Professor Peter Kuznick, American University is co-author with Oliver Stone of The Untold History of the United States. Here he debunks some of the left mythologies which are universal regarding JFK and his role in the Bay of Pigs crisis, his Cold Warrior stance and his intention to pull out of Vietnam. Formerly a believer in the Noam Chomsky and Bacevich interpretations of Kennedy’s policies and politics, Kuznick went to the record and found a different history is the reality. These issues are central to why Chomsky and much of the left dismiss the idea of a government conspiracy in the murder of Kennedy, since in their view he was no danger to the establishment. This is part one of two, both parts included below.
Vietnam and the Legacy of the JFK Presidency
Peter Kuznick on Reality Asserts Itself
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR
The Real News Network
November 22, 2013
Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself.
November 22 is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We’re going to take a look at the significance of his presidency, his accomplishments, and/or lack thereof. And, of course, everything to do with that presidency is a matter of debate. Whether or not President Kennedy actually wanted to pull out of Vietnam or not, and of course the assassination itself, has been the subject of hundreds of books with competing theories. But we’re going to try and take a big-picture look at just what Kennedy represented in terms of the flow of American post-World War II history.
Now joining us to kick off our discussion about Kennedy is Peter Kuznick. He’s a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He’s cowriter of the ten-part Showtime series called Untold History of the United States with Oliver Stone.
Thanks very much for joining us, Peter.
PETER KUZNICK, AUTHOR AND HISTORIAN, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Good to be here, Paul.
JAY: So we’ll get into some of the more controversial pieces of the Kennedy presidency, like, probably pretty soon as we get into this. But start off. Set the stage. When Kennedy becomes president, what does the world look like?
KUZNICK: The world in January 1961 was a very tense and dangerous place. The Eisenhower presidency had created this enormous military-industrial complex. Most people think–the thing that many people know about Eisenhower is his farewell address, in which he warns about the military-industrial complex. What they don’t realize was that he was the one who did more than anybody else to create it. When Eisenhower took office, the United States had a little over 1,000 nuclear weapons. When Eisenhower left office, we have 23,000 nuclear weapons. By the time his budgeting cycle was finished we had 30,000 nuclear weapons. Eisenhower had helped create a very dangerous world with many fingers on the nuclear button.
JAY: When you read the whole quote from Eisenhower, he’s pretty clear it’s not that he says America shouldn’t have this enormous military buildup. He says it should, just that these are the things you should be worried about as we do it.
KUZNICK: Right. So Eisenhower understood it in the part because he had helped created and he knew how dangerous it was. He was handing over the SIOP, the strategic integrated operations plan [crosstalk]
JAY: Yeah. Actually, if you read the whole Eisenhower quote about beware of the dangers of the military-industrial complex, it’s not that he says that we shouldn’t have a military-industrial complex–he in fact quite explicitly says there should be one–but just beware, because they’re going to have an inordinate amount of political power as a result of all this.
KUZNICK: Yes. Eisenhower understood how dangerous it was. Eisenhower oversaw the creation of the first SIOP, strategic integrated operations plan, and he got very scared when he was briefed on it. What the joint chiefs informed Dan Ellsberg when Bundy asked Ellsberg to find out the details, it told Ellsberg that within 24 hours of a war against the Soviet Union, we were going to shoot off our entire nuclear arsenal. They expected the consequences to be between 600 million and 650 million people dead from America’s weapons alone. And so that was terrifying. It was terrifying to Eisenhower. He understood what he had created and the risks and dangers involved in this. When Eisenhower took office, nuclear weapons were our last resort. When he leaves, they are our first resort. When he takes office, there’s one finger on the nuclear button. When he leaves, there there’s dozens, maybe scores of fingers on the nuclear button. And with this massive buildup on nuclear weapons, Eisenhower understood what he was passing on. This could have been to Kennedy, it could have been to Nixon. He did not know at the time.
So it was a very dangerous world. It was also a world of great tension in Berlin, great tension in other parts of the world. So it was a world that could have exploded and almost did on several occasions.
The first major one, the first big involvement we have is with the Bay of Pigs in April ’61. And that’s a fiasco. Then Kennedy meets with–.
