JFK and LBJ Redux

Corporeality XV: JFK and LBJ Redux -The Difficulties of Separation

by

Howard Adelman

In the light of the brief examination of each of President John F. Kennedy’s and President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s practices and efforts to operate as both America’s political leader and Commander-in-Chief, let’s recap on the general problem even if the account is not much more than that of a high school civics class. In the American system, the President is both the executive leader of the polity as well as the Commander-in-Chief. In a parliamentary system, the Governor-General, not the Prime Minister, is both Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, two responsibilities assigned to the president in the American system of government and not to a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system.

The American constitution also provides that the military command role be subservient to the political agenda. That means, there is an inherent tension between the two responsibilities, such with radically different agendas and purposes. This tension even exists, though at a far lower level, in a parliamentary system where the responsibilities of the political leader, the Prime Minister, are always completely subject to the will and consent of the legislature and the Prime Minister does not carry the responsibilities and obligations of Commander-in-Chief.

Like a President, the Prime Minister has responsibilities as Chief Executive Officer (appointment of chief justices, head of the military forces and a host of other appointments) and custodian of the economy. Further, though Canada has a Foreign Minister and the United States has a Secretary of State, Canada and the United States may be far more similar in this area than the difference in name implies. For in both countries, the Prime Minster and the President are the chief diplomats and key determiners of foreign policy.

Unlike a President, however, the Prime Minister is responsible for introducing all legislation in Parliament and ensuring passage of all government bills. In the U.S. presidential system, the President may propose legislation and use his influence to obtain passage, but he does not control Congress. He may veto bills passed by Congress, subject to override, and Congress may refuse to pass his proposals. The President’s lack of command and control over legislation while having command and control in the military arena, already creates a propensity for a President to shift the prime emphasis of his office away from domestic legislation towards foreign policy and command of the military where, on appearances, he is not as boxed-in.

In a democratic monarchy (often called a republican form of government), where the head of state is elected and caries both independent executive as well as Commander-in-Chief responsibilities, there is a specific dilemma. For the key issues for a military leader are command and control. The Latin imperium applies. But the key issue for a civilian political leader is exercising influence on Congress. Power entails an ability to coerce. Influence entails an ability to persuade. In a parliamentary system, responsibilities for coercion are delegated, subject to the civilian authority establishing the objectives and norms under which coercive power operates. It seems that, with some exceptions, when the two responsibilities are not assigned to the same person, both the division of responsibilities and the ability of the civilian leadership to ensure that military operations are subordinate to civilian political will, are less difficult. When embodied in the same person, enormous tensions arise both within the political leader and between him/her and the military.

The dilemmas go both ways. Military leaders are used to exercising imperial powers and, in a state with imperial responsibilities, the military brass dislike limitations on those powers when operating in overseas theatres, whether those limitations come from local politicians or from domestic bosses back home. At the same time, if the President as Commander-in-Chief is to exercise his civilian powers, s/he must of necessity place parameters around the use of those military powers. The military leadership has a built-in propensity to test those limits, both because they do not like being trammeled and because they carry the ball on the ground in foreign situations and dislike having their freedom of movement managed from afar, especially if it is by an “amateur.”

Dwight Eisenhower was a great success in this regard for two very different reasons. First, he carried the prestige of a highly decorated military leader of the highest rank. Secondly, and much more importantly, he understood and articulated the general principles in terms of which both bodies within the President must conduct themselves.

The portrait of JFK that finally emerged was not of a leader who was “saved” and who bought into the beliefs of the peace movement. He remained a Cold War proponent. He remained the same person who knowingly promulgated the fabricated “missile gap.” As such, he felt he had to back a plan approved by Eisenhower, but radically revised and made much riskier once he was elected President. But he did not want to appear weak before his military personnel – the military chiefs, the CIA Director, his own Secretary of Defense. How was the bridge constructed and maintained between his military functions and his civilian responsibilities domestically and as a leader of the free world?

