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When Daily Intelligence Briefings Prevented a Nuclear War

On Sunday, President-elect Donald Trump said he doesn’t need to get daily intelligence briefings—now or after his inauguration on January 20—because he is, “like, a smart person.”

Before he does away with the ritual, he might want to consider a particular time in history when a president did his homework, took his briefings, paid attention to the details and in so doing averted a nuclear war.

It was October 19, 1962—the fourth day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union seemed more likely by the hour—and John F. Kennedy was hosting a tense, 45-minute conversation with his Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had since the very beginning of the confrontation urged a massive air strike against Cuban targets.

Leaning back in his leather swivel chair, his expression icy and resolute, Kennedy listened with pique as Air Force General Curtis LeMay denounced the president’s plan to impose a blockade on Cuba, rather than launch an offensive military campaign. The blockade was “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” LeMay indecorously told the president. It was a “weak response” and “a lot of our citizens would feel that way, too. In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.” Kennedy was in near-disbelief. “What did you say?” he asked.

“You’re in a pretty bad fix.”

Letting out an unfriendly chuckle, the president replied, “You’re in there with me.” He also didn’t budge: The U.S. would not launch a military strike.

The year before, as a new president—and the youngest ever elected to the office—Kennedy had allowed hawkish elements in the intelligence community and military brass talk him into a disastrous operation at the Bay of Pigs. Not this time. He had grown skeptical of their judgment and broadened his circle of advisers. He became an apt student of intelligence and readiness reports. In short, he evolved into an active, engaged and supremely informed commander-in-chief—and in the process avoided setting off nuclear conflagration.

It’s a moment in history Trump would do well to remember before he shrugs off the details of U.S. intelligence and leaves them to his right-hand men.

Trump—who will be the least-experienced president in modern history—has surrounded himself by retired generals and foreign policy hawks. That’s his prerogative. But Americans require a commander-in-chief who is informed, astute and engaged—armed with sufficient knowledge and context to ask the right questions and provide the right push-back. There is no delegating this job to a vice president or senior White House aide. As John Kennedy learned the hard way, only one individual bears responsibility.

***

As an avid student of diplomacy and former member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Kennedy entered office with strong ideas about foreign policy. He was deeply skeptical of the Eisenhower administration’s policy of “massive retaliation”: it assumed that if the U.S. and Soviet Union achieved a nuclear stalemate, both sides would be incentivized to avoid conflict, as whichever side launched the first attack was sure to meet with a counter-assault of equal force. It was mutually assured destruction. JFK thought there was too much room for human error or folly. He dreaded the possibility of a nuclear holocaust and preferred a program of “flexible response” that relied on the deployment of conventional forces on a tactical, contingent basis.

His top brass thought little of “flexible response” and even less of the new president. Most of his chiefs had served under General Dwight Eisenhower in World War II and regarded JFK as young, untested, unprepared. They also shared an abiding faith in nuclear deterrence. Also, they were—almost to the man—a group straight out of central casting for a Cold War dark comedy.

There was Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, combat veteran of WWII and Korea, whose “bear-like” physique and “booming voice” allowed him to own a room. He regarded Kennedy as a man “with no military experience at all, sort of a patrol boat skipper.”

Admiral Arleigh Burke, who came close to delivering a public speech in which he would propose that the U.S. bomb “the Soviet Union from hell to breakfast.” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara forbade him from delivering it and subsequently required that all general officers pre-clear their public addresses with the White House. The generals were not happy.

Curtis LeMay—“Old Iron Pants”—who was dumbfounded by the Kennedy administration’s queasiness on the topic of nuclear war. “Would things be much worse if Nikita Khrushchev were Secretary of Defense?” he asked.

Air Force General Thomas Power, who once asked officials at the RAND Corporation why they were concerned about keeping body counts down on both sides in the event of a nuclear conflict. “The whole idea is to kill the bastards,” he cried. “At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.” (LeMay, who was the model for General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s classic, Dr. Strangelove, thought Powers “not stable.”)

Kennedy acknowledged early in his term that “it’s good to have men like Curt LeMay and Arleigh Burke commanding troops once you decide to go in. But these men aren’t the only ones you should listen to when you decide whether to go in or not.”

Unfortunately, Kennedy didn’t heed his own advice. In April 1961, he allowed CIA Director Allen Dulles and the military brass to convince him to carry out a covert operation that dated from the Eisenhower administration. Armed Cuban exiles—1400 strong, all outfitted and trained by the U.S—would invade Cuba by way of the Bay of Pigs and spark an armed uprising against President Fidel Castro.