JAY: Just quickly, for viewers, younger viewers that don’t know what you’re talking about, give us a quick take on Bay of Pigs invasion.
KUZNICK: The United States under Eisenhower, we started to build up a force of Cuban counterrevolutionaries operating out of Miami, who in April invaded Cuba under the pretext that if they invaded, the Cuban people who supposedly hated Castro would rise up in rebellion and overthrow the Castro government.
JAY: The invasion’s under Kennedy’s watch, not Eisenhower.
KUZNICK: Say this again?
JAY: The invasion takes place under Kennedy.
KUZNICK: The invasion takes place under Kennedy, but it was planned initially under Eisenhower. Kennedy inherited it. Kennedy doubted the idea behind it, but he felt that as a young president he did not have the authority to overrule something that had been put in place by Eisenhower and by the generals.
It was a disastrous plan. Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the other generals and intelligence people assumed that once we sent that force in there, if they were in trouble, Kennedy would have no choice but to send in air support and ground forces to back them up. They met with Kennedy at midnight for three hours one night as the whole thing was unraveling down there, and they browbeat Kennedy into sending forces. Lemnitzer couldn’t believe that Kennedy would stand up to them and not send American support. Lemnitzer said afterwards that he was shocked, that this [incompr.] it was criminal on the part of Kennedy that he didn’t do that.
That was one of the important things to understand about Kennedy. Kennedy stood up to his generals and his intelligence people time after time after time. [incompr.] we have–what we wish we would have seen with Obama standing up to the military and the intelligence people Obama has not had the backbone to do. But Kennedy did repeatedly.
He did the same thing over Laos. They wanted to go in there and fight it out over Laos. Eisenhower had warned Kennedy that this is very likely going to happen. Kennedy refused to send the forces into Laos. The generals said they wanted to be able to use nuclear weapons if they needed them in Laos. Kennedy refused. And he accepted a neutralist solution in Laos, which is what Robert Kennedy later said they would have done very likely in Vietnam as well.
But these are things that go against the culture of the military, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community at the time. And Kennedy built up a lot of enmity as a result. After the Bay of Pigs, when the force was almost entirely killed or captured by the Cubans and Kennedy admits that this is terrible, in terms of what has happened, and diplomatically around the world, the United States’ stature has fallen dramatically almost overnight. Khrushchev said he had a lot of hope for Kennedy when Kennedy first took over. But by the time they meet in Vienna, Khrushchev is browbeating Kennedy and he thinks that Kennedy obviously was somebody who was in way over his head was Khrushchev’s initial sense.
But in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy learned some important lessons. And he starts talking about those Joint Chiefs sons of bitches and those CIA bastards, and he says, I’m going to scatter the CIA, I’m going to shatter the CIA into 1,000 pieces and scatter it in the wind. He puts the CIA operatives in each country under the head of the ambassador’s control. And then he fires the big three in the CIA, including Allen Dulles. He also shakes up the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So Kennedy immediately is giving the signal that he’s in charge, he’s the commander-in-chief, and he’s going to set the policy. And he starts [crosstalk]
JAY: But it’s important that, if I understand it correctly–and I know you think after the Cuban Missile Crisis he began to change his mind on things, and we’ll talk about that. But he, as the president, for the first while he is a very militant cold warrior. I think I saw a quote of Dean Rusk which says that he was practically fixated with trying to overthrow Castro in Cuba. Certainly some of the assassination attempts on Castro that took place initially, if I understand it correctly, Kennedy certainly knew and supported. He didn’t like them working with the mob and the mafia on this, which is–let me just say to our audience, this story goes so many layers and ripples. We’re going to have to just deal with some things kind of big-picture here. The literature on this is hundreds and probably thousands of books deep. At any rate, I mean, Kennedy wanted to overthrow Castro. He wasn’t–this was not something he was opposed to. He just didn’t like the way the CIA handled the Bay of Pigs invasion. Right?
KUZNICK: Kennedy was committed to overthrowing Castro. That’s right.
Kennedy was certainly a cold warrior, although he was not entirely a cold warrior. But in the essentials, you’re right. He was a cold warrior.
