• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

JFK’s Big Moment

The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960–1963

by Michael R. Beschloss
HarperCollins/Edward Burlingame Books, 816 pp., $29.95

Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis

by Dino A. Brugioni
Random House, 599 pp., $35.00

The fading of the cold war makes it increasingly hard to write an objective review of Michael Beschloss’s excellent book. In this day of quieter relations with Moscow not even the most talented writer can fully re-create the atmosphere of fear and imminent danger that pervaded Washington. All of us who worked in the postwar American administrations were aware that the Soviet leaders had the power to blow America off the face of the earth.

That sense of ever-present doom proved particularly poignant for President John Kennedy, in whose administration I served first as under secretary of state for economic affairs and then as under secretary of state. Especially during his early weeks in the White House, he felt critically menaced both by enemies abroad and adversaries at home. He lacked his predecessor’s high reputation for military command, while his limited electoral victory in 1960 cast doubt on the breadth of his mandate.

I recall, for example, his excuse for inaction when in early 1961 some of us discussed an initiative to normalize relations with Red China. He could not seriously consider that project now, he said, but might well do so when and if he should win election for a second term with a larger majority.

In addition to his narrow electoral victory the President was, by twentieth-century (though not by eighteenth-century) standards, far too young to be taken seriously as a statesman. Although he maintained an outward appearance of aplomb and invulnerability, he never forgot that the American people were comparing him with Eisenhower, a looming father figure whose established reputation not only for overwhelming military but also for political victories had given him political self-assurance.

Kennedy’s political assets were far less impressive. In Congress, his reputation had been more for absenteeism than serious achievement. He had never belonged to the inner circle of senators; nor was he confident of an always capricious public support. His major political assets were his good looks and the glamour of a golden boy.

As Professor Beschloss suggests, Kennedy’s Soviet opponent in the opposite corner appears also, but to a lesser degree, to have been unsure of himself. He repeatedly attributes many aspects of Khrushchev’s behavior to constraints similar to those experienced by Kennedy. Khrushchev was constantly sensitive to the bitter hatred of the Soviet hard-liners.

Professor Beschloss quite accurately describes the shifting succession of preoccupations that marked the Khrushchev–Kennedy years. At the outset the new administration felt hard-pressed to rectify Kennedy’s reckless campaign charges of a “missile gap” between the US and the Soviet Union; and Defense Secretary McNamara finally had to acknowledge that none existed. Then Kennedy was beset by a problem that had already troubled the Eisenhower administration: repeated Soviet threats to sign a peace treaty with the DDR and thus gain control of access to Berlin.

In addition Castro’s Cuba formed an overhanging cloud of public shame and obsession. Many Americans felt outraged and vulnerable that a Communist outpost should exist so close to their country. Castro’s Soviet ties seemed an affront to our history. Such national indignation played a commanding role in the first major crisis of the Kennedy regime—the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Because until the fall of 1961 I was under secretary of state for economic affairs and was only marginally involved in political matters, I had no part in the highly restricted planning operation that preceded the Bay of Pigs fiasco. In discussing it at all I am, therefore, relying not on my own contemporary observations but rather on accounts that I heard from my colleagues as well as the many books and memoirs that have since emerged.

Kennedy, as is now well known, did not initiate the Bay of Pigs project but received it full-blown from the Eisenhower administration. The CIA had shared the public preoccupation with Castro and had dreamed up a number of preposterous schemes to eliminate him. Many were adolescent fantasies, including a plan to have Castro’s shoes dusted with a depilatory that would make his beard fall out, thus depriving him, so the experts said, of the badge of virility thought essential to lead the Cubans. In addition, what was called “Track Two” of the plan contemplated Castro’s assassination before the Bay of Pigs invasion and even involved the enlistment of known American gangsters to assist in killing him.

During the last year of the Eisenhower presidency the CIA had scoured the Miami community of expatriate Cubans that formed an anti-Cuban underground, and had gathered more than one thousand men in training camps in Guatemala to participate in an attack on Cuba. High expectations had been built up at least in intelligence circles, and the press had gained a whiff of these activities.

Had Kennedy been longer in office he might have realized that the plan depended on large elements of fantasy based on dubious intelligence and reinforced by the prevailing neurosis about Cuba. That the CIA could be so sure, for example, that the Cuban population would rise against Castro to support such an invasion is merely one more tragic example of wishful intelligence analysis by which our country has been repeatedly victimized.

The preliminary planning and preparations had all been made by the Eisenhower administration, with the active encouragement of the vice-president, Richard Nixon. In fact, on the day before Kennedy’s inauguration, Eisenhower had told the new president that the CIA’s project was going well and that the new president had the “responsibility” to do “whatever is necessary” to make it succeed.

