The sixth chapter of the video documentary series can be viewed here. The series can also be viewed in its entirety on Netflix, or purchased directly at untoldhistory.com. Below is our transcribed text, written by Peter Kuznick, Matt Graham and Oliver Stone.
narrated by Oliver Stone...
The 1960 Presidential election was fought primarily on the issue of communism. Positioning himself like Barack Obama in 2008 as the candidate of change, young challenger John F. Kennedy was able to take the strongly anti-communist Republican Richard Nixon to task for failing to prevent a missile gap, and for permitting the establishment of a communist regime only 90 miles from the Florida coastline.
Kennedy in his inauguration address:
"To those nations who would make themselves our adversaries, we offer not a pledge but a request, that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction, unleashed by science, engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction."
Kennedy, America's first Catholic president, won a narrow and perhaps a stolen election, but he did take Washington and the world by storm with his wit and graceful elegance. His administration was nicknamed Camelot, after King Arthur's mythical roundtable of peace. His opportunistic but politically astute choice of Lyndon Johnson of Texas as his Vice President, confirmed the liberal wing of the Party's distrust of him.
Elected to the Senate in '52, Kennedy had been a Cold War liberal, who had avoided criticizing Joseph McCarthy, an old family friend. His younger brother, Robert, had even served on McCarty's staff. Alluding to the title of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "Profiles in Courage", Eleanor Roosevelt said she wished Kennedy had had a little less profile and a little more courage.
His team, a combination of insiders from foundations, corporations and Wall Street firms, as well as progressives and intellectuals, was labelled the "best and the brightest" for their intelligence, achievements, and can-do spirit, typified by National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, the first applicant to get perfect scores on all three Yale entrance exams. At Defence, Kennedy brought in a civilian outsider, Robert McNamara. Renown for his computer-like mind and leading the Ford Motor Company, he quickly earned the immediate distrust of his generals by putting the Pentagon under microscopic scrutiny.
A devastating nuclear war plan had been handed down to them from Eisenhower. McNamara was appalled by what he found, a culture of paranoid worst-case scenarios. When Kennedy asked the statistically-minded McNamara to ascertain just how big the missile gap really was, it took three weeks to determine there was no gap, and several months to find out there was a huge difference - the US had approximately 25,000 nuclear weapons, the Soviets, 2,500; the US 1,500 heavy bombers, 1,000 in Europe within Soviet range, the Soviets, 192; the US 45 ICBMs, the Soviets, 4.
From a newsreel report on Cuba:
"This is Cuba, where communism has established its first bridgehead in the Western Hemisphere. It provides communism with a convenient arsenal of planes, tanks and modern weapons, just 90 miles from American shores, only 7 minutes by jet."
Kennedy was briefed on Eisenhower's invasion plan for Cuba by Allen Dulles, who assured him the Cuban people would rise in support. Several civilian advisors took sharp issue with the plan, but the inexperienced president feared blocking an operation backed by Eisenhower and the Joint Chiefs. Three days before the operation, in April 1961, eight US B-26 bombers flown by Cuban exiles incapacitated half of Castro's airforce. US Ambassador UN Adlai Stevenson, in an embarrassing prequel to Colin Powell's performance at the UN over Iraq in 2003...:
"The United States has committed no aggression against Cuba, and no offensive has been launched from Florida or any other part of the United States."
...showed a photograph of a plane supposedly flown by a Cuban defector but quickly exposed as belonging to the CIA.
Almost 1,600 Cuban exiles arrived at the Bay of Pigs in seven ships, two of them owned by United Fruit, but Cuban troops were ready, and no popular uprising ever occurred. The invaders begged for direct US support, and much to the shock of the CIA Kennedy refused his support, as he warned he would, fearing a Soviet counter-move against West Berlin. At a late night meeting, military leaders and the CIA Chief of Clandestine Services pressed Kennedy for three hours to send ground and air support. They expected it. Eisenhower would have done it. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it was reprehensible, almost criminal, to pull the rug out, but Kennedy stood his ground. One hundred and fourteen rebels were killed, roughly twelve hundred were captured. It was to be a chilling beginning to one of the most turbulent decades that would ever change the world - the 1960s.
