Published on Tuesday, November 24, 2009 by CommonDreams.org
Obama: Profile in Courage, or Cave-In?
"It took a lot of courage on Kennedy's part to defy the Pentagon, defy the military - and do the right thing," said Col. Larry Wilkerson,
Wilkerson, who was chief of staff at the State Department (2002-2005) and now teaches at
Despite the urgency of the threat posed by the Russian military buildup in Cuba (we now know the Russians had already placed nuclear weapons on the island), Kennedy's deliberate decision-making style allowed enough time for cooler heads to prevail and yielded a peaceful solution.
A hallmark trait of John Kennedy was his ability to listen and learn. At the same time, he did not hesitate to challenge conventional wisdom.
Call that "dithering," if you wish. I, for one, applaud President Barack Obama for following Kennedy's calm, deliberative style, as Obama faces similar pressure from the military to send tens of thousands more troops to
Kennedy: Out of
The Cuban crisis was not the only time JFK found himself at loggerheads with generals who thought they knew better and who verged on the insubordinate. Kennedy's sustained arm wrestling with his senior generals over whether to send more troops to Vietnam was just as tense, and much more sustained.
In the end, he concluded that they had it wrong and he decided against them. In short, he opted to behave like a president-a "decider" (pardon the odd word). His overruling of the
The 46th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination passed by last Sunday virtually unnoticed. The unfortunate thing is this: his legacy on Vietnam is so widely misunderstood that it is easy to miss the relevance of his decision making in the early Sixties to the dilemma faced by President Barack Obama today as he decides whether to stand up to-or cave in to-the Pentagon's plans for escalating another misbegotten war in Afghanistan.
Faux history has it that President Lyndon Baines Johnson's infusion of hundreds of thousands, up to 536,000, combat troops into
But as he studied the options, cost, and likely outcomes, Kennedy came to see
The Pentagon was hell bent on thwarting such plans, and Defense Secretary McNamara found it an uphill struggle to enforce the President's will on the top brass. Senior military officers were experts at "slowrolling" politicians who favored a course that the Pentagon didn't like. When in May 1962 Kennedy ordered up a contingency troop-withdrawal plan, it took more than a year for the military brass to draw one up.
As the President encountered continuing resistance, he paid increasing attention to more levelheaded military and civilian advisers as well as to his own intuition and instincts. Kennedy asked the Marine Commandant, Gen. David M. Shoup, "to look over the ground in
"Unless we are prepared to use a million men in a major drive, we should pull out before the war expands beyond control."
Kennedy concluded that there was no responsible course other than to press ahead for a phased withdrawal regardless of the opposition from his senior national security advisers. He decided to pull 1,000 troops out of
How To Do It
My Irish grandmother called Kennedy "a clever lad" and she was right.
Realizing that he had to exercise the utmost care in navigating choppy military and political waters, Kennedy employed the artifice of sending Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. Maxwell Taylor on a "fact-finding" trip to
The senior military saw through the subterfuge and strongly opposed the key recommendations of the report. In his memoir, In Retrospect , McNamara wrote that the NSC meeting saw "heated debate about our recommendation that the Defense Department announce plans to withdraw U.S. military forces by the end of 1965, starting with the withdrawal of 1,000 men by the end of the year." In McNamara's words, there was "a total lack of consensus."
However, there is only one "decider" on the National Security Council - the President. Kennedy stepped up to the plate and decided, bypassing the majority opposed.
Thirty-two years later in a Sept. 12, 1995 letter to the New York Times, McNamara took strong issue with a charge in an earlier op-ed that "the groundwork was being laid for our tragic escalation of the war" before President Kennedy was killed. McNamara described the President's reasoning in deciding to go ahead, despite the lack of consensus:
"...[T]he President nonetheless authorized the beginning of withdrawal, believing that either our training and logistical support led to the progress claimed or, if it had not, additional training would not change the situation and, in either case, we should plan to withdraw."
His decision made, Kennedy wasted no time in acting, well, like a President. He told McNamara to announce it immediately in order to "set it in concrete," according to McNamara. As the defense secretary was leaving the NSC meeting to tell White House reporters, the President called to him, "And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots, too," according to Kenneth O'Donnell and David Powers in their book, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye .
The President's policy was formalized nine days later in his National Security Action Memorandum Number 263 of October 11, 1963. That document put into effect the McNamara-Taylor recommendations, which provided that:
"A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by
Whether Kennedy truly believed that the
Assistant Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff, to whom fell the task of announcing President Kennedy's death on Nov. 22, 1963, told James Douglass, author of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters , that Kennedy's mind was fixed on Vietnam the day before. Instead of rehearsing for a press conference that day, Kennedy told Kilduff:
"I've just been given a list of the most recent casualties in
After I come back from
A month before, during his last visit to
Kennedy understood that decisions on
"Best and Brightest"
And it was not only the generals. Far from it. The "best and the brightest," first and foremost McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security adviser, were also strongly opposed to Kennedy's decision to pull troops out of
Bundy thought he knew better, refusing to believe that the President would ever "let
However, after McNamara published In Retrospect  in 1995, in which he concluded that "we were wrong, terribly wrong" on
Bundy hired a man half his age, Gordon Goldstein, as research assistant to help him in what turned out to be Bundy's personal quest to discover the roots of his own mistakes which, for the most part, were the result of hubris, pure and simple.
Early this year, author William Pfaff reviewed what started out as the Bundy Memoir Part II (McGeorge Bundy died in 1996), but ended up as Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam  by Goldstein. In his review, Pfaff highlights Bundy's pedigree: tops at
"American had to ‘win' in
"Goldstein's decisive clue to why Bundy failed came by accident. He found a note written in 1996, when Bundy was asked what had been most surprising about the war. He answered, ‘the endurance of the enemy.' Goldstein writes: ‘He didn't understand the enemy ‘because, frankly, he didn't think they warranted his attention.'"
The good news for today comes from press reporting that top officials of the Obama administration, including the President, have read Goldstein's book . Drawing a connection between Kennedy's challenge on Vietnam and Obama's on Afghanistan, a Wall Street Journal report of Oct. 7 noted, "For opponents of a major troop increase ... ‘Lessons in Disaster' encapsulates their concerns about accepting military advice unchallenged."
Obama Must Decide
There are hints that Obama is more
This young President, too, is a "clever lad;" he is also a politician. Intellectually, he is surely equipped to understand the March of Folly that would be involved, were he to send substantial additional forces to
The choice, in my view, is between courage and cowardice cloaked as politics of the possible. Let me guess what you're thinking - "But that's asking too much of the young President; "cowardice" is too strong a word; Obama cannot possibly face down the entire military establishment."
Yes He Can
John Kennedy did. So the question is whether Barack Obama is "no Jack Kennedy," or whether he will summon the courage to stand up to the misguided military brass of today. We are talking, after all, about thousands more being killed-and for what?
I would suggest to the President that he give another close read to Goldstein's "Lessons in Disaster " and then ponder the lessons that leap out of Barbara Tuchman's The March to Folly: From Troy to Vietnam .
Obama may also wish to ponder the words of W.E.B. Dubois:
"Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow...."
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Note: In his book JFK and the Unspeakable , James Douglass has arrayed-and documented-his narrative with such care, that it has been all too easy for me to plagiarize from it. Actually, the book takes the JFK story much further, to include a thorough discussion of what-and who-Douglass believes killed the President. I recommend the book highly.
An earlier version of this article first appeared at Consortiumnews.com.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his career as a CIA analyst, he prepared and briefed the President's Daily Brief and chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs