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“The Lines Of Control Have Been Cut”
Jack Kennedy came into the White House determined to dismantle his Republican predecessor’s rigid, formal staff organization in favor of a spontaneous, flexible, hands-on management style. Thirty years Bill Clinton seems determined to do the same thing. He would do well to remember that what it got JFK was the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War.
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
Two weeks after that, the ball and a lot more were dropped—on Kennedy’s head. After a series of unstructured meetings with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, CIA Director Alien Dulles, and pretty much whoever else happened to be around, the President signed off on a CIA plan for an exile invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba; fifteen hundred Cubans were landed at Castro’s favorite fishing spot, the Bay of Pigs. Of course, Kennedy did not know about Castro’s leisure habits, or much of anything else about the plan, because he never questioned whether or not the CIA knew what it was doing, and no one on his staff or in his cabinet or on the Joint Chiefs of Staff had any direct responsibility for the project. Kennedy himself never even saw the paperwork; at the end of each meeting he sat silently as the papers were collected by the operation’s planner, the CIA’s deputy director for operations, Richard Bissell, who took the only copies of the maps and such back to his office at agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Harriman told his people that they had seven seconds to make an impression on the boss.
After the invasion, a perfect failure, Bundy wrote the President another memo, on May 16, this time dropping any pretense that the Executive problem was in the State Department.
“I hope you’ll be in a good mood when you read this … ,” he began. “Cuba was a bad mistake. But it was not a disgrace and there were reasons for it. … We do have a problem of management; centrally it is a problem of your use of time. What follows represents, I think, a fair consensus of what a good many people would tell you—O’Donnell, Sorensen, Bell, R. Kennedy, Rusk and Dungan. … We can’t get you to sit still. …”
“The National Security Council, for example, really cannot work for you unless you authorize work schedules that do not get upset from day to day. Calling three meetings in five days is foolish—and putting them off for six weeks at a time is just as bad.
“Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozens in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning, and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings, for a total of about 8 minutes, and I conclude that this is not really how you like to begin the day. Moreover, 6 of the 8 minutes were given not to what I had for you but what you had for me from Marguerite Higgins, David Lawrence, Scotty Reston, and others. The newspapers are important, but not as an exercise in who leaked and why; against your powers and responsibilities, who the hell cares who told Maggie? …”
Bundy, the former dean of Harvard College, went on like that, scolding America’s most important student: “Right now it is so hard to get to you with anything not urgent and immediate that about half of the papers and reports you personally ask for are never shown to you because by the time you are available you clearly have lost interest in them. … Above all you are entitled to feel confident that (a) there is no part of government in the national security area that is not watched over closely by someone from your own staff, and (b) there is no major problem of policy that is not out where you can see it and give a proper stimulus to those who should be attacking it.”
Within a month, on June 13, the President heard the same thing again, this time in the top-secret 180-page Bay of Pigs investigation by retired Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. There was a single copy of the report; to prevent leaks, it could be read only in a locked room with an observer present to be sure no notes were taken. The document concluded with a dry summary of Kennedy’s management: “The Executive branch of the government was not organizationally prepared to cope with this kind of paramilitary operation. … There was no single authority short of the President capable of coordinating the actions of the CIA, State, Defense, and USIA. Top level direction was given through ad hoc meetings of senior officials without consideration of operational plans in writing and with no arrangement for recording conclusions and decisions reached.”
In receiving the Bundy and Taylor memorandums, President Kennedy had also been unpleasantly surprised at home. He found out there was a revolution in his country by reading The New York Times on May 15, 1961. That Monday morning, under the headline, BI-RACIAL BUSES ATTACKED, RIDERS BEATEN IN ALABAMA , the paper published an Associated Press story that began: “ ANNISTON , Ala.—A group of white persons today ambushed two buses carrying Negroes and whites who were seeking to knock down bus station racial barriers. A little later, sixty miles to the west, one of the buses ran into another angry crowd of white men at a Birmingham bus station. The interracial group took a brief but bloody beating, and fled. … They call themselves ‘Freedom Riders.’p”