The simple answer – they were not reconciled. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, as a Commander-in-Chief, he operated in the hidden and internationally illegal world of covert operations. In the open, he promulgated such doctrines as the Alliance for Progress. His guiding principle with respect to covert operations was that lying and condoning risky and highly illegal breaches of another country’s sovereignty were okay as long as his role and that of the United States could be protected by plausible deniability. Given that guiding principle, he developed into a leader more concerned with public image and public relations, with his legacy rather than with good policy to secure the well-being of Americans and that the U.S. remained loyal to its allies. JFK remained two-faced, but in the case of the Bay of Pigs, his secret self was exposed and he was actually “saved,” not by conversion in what he believed, but by his exposure to the actual performance of the military (CIA and Chiefs of Staff) who were not only willing to keep information hidden, but concocted policies to trap him in a direction and policy he did not want to follow – a direct conquest eventually by American troops of the island of Cuba.

Ironically, the exposure through the Bay of Pigs operation made Kennedy much more wary of advice from his military. He was not willing to become the “macho man” as his military chiefs advised and resort first and foremost and almost exclusively to exhibitions of overwhelming force. Force had to be used to support diplomacy and used in a way both proportionate to the real danger but sufficient to foster and enhance the diplomatic agenda. Only in the Cuban missile crisis did Kennedy demonstrate that he had learned to subordinate his military responsibilities to his domestic ones.

We do not know how Kennedy would have applied what he learned to Vietnam when covert operations became exposed and America’s military role could no longer be hidden and, for both effectiveness and the impossibility of disguise, had to evolve into an open war not just backed, but driven by the American military, or, alternatively, scaled back and eventually abandoned, the course as we shall see that eventually took place, but only after enormous cost to both the Indochinese and to young Americans.. We do know that LBJ did not learn from the Bay of Pigs about the perfidy of his own military commanders, but instead enhanced the role of deception and misrepresentation by participating in the concoction of the Gulf of Tonkin fabrication to obtain from Congress unfettered room to use the military for open and more aggressive war. Johnson was inherently a bully, a trait he used to good effect in passing an enormous amount of excellent domestic legislation, but one which did him in when he became an accomplice to military goals no longer determined by and subordinated to diplomatic foreign policy.

The tension was replicated within the military. On the one hand, if a military commander was dedicated to the art of covert counter-insurgency warfare, he or she became suspect in the eyes of colleagues dedicated to and trained in the principles and practices of conventional warfare, for covert operations require deception, but only in dealing with enemies. However, covert counter-insurgency warfare seemed to entail deception in dealing with one’s own superiors as well. So the two forms of warfare were inherently at odds and, during Kennedy’s term of office, the responsibilities were relegated to a different organization than the traditional military, the CIA. But the CIA had to rely on the armed forces for backup and logistics, especially when it overlapped with military functions and became for a period the driver of covert operations. On the other hand, within the military, “The whole field of guerrilla operations was the burial place for the future of any officer who was sincerely interested in the development and application of guerrilla war. The conventionally trained officer appears to feel that guerrilla operations are beneath his dignity.”

When the armed forces took over that responsibility in the Vietnam War after JFK replaced his CIA chief and limited the role of the CIA, it became impossible for the political goals of winning hearts and minds to retain supremacy in competition with narrower military objectives. Instead of becoming the main military objective, “winning hearts and minds” became not only subordinate but peripheral to military agendas. The precedent would influence future behaviour long into the future affecting the relationship between the State Department and the Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the second Iraq War, Rumsfeld kicked two civilians from the State Department off the plane taking personnel to Iraq to supervise the polity after the initial military victory. Thus, tossed overboard were State Department plans for resurrecting civilian control in Iraq, along with accurate prognostications of what would happen if they did not. Forty years earlier, the Defence Department combined with the Joint Chiefs of Staff took umbrage with and were incensed by the October 1963 report prepared by the State Department that the war, rather than being won, was at best at a stalemate and that any statistical analysis would show diminishing Viet Cong casualties and losses while their armed attacks kept increasing, When truth confronted power, power squelched the truth.