"Its an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. Further statements and detailed discussions are not to conceal responsibility, because I am the responsible officer of the government."
The entire sordid affair had a profound affect on the President, who told an influential journalist friend:
"The first advice I am going to give to my successor is to watch the generals, and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn."
He seemed to begin to understand what Eisenhower was warning about, but his learning curve would have to be a sharp one to escape the steel trap of Cold War thinking.
Publicly, Kennedy took full responsibility for the fiasco. Privately, he was furious at the Joint Chiefs "...sons of bitches..." and the "...CIA bastards...", threatening to "...shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter [them] to the winds." Incredibly, he fired Allen Dulles, albeit diplomatically, and two other top officials (Richard Bissell and Charles Cabell), and all CIA overseas personnel were place under State Department control.
Kennedy's growing mistrust of his military and intelligence advisors made it easier to rebuff their pressure to send troops in 1961 into the tiny, landlocked Asian nation of Laos, something Eisenhower warned him might be necessary to defeat the communists. The Joint Chiefs wanted Kennedy to give prior commitment to a large-scale invading force. Arthur Schlesinger, an aide and respected historian later said:
"After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy had contempt for the Joint Chiefs. He dismissed them as a bunch of old men. He thought Lemnitzer was a dope."
And as a result, Kennedy opted for neutralist solution, one which angered the Pentagon. It would come back to haunt him.
In the thermonuclear age, any misjudgements on either side about the intensions of the other could reign more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human history.
The mood was dark when Kennedy travelled to Vienna to meet Khrushchev at their first summit conference that June of '61. Khrushchev berated the young president for America's global imperialism. The major issue for Khrushchev was Germany. What terrified him was the prospect of West Germany finally getting control over US nukes deployed so close to the Soviet Union. And also by 1961, approximately 20% of the population, some two and a half million people, had fled across the open border seeking a better life in West Germany. It was an open sore humiliation for the Soviets, who now wanted a treaty recognizing two separate Germanys, and the withdrawal of Western forces from West Berlin. Khrushchev explained to an American journalist:
"We have a much longer history with Germany. We have seen how quickly governments in Germany can change ... You like to think in the United States that we have no public opinion, but don't be sure about this. We have a saying here; 'give a German a gun, sooner or later he will point it at Russians'. We could crush Germany in a few minutes, but we fear the ability of Germany to commit the United States to start an atomic war. How many times do you have to be burned before you respect fire?"
Kennedy's parting comment to Khrushchev was "I see its going to be a very cold winter".
"We have wholly different views of right and wrong, of what is an internal affair and what is aggression. And above all, we have wholly different concepts of where the world is, and where it is going."
Later that summer Kennedy intensified the crisis with a sabre-rattling speech...
"The source of world trouble and tension is Moscow, not Berlin, and if war begins, it will have begun in Moscow, not Berlin."
...increasing the army by three hundred thousand men, tripling the draft, and calling for a national program to construct public and private fallout shelters. He reminded citizens:
"In the thermonuclear age, any misjudgements on either side about the intensions of the other could reign more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human history."
The Warsaw Pact nations responded in dramatic fashion. On August 13, East German troops began erecting barricades and roadblocks all across Germany to shut off the stream of escaping East Germans. The barbed wire was soon replaced with concrete. Kennedy, in defiance, sent fifteen hundred US troops by road from West Germany to West Berlin, where they were met by Vice President Johnson. That same month, Khrushchev resumed nuclear testing. When Kennedy learned of this, he erupted "fucked again!"
Despite the US's nuclear superiority, the Air Force wanted to increase the missile count to three thousand. McNamara fought them down to one thousand as the compromise number. The Soviets, by October, were detonating a 30 megaton bomb, the biggest yet exploded, and the next week a 50+ megaton bomb, over three thousand times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima.
Kennedy had inherited by now the full wrath of Dulles' brinksmanship. To an outside observer, it might have seemed that Americans had taken leave of their senses in the summer and fall of '61, as the nation conducted an extended conversation on building fallout shelters in their homes, as well as ethics of killing neighbours and friends to protect that shelter. Despite media pressure, surprisingly few people actually built shelters, either out of a sense of numbed resignation, or a recognition of the difficulties of a meaningful survival.
