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JFK, McGeorge Bundy, and the Continuity of Government


The assassination of President Kennedy was an unnerving event for the people of the United States and the world. Contradictory news stories that followed, as well as the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, caused many people to wonder what was really going on. Many people suspected a conspiracy, and rumors spread that perhaps the president was killed by his successor, or as part of a communist plot, or by mysterious forces inside the U.S. government.

President Lyndon Johnson established the Warren Commission to suppress such rumors and the American media played its part in supporting the commission’s findings when it released its report in September 1964. The report was an official government document presented to the world and the public at large.

However, Lyndon Johnson’s national-security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, who also had that position in the Kennedy administration, wrote a long and unnoticed article in the Council of Foreign Relations journal Foreign Affairs to reassure elite opinion.

The Council of Foreign Relations is an elite establishment think tank whose members today consist of about 4,800 people, almost all of them are leaders in business, academia, or the government. Its journal is one of the most prestigious publications in the United States and is used to not only reflect elite opinion but also to mold it. It is in this journal that Richard Nixon first brought up the possibility of making a tilt towards China before he was president in an article titled Asia After Vietnam.

In April 1964 Bundy wrote an article in Foreign Affairs titled The Presidency and the Peace. In this article he reassured not the general public but rather American elites that the American system of government, including the institution of the presidency, was still functioning normally after the assassination of President Kennedy.

As for Kennedy, Bundy wrote, “His death revealed his greatness, and the grief of the world was less for his tragedy than for its own — in that he had shown his spreading grasp of his duty to mankind as Chief Executive for Peace.”

In the article Bundy then noted that Kennedy ensured that the United States maintained its nuclear arsenal to deter enemies and thereby maintain the peace. But in “a related point,” Bundy wrote, “was the President’s powerful aversion to those nuclear weapons which could be used effectively only in a first strike. In 1961 and 1962 he faced a series of judgments on major systems; he always preferred the system which could survive an attack, as against the system which might provoke one. In the same way and for related reasons he preferred the system which was on the high seas or at home to that which required a base abroad and evoked a real or pretended charge of encirclement from Moscow.”

At the same time, Bundy wrote, “The nuclear age multiplies the mistrust that peaceable men must feel toward military men who appear not to be under effective control, and nothing adds more to a President’s reputation abroad than recognition that he is Commander-in-Chief in fact as well as in name.”

Bundy wrote,

Yet the Kennedy years show again, as the terms of strong Presidents have shown before, that harmony, not conflict, is the normal relation between the Armed Services and the Presidency. The maintenance of clear Presidential control over military policy and over public statements gave rise to some criticism, and intermittently there were assertions that this or that military need was being overridden – this or that viewpoint silenced. Energy and strength in the Office of the Secretary of Defense produced similar worries, and challenges to cherished privileges were not unresisted. But the center of emphasis belongs on the fact that the Presidency has these powers in this country; a President who uses them firmly, with a defensible concept of the national security, can count on the support of the officers and men of the Armed Forces. The American tradition of civilian control is strong and the tradition of loyalty among professional officers high; the services are eager for a strong and active Commander-in-Chief. The armed strength of the United States, if handled with firmness and prudence, is a great force for peace.

Referring to President Kennedy, Bundy wrote,

He rejected the stale rhetoric of the cold war; he insisted not on the innate wickedness of Communism but on its evil effects. The Communist world was seldom if ever “the enemy.” Characteristically, as in his Inaugural Address, the President used a circumlocution whose unaccustomed clumsiness was proof that it was carefully chosen: “those nations who would make themselves our adversary.” Characteristically, too, what he there offered them was a request “to begin anew the quest for peace.”

But there is more to the presidency than the individual man. The office itself represents the forces of peace and democracy in the world. Bundy continued,

The White House visit and the White House photograph are elements of democratic electioneering not just in the United States, but wherever the name of the American President can bring a cheer. The death of a President men loved has shown how wide this larger constituency is. Allies, neutrals, and even adversaries attend to the Presidency. When the American President shows that he can understand and respect the opinions and hopes of distant nations, when he proves able to represent the interests of his own people without neglecting the interests of others, when in his own person he represents decency, hope, and freedom-then he is strengthened in his duty to be the leader of man’s quest for peace in the age of nuclear weapons. And this strength will be at least as important in meeting danger as in pursuing hope.

