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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
He was determined not to be trapped by established procedures. His bent was toward chaos; he was comfortable with a certain disorder around him; it kept his people off-balance, made them try a little harder. In dismantling Eisenhower’s military-style national-security bureaucracy, beginning with the Operations Control Board, a small unit responsible for systematically channeling foreign policy information to and from the President, Kennedy said, in an Executive Order: “We plan to continue its work by maintaining direct communication with the responsible agencies, so that everyone will know what I have decided, while I in turn keep fully informed of the actions taken to carry out decisions.” His use of the National Security Council itself was casual enough that when Gen. Earle Wheeler, the chief staff officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was handed National Security Action Memorandum 22—the twenty-second formal national security order approved by the President—he realized he had never seen numbers 5 to 21. “The lines of control have been cut,” Wheeler told his staff. “But no other lines have been established.”
That cost Kennedy. The next time he saw Eisenhower was after the Bay of Pigs, at Camp David, named for Ike’s grandson. It was the first time Kennedy had ever been to the place. The meeting of the two Presidents was part of a show of national unity after the capture of almost the entire exile brigade by Castro’s waiting troops. Eisenhower supported Kennedy totally in public, but in private, as they walked the wooded paths of the Maryland mountain retreat, Ike gave Kennedy a tongue-lashing, saying, “Mr. President, before you approved this plan did you have everybody in front of you debating the thing so you got the pros and cons yourself and then made the decision, or did you see these people one at a time?”
“Well, I didn’t have a meeting. … I just approved a plan that had been recommended by the CIA and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I just took their advice.”
“Mr. President, were there any changes in the plan … ?”
“Yes, there were.… We did want to call off one bombing sally.”
“Why was that called off? Why did they change plans after the troops were already at sea?”
“Well,” Kennedy said, “we felt it necessary that we keep our hand concealed in this affair; we thought that if it was learned that we were really doing this and not these rebels themselves, the Soviets would be very apt to cause trouble in Berlin.”
“Mr. President, how could you expect the world to believe that we had nothing to do with it? Where did these people get the ships to go from Central America to Cuba? Where did they get the weapons? Where did they get all the communications and all the other things that they would need? How could you possibly have kept from the world any knowledge that the United States had been involved?”
“No one knows how tough this job is until after he has been in it a few months,” Kennedy said kind of ruefully.
“Mr. President,” Eisenhower said, “if you will forgive me, I think I mentioned that to you three months ago.”
“I certainly have learned a lot since,” Kennedy said.
Certainly he did learn. A lot of that was just figuring out the right questions, as he showed only a week after the Bay of Pigs in questioning Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about recommendations to airlift U.S. troops into Laos that spring of 1961.
“How will they get in there?” “
“They can land at two airports,” said the general. The places were named Savanaket and Peske.
“How many can land at those airports?” Kennedy continued.
“If you can have perfect conditions, you can land a thousand a day.”
“How many Communist troops are in the area?”
“We would guess three thousand.”
“How long will it take them to bring up four?”
“They can bring up five or six thousand, eight thousand, in four more days.”
“What’s going to happen,” snapped the President, “if on the third day you’ve landed three thousand—and then they bomb the airport? And then they bring up five or six thousand more men! What’s going to happen? Or if you land two thousand—and then they bomb the airport?”