In hindsight, the construction of the monstrous Berlin Wall actually diffused the immediate threat of war, enabling Khrushchev to appease his hardliners. Kennedy confided:
"It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war."
In another part of the world, however, Kennedy had given his commitment to the politically important Cuban exile community in Florida to overthrow the Castro government, which would spark significant tensions with the Soviet Union. In early November he unleashed Operation Mongoose, a terror campaign overseen by his brother Robert and run by Edward Lansdale, designed to wreck Cuba's economy and, among other things, secretly continue the up to now bungled assassination attempts on Castro.
Seeking a pretext for military action the Joint Chiefs approved Operation Northwoods, which included a "remember the Maine" incident, modelled on the ship sinking [of the USS Maine, in Havana harbour] that triggered the Spanish-American war in 1898. This plan included a Cuban government hijacking, shouting down of a civilian airliner, and sinking boatloads of Cubans escaping to Florida and blaming the communist government. Kennedy rejected the plan, but US actions throughout 1962 convinced the Soviets that a Cuban invasion was imminent. In January, the US coerced Latin American countries to suspend Cuba's membership in the Organization of American States. The US conducted a series of large-scale military exercises in the Caribbean in the spring, summer and fall of '62, one involving 79 ships, 300 aircraft and more than 40,000 troops; the last one, in October, with 7,500 Marines set to participate, was codenamed ORTSAC, a mock invasion of an island replete with the overthrow of its government. The message was clear.
Kennedy was equally intent on standing up to the communists in Vietnam. But, as a student of history he must have harboured doubts about another land war in Asia. As a young Congressman he had visited Vietnam in 1951 during the debacle of the Korean War, and advised against aiding the French colonialists, and later spoke broadly of needing to win the support of Africans, Arabs and Asians who "...hated...the white man who bled them, beat them, exploited them, and ruled them." He had already pointed out the contradiction of supporting the French empire in Africa and Asia while opposing Soviet moves in Hungary and Poland.
But he was now President, and he was soon defending a corrupt South Vietnamese government that was banning public assembly, some political parties and even public dancing. Embracing Eisenhower's domino theory, Kennedy was now insisting that Vietnam represented the "cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia - the finger in the dyke". Lyndon Johnson went to Vietnam in May of '61 and anointed Diem "...the Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia...", and painting a bleak picture, pressed for a much larger US involvement. The Generals, and even McNamara, agreed that only US combat troops could forestall a communist victory.
However, Kennedy, a decorated veteran of World War II, resisted sending in combat troops. As he said to Arthur Schlesinger:
"The troops will march in, the bands will play, the crowds will cheer, and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. Its like taking a drink - the affect wears off and you have to take another."
But he was an admirer of guerrilla warfare in World War II, where British and Americans had fought behind the lines in places like the Burma jungle, and he did approve his generals other recommendations expanding military involvement. The US military personnel in Vietnam jumped from 800 when Kennedy first took office to over 16,000 advisors in 1963. He also allowed a growing army of CIA & numerous American civilian contractors flock to this new honeypot of enterprise. Under Kennedy's three year watch, the CIA launched 163 major covert operations worldwide - only seven fewer than had been conducted under Eisenhower in eight years.
Vietnam in its early stages was sometimes referred to as a "CIA war". At an address to graduates at West Point, Kennedy reinforced this by saying it was:
"...another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins. A war by ambush, eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging them."
History knows the contrary to be true in Vietnam. Under Kennedy, and mostly unknown to the American public, the US began resettling villagers at gunpoint in barbed wire enclosed compounds, guarded by unreliable South Vietnamese government troops, and using herbicides to defoliate guerrilla areas - the longterm environmental and health affects would turn out disastrously, for Vietnamese and Americans alike.
