Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

JFK (II): He was learning, so he wouldn’t have sent combat forces to Vietnam

Fred Kaplan is one of the more interesting defense writers around, taking a broad approach. Here, by the way, is his review of Robert Dallek’s new book on Kennedy. And here are two of his e-mails to me in response to my Friday post about how I had come to think Kennedy was a terrible ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Fred Kaplan is one of the more interesting defense writers around, taking a broad approach. Here, by the way, is his review of Robert Dallek's new book on Kennedy.

And here are two of his e-mails to me in response to my Friday post about how I had come to think Kennedy was a terrible president. I disagree with what he says here, but I think it is worth considering.

By Fred Kaplan
Best Defense department of defending JFK

Fred Kaplan is one of the more interesting defense writers around, taking a broad approach. Here, by the way, is his review of Robert Dallek’s new book on Kennedy.

And here are two of his e-mails to me in response to my Friday post about how I had come to think Kennedy was a terrible president. I disagree with what he says here, but I think it is worth considering.

By Fred Kaplan
Best Defense department of defending JFK

[E-mail 1:]

Just to state a few points on the question of whether JFK was a terrible president:

(1) Yes, he listened to Taylor and other hawks early on, but the Cuban missile crisis, which you glide over, was a turning point. The real significance (which I’ve gleaned from a close examination of the tapes) is that, quite early on (the 4th day), JFK was looking for how to give Khrushchev a face-saving way out; that when Khrushchev offered the secret trade (his Cuban missiles for our Turkish ones), JFK wanted to take it right away, while everyone — and I mean everyone around the table (except, significantly, George Ball) — was adamantly opposed. I think that the crisis taught him that all those smart experts sitting around the table weren’t any smarter than he was. (He was beginning to see this point during the Laos crisis, when his generals behaved like bureaucrats — the Army wanted to invade, the Air Force wanted to send B52s, the Navy wanted to send carrier groups.) Another key thing: JFK told six people that he was taking the deal and swore them to secrecy. Among the people he did not tell was LBJ. This was a critical mistake, as it left intact a false lesson of the crisis, which JFK’s successors (including LBJ) applied to Vietnam. (McGeorge Bundy concedes this point in his memoir.)

(2) One big difference between JFK and LBJ on Vietnam is that JFK never sent "combat troops," in fact always drew a line on that point. Now true, the line between "combat troops" and "advisers" are getting a bit hazy, but there’s some evidence he wouldn’t have plunged across the line so avidly. Point (1) is circumstantial evidence. There’s also the fact (I think this is in Richard Reeves) book that Kennedy went to Vietnam in the early ’50s, I’m pretty sure he went to Dien Bien Phu, or thereabouts, where he talked with some French commanders, who told him the United States should never get involved in this place. 

(3) Someone once asked Clark Clifford if he thought JFK would have escalated in Vietnam. Clifford (who I’m not saying should be trusted on all matters, by the way) thought a moment and said, "No. He was too cold." In other words, he didn’t get emotionally involved in something. Johnson’s tragedy was that, however skeptical he was of Vietnam (cf his taped exchange in the Oval Office with his old pal Richard Russell), he was caught up in the idea of not wanting to be the first president to lose a war, etc. I think JFK would have addressed the matter more coolly, especially after the ’64 election. 

(4) Watch the ABC documentary Crisis, about how JFK handled the crisis down in Alabama in 1963, when Gov George Wallace was trying to block two Negro students from enrolling in the state university. (It’s on DVD.) His resolution, in retrospect, was very similar to the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis.

There are other points here. My bottom line is that Kennedy changed a lot after the Bay of Pigs and Laos, and changed even more after the Cuban missile crisis….

[And e-mail 2, in response to my blaming JFK for getting us into the Cuban missile crisis in the first place]

I’m not sure if Kennedy is to blame on getting into the crisis in the first place. Yes, at Vienna he may have let Khrushchev think he could get away with this "harebrained scheme," but an important thing that happened after Vienna was Kennedy’s calling Khrushchev’s bluff on Berlin. People don’t remember the Berlin crisis of August-September 1961. Khrushchev said he was ripping up the treaty that divided Berlin into four zones, that West Berlin would now be part of East German, and if we tried to prevent this, there would be war. Kennedy confronted him (in fact, I have documentary evidence that he seriously considered a nuclear first-strike to stop him — though in the end, he decided the risks and damage would be too great — others were in favor of it, though, eg, Paul Nitze). US and Soviet tanks faced each other along a checkpoint, within firing range, for 25 hours, before Khrushchev backed away. It was at this point that Khrushchev decided to send missiles to Cuba. He realized that, with the first spy satellites, the US knew that his claims of "churning out ICBMs like sausages" was bullshit, that the missile gap wasn’t real, or rather that it was but that it was the US that was far ahead of the USSR. (One reason he knew this was that the deputy secretary of defense said so in a speech.) He feared the possibility of a US strike and knew that the USSR would not be able to retaliate in force. (This was one conclusion of Kennedy’s 1st-strike study, though, as I said, Kennedy — and almost everyone else around him — judged that the damage, especially to West Europe through fallout, would be too extensive to take the risk; the Berlin crisis was ultimately settled through back-channel diplomacy.) So he saw the MRBMs in Cuba as a way to close the gap, at least for a while (some MRBMs 90 miles from the US would have the same deterrent effect as some ICBMs half a world away). And then (to continue my rebuttal of your claim that JFK was the worst president in history), Kennedy managed that crisis to a peaceful resolution, despite enormous pressure — from his civilian advisers and the chiefs — to bomb the missiles. Read the transcript of the last day of the ExComm session (not the one in Zelikow’s book, which, he now realizes, was based on a poor transfer of the tape) but either the one put out by the JFK Library or the one that Zelikow published in a 3-volume set for the Miller Center at UVA.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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