A number of norms emerge to complement those put forth by President Eisenhower.

  1. The conduct of counter insurgency war deserves equal respect with conventional warfare.
  2. In both types of warfare, the battle for “hearts and minds,” the corollary of the pre-eminence of the civilian over the military, must always trump mere military goals.
  3. War in whatever form is a science as well as an art and reverence for factual accuracy is not only basic, but needs to be revered even more when the “military” are engaged in counter-insurgency and covert warfare; the breach of this guiding principle became obvious when General Maxwell prevented Lt. Col. John Paul Vann reporting that the casualty figures claimed for the Viet Cong were grossly distorted because most of the dead were non-combatants.
  4. As a corollary, delusion must be avoided and critical thought deeply embedded in operational planning, as it was clearly not in the Bay of Pigs fiasco or when General Harkins was promising victory within a year and the ability to reduce American troops on the ground in six months or in the report of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, and Maxwell Taylor, then Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reassured JFK in October of 1963 that the military task of the U.S. in Vietnam would be completed within fifteen months with only some residual cleaning up to do.
  5. Truth must never be sold out for “good” public relations. Piling lie upon lie is always bad public relations. CIA Director John A. McCone rejected pessimistic reports in favour of “sugaring the pill,” deleting lines from a report such as, “The struggle in South Vietnam will be protracted and costly [because] very great weaknesses remain and will be difficult to surmount.” The South Vietnamese government lacked “aggressive and firm leadership at all levels of command, poor morale among the troops, lack of trust between peasant and soldier, poor tactical use of available forces, a very inadequate intelligence system, and obvious Communist penetration of the South Vietnamese military organization.” Instead, the principal directive was, as distributed by the army in Vietnam to personnel was as follows: “Your approach to the questions of the press should emphasize the positive aspects of your activities and avoid gratuitous criticism. Emphasize the feeling of achievement, the hopes for the future, and instances of outstanding individual or personal credibility by gilding the lily. As songwriter Johnny Mercer put it, ‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative’.”
  6. Pluralism of input before final decisions are made is critical. Competing advice from other perspectives must receive a full and fair hearing. This was not the case when Senator Mike Mansfield, the Senate’s leading expert on Southeast Asia, advised LBJ to give serious consideration to the North Vietnamese feelers offering to guarantee a neutral South Vietnam in return for U.S. withdrawal, for the war cannot be won with “a limited expenditure of American lives and resources somewhere commensurate with our national interests in south Viet Nam,” contrary to Robert McNamara’s insistence that the U.S. would have to expend whatever it took to ensure a communist defeat.
  7. Tolerance along with pluralism must vanquish enforced unity and its twin, repression, and cannot make situations acceptable and tolerable, such as the treatment of Buddhists by the Catholic-dominated leadership in Saigon, especially when soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam poured liquid chemicals from tear gas grenades onto the heads of praying Buddhists in Huế. Recall the iconic picture of the Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in Saigon in protest against President Diem’s policies. Recall also the almost as famous cold and cruel response of Madame Nhu, President Diệm’s sister-in-law: “I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others.” In the meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, David Cabot Lodge Jr., was organizing the plot with American military commanders, ARVN officers and White House backing, the overthrow of the House of Diem.
  8. Ensure your allies and alleged friends treat other allies and friends with the respect they deserve, in contrast with the way the Saigon Military Dictatorship treated the Montagnards (disarming the very civil self-defence forces the Americans had armed and trained, thereby undermining Operation Buan Enao. (This bears parallels with Erdogan’s Turkey bombing America’s armed and trained (and most effective) Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, in Iraq.)

The role of political leader and the role of Commander-in-Chief present in the same person inherently rest on a fundamental tension that is not only difficult but almost insurmountable to overcome. The tension introduces grave deformities in anyone who tries to fulfill both roles. More importantly, as we shall see, the office attracts both those who are inherently schizophrenic in some fundamental way as well as eager to assume the role of a Warrior Hero.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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