But it would be the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 that truly impressed upon Kennedy the truly disastrous repercussions of his hardline Cold War policies. On Sunday October 14th, a U2 surveillance plane brought back photographic evidence of Soviet medium range ballistic missiles in position in Cuba. It was quite a shock. Khrushchev had lied to him, promising no offensive weapons in Cuba. He was making a blunder of epic proportions. The last thing the Soviets wanted in 1962 was a direct military confrontation with the US. With little more than 10 ICBMs it could reliably reach U.S. soil, and fewer than 300 nuclear warheads, they stood no chance against the U.S.'s 5,000 deliverable nuclear bombs and nearly 2,000 ICBMs and bombers.
Why did Khrushchev do this? The American public never understood. The media presented Soviet actions in Cuba as a case of outright Soviet aggression. But from the Soviet point of view, it was a reasonable response to repeated signs that the U.S. was preparing a first strike against the Soviet Union. The missiles might also deter the looming invasion of Cuba, which, in a sense had now become a pawn in the game. The missiles would make the U.S. think twice before attacking, as Khrushchev said, giving the Americans "...a little bit of their own medicine...". There was also no question that Khrushchev genuinely admired Castro, who had come to power on his own, without outside help, and had enormous symbolic value in the Third World. Finally, the missiles were an inexpensive way to placate those who questioned his leadership in the communist world, but it was so dangerous what he did, so dangerous.
In his thinking, Khrushchev had intended to announce the presence of the nuclear missiles on November 7th at the 45th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, but as military analyst Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, by keeping secret that he had delivered tactical cruse and ballistic missiles along with their nuclear warheads, Khrushchev had transformed a potentially effective means of deterring a US invasion into a destabilizing provocation that backfired. The U.S. never understood the warheads had already arrived.
Even today few realize the gravity of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even fewer seem to grasp its enduring lessons. Dulles' legacy of brinksmanship, of going to the edge, had finally spawned its Frankenstein monster.
LeMay welcomed nuclear war as inevitable, and a war his country was currently in a position to win.
Two days later, Kennedy met with his key advisors in a top secret meeting, hoping to stop the missiles before they were fully installed. Three days later on October 19th, he met with his Joint Chiefs. They pushed for a surgical air strike, without warning, to remove the missiles, followed by an all-out invasion of Cuba. LeMay assured Kennedy that the Soviets would not respond. LeMay welcomed nuclear war as inevitable, and a war his country was currently positioned to win - there might not be a second opportunity. He fulminated against the Russian bear:
"Let's take his leg off, right up to his testicles. On second thought, let's take his testicles too."
After the meeting Kennedy remarked to his aid Kenny O'Donnell:
"If we listed to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them they were wrong."
With U.S. missiles in Turkey, so close to the Soviet Union, McNamara contended that the strategic balance of power was not changed. Kennedy agreed, but, understanding the political symbolism said that allowing the missiles to stay would weaken the perception of the U.S. around the world, and especially in Latin America. He confided to his brother Robert that if he didn't take strong action now, after what he did at the Bay of Pigs, he'd be impeached. This moment became a crucial test of Kennedy's character.
In the context of building that character, he'd fought bravely and saved men's lives as a naval commander in the South Pacific, and was now no longer as intimidated by uniformed generals. In the coming days he would reject the advice of such older men, as well as Paul Nitze, Dean Acheson, and even Dwight Eisenhower. He opted instead for a blockade, which he referred to as a "quarantine" to downplay that fact that this, too, was an act of war. On October 22, eight days after the pictures were taken, Kennedy solemnly informed the American people:
"All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons be turned back."
He portrayed the U.S. as an innocent victim of unprovoked Soviet aggression, not revealing that we'd been fighting a terrorist war against Cuba since late 1959.
The decision to go to the precipice of nuclear war was made - under the authority given by Eisenhower - by SAC Commander General Thomas Power, without consulting the President.
The temperature of the world shot up. The people of the world were transfixed to their televisions and radios. Children watched the news, their parents full of fear. That same day the Strategic Air Command went to DEFCON 3, and two days later for the first time in history, to DEFCON 2, prepared to strike targets in the Soviet Union. The decision to go to the precipice of nuclear war was made - under the authority given by Eisenhower - by SAC Commander General Thomas Power, without consulting the President. Thereafter, the SAC fleet remained airborne, refuelled by aerial tankers. It was Power who, in 1960, told a defence analyst "the idea is to kill the bastards - look if at the end of the war there are two American's and one Russian, we win." A series of harrowing incidents occurred, anyone of which could have triggered a holocaust. A SAC test missile was launched from the U.S. towards the Marshall Islands, and officials mistakenly reported that Tampa and Minnesota were under attack.
