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A Special Supplement: Kennedy’s Private War

The SGCI was a special agency created by Kennedy to supervise the programs of the national security agencies. Kennedy selected Maxwell Taylor, then occupying a special office in the White House as the President’s military adviser, to be chairman of the SGCI, and the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, to be co-chairman. The state apparatus was thus centralized by appointing a chairman and a co-chairman whom the President personally trusted and who would report directly to him.

Taylor acted as a broker among the various power blocs to ensure that the agencies responded to the President’s bidding. Robert Kennedy was considered the moving force behind the SGCI. He attended every meeting and, by his personal tactics, managed to transform them into courtroom spectacles. Officers of the agencies presented their findings from a witness chair, and Kennedy would zealously and relentlessly cross-examine each witness.

Witnesses were often intimidated by his ferocity. When William Jorden, the author of two white papers on Vietnam, testified about infiltration from the North, for example, he was excused prematurely in order to avoid further embarrassment at Robert Kennedy’s hands. Another witness, reminded that the President’s brother was simply trying to get the facts, replied that Kennedy was “guilty of over-kill.” Kennedy’s function, it seems, was to instill some fear into the agencies—to persuade them that they were being watched closely by the President and should act accordingly.

Defenders of the Kennedy Administration contend that the purpose of these exertions was to keep America out of an unnecessary war in Southeast Asia. The Kennedys, it is suggested, believed that the only way to avoid a deepening and perhaps irreversible commitment to Vietnam was to expose the inflated statements offered by officials who wished to draw the nation into a wider war. But these rationalizations do not hold up when it is recalled that the purpose of the SGCI in general, and Robert Kennedy’s purpose in particular, was to centralize in the hands of the President control of a national state security machinery which was increasingly committed to war in Southeast Asia.

The CIA had displayed its power to make foreign policy at the Bay of Pigs, forcing the President to assume responsibility for events he had not initiated and could not control. After Cuba, Kennedy fired Allen Dulles and appointed John McCone as director of the CIA, perhaps because McCone was considered more manageable. At the same time, he created the 303 Committee to break the CIA’s independent power and place the agency under his own management. From that time on, the CIA had to clear each of its programs in advance and report directly to McGeorge Bundy, the chairman of the 303 Committee and the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Bundy, Maxwell Taylor, and Robert Kennedy were trusted lieutenants who took their orders directly from the President and were placed in charge of special agencies to centralize command in the national security apparatus on the President’s behalf.

Not only were the 303 Committee and the SGCI designed to unify the state apparatus directly under President Kennedy in Washington, but every effort was made to duplicate this pattern in the field. When Kennedy assumed the Presidency, one of the problems plaguing American foreign policy was the fact that each agency in the field acted as if it were a self-contained system, staking a claim against the Pentagon for its own resources, moving from one part of the globe to the next according to its assessment of where the action was, insulating itself from supervision above, and extending its imperial writ below. The armed services offered the prime examples of separate fiefdoms run wild; but the civil agencies in the field, including the CIA, State, USIA, and others, also made their own rules and circumvented all attempts at direction from above.

The CIA, for example, was assigned a percentage of all shipping to Vietnam, set up its own network of communications in the field, and had its own direct channel back to Washington. Laos simply became competitive turf for the several agencies. Each moved in with personnel and material, then sought a program first to justify its presence and second to expand its domain. Aircraft stationed in Korea were forwarded to Vietnam on Air Force orders which had not been cleared at higher levels, and when such clearance became necessary, dummy committees were created at the Pentagon to clear automatically any material requested. So far as the agencies in the field were concerned, questions of state were politically unreal. The sole reality was the national economy, which was viewed as an infinite source of supply.

The origin of Operation Ranchhand under the expert guidance of William Godell offers a classic example. ARPA appropriated surplus funds to begin the defoliation program, and then, in order to justify an increased budget, bypassed the original guidelines and expanded the program. Much as feudal warlords had waged war against each other within fledgling nations, so the modern agencies looked upon each other as rivals and tried to grab power and resources within the fledgling empire.

To cope with this problem, Kennedy, in 1961, gave US ambassadors full power to control the national security agencies in the field. Thus, all the agencies were required to clear their programs with and be supervised by the ambassadors to the countries in which they were operating. Together they were called the “Country Team,” with the ambassador as captain, who received his authority directly from Kennedy and reported directly to him. Just as Kennedy had hoped to bring the national security agencies in Washington under the command and control of the SGCI, so he relied upon the concept of the Country Team to achieve the same control in the field.

The Joint Chiefs

But the Joint Chiefs of Staff—in contrast to the other national security agencies—have independent support both in Congress and in the country. Working through the chairmen of key Congressional committees, the Chiefs have automatic access to one branch of government to articulate the proposals they deem important, regardless of whether they have the support of the President or his senior advisers. Once these proposals are made public, the Chiefs can count on the right-wing constituency in the country to support them. Since the Chiefs formulate, express, and then personify the national interest on any issue concerning national security, they rival the President’s claim to sovereignty. By virtue of their support in Congress, their political constituency, and their claim upon the flag, the Chiefs, unlike other government groups, can even charge the President with treason. Because of their formidable power, the President must respond to any proposal they put forward.

The President, of course, can command his own resources to persuade the Chiefs to champion his causes. But he must always bargain with them and grant them certain concessions if they oppose him or if he needs their public support. Once the state embarks on war, this uneasy balance between the President and the Chiefs gradually tips on the side of the Chiefs. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, not the Commander-in-Chief, are presumed to know how to manage a war. The President who opposes their programs lays himself open to the charge that he is playing with American lives.

Thus, when the President expands a war on the grounds that he is protecting the lives of US troops in the field he either has, in effect, borrowed the Chiefs’ argument and is announcing for all to hear that his policies are in full accord with those of the military or he is anticipating just such a challenge by the Chiefs and is preparing his own defense. The policies of the Chiefs, moreover, invariably extend the zone of combat until victory is achieved. The Chiefs also depart from civilian leaders in being willing to wage nuclear war, if that is considered necessary to avoid defeat.

But if a war can be presented as a police action, or can proceed under cover as a private matter, then the power of the Chiefs can be sharply limited. Thus, Kennedy had an obvious stake in keeping the war private. But he was not passive. During the period of the private war Kennedy set about building the elite corps of the Green Berets. In Kennedy, Sorenson wrote:

But the President’s pride was still the Army Special Forces, rapidly growing to a level some five or six times as large as when he took office, although still small both in total numbers and in relation to the need for more. The President directed—again over the opposition of top generals—that the Special Forces wear Green Berets as a mark of distinction.

Kennedy wanted to carry on the Vietnam war exclusively through the Special Forces, which would enable him to seize command of the national military apparatus. He seems to have had a vision of the Green Berets as a Praetorian Guard, an elite army directly under the command and control of the President. The Green Berets represented Kennedy’s attempt to curb the power of the Chiefs and institutionalize the military directly under the Presidency.

Edward Lansdale, a devout believer in the Special Forces and in the concept of counterinsurgency, was quietly assigned an office under McNamara in 1961 and given the power to keep Vietnam under Presidential control. This was a mistake. The Joint Chiefs immediately perceived Lansdale as a potential threat and they set up their own counterinsurgency agency by creating a Special Assistant for Counter-Insurgency and Special Activities (SACSA). Victor Krulak, the first “SACSA,” a former Marine Corps general and an astute politician who was referred to as “the brute,” undercut Lansdale at every turn until Lansdale was called a “paper tiger.”

Once he gained control over counterinsurgency, Krulak was able to restore some of the power of the Chiefs. The military first employed the concept of counterinsurgency as a cover to gain control over part of the plans for covert operations, then expanded it to include conventional warfare, which the military was organized to pursue. In this respect, there was an implicit accord between the military and civilian leadership.

Every one of Secretary McNamara’s famous visits to Vietnam was a guided tour carefully stage-managed by the Joint Chiefs. McNamara would stop off at Hawaii and pick up a briefing book, prepared by Krulak, which contained brilliant charts and graphs displaying the progress of the war. McNamara would scan the book to obtain the information he needed for press conferences to be held in Saigon. After the trip, the information would be converted into a hard-cover volume containing references to McNamara’s recent findings in Vietnam, but again written by Krulak. This book would then be handed to the President as the final report. The book had been written in advance of the trip just as the trip itself had been planned in advance.

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