President Kennedy had a unique way of viewing his communist adversaries during the Cold War. He would put himself in their shoes and try to figure out what was motivating them to take the actions they were taking. He would then attempt to fashion a solution to a particular crisis that satisfied the other side’s concerns.
America’s Cold War generals lacked the mental capacity to think at that level. Their mindsets were always in terms of black and white: Communists are bad and cannot be trusted. There can never be negotiation with communists. Kill all communists.
A good example of this dichotomy occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union to within an inch of all-out nuclear war.
When Pentagon and CIA officials discovered that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, their position was that Kennedy needed to immediately start bombing Cuba and then follow up with a full-scale ground invasion. Their position was much the same as the Russian position today with respect to Ukraine: They didn’t want Russian nuclear missiles pointed at the U.S. from only 90 miles away, just as today Russia doesn’t want U.S. nuclear missiles pointed at Russia from along Russian borders.
Thus, for the generals, the situation was black and white. In their minds, the only way to deal with this problem was to show toughness by bombing and invading Cuba. For them, failure to do that would display “weakness,” which would only encourage the worldwide communist movement.
Much to the anger and even rage of the generals, Kennedy took a different position. He tried to figure out what was motivating the Russians to engage in this dangerous nuclear brinkmanship.
Rather than immediately start bombing and invading Cuba, Kennedy imposed a blockade on the island, which he called a “quarantine.” It prohibited any Soviet ships with missiles from proceeding to Cuba.
At the same time, Kennedy figured out that the Soviets had placed their missiles in Cuba for two reasons:
One, the Soviets and the Cubans knew that the Pentagon and the CIA were hell-bent on effecting regime-change in Cuba through violence. Even though the CIA’s invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs had failed miserably, the Soviets and the Cubans knew that the Pentagon and the CIA were more determined than ever to oust the Cuban communist regime from power and install another pro-U.S. dictatorship, either through assassination, terrorism, or outright military invasion.
That, of course, is what the CIA’s assassination plots against Castro, in partnership with the Mafia, were all about. The Soviets and the Cubans were also right about the Pentagon’s and the CIA’s insistence on invading Cuba. Consider, for example, Operation Northwoods. That was a top-secret plan that was unanimously approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that provided fraudulent pretexts for war with Cuba. To Kennedy’s everlasting credit, he rejected any and all plans that entailed fraudulent pretexts for war with Cuba.
Two, the U.S. government had nuclear missiles based in Turkey that were pointed at the Soviet Union. Given such, the Soviet position was that it had as much right to install its nuclear missiles in Cuba that were pointed at the United States.
Kennedy figured all this out and decided to fashion a solution based on his insights into why the Soviets were behaving in that way. The solution entailed a promise that the United States would not invade Cuba, along with a separate secret side promise to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey. The Soviets, for their part, agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba and take them home. The crisis was over.
But not the war between Kennedy and the Pentagon and the CIA, which had gotten increasingly worse after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The generals were livid with Kennedy. During the crisis, Gen. Curtis LeMay, who loathed Kennedy, compared his actions to those of Neville Chamberlain at Munich. After the crisis was over, LeMay called Kennedy’s resolution of the crisis the biggest defeat in U.S. history.
There is no reasonable doubt that this was when the national-security establishment decided that Kennedy needed to be removed from office and replaced by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, who was on the same Cold War page as the Pentagon and the CIA. By his failure to provide needed air support for the Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, followed by his failure to approve Operation Northwoods, through his decision to leave Cuba permanently in communist hands, and by his decision to withdraw America’s nuclear missiles from Turkey, as far as the Pentagon and the CIA were concerned, Kennedy had proven that he was not capable of confronting and defeating the supposed communist threat to America.
For his part, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy realized the role that the Pentagon and the CIA had played in causing the crisis. If the Pentagon and the CIA had not been hell-bent on bringing about regime change in Cuba and had not installed U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union, the Soviets would not have placed their nuclear missiles in Cuba.
More important, Kennedy came to the realization that the entire Cold War was nothing but a highly dangerous and destructive racket. Therefore, in June 1963, he delivered his famous Peace Speech at American University, where he effectively declared an end to the Cold War and called for peaceful and friendly relations with the Soviet Union and the rest communist world. If there was anyone in the military and CIA hierarchy who still had doubts that Kennedy needed to be removed from office in order to save America from a communist takeover, those doubts would have been eliminated after JFK’s Peace Speech.
Don’t forget, after all, that establishing peaceful and friendly relations with the communist world is why the CIA violently ousted the democratically elected Guatemalan president, Jacob Arbenz, in 1954 and why the CIA would orchestrate the violent ouster of Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, from 1970 through 1973.
Kennedy was not a dumb man. He knew the dangers he was facing from his national-security establishment. That was why he helped to make the novel Seven Days in May, which posited the danger of a military takeover, into a movie. He wanted to warn the American people of the dangers posed by the national-security state governmental system, which America had adopted after World War II. Before you call Kennedy a “conspiracy theorist” though, keep in mind that President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, had also warned the American people of the dangers that the military-industrial complex posed to America’s democratic processes. Keep in mind also President Truman’s op-ed that was published in the Washington Post only a month after the Kennedy assassination stating that the CIA had become a sinister force in American life.
What are the chances that President Biden will stand up to the Pentagon and the CIA and come up with a satisfactory resolution of the Ukraine crisis? Slim to none. No president since Kennedy has been willing to stand up to the national-security establishment. It’s not difficult to understand why.