On October 25, Soviet leaders decided they would have to remove the missiles, but still hoped to trade them in Cuba for U.S. Jupiters in Turkey. Before they could act on that decision, Khrushchev received faulty information that the invasion of Cuba was beginning. By the 26th of October, American places were flying over Cuba at treetop level. Two hundred and fifty thousand troops were assembled off the Florida coastline and ready to move; 2,000 bombing sorties were planned. Castro predicted a U.S. strike within 72 hours. The 42,000 Soviet force, commanded by a Stalingrad veteran, and backed by 100,000 Cubans, possessed - unknown to American intelligence - approximately 100 battlefield nuclear weapons.
Khrushchev was losing control of the situation. In an amazing moment, he asked his generals to guarantee that holding this course would not result in the death of 500 million people:
"What good would it have me in the last hour of my life to know that our great nation and the United States were in complete ruin, and the national honour of the Soviet Union was intact?"
In what McNamara described as "...the most extraordinary diplomatic message I have ever seen..." Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter simply asking for a promise not to invade Cuba. He warned that the two countries were heading inexorably towards war:
"We must not succumb to intoxication and petty passions, regardless of whether elections are impending in this or that country, or not impending. These are all transient things, but if indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction."
He ordered the nuclear torpedo be prepared for firing. Fortunately for mankind, the Political Officer, Vasili Arkhipov, was able to calm him down and convince him not to launch, probably single-handedly preventing nuclear war.
On October 27th, an incident occurred that Schlesinger described as not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, it was "...the most dangerous moment in human history...". The Russian ships were heading toward the quarantine line. One of four Soviet submarines sent to protect the ships was being hunted all day by the carrier USS Randolph. More than one hundred miles outside the blockade, the Randolph began dropping depth charges, unaware the sub was carrying nuclear weapons. The explosion rocked the submarine, which went dark, except for emergency lights. The temperature rose sharply, the carbon dioxide reached near-lethal levels, and people could barely breathe. Men began to faint and fall down. The suffering went on for four hours.
"Then the Americans hit us with something stronger. We thought, that's it, the end. Panic ensued."
Commander Valentin Savitsky tried without success to reach the General Staff. He assumed the war had already started, and they were going to die in disgrace for having done nothing. He ordered the nuclear torpedo be prepared for firing. He turned to the other two officers aboard. Fortunately for mankind, the Political Officer, Vasili Arkhipov, was able to calm him down and convince him not to launch, single-handedly preventing nuclear war.
In the midst of this harrowing confrontation, the breakpoint came when the National Security Council received word that a U2 plane had been shot down over Cuba. Khrushchev had not authorized this. The Joint Chiefs wanted to act immediately and take out all the firing sites and missiles. Kennedy said no. The shooting down of the U2 made both Kennedy and Khrushchev realize they were losing control of their enormous military machines. Americans, receiving continuous television broadcasts were paralyzed in the grip of something they only dreamed about. Robert McNamara later said as watched the sunset come over the Potomac, Saturday night the 27th of October:
"It was a beautiful fall evening, height of the crisis, and I went up into the open air to look and to smell it, because I thought it was the last Saturday I'd ever see."
Soviet diplomats were burning their files in Washington and New York. Washington insiders had begun to quietly evacuate their families from the Capital, telling wives to drive as far south as quickly as possible.
In a last desperate effort, Kennedy sent his brother to meet with the Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, on that Saturday to tell him the United States was about to attack unless it received an immediate Soviet commitment to remove its bases from Cuba. Dobrynin conveyed the urgency to Khrushchev [along with the discussion of a private agreement and assurance of the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey], who claimed in his memoirs that Robert Kennedy's message was even more desperate, that the "...President is not sure the military will not overthrow him and seize power..."