There was ample dissent within Kennedy’s circle. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, reminding the president that Castro commanded a larger army by far, observed that it “doesn’t take Price-Waterhouse to figure out that fifteen hundred aren’t as good as twenty-five thousand.” White House aides Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Goodwin, and Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles, all advised against the operation. But Kennedy listened to the CIA and to the generals. In the rout that followed, over 120 men were killed (including several U.S. airmen) and over 1,200 taken prisoner.

“All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts,” Kennedy lamented. “How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?”

***

Sixteen months later, Kennedy learned that the Soviets were constructing medium-range missile sites in Cuba, a move that would place most of the country’s major metropolitan areas— including Washington, D.C.—in jeopardy of nuclear attack and cancel out America’s advantage in long-range missile capacity. Once again, the CIA and the joint chiefs urged swift, aggressive action in the form of airstrikes against Soviet targets in Cuba, with a potential invasion of the island to follow. McNamara feared that such a preemptive strike would provoke a nuclear retaliation. “It could be a very heavy price to pay in U.S. lives for the damage we did to Cuba,” he believed.

This time, JFK listened to a wider spectrum of voices. His Executive Committee (or ExComm) included the secretaries of Treasury, State and Defense; General Maxwell Taylor, the new chairman of the joint chiefs, and a much cooler head who showed deference to the president; McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Adviser; Vice President Lyndon Johnson; and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

He also consulted experienced hands like George Ball, the new under secretary of state, and several Sociologists with wide-ranging government experience. Above all, he stayed informed. He knew the maps, studied the intelligence, asked probing questions of his advisers. Tape recordings of ExComm meetings show that over the 13 days that spanned the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was firmly in control of facts and decisions. Much to their irritation, he excluded the joint chiefs from many hours of deliberation. He knew what they had to say and armed himself with a range of countervailing options. When he did meet with them, he knew what questions to ask and what assumptions to challenge.

When Kennedy left the room following his charged meeting with the joint chiefs on October 19, the tape recorder picked up the generals’ voices as they conferred amongst themselves. “Either you do this son of bitch and do it right,” one said of the proposed bombing and invasion of Cuba, “and quit friggin’ around.” Back in his office, the president told his aide, Kenny O’Donnell, that he thought his military advisers were delusional. “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we … do what they want us to, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

The president ultimately resisted the CIA and the joint chiefs and instead imposed a blockade—or “quarantine”—on Cuba. After several tense days, the Kennedy brothers brokered a backchannel deal by which the Soviets dismantled their missile sites in Cuba, in return for which the United States quietly removed its missiles from Turkey several months later. Remarkably, even after the standoff ended, the generals—all except for Taylor—advocated unilateral air strikes and an invasion. LeMay called the settlement “the greatest defeat in our history” and told JFK that only a successful overthrow of Castro’s regime could salvage the setback.

A lesser president might have heeded his generals’ advice. But Kennedy—who was “absolutely shocked” by the joint chiefs’ suggestion, according to a friend—had evolved.

***

Historians differ widely in their appraisal of John F. Kennedy, but most would concur that he was “like, a smart person.” During his brief time in office, he showed a capacity for intellectual and moral growth.

But, as the Bay of Pigs example shows, even smart presidents need to be informed and engaged, and concern themselves with the minutia of foreign policy. Kennedy’s successful leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates that it wasn’t a case of disregarding “the experts” who failed him the year before. Rather, he matched their expertise—and that of the authorities from State, Treasury, Justice and Defense—and in so doing was able to engage them as an informed equal.

We live in a different but no less dangerous time. In his vow to decline daily intelligence briefings, Donald Trump has rejected Kennedy’s ethos of engagement and responsibility and substituted it with a stubborn, vainglorious celebration of ego and instinct. It raises serious questions about both his stamina and grasp of the enormous responsibilities he’ll inherit in January.

The point is not that Trump shouldn’t trust his gut: He’s going to have to, often. Nor that he should be wary of his military advisers: Most of the former generals he has appointed come with stellar qualifications and temperaments (though one—General Michael Flynn—seems like he could give Thomas Power and Curtis LeMay a run for their money).

Rather, the president-elect has a responsibility to arm himself with all of the information available to him to keep Americans safe. An uninformed president isn’t equipped to ask the right questions or provide the right push-back. John Kennedy learned that lesson quickly. We can only hope that Donald Trump learns it before next month.

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