The dilemma in which Kennedy found himself was thus both poignant and agonizing. Ever since January 1960 substantial effort had gone into organizing the operation. Some leaks to the press had already occurred, and the plan had become widely known among the Cuban underground in Miami. Had Kennedy abandoned the project he would thus have been faced with a considerable “disposal problem,” as the prospect was referred to by his friends and advisers. More important, he would have been charged with cowardice and held up to derisory comparison with his warrior predecessor. No doubt his fear of being criticized as a coward was reinforced by the brash encouragement of his speculator father, Joseph Kennedy, whom he visited just before making the decision to go forward.

When, as the world knows, the operation failed miserably, a crowd of self-appointed experts emerged from the woodwork to assert that the United States Air Force should have provided air cover. That, of course, was precisely what Kennedy wished to avoid; it would have given substance to America’s imperialistic reputation throughout Latin America, embarrassed our friends in Europe, and played into the hands of Soviet propagandists.

To me, the disaster merely confirmed a belief I had strongly held for some years—that the United States government should renounce covert operations. Not only could we not keep them covert, but in cases where interference was fully justified we should visibly employ our own armed forces and not rely on ragtag discontents, such as, in more recent years, the Nicaraguan contras. The use of such surrogates was a source more of embarrassment than of pride.

The CIA, I have long believed, should be limited to the gathering and analysis of intelligence, and its operational activities chopped off. More often than not our clandestine services have not only made catastrophic operational blunders but have failed to assess the probable consequences of their actions. Thus when the Eisenhower administration succeeded in deposing Arbenz in Guatemala, we blessed the population of that poor country with a succession of dictators. We overthrew Mosaddegh in Iran and returned the Shah for an extension of his artificial reign, and thus made way for the Ayatollah Khomeini and Islamic fundamentalism. We helped to finance a military coup in Chile in 1974 which murdered Allende and left that country to the brutal rule of General Pinochet. In 1979 we helped overthrow the long-term dictatorship of Somoza in Nicaragua so that he could be replaced by Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, whom we then tried to overthrow for the next ten years. I shall not discuss what we have accomplished in Salvador; there is little to say.

Our attempt to dislodge Castro by the Bay of Pigs invasion was thus merely one item in a dishonorable list. These were not, however, the conclusions that those immediately around the President reached. Bobby Kennedy had the greatest fascination with covert action. According to James Reston in his recent memoirs, “Bobby monkeyed around with amateur plots to assassinate Castro,” and during the Vietnam experience both he and Walt Rostow were fanatical believers in what was fashionably called the cult of “counterinsurgency” derived from its prophet, Chairman Mao.1

To provide some control over CIA schemes an interdepartmental committee was established early in the Kennedy administration to vet all covert projects in advance. By this time, I was the under secretary of state (now called deputy secretary). Rather than attend myself I delegated the task to the deputy under secretary, U. Alexis Johnson, who reviewed with me all of the projects for dirty tricks in advance of a committee meeting, including the covert operations against Castro called Operation Mongoose. Most of them, in my view, were either absurd or just plain childish. Some were recklessly dangerous. As I recall, in almost no case did I find any covert operations worthy of an American initiative. They were based on the improbable assumption that, given money or encouragement, the population of a whole country would rise against its leader. America’s objective, as they described it, was to achieve democracy by replacing “their bastard with our bastard.”

After Kennedy’s difficult meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, from which Kennedy took away the impression that Khrushchev was in an aggressive mood, the principal emphasis of foreign policy was shifted to the repeated Soviet threat to sign a peace treaty with the DDR that would enable the Soviets to control access to Berlin and thus in effect eliminate the NATO forces then stationed there. In the Soviets’ view the presence of NATO troops in West Berlin was an aberration.

This threat, when coupled with the ever-present awareness of the nuclear danger, conditioned Kennedy’s attitude toward Khrushchev, and it tacitly but persistently restricted the scope of his policies and actions. The Soviet temptation to cut off Berlin was greatly stimulated by the swelling migration of East Germany’s most talented citizens to the West. Had that brain drain been permitted to continue, the DDR would, in the Kremlin’s view, have lost most of its technical and managerial leaders.

Thus by halting the flight to the West, building the Berlin Wall relieved pressure on the Soviets to create a new Berlin crisis. As a result, although Kennedy could never publicly admit it, he was privately relieved that the Wall might reduce that pressure. That reaction was, of course, a tightly held secret in administration circles. The President meanwhile had some difficulty in defending himself from domestic political charges of timidity because he did not promptly react with force to remove the Wall.

  1. 1

    James Reston, Deadline: A Memoir (Random House, 1991).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print