I decided to review JFK’s Joint Chiefs of Staff who operated during his presidency. I’ve been looking at this for a while but, after reading Joseph Horne’s “JFK’s War with the National Security Establishment”, I realized Kennedy had three distinct JSCs sitting for three distinct crises during his time in office:
- Bay of Pigs
- Cuban Missile Crisis
- Dealey Plaza
There are five seats on the JSC. The chairman and the four heads of branches of the military. Interestingly, the chairman in many cases was less influential than certain members. Following a crisis, some members were replaced. Before a crisis, some members were replaced. Replacement sometimes was a choice between two evils. One member had no impact on any of the crises and endured throughout. One member had impact but no written history. Another member was never mentioned in Horne’s essays about the National Security Establishment.
This study will look at each of the three crises and each of the sitting JSC members. Pertinent background, action and results to be included. JFK looked to these men, among others, to give him the best information for critical decision making in a time nuclear weapons being in Russian hands as well as American. The deck was stacked against objectivity in military circles, to some extent because recent war experience but also due hubris and contempt on the part of these trusted advisers. It is no wonder that our commander and chief had to reevaluate his trust in the advice these men proffered following the first two crises.
Bay of Pigs Crisis
Thomas White led the Air Force as Chief of Staff with the election of Kennedy. His JSC position began with Eisenhower in 1957. There is little information available outside of his war record. Less about his short stint in JFK’s JSC, which ended with his retirement on 6/30/1961. However, here is a quote from one of Horne’s essays:
“Predictably, (General Curtis) LeMay, whom Kennedy had promoted toAir Force chief of staff the year before, after cashiering the belligerent Thomas White after the Bay of Pigs disaster”.
I couldn’t find any corroboration for the “ belligerent Thomas White” assertion.
Wikipedia had this tidbit which gives General Thomas White, USAF, some further dimension:
White was a fisherman, aquarist and amateur ichthyologist and while in Brazil he collected Zoological specimens with his wife, Constance, including the type of the Rio pearlfish Nematolebias whitei which was named in his honor.
Marine Corps Commandant General David Shoup served Kennedy from the time of the hand off from Eisenhower (1/1/1960) until the end of the year of following the assassination, 12/31/1963. Shoup at best remained passive during Bay of Pigs and at worst supported both sides of the argument on the Cuban Missile Crisis, depending on who was in the room. Still mentally in WWII, he seemed to know little of the current crisis plans and nothing of the subject, Cuba. The missile crisis found him accommodating the intimidating Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay.
Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke served Eisenhower, 8/17/1955 and then Kennedy until after the Bay of Pigs, retiring on 8/1/1961. Kennedy lost faith in Burke after BOP. JFK concluded that the Admiral joined others, notably the JSC Chairman (Lemnitzer) and CIA, in trying to manipulate a young, naïve president into a fight. Kennedy wanted facts for decision making, not prejudiced advice. The President agreed with Secretary of Defense McNamara that new faces were needed in the Pentagon.
Burke took a swing at being JSC Chairman when Lyman Lemnitzer went off to South Vietnam on assignment. The acting Chairman announced in a White House meeting that “…if the U.S. did not fight in Southeast Asia it would lose the entire region; he further stated that if the U.S. did fight, it would be a long war and the U.S. would have to use nuclear weapons to win.” Suggesting the use of nuclear weapons was a bridge too far for Kennedy. And it was the last straw when Burke continued to press for it and eventually got him thrown out of the White House and, finally, retired on 8/1/1961.
From the failure of facts on 4/17/1961, to the fight for nuclear use on 4/27/1961, then retirement three months later, Admiral Burke went from CNO to no go. He had a ship named in his honor and an impressive WWII record. But served Kennedy not.