By Larry Getlen
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President John F. Kennedy consulted with his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, explaining the deal that pulled our country back from the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Kennedy stressed to Eisenhower that, while promising not to invade Cuba would facilitate the removal of Soviet missiles from that country, he had absolutely rejected Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s request to have American missiles removed from Turkey, which would have made the deal a straight quid pro quo.
“‘We then issued a statement that we couldn’t get into that deal,’ Kennedy told Eisenhower. Only an agreement not to invade Cuba. “‘Any other conditions?’ Eisenhower asked. ‘No,’ Kennedy said, adding later, ‘This is quite a step down for Khrushchev.’”
According to “The Politics of Deception,” a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Patrick Sloyan, Kennedy lied to Eisenhower, just as he would lie to the American people about the nature of this deal and others.
In truth, writes Sloyan, Kennedy folded against his tough Soviet counterpart, acceding to Khrushchev’s demands to remove 15 nuclear warheads from Turkey — within easy striking distance of Moscow — almost immediately.
In 2013, a Gallup Poll showed that Kennedy is still the most popular US president, with 74 percent of Americans considering him “outstanding” or “above average” at the job.
But in this book, Sloyan maintains that Kennedy wasn’t always the president we think he was.
Based on recently uncovered, secret tape recordings Kennedy made in the White House — including of the Eisenhower call above — plus declassified documents, Sloyan says that Kennedy was deceitful about some of his most important accomplishments and positions due to his desire to win re-election in 1964.
In the wake of the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba known as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy installed nuclear-equipped Jupiter missiles in Turkey. In retaliation, Khrushchev installed nuclear missiles 90 miles from Florida and within easy striking distance of numerous American cities.
As far as the public knew, the two leaders met in a fierce showdown, and Kennedy, empowered by the threat of “devastating airstrikes” and “140,000 troops” deployed to Cuba, won, getting Khrushchev to back down and remove his missiles.
After, Secretary of State Dean Rusk was quoted as saying, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” This quote came to define Kennedy’s actions, portraying the leader as steely, steadfast and unconquerable.
Sloyan writes that in truth, Kennedy immediately embraced the idea of a swap, included Khrushchev’s silence as part of the deal, then covered it up for the American public.
Kennedy was concerned about the effect that news of the swap could have on his re-election chances. Many of his advisors feared that it would look to the American people as if “Kennedy had sacrificed a NATO ally after being outfoxed by the communist leader,” and that the deal would cause our fellow NATO countries to “forever doubt America’s solidarity.”
Once the decision was made to obscure the reality, Kennedy’s biggest concern was Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, a harsh opponent of Kennedy’s on many fronts, and good friends with Sen. Barry Goldwater, the president’s likely GOP opponent in the ’64 presidential race.
LeMay was a leading proponent of a “preemptive first strike — launched without warning — that would destroy most of the Soviet missiles and bombers,” and openly called Kennedy’s deal “the greatest defeat in our history.”
LeMay was forbidden by his position from revealing Kennedy’s deal to the public. But he and another opponent of the deal, Gen. Thomas Power, commander of the Strategic Air Command, were scheduled to leave their posts in July 1964, leaving them free to reveal what they knew and likely torpedo Kennedy’s re-election. To keep them quiet, both had their service extended until after the election.
The missiles in Turkey were dismantled the following April. The administration publicly claimed that they had become irrelevant.
When buses carrying black and white passengers hoping to protest segregated facilities in Alabama were attacked, and their passengers beaten, in May 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent US marshals to protect the protestors, who came to be known as the Freedom Riders.
But Sloyan writes that neither Kennedy brother was genuinely sympathetic to their cause, concerned as they were with losing the support of white southern Democrats in ’64.
“ ‘Stop them,’ the president told Harris Wofford, his special assistant on civil rights. ‘Get your goddamn friends off the buses.’ ” Kennedy believed that the event was intended to embarrass him and put him in “a politically painful spot.”
Kennedy was so nervous about Martin Luther King Jr. that his secret recordings reveal him telling brother Bobby, “King is so hot these days that it’s like having [Karl] Marx coming to the White House.”
The president had already betrayed the civil-rights movement, failing to keep a campaign promise to end literacy tests for voting and appointing racist judges in the South.