He had been very critical of British and French colonialism. He had traveled in Southeast Asia. He understood the way people in Southeast Asia hated the colonialists. So he always had a sense that the policy that the U.S. was pursuing there was problematic. But he didn’t challenge it initially and did embrace it.
And after Sputnik in 1957, Kennedy starts to talk about the missile gap, as do many of the other Democrats. So they become real cold warriors. And in 1960, during the election, in certain ways Kennedy is attacking Nixon from the right for letting Castro survive in Cuba, and also letting the United States fall behind in terms of the missile gap. So in that sense Kennedy was certainly a staunch cold warrior, and I don’t disagree with that.
But Kennedy evolves in office. Kennedy sees what’s happening, he sees the kind of advice he’s getting, and he moves dramatically, in my opinion, after 1962, away from the Cold War.
JAY: Okay. Let me read you a few quotes of people who don’t agree with you, and then you’re going to have your chance to go at them. First of all, here’s someone who I know who’s generally your work you respect, but you don’t agree with him on this. This is Andrew Bacevich. He writes in a book called Washington Rules:
“The abrupt termination of Camelot”–this is how people refer to the Kennedy administration–“did not bring down the curtain on some ambitious effort to reorient American statecraft. The Kennedy who embraced the strategy of overkill, sought to subvert the Cuban Revolution, and deepened the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam was continuing work that his predecessor had begun”–meaning Eisenhower. “When Lyndon Johnson replaced Kennedy in the Oval Office, the postwar tradition of American statecraft passed into the hands of yet another faithful steward.”
That Kennedy was a continuation of Eisenhower is his argument. And I’ll read some quotes a little later from Chomsky, who make the same argument.
KUZNICK: I used to–I agreed with Chomsky and Bacevich and others initially, until I began to look into this question much more deeply. And then what I found was that Kennedy’s views were evolving in terms of a broad range of issues. And if you look at any specific one, you don’t get the big picture.
And I think the culmination comes in his commencement address at American University. After Norman Cousins visits–well, it’s really–or we could say the turning point is the Cuban Missile Crisis. But you see signs of it even earlier in terms of not trusting the generals and not trusting the intelligence community.
But after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy learns a profound lesson. Khrushchev learns the same lesson. Despite all of their efforts to avoid a nuclear war and a confrontation between the two sides, they realize that crises like these cannot be managed, that crises cannot be controlled. And after that, Khrushchev sends an extraordinary letter to Kennedy in which he says, from this evil maybe some good can come. Both of our nations have felt the–our citizens have felt the flames of thermonuclear war. They understand what this means. We should now work together to remove every possible conflict that can lead to another crisis between our two nations. Khrushchev said we should even eliminate the military blocs, get rid of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. We should work together to end nuclear testing completely and roll back all of these conflicts between us and work together for a peaceful world.
Kennedy hesitated at first. He balked. But he realized–he said–and Norman Cousins goes over there and comes back and tells Kennedy that Khrushchev is sincere about this. Averill Harriman, who was a old hawk from way back, tells Kennedy that Khrushchev is sincere and he really wants to do what he’s talking about. And then Kennedy begins to reach out to Khrushchev as well.
And between the two of them, in the last months of Kennedy’s life, they are starting to try to tamp down all of these crises. And you look at the limited arms control treaty, it was the first nuclear treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. The military was staunchly opposed to that. They were furious with Kennedy about this. Congressional mail was running 15-to-1 against this treaty. But Kennedy stood for it, he stood up for it, and he was able to get it passed. According to Ted Sorensen, nothing that Kennedy achieved in his presidency gave him as much gratification as the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Kennedy said that what he wants to do is sign another treaty, and then he’s going to go to the Soviet Union. He’ll be the first sitting American president to visit the Soviet Union. And he says, I’m going to be treated like a hero there. And that’s–that was his vision. Kennedy saw himself as a man of peace toward the end of his presidency. And I [incompr.] that possibility to achieve that.