The next morning, a Sunday, October 28th, dawned with mercy. The Soviets announced they would withdraw the missiles. The world breathed, as if there were only one collective breath for all. The crisis would actually continue behind the scenes for three more weeks, and finally ended on November 22 when the Soviets were able to regain control of their battlefield nuclear weapons from the Cubans. The weapons would actually leave Cuba. Its interesting to note in hindsight that during the entire crisis, Soviet missiles were never fuelled, Red Army reservists were not called up, and no threats were made against Berlin.
Hundreds of millions of people might have perished, possibly all mankind.
Thirty years later, in 1992, McNamara was told that if American troops had invaded, not only were there four times as many armed Soviets in Cuba as reported, but one hundred battlefield nuclear weapons would likely have been used. Realizing that 100,000 Americans would probably have died, McNamara said the US would have responded by wiping out Cuba with the high risk of an all-out nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. Hundreds of millions of people might have perished, possibly all mankind.
Military leaders were furious when the crisis ended without an attack on Cuba.
It has recently been discovered that on the Island of Okinawa a large force of missiles, with megaton warheads and F-100 fighter bombers armed with hydrogen bombs were preparing for action - their likely target was not the Soviet Union, but China. Military leaders were furious when the crisis ended without an attack on Cuba. McNamara recalled their bitterness:
"The President invited them in to thank them for their support during the crisis, and there was one hell of a scene. Curtis LeMay came out saying 'we lost...we otta just go in there today and knock 'em off'."
It was Khrushchev even more than Kennedy who deserves the lion's share of credit for having avoided war. And for this, he was vilified, as Mikhail Gorbachev would be three decades later when he democratically presided, against his will, over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Chinese charged Khrushchev with cowardice for caving in. Russian hardliners said he had "shit his pants". Much of the Pentagon, however, believing its willingness to go to war forced the Soviets to back down, determined that superior force would also work elsewhere, especially in Vietnam where it was necessary once more to make a stand against communism.
The Soviets determined the opposite lesson, never again to be so humiliated, and forced to capitulate from weakness. They began a massive buildup of nuclear weapons to achieve parity with the United States. Weakened by the crisis, Khrushchev would be forced out of power the following year. But first he wrote Kennedy a long letter:
"Evil have brought some good. People have felt more tangibly the breeding of the burning flames of thermal nuclear war."
In light of this he made a series of bold proposals eliminating "...everything in our relations capable of generating a new crisis...". He suggested a non-aggression treaty between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations. Why not, he said "...disband all military blocks...", cease testing all nuclear weapons, in the atmosphere, in outer space, in the water, and also underground. He proposed solutions to conflicts over Germany and China.
Its interesting to note that there was a remarkable revival of Christianity at this time, with the short-lived Papacy of Pope John the 23rd, one of the most popular Popes, ever. He called together the Second Vatican Council, which issued a new Encyclical that shook up the Catholic world - it was called Pacem in Terris, or peace on earth, and ushered in a change in thinking, particularly in Latin America where its priests, nuns and lay persons took the message of the Gospels to the poor and the persecuted, encouraging them to take their fate into their own hands, to overcome the misery of their existence. What became known as "liberation theology" led to many ensuing problems with Kennedy's successors in the backyard of the United States.
Although more tepid to Khrushchev in his response, Kennedy's thinking was evolving, and in the year following the missile crisis, underwent a remarkable transformation. He began to see Vietnam as one place to step back from the East-West confrontation, but he knew it would not be easy. The debate over Kennedy's true intentions in Vietnam has at times been quite acrimonious, and his own contradictory comments and mixed signals have added to the confusion. Clearly, he was under enormous pressure to stay the course. As late as July 1963, Kennedy told a news conference:
"For us to withdraw, would mean a collapse, not only for South Vietnam, but SouthEast Asia."
In private, however, he was voicing doubts. In late '62 he asked influential Senator Mike Mansfield to go there and evaluate the situation. Mansfield returned with a highly pessimistic assessment, recommending the US withdraw its forces. Aid Kenny O'Donnell described Kennedy's reaction:
"The President was too disturbed by the Senator's unexpected argument. He said to me later when we talked about it, "I got angry at Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely, and I got angry with myself because I found myself agreeing with him.'"
