Ministry of Talent

JFK’s thousand days of crisis

Justice Earl Warren swearing in the Kennedy cabinet at the White House in January 1961 (National Archives)
Justice Earl Warren swearing in the Kennedy cabinet at the White House in January 1961 (National Archives)


Camelot’s Court, by Robert Dallek, Harper, 512 pp., $32.50

“I sat across from the president,” Bobby wrote. “This was the moment we had prepared for, which we hoped would never come. … His hand went up to his face & covered his mouth and he closed his fist. His eyes were tense, almost gray, and we just stared at each other across the table. Was the world on the brink of a holocaust?”

Meanwhile in Moscow, 5,000 miles from where Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his brother, the president, agonized in Washington, we correspondents were trying to match each warning from the White House with a response from the Kremlin. Abstractly, we knew we were at the bull’s-eye for hundreds of U.S. missiles and B-52s targeting the Soviet Union. All Westerners were confined to close-in Moscow. At noon, the Anglo-American School shut down, to give our children and 110 others a better chance of survival. Yet somehow it was not until three evenings later, at a diplomatic reception, that I felt the weight of what we had just been through. The Canadian ambassador gripped my hand and said with feeling, “Congratulations.” All I had done was be an American, but in his seriousness he seemed to speak for Civilization, thanking all of us for avoiding Armageddon.

Surprised, I could only whisper, “They’ve asked us not to gloat.”

The Cuban missile crisis and the other tense moments of the Kennedy administration are now further in the past than the Kaiser and the Lusitania were in 1962. Nearly two-thirds of today’s Americans were not even living then, but the glamour, danger, scandal, and tragedy of the Kennedy years have been constantly dramatized on television and in plays, movies, and more than 40,000 books, from hagiographies to hatchet jobs, from true confessions by wistful ex-virgins to cynical conspiracy fiction.

Thus, as we heft Robert Dallek’s latest book, it isn’t clear why the world really needs another 500 pages about high and low jinks within Kennedy’s charmed circle. But once we are into Camelot’s Court, we realize that it isn’t just more lyrics for the Camelot that Jackie Kennedy conjured after her husband died, nor gossip about his bad back or his sexual adventures. There are no startling revelations (the author’s most frequently cited sources include his own excellent Kennedy biography, An Unfinished Life). Domestic matters like civil rights, “a subject at the fringe of Kennedy’s priorities,” are not quite ignored, but dutifully checked off; the great, peaceful 1963 March on Washington gets half a paragraph. What Dallek offers instead of tinseled Camelot is a mercilessly meticulous account of the struggle among Kennedy’s closest advisers to influence his decisions in the foreign crises that dominated his thousand days in office. Although the president was pleased that he had recruited a “ministry of talent,” he hardly knew most of these men, and from the first they proved to be a laity of formidable egos.

Kennedy’s most troublesome gift from the outgoing administration of Dwight Eisenhower was the ill-considered plot to overthrow Fidel Castro that ended in the debacle at the Bay of Pigs. He could easily have called it off, but as Dallek writes, domestic politics demanded action. He and Bobby were unwilling to disappoint Cuban exiles in Florida, or to appear indecisive to the world. The half-hearted effort that resulted was such a miserable failure that it gave precisely that impression. “This experience in Cuba has made the president a different man,” Bobby said, and it is striking now to witness how the lessons learned there influenced every foreign policy situation he confronted afterward.

Bobby had pushed for the coup and was so embittered by its defeat that he later goaded the CIA to undertake Operation Mongoose, the hypersecret, sometimes farcical effort to eliminate Castro with the Mafia’s help—a scheme that some still suspect inspired a counterplot that led to John Kennedy’s murder. As Lyndon Johnson said in 1968, “Kennedy was trying to get Castro, but Castro got to him first.”