JAY: Alright. Well, part of, I think, the counterargument goes that, yes, Kennedy saw the necessity of avoiding thermonuclear war and this kind of direct confrontation with the Soviet Union, but he also saw the national liberation movements of the world that were also heading towards socialism if they were victorious, and, of course, Vietnam being the most important example of that, as something that had to be fought. And here’s another quote from Basevich’s book:
“Kennedy saw South Vietnam as the crucial test case of flexible response, an opportunity to demonstrate that counterinsurgency and nation-building techniques could defeat communist-inspired ‘wars of national liberation’–that when it came to projecting power, the United States had at hand tools other than those offered by the CIA and SAC. With this in mind, the president
“ increased the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam from nine hundred to nearly seventeen thousand ‘advisers.’
“ eased restrictions on U.S. military personnel, authorizing those advisers to engage in combat operations … [including dumping] large quantities of defoliants such as Agent Orange on the Vietnamese countryside.
“ more than doubled the level of material support provided to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. . . .
“ did nothing in his public representations to refute claims made by others in his administration–Taylor and McNamara in the forefront–that South Vietnam represented a vital U.S. national security interest.”
And a little later I’ll quote Chomsky on this, but basically that Kennedy did see Vietnam as something that had to be won, even if, I think, no one can disagree what you’re saying, that he did see the necessity of working out agreements and protocol to stop a direct nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. But the two are not mutually exclusive.
KUZNICK: No, but they’re part of a piece, because what I’m saying is that Kennedy’s worldview was evolving overall and Kennedy was seeing that conflict with the Soviet Union was not necessary. For example, you think about his signature initiative, which was the space race, and he said the Soviets had embarrassed the United States with all their achievements and their victories in the space race. And this more than almost anything else is what he’s identified with, landing a man on the moon and defeating the Soviets. But in the last year of his life he was saying this is a waste for humanity to have this be a competition, going into space. He said, we and the Soviets should work together to put a man on the moon together. This is in the interests of all human beings. This should not be a competition between us. And that was the attitude that was evolving on most things.
If we look, for example, sure Bacevich is right that Kennedy begins embracing counterinsurgency. Kennedy had this fantasy about the Green Berets in the early part of his presidency. Kennedy did see Vietnam as a place we had to win in the early part of his presidency. Kennedy did build up forces in Vietnam. That’s all correct.
But what he’s missing there is that early on, Kennedy began to get evidence, get intelligence showing that Vietnam was not likely to be won under any circumstances. John Kenneth Galbraith was one of the first to come back with a report urging Kennedy to rethink the policy in Vietnam. Kennedy sends Harriman and Michael Forrestal, tells them to seize upon any moment to reduce our commitment in Vietnam. That’s in 1962. Mike Mansfield’s–Kennedy sends Mansfield to Vietnam. Mansfield comes back with a very pessimistic report. And Kennedy says to Kenny O’Donnell, he says, when Mansfield said this to me, I got angry, and then I got angry at myself because I was agreeing with him. But we have that similar kind of statements–I could go through a lot of them, but among those who said that Kennedy–what Kennedy said to them privately, at least.
Now, the problem is that Kennedy’s public statements would support the idea that he’s not going to flinch on Vietnam, that we are going to follow through and try to win. But privately he told people over and over again that I can’t pull out now, but if I’m find reelected, I can pull out afterwards. National security–.
JAY: Let me just jump in here for a second. Now, I–this is kind of all new to me. I do not know this subject with any great detail. But Chomsky has written a lot on this, and he has, you know, a differing view than you.
Well, in part two of this interview we are going to look at some of the critique of Peter’s theory. People like Noam Chomsky say there’s actually no evidence in the internal or public record that Jack Kennedy actually did plan to pull out of Vietnam.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself.
We’re continuing our discussion evaluating the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
Now joining us again is Peter Kuznick. He’s an associate professor of history at American University and coauthor of The Untold History of the United States with filmmaker Oliver Stone.
Thanks very much for joining us again, Peter.
PETER KUZNICK, AUTHOR AND HISTORIAN, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Good to be here, Paul.
JAY: Chomsky has written a lot on this. And he has, you know, a differing view than you. Let me just read a few of the quotes from Chomsky so people are at least familiar with what the other side of this story is or another side of this story. This is from an article that Chomsky writes.
