Thursday, December 30, 2010

High-Stakes Gambling in "The New Frontier"

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the dangerous adventurism in foreign policy of the early Kennedy administration.

At the time, the words struck the audience in Washington, and the larger television audience around the world, as an eloquent promise of American resolve to make the world a better place. On a day when eight inches of snow fell and the temperature was 22 degrees (which felt like 7 degrees when the wind chill was considered) Kennedy still stirred his heavily bundled inaugural audience on January 20, 1961 with this bold notice: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

The words proved tragically prophetic. The audience could not know it, but in their drive to pay any price and bear any burden, Kennedy and his two successors would commit American prestige, money, and troops in increasing numbers to oppose what was seen as a global communist menace in Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. A decade after Kennedy’s inaugural speech, with its promise of an aggressive foreign and military policy, Americans would tire of both the price and the burden of extending what Kennedy called “the New Frontier” around the globe. The first act in a tragic drama would unfold within weeks in Cuba.

The Bay of Pigs Fiasco

During the Eisenhower administration, the CIA formulated a plan for the invasion of Cuba and the overthrow of Fidel Castro. The agency informed Kennedy that the plan was ready for implementation soon after he took office. Kennedy, a fan of the James Bond spy novels written by British author Ian Fleming, liked the boldness of the scheme and signed off on the operation. On April 17, 1961, a force of 1,400 CIA-trained and armed Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. The CIA had failed to notice the presence of coral reefs in the bay. The reefs tore the undersides of several landing craft. Swamps surrounded the landing site, trapping the invaders. Castro responded quickly, and Cuban ground forces and attack planes quickly routed the invaders. As the invasion quickly went awry, Kennedy cancelled a planned air strike for fear it would reveal the degree of American complicity in the invasion. Kennedy would publicly acknowledge responsibility for the mission’s failure. The incident would foster in Kennedy a distrust of the military and intelligence leadership that had assured him that Cubans would support the invasion and that the invasion would succeed. Publicly, a shaken president took responsibility for the failure. “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,” he told a press conference.

The failure of the invasion inspired a Cuba obsession within the Kennedy administration. In the coming months, the CIA concocted a variety of schemes to overthrow Castro. In “Operation Mongoose,” the CIA drew up plans to sabotage the Cuban economy and concocted outlandish plans for killing the Cuban leader. Knowing that Castro liked to scuba dive, the CIA drew up one assassination scheme that involved planting explosives in a colorfully painted shell in hopes it would draw Castro’s attention. Another plan would have infected Castro’s diving suit with a fungus that would cause a painful skin infection. Castro liked to smoke cigars, so CIA planners discussed planting in Castro’s possession an exploding cigar with enough firepower to kill him.

The CIA knew that Mafia kingpins wanted to get even with Castro because he had closed down lucrative casinos in Havana, and eliminated mob-run drug and prostitution rings in the island capital. The intelligence agency offered $150,000 to mob leaders Sam Giancana, Santos Trafficante and Johnny Roselli in return for a successful assassination of Castro, but all attempts failed. Castro remained Cuban leader until his resignation for health reasons in February 2008. Meanwhile, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the plots against Castro worsened U.S.-Soviet relations and set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The Kennedy-Khrushchev Clash

Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev finally faced off against each other directly in a summit in Vienna in June 1961, just two months after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Many Kennedy advisors wanted the president to cancel the meeting, expecting it would result only in escalating tensions, but Kennedy wanted to present himself as a strong, resolute leader willing to stand up to his adversaries face-to-face. The meeting proved to be another disaster. Khrushchev berated Kennedy, whom he saw (in the wake of the Cuban incident) as weak and indecisive. Kennedy wanted Khrushchev to back down in his support of communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia, but the Soviet leader insisted that the USSR had a moral obligation to support what he called “wars of liberation.”

The two leaders also butted heads on the issue of Berlin. The city had been divided in two since the end of World War II, with the Western allies controlling the western part of the city and the Soviet Union and its allies controlling the east. At various times, the Soviets had cut off Western access to West Berlin, which was surrounded by East Germany. Khrushchev told Kennedy that the Soviet Union was ready to diplomatically recognize East Germany as a separate country. The East German government would determine whether western people and goods could enter West Berlin. Kennedy replied that the United States would defend West Berlin at all costs. A report said the meeting ended with “table banging and talk about missiles flying.”