He met with King at the White House, and informed him that despite promises he had made during his campaign, civil-rights legislation would be delayed for political reasons.
“Kennedy,” writes Sloyan, “was not about to expend political capital on King’s priorities.”
King later said of the president, “I’m convinced he has the understanding and the political skill, but I’m afraid the moral passion is missing.”
When racial protests in Birmingham, Ala., erupted in violence in 1963, Kennedy said there was nothing he could legally do to help. This claim was quickly shot down by the deans of both Harvard and Yale law schools, with the former, Erwin Griswold, saying that “he hasn’t even started to use the powers that are available.”
It was only after Vice President Lyndon Johnson publicly took the lead on the issue that Kennedy made the tough, expedient choice to abandon southern votes and support King’s cause. He gave a speech calling for “American students of any color” to be able to attend school without fear and put forth legislation that would have “eliminated discrimination at the voting booth” and in other public spaces.
In the early ’60s, an embattled Southeast Asia was in danger of falling to the Communists.
America’s great hope for peace was South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, who was fighting off an invasion from North Vietnam. Diem was committed to keeping communism out of his country but also refused American entreaties to make South Vietnam a full-on democracy. As such, there was a faction of our government that believed he should have been ousted.
Kennedy rejected the notion of sending US ground troops to assist Diem but made a secret agreement to provide him with 16,000 military “advisors.” He gave Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., his ambassador to South Vietnam, close to complete authority in determining the next step.
By 1963, top level Kennedy staffers were losing faith in Diem, who was gaining no traction against the Viet Cong. Plus, word of a harsh crackdown on his nation’s Buddhists was hurting his global image, and a picture of 73-year-old Thich Quang Duc setting himself on fire to protest Diem’s actions went global.
Some, including Assistant Secretary of State William Averell Harriman, began calling for America to withdraw this support. Harriman told Kennedy, of Diem, “I think we have just got to get him out. If we can get the vice president [Nguyen Van Thieu] to take the front job, we could get a few of the better generals to get together and have a junta.” The possibility that such a junta could leave Diem dead was also mentioned.
Kennedy deliberated for several months about what the result of jettisoning Diem would be. Some advisors believed it would ease their way toward defeating the Viet Cong. Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, a top Kennedy advisor who advocated for removing US forces from the country, was, at that point, alone in fearing it would lead to “an all-out war in the jungles of Vietnam.”
Increasing doubts over Diem’s control of his government led to calls for his removal. In a decision his newly discovered recordings show he came to regret, Kennedy approved plans for a coup, despite there being no solid strategy, and no clear replacement for Diem.
After months of confused chaos, disagreement and vacillating amongst Kennedy and his brain trust, along with one failed coup attempt, it was determined that rather than actively supporting a coup, the administration would now merely agree “not to thwart one.”
“Refusing US help for Diem once the coup started became one of Kennedy’s last orders,” writes Sloyan, noting that if they had rushed in to save him, this could have revealed US involvement.
The coup was launched on Nov. 1, 1963. When Diem asked Lodge for help, the ambassador offered the protection of the US embassy but, possibly based on Kennedy’s order, would not send help to collect him, saying, “We can’t get involved.” With no way out, Diem was stuck, and he was assassinated later that day.
Lodge’s right-hand man, John Michael Dunn, later described Diem’s killing as, Sloyan writes, a “gangland murder,” a “hit” orchestrated by Lodge.
But if Lodge engineered it, Kennedy’s order gave him the tools to carry it out. When Kennedy, while meeting with his advisors, learned that Diem had been killed, “the color left his face” and he “stood and rushed from the Cabinet Room.” Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later remembered thinking, “What did he expect?”
Two days after Diem’s death, Lodge sent Kennedy a message.
“We should not overlook what this coup can mean,” he wrote, “in the way of shortening the war and enabling Americans to come home.”
Instead, the opposite happened. The Viet Cong’s war effort gained momentum in the wake of Saigon’s leadership vacuum, with a Viet Cong representative calling the coup and the assassination “gifts from heaven.”
“Kennedy’s order to get rid of Diem,” writes Sloyan, “was the real beginning of the American war in Vietnam.”