“The Lines Of Control Have Been Cut”

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“The Secretary of Defense concurred but felt that we must not permit the views of a handful of neurotic Saigon intellectuals to distract us from the major goal, which was to get on with the war. He asked General Krulak to report on his latest sampling of opinion among the trainers of Vietnamese secret police at Fort Belvoir.” …

“General Krulak responded that the American trainers had advised him to refrain from talking with the Vietnamese since their views were well known to the trainers, and conversation would distract them from the purpose at hand, i.e., to win the war.”

“Governor Harriman stated that he had disagreed for twenty years with General Krulak and disagreed today, reluctantly, more than ever; he was sorry to say that he felt General Krulak was a fool and had always thought so …”

“General Taylor said that if risks were involved, ‘You can count me out.’”

“The Secretary of State re-phrased the basic question in terms of Saigon’s 897 [a play on diplomatic-cable numbers]. What were we to do about the five hundred school-girls who were seeking asylum in the American embassy?”

“(At this point, the President entered the room.)”

“The President said that he hoped we were not allowing our policies to be influenced by immature twelve-year-old school-girls, all of whom were foreigners. He felt that we must not lose sight of our ultimate objective, and in no state was the Vietnamese vote worth very much.”

“The Attorney General said that it was high time to show some guts, and here was a good place to begin …”

“The President asked that interagency committees be put to work on the nature of our dialogue with Diem, and he suggested that the EXCOM meet again in a week or so. Next time, he said, he hoped there would be a good map of Viet-Nam available.”

Sometimes it seems this is the model for Bill Clinton, who met President Kennedy that month in the Rose Garden, when he was a seventeen-year- old delegate from Arkansas to Boys Nation, an American Legion leadership program. Thirty years later President Clinton met “Brute” Krulak—the nickname is a compliment in his business—at a televised town meeting in San Diego. Krulak, who went on to become the president of the Copley newspaper chain, beat up on Clinton for military spending cuts, saying they would eventually produce “terrible fields of white crosses.”

President Clinton took that, not having the vaguest idea who Krulak was. The same thing might have happened to Kennedy, because of another trait they shared: a reluctance to prepare and an absolute unwillingness to rehearse. They both were secure—or deluded—in the belief that they would prevail in any one-on-one encounter. That politicians’ arrogance got Clinton, unprepared, into a room of hostile conservatives in San Diego led by Krulak—all on national television.

In his time it got President Kennedy into the bathroom. The first Medal of Freedom he awarded was to Paul-Henri Spaak, the retiring secretary-general of the North American Treaty Organization, in February of 1961. Kennedy, impatient as always, quickly read the proclamation, presented the medal, circled the Oval Office, shaking hands with various ambassadors, and stepped out the door. He had no idea where he was, saw another door, and went in- to the bathroom. He stayed there in solitary dignity until Spaak and the others left his office.