On the 11th of June '63 in an image that shocked the world, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thick Quang Duc burned himself at a busy Saigon intersection to protest the corrupt Vietnamese government. McNamara began pressing the Joint Chiefs for a plan of phased withdrawal. Kennedy approved the plan in May of 1963 but could not formalize it. The first one thousand men were set to depart at the end of that year. In September, he sent McNamara and his trusted new Chief of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor, on a ten day fact-finding mission to Vietnam. They gave the President their report on October 2. It called for withdrawing troops before the end of '63, and completing it by the end of '65.
Kennedy now formalized his commitment in his National Security Action Memorandum 263 which he signed on October 11th and released to the press. Kennedy no doubt was torn. He'd explained to his close aid Kenny O'Donnell:
"In 1965 I'll become one of the most unpopular presidents in history. I'll be damned everywhere as a communist appeaser, but I don't care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we'd have another Joe McCarthy Red Scare on our hands, but I can do it after I am re-elected, so we better make damn sure I'm re-elected."
The Republicans were after his scalp. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller charged that he was soft on communism, naively believing the Soviet leaders were "...reasonable...and desirous of reaching a fundamental settlement with the West...". Rockefeller, who was a moderate Republican, said "...the foundations of our safety are being sapped...".
Kennedy hadn't stopped communist aggression in Laos, he had failed to provide air support during the Bay of Pigs, and he stood "...idly by while the wall was being built in Berlin." Coming up behind Rockefeller was the extremest Republican Senator Barry Goldwater who would actually win the nomination in '64.
As late as October '63, in the hope that the situation in South Vietnam could improve, Kennedy supported the overthrow, but not the assassination, of the oppressive Diem regime. When the president and his brother were killed by the South Vietnamese military, Kennedy was visibly and extremely upset. Nonetheless, his mindset did not change. Among those who later came forward with Kennedy's intention to withdraw were Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hillman. Daniel Ellsberg, later in 1967, interviewed Robert Kennedy, prior to the shift in public on the war. Kennedy said his brother "...was absolutely determined not to send ground units." Ellsberg asked him, would his brother have accepted defeat at the hands of the communists? and Robert Kennedy replied:
"We would have fudged it up, we would have gotten the government in, that asked us out, or would have negotiated with the other side. We would have handled it like Laos."
Ellsberg asked him why his brother was so clearheaded when most of his senior advisors were still committed to prevailing. Robert responded emotionally:
"Because we were there. We were there in 1951. We saw what was happening to the French. My brother determined - determined - never to let that happen to us."
During the remarkable last few months of his life, Kennedy even contemplated a course reversal on Castro's Cuba, a relationship in which his policies were consistently wrong-headed. But just as he clung to the hope of victory in Vietnam while taking steps toward withdrawal, he endorse a new round of CIA sabotage in Cuba while exploring several avenues of discrete contact with Castro himself. He told Jean Daniel, an influential French journalist who was about to meet Castro:
"I believe there is no country in the world where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country's policies during the Batista regime."
Daniel finally met with Castro two days before Kennedy's assassination. Castro, expressing criticism of U.S. behaviour, but admiring Kennedy's potential, also held out hope for a new departure.
Kennedy was facing the abiding truth of American politics - one must be strong, and if one is perceived as soft or weak, one does not endure.
Kennedy, in the heart of the Cold War, was facing the abiding truth of American politics - one must be strong, and if one is perceived as soft or weak, one does not endure. And that is the confusing thing about power. Kennedy himself was quite ill from the affects of Addison's Disease, and the effects from spinal operations from World War II injuries. Addicted to pain killers and his own ravenous appetites, finding himself in a cocoon of deceits, not only to himself but to his wife, his Cuba and Vietnam policies, and to the country, John Kennedy yet seemed aloof from fear.
