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“The Lines Of Control Have Been Cut”

June 2024
16min read

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.

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.”

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”

The organizer of the rides, James Farmer, director of the Congress of Racial Equality, and black journalists, too, had tried without success to alert the President or Attorney General Robert Kennedy before the rides set off from the Greyhound and Trailways bus terminals a few blocks from the White House. But apparently their announcements and notes were lost somewhere in the channels President Kennedy deliberately broke up when he took office. Ignorance of the rides, however, was not as personally embarrassing as his first meeting with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to discuss Britain’s “Grand Design” for Europe. The prime minister hoped to develop a compromise power-sharing scheme on European security matters that was halfway between the United States’s inclination to make unilateral decisions and French President Charles de Gaulle’s insistence that France, Britain, and the United States must be equal partners in decision making. Kennedy had not read Macmillan’s ideas; in fact, he had lost the papers. It took several hours to find them—in the bedroom of Kennedy’s two-year-old daughter, Caroline.

One of the men in the Kennedy administration with extensive Executive experience, Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles, the former governor of Connecticut and a founder of the advertising agency BBD&O said: “Management in Jack’s mind, I think, consists largely of calling Bob on the telephone and saying ‘Here are ten things I want to get done. Why don’t you go ahead and get them done.’” That judgment was often confirmed by the President himself, expressing his admiration for his brother-manager this way: “With Bobby, I don’t have to think about organization. I just show up.”

Management, in general, does not greatly interest most politicians, but it happened that it was an important part of the two long conversations between Eisenhower and Kennedy during the 1960-61 transition period. As the President-elect began asking questions, Eisenhower quickly realized what was on Kennedy’s mind, and he didn’t like it. The new man’s questions were about the structure of decision making on matters of national security and national defense. The senator obviously thought the Eisenhower White House structure was too complicated, too bureaucratic, too formal, and too slow—with too many decisions outside the President’s reach and control. Ike thought Kennedy naive, but he was not about to say that, so he began a long explanation of how and why he had built up what amounted to a military staff apparatus to methodically collect and feed information to the Commander in Chief and, at the same time, had created separate operations to coordinate and implement his decision making.

“No easy matters will ever come to you as President. If they are easy, they will be settled at a lower level,” Eisenhower said. And Kennedy did not much like that idea.

“I did urge him to avoid any reorganization until he himself could become well acquainted with the problem,” the President dictated to his secretary after Kennedy left. But it was obvious that the President-elect was not much interested in his organization charts—or in organization itself, for that matter. Ike’s bent toward order was exactly the kind of passive thinking Kennedy wanted to sweep away. He had no use for the processes of note making, minutes taking, and little boxes on charts showing the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board. He did not think of himself as being on top of a chart; rather he wanted to be in the center, the center of all the action.


Ike, dictating for his journal, worried that the new man did not understand the complexity of the job, that Kennedy thought the Presidency was a personal thing, a question of getting the right people in a few jobs here and there.

That was just about right. Kennedy did believe that problem solving meant getting the right man into the right place at the right time—and, if things went wrong, putting in someone else. And he saw himself as the right man. Lines of power, he said, were supposed to be like the spokes of a wheel, all coming from him, all going to him. “It was instinctive at first,” he said. “I had different identities, and this was a useful way of expressing each without compromising the others.”

He preferred to work one-on-one—hallway meetings and telephone calls to desk officers in the State Department or to surprised professors and reporters. Anyone who had just been to countries in crisis or had written something the President heard about was liable to be awakened by a Boston-accented voice saying: “This is Jack Kennedy. Can you tell me … ?” Some of them hung up on him, thinking it was a joke.

“No easy matters will ever come to you as President,” Eisenhower told JFK.

He wanted the action to be wherever he was: follow the body. At the far end-points of American policy, his policy, there would be young men like his own staff, hard-thinking patriots in chinos and work shirts, or Army berets or even native dress, ready to turn a crowd of demonstrating students or neutralize a Communist plot.

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?”

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.”

“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.

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