Kennedy returned home worried that the Soviets were contemplating starting a nuclear World War III. He went on national television calling up the reserves and asking for the public to support doubling the size of the military draft, the mass construction of bomb shelters, increased funds for civil defense, and a boost in the military budget by $3 billion. Kennedy also concluded that the United States would have to increase its involvement in Vietnam in order to demonstrate that his administration would not tolerate further communist expansion. “We have a problem in trying to make our power credible and Vietnam is the place, ” Kennedy told his friend James Reston, a reporter for "The New York Times."

Meanwhile, through the summer 6,000 East Germans fled to West Berlin every day. In response the East German government constructed a 12-foot wall, complete with sniper nests, which would divide the city until the fall of the communist regime in 1989. After a year had passed, the Berlin Wall was more than seven miles long and fences were placed around the remaining almost 92 miles of East Berlin. Over the years at least 163 men and women died attempting to cross from East to West Berlin. Meanwhile the Soviet Union resumed testing nuclear weapons and Kennedy responded in kind.



The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Bay of Pigs misadventure had a terrifying sequel. Alarmed by America’s attempts to unseat him, Castro pleaded for more visible support from the Soviet Union. Khrushchev ordered the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of striking any major city on the American East Coast. By the fall of 1962 American spy planes had photographs of the missile sites under construction. That October, the world came as close as it ever did to a nuclear holocaust.

Why did Khrushchev make such a provocative move? “Khrushchev would have understood if Kennedy had left Castro alone or destroyed him in the Bay of Pigs invasion nineteen months before,” Kennedy biographer Ralph G. Martin wrote. “But when he saw a young president rash enough to strike at Cuba but not bold enough to finish the job, Khrushchev decided he was dealing with an inexperienced leader who could be intimidated and blackmailed. That’s when he gambled with the missiles.”

Kennedy’s military advisers proposed a wide range of options, including bombing the missile sites or an invasion of Cuba. Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, pushed for a bombing raid. Kennedy knew such actions would put Khrushchev’s credibility on the line and that the Soviet premier might respond with a nuclear strike against the United States. United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson urged the president to tell Khrushchev that the United States would dismantle its nuclear missile bases in Turkey and evacuate the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in return for Khrushchev removing the missiles sites under construction on the island. Kennedy responded that the Russians would interpret this as a sign of weakness and become more aggressive.

Kennedy opted for a naval blockade of Cuba, what he called a “quarantine,” which would intercept Soviet ships carrying missile parts. Kennedy addressed the American people in a national TV and radio broadcast October 22, 1962. Referring to Allied appeasement of Adolf Hitler’s aggression in Europe, Kennedy told a riveted audience, “The 1930s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war.”

The crisis happened in a highly charged political climate. The off-year elections would take place the next month, and historically the president’s party loses seats in the Congress in non-presidential election years. Kennedy worried about his re-election chances in 1964 in light of the lingering impact of the Bay of Pigs disaster and white Southern anger over his perceived friendliness to the Civil Rights Movement. He knew he would pay a heavy price politically if he backed down in his confrontation with Khrushchev. Kennedy’s tough stance on Cuba reaped a political benefit for the Democrats. The president’s approval rating during the crisis shot up from 66 to 74 percent. One Republican congressman, Thomas Curtis of Missouri, even accused the White House of contriving the standoff “for election purposes.”

Domestic politics aside, four missile sites in Cuba were fully operational, and nuclear warheads were already on the island. Nineteen American ships stood between Cuba and a fleet of 25 Soviet vessels. Ship captains were ordered to stop any vessel with a cargo hold large enough to contain a nuclear warhead. Soviet vessels approached the American ships, but half turned back while the other half stopped their advance. “Doomsday didn’t happen that day because we were lucky,” a Kennedy advisor later recalled.

