“The Lines Of Control Have Been Cut”


Some histories of the Kennedy Presidency emphasize that kind of evidence of growth in the job, focusing on American domination of the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962 and on the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty negotiated in the summer of 1963. But without gainsaying those achievements, it seems clear that after two years in office Kennedy was moving the United States into combat in South Vietnam in a slow and drawn-out replay of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He still seemed unable to sort through bad information. He focused on political appearance rather than military reality and continued to think the key to the problem was finding the right man—which meant eliminating the wrong one, Castro or Diem.

“Looking under bushes for the Vietnamese George Washington” was the way Gen. Maxwell Taylor privately described the process after Kennedy appointed him to succeed Lemnitzer as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Twice Kennedy dispatched Taylor to South Vietnam, in October of 1961 and again in September of 1963—two of more than a dozen fact-finding missions the President sent there, searching almost desperately for good information.

Taylor was one of the very few military men Kennedy trusted. Another was a Marine general, Victor Krulak. The President and that general had known each other since 1943, when they were a Navy lieutenant (junior grade) and a Marine lieutenant colonel. Kennedy’s boat, PT-109 , had rescued Marines under Krulak’s command in the South Pacific, and Krulak had promised him a bottle of Three Feathers whiskey when they got home. He delivered it to the White House eighteen years later, as an inaugural gift.


President Kennedy appointed Krulak as the Joint Chiefs’ director of counterinsurgency, a job created by Kennedy in his devotion to the ideas presented by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in their best-selling and extraordinarily influential novel The Ugly American .

The book, by Burdick, a political science professor, and Lederer, a captain in the U.S. Navy, sold more than five million copies during the 1960 presidential campaign, more than a few of them to Sen. John F. Kennedy, one of six prominent Americans who signed a full-page advertisement in The New York ‘limes announcing that they had sent copies to every member of the U.S. Senate. Twenty-one pieces of legislation introduced in the Congress cited The Ugly American by name. Advertised as “fiction based on fact,” the book is a series of simple stories, most of them about clumsy and arrogant Americans being outwitted by Communists of all nationalities in the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of a country in Southeast Asia called Sarkhan—a fictionalized Vietnam.

Krulak traveled to South Vietnam with a State Department officer named Joseph Mendenhall, whom Undersecretary of State Averell Harriman slipped aboard the plane just before it took off from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. “The Crocodile,” as Harriman was called because of his infighting skills, wanted to protect his own political view that Diem had to be removed against the Pentagon’s concentration on military matters.

Krulak and Mendenhall reported back to Kennedy on September 10, 1963. Predictably the general said: “The shooting war is still going ahead at an impressive pace. … There is a lot of war left to fight, particularly in the Delta, where the Viet Cong remains strong. … The Viet Cong war will be won if the current U.S. military and sociological programs are pursued, irrespective of the grave defects in the ruling regime.”

Mendenhall disagreed: “I was struck by the fear that pervades Saigon, Hue and Da Nang. These cities have been living under a reign of terror. …” He said the war could not be won without changing the regime.

Clinton shares with Kennedy a reluctance to prepare, an unwillingness to rehearse.

The President looked from Krulak to Mendenhall and back, finally asking, “Did you two gentlemen visit the same country?”

The decision making in Kennedy’s White House did, at times, lend itself to parody. And one was written in September of 1963, by a young State Department aide named James Thomson under the title MINUTES OF THE NEXT HIGH-LEVEL MEETING ON VIET-NAM :

“The Secretary of State opened the meeting, in the absence of the President, by urging that priority be given to the key question of the past thirteen hours: How did we get here, and where do we go from here?”

“On the one hand, he said, it was important to keep moving forward. But on the other hand, we must deal with things as they are.”