“The Lines Of Control Have Been Cut”

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In early October of 1963, Rep. Clement Zablocki, a Wisconsin Democrat, led a House Foreign Affairs Committee fact-finding delegation to South Vietnam. Invited to the White House when he returned, Zablocki told President John F. Kennedy he thought that removing President Ngo Dinh Diem would be a big mistake, unless the United States had a successor in the wings. Remember Cuba, Zablocki said. “Batista was bad, but Castro is worse.”

It was a little late for that. By then Kennedy was just about ready to sign off on the overthrow of Diem. In Saigon, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and agents of the Central Intelligence Agency were aiding and encouraging the plots of various coup-minded Vietnamese generals. In Washington, schemers in the State Department, led by Averell Harriman, had persuaded the President that the fight against North Vietnamese communism was being lost because Diem was corrupt and foolish—and was not taking orders from his American sponsors and allies.

So Kennedy told Zablocki, “I hope you’ll write an objective report and not put President Diem in a favorable light.”

“Well, you know what the boss wants,” Pierre Salinger remarked cheerfully as Zablocki left the White House.

“The boss will get what we think is right,” the congressman said. “Somebody’s giving the boss some bad information.”

Somebody always seemed to be giving the President bad information in those days, a situation that appears to be repeating itself thirty years later in the Presidency of William Jefferson Clinton. The power at the center of American democracy is a function of what the President knows and when he knows it. And Presidents Kennedy and Clinton came to office sharing more than youth and membership in the Democratic party. Each wanted to open up the White House to new information, breaking up or dismantling the old bureaucracies and systems that they thought isolated their predecessors—the councils and committees and boards that channeled information into the President and then implemented and followed through on his orders.

In his turn Kennedy immediately replaced the rigid and formal organization of President Dwight Eisenhower’s National Security Council with small ad hoc task forces, their number rising and falling with the President’s perception of crises. Ideally the task forces would be unofficial, never permanent, never functioning long enough to generate their own bureaucracies or get around the direct control of the man at the center in the Oval Office.

Short conversations and long hours substituted for Ike’s inflexible organization. The best way to reach Kennedy was to hang around the office of his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. Periodically he would come out to look at newspapers and talk to whoever was standing there. Harriman, who had served, in his own way, two Presidents before Kennedy, told his assistants that a man had seven seconds to make an impression on the boss. If the President looked your way, you seized the moment or it was lost forever.

 

After a couple of months in office, Kennedy invited NBC into the White House for a prime-time television special and described his no-meetings, hands-on management of the building, the country, and the world. It seemed spontaneous and flexible, a new management style, though some of his own men worried that there was more style than management. He had called only two cabinet meetings, he told NBC: “They’re a waste of time.” He repeated the line when he was asked why there had been no National Security Council meetings during his first months in office. “These general meetings are a waste of time,” he said. “Formal meetings of the NSC are not as effective, and it is much more difficult to decide matters involving high national security if there is a wider group present.”

Perhaps. On April 5, 1961, the President’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, sent Kennedy a memo under the title “Crisis Commanders in Washington,” saying, in effect, that in the most important of ongoing foreign policy crises, no one was in charge: “Over and over since January 20th we have talked of getting ‘task forces with individual responsible leaders’ here in Washington for crisis situations. At the beginning, we thought we had task forces for Laos, the Congo and Cuba. We did get working groups with nobody in particular in charge, but we did not get clearly focused responsibility. The reason was that the Department of State was not quite ready … these Assistant Secretaries, although men of good will, were not really prepared to take charge of the ‘military’ and ‘intelligence’ aspects —the Government was in the habit of ‘coordination’ and out of the habit of the acceptance of individual executive leadership. More than once the ball has been dropped because no one person felt a continuing clear responsibility.”