Like Roosevelt, he embodied a grace that forgave much in the new era of television reality. In June of 1963 in a Commencement Address at American University, without input from the Joint Chiefs, the CIA or the State Department, Kennedy gave one of the most extraordinary presidential speeches of the 20th century. He encouraged his listeners to think about the Soviet people in human terms, and called for an end to the Cold War:
"What kind of a peace do I mean, and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana, enforced on the world by weapons of war. Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union. It is sad to recognize the extent of the gulf between us...and if we cannot end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's future, and we are all mortal."
In September of that year, the Senate passed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by a vote of 80 to 19. Presidential speech writer Ted Sorenson believed that no other accomplishment in the White House ever gave Kennedy greater satisfaction:
"For this treaty is for all of us. It is particularly for our children, and our grandchildren, and they have no lobby here in Washington. According to the ancient Chinese proverb, 'A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step'. My fellow Americans, let us take that first step."
And in another stunning reversal, Kennedy called for replacing the space race, perhaps his most signature initiative, with joint U.S./Soviet exploration of space and an expedition to the moon. He said:
"International law and the United Nations Charter will apply. Why should man's first flight to the moon be a national competition?"
By the time Kennedy drove into downtown Dallas to begin his reelection campaign for '64, he had made powerful enemies in the upper echelons of the military, intelligence and business communities, not to mention the mafia, southern segregationists and pro- and anti-Castro Cubans. In their minds, he was guilty of not following through on the Bay of Pigs, disempowering the CIA, firing its leaders, resisting involvement in Laos, concluding the Test Ban Treaty, planning to disengage from Vietnam, abandoning the space race, encouraging Third World nationalism, flirting with abandoning the Cold War and, perhaps most damningly, accepting a negotiated settlement in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The rage toward him was visceral.
Kennedy had read the bestselling 1962 novel "Seven Days in May" which portrays a coup d'etat by a Joint Chiefs of Staff furious over a liberal president's new nuclear treaty with the Soviets. He told a friend "Its possible, it could happen in this country".
The Warren Commission, strongly influenced by ex-CIA Director Allen Dulles, later conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. Although, unlike most single assassins with a cause, he firmly denied his guilt. The case against him was effectively made by the national media, but four of the seven Warren Commission members expressed doubts - Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Governor John Connelly, who had been wounded, also questioned the findings. The public found the report unconvincing.
We may never know who was responsible or what their motive was, but we do know that Kennedy's enemies included some of the same forces who had cut down Henry Wallace in 1944 when he was trying to move the U.S. down a similar path of peace.
Khrushchev would suffer an equally ignominious, though less bloody, fate as he was ousted by Kremlin hardliners the following year. He became a critic of the Soviet government, and smuggled his memoirs out of the country to published in the West under the title "Khrushchev Remembers". It became a best seller. When he died in 1971 he was buried in a corner of a Moscow cemetery - no monument was erected for years.
Future generations owe an enormous debt, and possibly their very existence to these two brave men who stared into the abyss and recoiled from what they saw. And they owe a special debt to an obscure Soviet submarine commander who single-handedly blocked the start of a nuclear war.
With the ascension of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, there would be important changes in many of Kennedy's policies, particularly toward the Soviet Union and Vietnam. In Kennedy's Inaugural Address in the morning of that decade of January 1961:
"Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans..."
But with his murder, the torch was passed back to an old generation - the generation of Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Regan - leaders who would systematically destroy the promise of Kennedy's last year, as they returned the country to war and repression.
Though the vision Kennedy and Khrushchev expressed would fall with them, it would not die. The seeds they had planted would germinate and sprout again, long after their deaths. For those of us who lived through the 1960s, the Cuban Missile Crisis, coming on the heels of the war scare over Berlin, was a terrifying event. It was one of many nightmares - call it punches to the stomach of a new generation of American people who had never seen history unfold so quickly, so dramatically, and in such a violent fashion.
It would soon be followed by the invasion of Vietnam, a bloodbath, a nightmare of America's own making, that would eat Americans and Vietnamese alive for almost a decade. More horrifying things were to come by the end of that decade. But, in hindsight, it was on that afternoon in Dallas, when John Kennedy's head was blown off in broad daylight - it was as if a giant horrific Greek medusa unearthed its hideous face to the American people, freezing us with an oracle of things yet to come.