“Two weeks before Kennedy’s assassination, there is not a phrase in the voluminous internal record that even hints at withdrawal without victory. JFK urges that everyone “focus on winning the war”; withdrawal is conditioned on victory, and motivated by domestic discontent with Kennedy’s war. The stakes are considered enormous. Nothing substantial changes as the mantle passes to LBJ.”
Chomsky further writes:
“General David Shoup, Marine Commandant through the Kennedy years, reports that when the Joint Chiefs considered troop deployment, ‘in every case … every senior officer that I knew … said we should never send ground combat forces into Southeast Asia.’ Shoup’s public opposition to the war from 1966 was particularly strong, far beyond anything said by the civilian leadership, media doves, or others who later presented themselves as war critics.
“These observations add further weight to the conclusion based on the record of internal deliberations, in which JFK insists upon victory and considers withdrawal only on this condition. Had he intended to withdraw, he would have been able to enlist respected military commanders to back him, so it appears, including the most revered figures of the right. He made no effort to do so, preferring instead to whip up pro-war sentiment with inflammatory rhetoric about the awesome consequences of withdrawal.
One more quote:
“There is not a word in Schlesinger’s chronicle of the Kennedy years (1965, reprinted 1967) that hints of any intention to withdraw without victory. In fact, Schlesinger gives no indication that JFK thought about withdrawal at all. The withdrawal plans receive one sentence in his voluminous text, attributed to McNamara in the context of the debate over pressuring the Diem regime.”
Alright. So, I mean, Chomsky’s piece–and we’ll do a link to this for people that want to find this–I mean, is a very detailed analysis of the internal record. But the basic thesis is, yes, Kennedy talked about withdrawal, but only based on victory, and right up until, you know, just two weeks before he died, that didn’t change.
KUZNICK: It’s very unfortunate that Kennedy’s public statements didn’t cohere with his private statements. Now, unless you want to accuse so many people of being liars, I mean, among those who’ve spoken out on this were Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, Ted Sorensen, Mike Mansfield, Tip O’Neill, Roger Hilsman, Wayne Morse–. Wayne Morse, the leading critic in the Senate of U.S. policy in Vietnam, says that Kennedy said, told him that he was absolutely right in his criticism of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. He said, I’ve decided to get out, definitely, according to Wayne Morris. He says to journalist Charles Bartlett, we don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. We don’t have a prayer of prevailing there. Those people hate us. They’re going to throw our tails out of there at almost any point. But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the American people to reelect me.
So what Kennedy proposed in NSAM 263 was to withdraw 1,000 troops by the end of 1963 and withdraw all U.S. forces by 1965. Now, the argument, intelligently, that Noam and others make is that people say this after the Tet Offensive, when Vietnam becomes so unpopular in the United States. However, Dan Ellsberg interviewed Robert Kennedy in 1967 before the Tet Offensive, and he says to–Robert Kennedy says to Dan that his brother was absolutely determined not to send ground units, and he said he was ready to accept defeat at the hands of the communists. And Kennedy, Robert Kennedy says, how would you have done that? Dan asked him, and he says, we would have fuzzed it up. We would have gotten a government in that asked us out or that would have negotiated with the other side. You handled it like Laos. And then Ellsberg was surprised, and he says, why were you so smart when everybody else was so wrong on this? And Robert Kennedy says, because we were there. We were there in 1951. We saw what was happening to the French. We saw it. My brother determined never to let that happen to us. And I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that that was their view. However, the public statements contradict that, which is why to make sense of–.
JAY: Chomsky’s saying he’s examined the internal records. He emphasizes that many times, those that have come out.
KUZNICK: Look, NSAM 263 is an internal record. I mean, it’s a document that was supported by Kennedy. And that says, all U.S. troops out, all forces out by 1965.
JAY: Okay. So let’s–.
KUZNICK: But Noam downplays the difference between 263 and 273.
JAY: Yeah, just quickly explain what that is. There’s a draft of this national security authorization memorandum–is that what that says for?
KUZNICK: National Security Action Memo 263.
