John F. Kennedy – Redux I

Corporeality XIV: JFK Redux I


Howard Adelman

I received quite a bit of correspondence from readers, especially on my Kennedy piece. Two stand out. One took issue with my contrasting LBJ’s belief in the domino theory with that of JFK. The implication was that LBJ’s beliefs made him prone to greater subservience to the entreaties of the military promoting escalation in Southeast Asia. In contrast, I pointed out that in the last year of his presidency, JFK advocated an unequivocal peace agenda that could have been taken directly from the information sheets provided by the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND). The implication was that JFK, if he ever did, no longer subscribed to the Domino Theory. Victory by one set of communists in one country in Southeast Asia would not necessarily lead to a triumph of communism in the adjacent country.

The reader pointed out that one month after JFK gave his famous “Strategy for Peace” speech at American University in June of 1963, in a press conference he said the following:  “We are not going to withdraw… for us to withdraw would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but of Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.” At the beginning of September, he repeated the same sentiments in an interview with Walter Cronkite. This was an unequivocal expression of an intention to retain troops in Vietnam and a continuing belief in the Domino Theory by JFK as well as LBJ.

A second reader from Florida, himself a Cuban exile who fled Castro’s regime, took issue with my statement that JFK had told the anti-Castro insurgents from the exile community in Miami that he would not be providing air cover when they landed, but they insisted on launching the insurgency operation anyway. There are really two issues. What air cover are we discussing – U.S. government forces, the use of which were expressly forbidden under U.S. policy with respect to covert operations, or the air contingent of the exiles themselves? At what stage of the invasion was the cancellation of air cover determined? Secondly, did JFK inform the Cuban exiles before they launched their mission that he would not authorize an air cover?

“I am very surprised that you would write the sentences below…These are patently not the facts…There was a sequence of decisions and counter-decisions made, ultimately (not always directly) by JFK that took place from Saturday April 15 (D Day minus 2) and Tuesday April 19 (D Day + 2), when it was all over. The key actor (and likely manipulator/hedger of the record as regards JFK’s precise step-by-step involvement during those 4 days, which is not 100% crystal clear) is identified by all as McGeorge Bundy (NSA), closely followed by Dulles (DCIA), Bissel (CIA DDP Plans-Ops) and Gen. Cabell (CIA, Air Force general and military liaison)….also Dean Rusk and Adlai Stevenson. I can give you the sequence of these decisions and center-decisions in that 5-day period, by the day and hour. All this is NSA open, public record, and is mostly consistent with the 2 competing post-mortem reports that JFK, followed by Bissell in his own defense, commissioned and delivered, plus a rebuttal by Tracy Barnes, a CIA Under-secretary.

“JFK approved the landing order at 12:00 noon Sunday 16, with air exile Brigade air cover. US air cover was never ever approved by JFK, the issue was the Brigade’s own air cover, flying from Nicaragua and Guatemala. But Brigade air cover, yes. He rescinded the air cover part at 9:00 PM. The final shot at an “air cover yes” from JFK took place at 10:15 PM Sunday 16th (Cabell and Bissell were offered by Rusk to insist to JFK; they declined to insist), and the landings schedule during the night of 16 to 17 was already activated. Supplies were being landed already and soldiers’ landings started at 11:00 PM – 1:00 AM. JFK “made nothing clear to the exiles” about the planned, approved and last-minute cancellation of Brigade air cover. . I can support at minimum this assertion.”

I had written one paragraph in the whole blog about the event, clearly grossly insufficient for such an important and controversial event in American history. More importantly, I missed an opportunity to zero in with greater precision on the dilemma of the President of the United States being both the political leader of the country as well as the Commander-in-Chief, and this was my main subject. Third, I had omitted my own personal involvement at the time on this issue, which I usually include. Now that President Obama has initiated the American rapprochement with Cuba and is planning a visit on 21 March, let me correct my errors of both omission and commission and, as well, zero in with greater precision on the dilemma I am addressing about reconciling two expressions of presidential power, but beginning with my personal involvement.

When Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista on 1 January 1959, in anticipation of Castro’s victory, I and most of my friends had already turned a New Year’s Eve Party into a celebratory party for the new Cuban regime. Subsequently, when the American government was giving sympathetic consideration to the Castro regime, at least as I erroneously believed then (Eisenhower and Nixon had already by then privately branded Castro a communist), I was very active in the co-operative movement. I learned of a speech Castro had given to an association of Cuban cooperative farmers after the 17 May 1959 Cuban Agrarian Reform Act was passed. In his usual long talks – this one was 3 hours – he told the farmers that the government had a shortage of seeds. Since co-operative farmers represented only the interests of members of the co-operative and not the interests of Cuba as a whole, he could allocate the seeds the government possessed only to farms that operated within the policies and priorities of INRA (the National Institute for Agricultural Reform) as was the case with the collective farms owned and controlled by the state and the co-operative farms initiated by the state.

The “best and largest lands from the U.S. monopolists,” “paid” for (at the low evaluation for tax purposes of the Batista regime) in Cuban bonds and in Cuban currency earning 4.5% in interest for twenty years, were transferred to co-operative farmers (the peasant co-operatives) which sold their products through INRA on the principle that “those who benefit must accept the conditions” that the policy was intended to serve all Cubans and not just the co-operative membership. As Che Guevara had said in 1961, “peasants fought (for the revolution) because they wanted land for themselves and their children, and to manage and sell it and enrich themselves through their labour.” They would soon learn otherwise. The underlying governing principle was social ownership of the basic means of production. What was more basic than growing food?

At that meeting to which I referred above, the “free” co-operative farms voted to subject their policies to the “guidance” of INRA, thereby, making them eligible to receive seeds – which they did. Suddenly, there were enough seeds to go around for the increase in the number of communal and government-initiated farm operations. Indeed, the farmers had sacrificed their autonomy for security. The Cuban government in 2013 finally passed a new agricultural act that restored autonomy to the older cooperatives under a new policy of decentralizing power and “updating” the system.

Incensed by the 1959 blatant act of bullying and open deceit, the betrayal of the cooperative movement and the use of state power to shape Cuban choices towards a collectivist framework, I became an ardent anti-Castro proponent and fell out on this issue with many of my close friends, but particularly with my older brother who had been in the same class in medical school. I had spent the previous year living in Mt. Sinai Hospital and working in the radiology department, but by then, I had left medical school, much to the chagrin of my brother. He became an even more avid Castro supporter whereas I had fallen away. After the Bay of Pigs incident when he finished medical school that spring, he traveled to Cuba, got trapped there by the American blockade and eventually had to be flown back to Canada on a Canadian air force plane. While he was trapped in Cuba, he became for a while a pro-Castro broadcaster in English sending news of the regime’s successes to Miami 90 miles away.

While I had been sympathetic to the expropriation of the American-owned electrical and telephone companies, and even the large land holdings of the American corporations, such as the United Fruit Company, though I admired and praised his health, educational and literacy programs, I was by the fall of 1960 critical of Castro. My friends and especially my brother remained champions of Castro. But I was also at odds with both Kennedy and Nixon who seemed to be trying to outdo one another in recreating Castro as a bogeyman. As JFK said in the Fall of 1960, “we must (my italics) make the Cuban people know that we sympathize with their legitimate economic aspirations, that we know their love of freedom, and that we shall never be happy until democracy is restored in Cuba.” We must not allow the Soviet Union to turn Cuba into its Caribbean base.” Kennedy was a Cold War warrior. Though I had become a critic of Castro, I was not.

Some have erroneously credited my passionate involvement with Cuba in 1959-61with the fact that my oldest son, who was born in 1960 when Kennedy was ending his campaign against Nixon for the presidency of the United States, with his becoming a famous historian of Latin America. I can assure everyone I deserve no such credit. My tensions with my brother and my friends over Cuba had nothing to do with my son’s career. However, credit might be given to Linus Pauling who, with his wife, visited our house when Jeremy was just a few months old just before he won his second Nobel Prize for his anti-nuclear campaigning. He physically blessed Jeremy. If there is any credit to be given, it is to Linus Pauling. With that very important piece of trivia, I will return to the main issue of the events before and during the Bay of Pigs and, subsequently to the implications for the President both being a political leader and a Commander-in-Chief.