After the Bay of Pigs, winners and losers within the White House inner circle were quickly obvious. The CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including hawks like Admiral Arleigh Burke and General Curtis LeMay, had promoted the coup attempt. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, recently president of the Ford Motor Company, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, a former Harvard dean, and his assistant Walt Rostow, a one-time MIT professor, had been convinced by the brass, who seemed so sure of success. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was wishy-washy about it, but his undersecretary, Chester Bowles, was strongly against it. So, at first, was the historian Arthur Schlesinger. (Although Dallek considered the liberal Schlesinger a personal friend, he approaches sarcasm as he tells how Schlesinger was opposed on principle until Bobby nudged him to switch sides.)

Dallek is a harsher judge of those around Kennedy than the president ever was. But then the president seemed to grade some players less by substance than by style. In the months following the Bay of Pigs, he eased out CIA director Allen Dulles and his deputy, Richard Bissell. Dallek suggests that he kept McNamara and Bundy at least partly because they offered to do the noble thing and resign. He valued brainy and confident men who never disclosed any doubt. Dallek prefers to call this trait arrogance: “Decisions about war and peace were best left to humbler men.” Rostow too would remain, the stubbornest hawk of all. Bowles, though vigorously correct in his advice, annoyed Kennedy by being the most public about it, so he was farmed out as adviser on Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Rusk would stay to the end, although, as Dallek writes, he showed a “reluctance to be little more than a cipher in an administration intent on running foreign policy from the White House.”

camelotThat intention and that team were tested promptly and repeatedly. The Bay of Pigs convinced Nikita Khrushchev, who had ruthlessly crushed uprisings in Eastern Europe, that Kennedy was weak. Dallek describes how, at the Vienna summit meeting less than seven weeks later, the Soviet leader verbally bullied the president, threatening to sign a treaty with East Germany that would endanger Western access to Berlin. According to Dallek, Kennedy was taking extra steroids at the time to help him handle the stress and was so discouraged that by summer, he “had second thoughts about serving as president.” That August, Khrushchev defied him by building the Berlin Wall—and then, a year later, dared to install long-range missiles 90 miles from Florida.

In that scariest showdown, Kennedy not only had the courage to stand up to Khrushchev, but remembering the Joint Chiefs’ eagerness to bomb during the Bay of Pigs, he also had the wisdom to hold them “at arm’s length.” “These brass hats have one great advantage,” the president said. “If we … do what they want us to do, none of us will be around later to tell them that they were wrong.” His firmness and restraint led to months of calm and the signing of a limited nuclear test ban treaty the following summer in the Kremlin.

But then came Vietnam. As the inherited dilemma there loomed larger, General Maxwell Taylor, the country’s most conspicuous advocate of limited, nonnuclear warfare, rose within the innermost ring at the White House, alongside the same McNamara, Bundy, Rusk, and others who had earlier blundered in Cuba. Bombarded with conflicting counsel about how deeply to intervene, the president publicly vowed, “We are not going to withdraw,” for that “would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but Southeast Asia.” Yet Dallek found that on the day before Kennedy departed for Dallas in November 1963, he had ordered a study to consider all options in Vietnam, including “how to get out of there.” From such hints, Dallek concludes that “it is entirely plausible that he would have found a way out of the conflict or at least not to expand the war to the extent Lyndon Johnson did.”

So, just as the charming, witty, often mistaken president left us with a seemingly endless debate over what he might have done, his latest biographer leaves us consulting Webster’s, searching for shades of meaning in the word “plausible.”

On that November 22, I was just back from the Soviet-Chinese border, and I sat at my typewriter above the Moscow traffic to write about spending the night in the closed city of Novosibirsk, where my Aeroflot flight had been forced down by a snowstorm. The phone rang. It was my friend Stu Novins of CBS. “I don’t know what you’re filing,” he said, “but whatever it is, forget it. Turn on the Voice”—the Voice of America, our favorite source of news from beyond.

The hardest part was telling my children.

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Ernest B. Furgurson is a former Washington and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and has written six books of history and biography, including, most recently, Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War.


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