raised the nuclear alert level to Defcon 2, which was one step below all-out nuclear war, knowing full well that doing so could precipitate a first-strike nuclear attack by the Soviets.
By this time in his presidency, Kennedy has lost all confidence in the U.S. national-security establishment. He refused to bomb and invade Cuba and instead initiated secret negotiations with the Soviets to end the crisis. He finally ended the crisis by promising that the U.S. would not invade Cuba again and that the U.S. would eliminate its nuclear weapons aimed at Russia that were based in Turkey.
Kennedy’s settlement of the Cuban Missile Crisis earned him the everlasting ire and enmity of LeMay and others within the national-security establishment. LeMay called it the biggest defeat in U.S. history and called Kennedy an appeaser, a particularly pointed attack hurled at his commander in chief given that Kennedy’s father had supported Neville Chamberlain in his settlement with Hitler at Munich. (See FFF’s ebook JFK’s War With the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated by Douglas P. Horne, who served on the staff of the Assassination Records Review Board. Also, see FFF’s two other ebooks on the JFK assassination The Kennedy Autopsy by Jacob Hornberger and Regime Change: The JFK Assassination.)
As it turned out, and what the CIA wasn’t aware of at the time, was that Soviet military commanders on the ground in Cuba had fully armed nuclear weapons at their disposal and had been given battlefield authority to use them to defend themselves against a U.S. invasion. There is no doubt that if Kennedy had done what the Pentagon and the CIA wanted him to do, there would have been all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States.
Another interesting aspect to the Cuban Missile Crisis is that JFK’s brother Robert, who was serving as the president’s emissary in the secret negotiations with the Russians, told them that JFK did not know how much longer he could last without the U.S. military taking control of the situation. The episode clearly brings to mind Kennedy’s predecessor Dwight Eisenhower’s warning in his Farewell Address about the grave danger that the military-industrial complex poses to the liberties and democratic processes of the American people.
In the months after the Cold War ended, there were many conservatives who were claiming that the Russians were just lulling America into believing that the Cold War was over and that they would never give up their plans to conquer the United States. For many of them, the Cold War never ended and that it’s therefore necessary for the United States to smash Russia into oblivion once and for all.
Americans had better hope that people of that mindset aren’t running the Pentagon and the CIA because one thing is for sure: President Obama has neither the fortitude or the will to stand up to the national-security establishment like Kennedy did.