JAY: Action memo.
KUZNICK: It was adopted by the Kennedy administration. Shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson supports NSAM 273. According to 263, these operations would be done by the Vietnamese. Under 273, the United States is going to get much more hands-on in terms of the counterinsurgency operations going on in Vietnam. I’m not defending what Kennedy did in Vietnam. I think it was–that what he did by increasing the number of advisers and having them involved in actual actions and using herbicides and the other things he was doing there were [incompr.] the absolutely wrong direction.
To me Vietnam is–you know, it was the worst atrocity that the United States has ever committed, since slavery and genocide against the Native Americans. So I’m not in any way defending anything that happened in Vietnam or in any way being light on Kennedy for what he did. But I think Kennedy understood that it was a mistake, that it was worse than a quagmire, and that he was going to pull U.S. forces out.
But again, it’s part of this broader commitment. If you look at his American university commencement address in June 1963, he says all of these issues between us are man-made problems, and we as human beings can eliminate them all. He says in that address, he basically calls for ending the Cold War. He starts to see the world through the eyes of the Soviets, which is so important. He says that during World War II, the Soviet Union lost 20 million people, that it’s the equivalent of the entire United States east of Chicago having been destroyed, having been wiped out. Kennedy’s beginning to evolve in his thinking. And he calls for ending the Cold War, basically, there, and he calls for reaching out to the Soviet Union for working together for a peaceful solutions of all of these crises.
PRES. JOHN F. KENNEDY: And what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war, not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and build a better life for their children.
KUZNICK: So I think it’s part of the whole. And Kennedy was willing to do that. He was willing to neutralize Laos, even though Eisenhower warned him, we’re going to have to go in there–likely going to have to go in there and fight it out. The generals were very angry about that. They were angry about many things that he did, which is why he was in a vulnerable position and why knew that and why he said there could be a military coup in the United States.
JAY: Where did he say that?
KUZNICK: He first–Robert Kennedy says that to Dobrynin during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he warns him that we’re losing control, that there might be a war even though we don’t want one, and that there’s a possibility that the generals could seize power in the United States, overthrow Kennedy. Kennedy says that in 1962. He gets an advance copy of the novel Seven Days in May. And that is a novel about a liberal president who signs a nuclear arms control treaty and gets–then there’s a military coup to try to overthrow him. And Kennedy said to a friend, he said, you know, it could happen. If there’s a Bay of Pigs, the generals are going to shake their heads and think that the president is too young and naive and inexperienced. If there’s a second Bay of Pigs, they’re going to think he’s in way over his head and maybe it’s their responsibility to act. If there’s a third Bay of Pigs, it could happen. The generals would move in, the Joint Chiefs would move in and overthrow the president.
JAY: But it didn’t happen. And Kennedy was responsible for something like four and a half billion dollars increase in military expenditure, and some say more. There is–some people have suggested after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy did an even bigger expansion of U.S. military expenditure, but it prompted a massive military buy-in by Khrushchev, who had previously decided to reduce military expenditure, focus on nuclear weapons. And that only needed to be taken to a certain level to have a kind of a standoff. And then Khrushchev apparently was planning to take money and put more into the Soviet economy, but with the big conventional buildup by Kennedy, then Khrushchev decides they have to do the same thing, and the arms race enters a whole new phase.
KUZNICK: Well, the buildup actually had come in the United States earlier than that. And Khrushchev, as you’re saying, that’s absolutely correct. Khrushchev did want to cut it back. Khrushchev wanted to invest in domestic raising the standard of living. He wanted to have washing machines and things that people needed, refrigerators, and not waste money on military.
The big buildup in nuclear weapons came before Kennedy’s presidency. And, in fact, it’s interesting, it’s instructive to look at what happens with this missile gap. One of the first things Kennedy instructs McNamara to do is ascertain the reality of the missile gap, which Kennedy had been running on. And McNamara assigns Roswell Gilpatric, his deputy, to look into this. Almost immediately, within three weeks, they realized that there is no missile gap [incompr.] he said there is one: the United States is ahead. McNamara says this by mistake on February 6, and he later offers to resign because the administration was not willing to go public with that. They continue the study, and in October 1961, Roswell Gilpatric is instructed by Kennedy to give a speech in which he says that there is a missile gap and the United States is way ahead. United–there’s not–we’re not way behind in the missile gap; we’re actually way ahead in the missile gap.