On October 26-27, the White House received two very different teletype messages from Khrushchev. In one, the Soviet leader insisted that the missiles in Cuba were for defensive purposes only and that the Russian ships that approached Cuba did not carry weapons. Khrushchev urged Kennedy to ratchet down the tension so as to not “ . . . doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war.” Khrushchev suggested that Kennedy promise that he would not invade Cuba. In return, the Soviet Union would withdraw military advisors from the island.

The next day the White House received an angrier message from Moscow. This time the Soviet leader insisted that the United States withdraw nuclear warheads from Turkey before the Kremlin would consider removing missiles from Cuba. The Kennedy team worried that such a move, made publicly, would undermine the confidence of NATO allies in American assurances of protection. Presidential advisers argued over how to respond to the mixed messages coming out of Moscow. Which one reflected the Soviet government’s current thinking? The president’s National Security Council again debated the merits of invading Cuba or bombing the missile bases. Still smarting from the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy dismissed the more aggressive suggestions of military leaders like Gen. Curtis LeMay. Meanwhile, a plume of smoke wafted from chimneys at the Soviet Embassy as staff, worried about the likelihood of war, began burning secret documents.

The president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, proposed a simple solution to the dilemma. The younger Kennedy suggested that the President ignore the angry second message and respond positively to the more friendly and conciliatory first teletype. A positive response was sent, but the Soviets were warned not to reveal the American agreement to pull missiles out of Turkey. (Kennedy had already planned this course of action anyway.) Meanwhile, the attorney general met with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and warned him that the situation might spin out of control. The military was pressuring the president, Bobby Kennedy said, and might even overthrow him unless he took a tough stand. The attorney general then warned that unless the missiles were removed, a bombing raid would be authorized.

For several hours the Cabinet awaited what they feared would be Armageddon. Then, on Sunday morning, October 28, a radio bulletin announced that Khrushchev had accepted Kennedy’s terms for ending the standoff. Many in the Cabinet felt they had won a major showdown with the Soviets after embarrassing diplomatic defeats at the Bay of Pigs and the Vienna Summit. Upon hearing the news, Secretary of State Dean Rusk exclaimed, “We were eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.” The president was more reflective, suggesting that the missile crisis was less of a personal triumph than a reprieve for humanity. Having reached the edge of universal annihilation, both Kennedy and Khrushchev stepped back.

A larger number of voters cast ballots on Election Day in 1962 than in any off-year-election in four decades. The Democrats gained four seats in the Senate and lost only two seats in the House, the best showing for a president’s party in an off-year election since the Democratic landslide of 1934 during the Roosevelt administration. Former Vice President Richard Nixon, in a bitter press conference, blamed his loss in the California gubernatorial race that autumn on the Cuban Missile Crisis, claiming that TV and newspaper coverage of Cuba prevented him from “getting our message through.” Undoubtedly, the public widely perceived the president as having prevailed over the Soviet Union in the most dangerous encounter between the nuclear superpowers in the post-Hiroshima world. Even though polls suggested domestic issues rated higher in voters’ minds, the electorate rewarded the Democrats for Kennedy’s toughness.

Khrushchev already faced domestic political problems from hardliners who thought that removal of the Cuban missiles showed weakness to the Americans. Others in the Kremlin leadership objected to what they saw as Khrushchev’s volatile leadership style. The Soviet premier now faced anger from his Cuban ally as well. Castro, with the Bay of Pigs behind him and aware of previous American assassination attempts against him, had urged the Soviets to keep the missiles on the island and had even suggested that the time had been ripe for the USSR to launch a preventive first strike. Tension marked the Soviet-Cuban relationship for the next two years until opposition to Khrushchev in the Kremlin culminated in a 1964 coup.

Nevertheless, the successful conclusion of the crisis convinced both Kennedy and Khrushchev that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R could negotiate over their differences. In the coming year, the United States dismantled the missiles in Turkey, a telephone “hotline” to the Kremlin was installed in the Oval Office to facilitate instant communication between the American and the Soviet leaders, and the two countries began hammering out an agreement on ending testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. A new tone had been set in American-Soviet relations.

“Both the United Sates and its allies have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race,” Kennedy said in a speech to graduating students at American University on June 10, 1963. “Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours . . . For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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