And now Lyndon Johnson was in office as President. Bundy wrote,

President Johnson will conduct the office in his own way. Yet the short space of three months is enough to show plainly that the pursuit of peace remains his central concern, while the effective transfer from one Administration to the next has reflected the fact that loyalty to President Kennedy and loyalty to President Johnson are not merely naturally compatible, but logically necessary as a part of a larger loyalty to their common purpose.

Many people have wondered whether the Kennedy assassination represented something dark in America or a problem inside the American government. Bundy though answered such worries with this ending comment in his article, “In the terrible shock of President Kennedy’s death there were many — perhaps too many — who saw the foul deeds of a few days in Dallas, and not the dead President himself, as the embodiment of the real America. They were wrong. As a man, as a President, as a servant of the Peace, he was what we are, and his achievement belongs to us all. Strengthened by his service the Presidency continues, and so does the quest for Peace.”

In other words, according to Bundy, the biggest obstacle to nuclear war is the office of the presidency. In the aftermath of the assassination, Bundy strived to reassure elite opinion that the presidency and its power continued to exist and operate, no matter what people may have thought about the events of Dallas.

To me, this is a fascinating article.

McGeorge Bundy first got involved directly in foreign affairs in his mid-twenties during World War II by acting as a secretary to Secretary of War Henry Stimson where he spent most of his time working as a liaison officer for Stimson and the men managing the atomic bomb Manhattan Project.

There was a problem right after the dropping of the atomic bomb, which is recounted in Kai Bird’s Bundy biography The Color of Truth. The problem was that the bomb was so horrible that there was a bit of outrage over it and a questioning of whether it was necessary.

In May 1946, Reinhold Niebuhr and 21 clergymen and philosophers put an ad in the New York Times denouncing the use of the atomic bomb as “morally indefensible.” In July of 1946, reports in the press appeared of a leaked U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey report that said that “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

On August 31, 1946, the New Yorker magazine devoted an entire issue to an article detailing the death and destruction in Hiroshima in detail, which was widely read and created sympathy for the victims. A month later Admiral William Halsey, a commander of the Pacific Fleet, said that bomb was dropped because the scientists “had a toy and wanted to try it out.”

Stimson, who was then in retirement, and the president of Harvard sent letters to Bundy stating that they worried that all of this talk would cause the American people to return to isolationism and lose their interest in the emerging Cold War conflict.

So Bundy got with Stimson and ghostwrote an article for him defending the use of the atomic bomb. The article’s arguments and its defense of the bomb became common wisdom. Their argument basically said that Truman had no choice because if the Japanese did not surrender, the United States would have had to invade Japan and would have lost one million men.

Where did they get that number? Bundy contacted the War Department to try to get its wartime casualty estimates. They didn’t response, so he just made up the number of a million people.

The article appeared in Harper’s magazine. The president of Harvard congratulated the two on the article, writing to Stimson, “It seems exactly right, and I am sure will do a great deal of good” in encouraging the American people to “stay tough” in their attitude to using the bomb and “if propaganda against the use of the bomb had been allowed to grow unchecked, the strength of our military position by virtue of having the bomb would have been correspondingly weakened.”

Many historians of the atomic bomb and arms race have written about this article, which had a giant impact afterwards in molding public opinion and elite opinion. It helped the nation come to grips with the bomb accept its use against Japan. Bundy had played a key role in reassuring the public about the bomb and its use against Japan.

With his article in the April 1964 issue of Foreign Affairs, it may be that Bundy was playing a similar role relating to the JFK assassination, reassuring the elite higher-ups that the assassination would not affect the continued position and power of the presidency, with Lyndon Johnson now at the helm, as a force for peace in the world.


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    Michael Swanson resides in rural Virginia. He received a Masters Degree in history from the University of Virginia and then dropped out of the college’s Ph.D. program to enter the business world. He ran a hedge fund from 2003 until 2006 and runs the website Wallstreetwindow.com.