What happens during that time is the strategic air command wants to build up to 10,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Air Force wants to build up to 3,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles. McNamara says the most we possibly need is 400, but that the lowest number we could get away with is 1,000. And so Kennedy wanted to limit the increase, the size that will go with this figure of 1,000. But still, even that was very dangerous, because the way it was perceived in the Kremlin was that the United States already had a 10-to-1 lead in nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and now the United States is going to be building this up geometrically, exponentially to 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles.
And that looks to the forces in the Kremlin that the United States is preparing a first strike to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons and wipe out the Soviet Union. So it was at that point that the Kremlin hardliners say, we’ve got to begin building up. And that’s also part of the motivation for putting those weapons in Cuba.
And astoundingly, during the start of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy says, that’s insane that they would put missiles in Cuba. It’s as if we were putting intermediate or medium-range ballistic missiles in Turkey, at which point Bundy–the room goes silent, and Bundy turns to him and says, well, that’s exactly what we did. So, I mean, even Kennedy, as smart as he was, was confused at times about what the actual situation was.
JAY: Okay [incompr.] long conversation about the Kennedy presidency. And it’s something we’re going to continue, that we started all this because of the November 22 anniversary, but it’s kind of opened up so many themes in terms of what’s a very important setting of the table for what comes next in American history that we’re going to dig into Kennedy more in the coming weeks. We don’t need the anniversary to do it. We also are going to try to dig a little bit into some of the assassination theory, although it’s a kind of a minefield, because there is so much competing information on all this. But any final word on this for now, Peter?
KUZNICK: Yeah. One of the lessons that I think is very important is that it is possible for this country to go in very different directions than it went.
What Oliver and I are trying to say here is that had Kennedy lived, the world might have been dramatically different. Robert McNamara said the same thing. Khrushchev said the same thing. I mean, they all felt that Kennedy was sincere in these efforts, and that Kennedy’s charisma, his intelligence, his leadership, and his morality, basically, would have taken the United States down a very different path. Khrushchev was devastated. When Kennedy gave the commencement address at American University, it was reprinted all over the Soviet Union. Khrushchev, who was not naive it all, fully believed that the United States and the Soviets could make these changes.
And I think it’s very important for young people, for students to learn from this period and to not be cynical and to not have the idea, oh, they’re all capitalists and they’re all imperialists and that nobody–that it’s not possible to make changes in this country. Kennedy had a vision. Robert Kennedy had a vision. A lot of Americans in the 1960s had a vision. With Kennedy’s assassination–as Kennedy says in his inaugural address, the torch has been passed to a new generation born in this century, a generation with a different vision of the world.
What Oliver and I say is that with the assassination, the torch was passed back to the old generation, to the generation of Eisenhower, of Nixon, of Johnson, and that that hope that we all felt in the 1960s–and I’m old enough to have experienced that–was extinguished. And then we become much more cynical about the world. And so I think the Kennedy assassination was a dramatic turning point. But it’s important to realize that there were possibilities for change that were lost, that we didn’t have to get involved in Vietnam, that we didn’t have to go the path we went in terms of the Cold War, and so many of the other things that were developing, like the nuclear arms race, the antagonism toward Cuba. All these of these continued to fester and got, I think, much, much worse with the Johnson presidency and the Nixon presidency.
JAY: This is a matter, obviously, of great debate. And so that’s what we’re going to do. One of things we’ll do soon in the coming weeks is have a debate about all of this, because the opposing view, I guess, would argue, well, the system asserts itself, and if Kennedy really was all those things, well, then the system certainly asserted itself by getting rid of him, although some people argue he wasn’t really those things anyway.
But thanks very much, Peter. And you have agreed to come back and debate this, so we will do it soon. Thanks for joining us.
Peter Kuznick, Professor of History; Director, American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute; Co-writer (with Oliver Stone) “Untold History of the United States”