The Torch Has Been Passed
0n the day before the inauguration of the thirty-fifth president of the United States, a fierce storm fell upon Washington, blanketing the capital with eight inches of snow, stranding ten thousand cars across the city, grounding planes, and slowing trains. Crews worked during the night cleaning the main roads, and by noon on January 20, 1961, a crowd of twenty thousand stood on the Capitol grounds in the twenty-two-degree cold, braced against the eighteen-mile-an-hour winds and looking up at the portico where the nation's leaders sat outside to witness the ritual of passage. One million other Americans began gathering along Pennsylvania Avenue to greet the new president as he traveled in a parade that would carry him to his new home in the White House.
The onlookers had bundled themselves up against the fierce cold wearing an eclectic collection of wool coats, snowsuits, fur hats, ski jackets, hiking boots, galoshes, mufflers, face masks, hoods, and scarves. Up on the podium, seventy-year-old Dwight Eisenhower, then the oldest president in American history, sat wrapped in a heavy topcoat and scarf. The other largely aging politicians and officials were equally protected against the cold, many of them in top hats or homburgs. In the row upon row of largely indistinguishable black and gray coats, hats, and pale faces, there was one tanned, radiantly healthy-looking man.
Forty-three-year-old John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected president in American history, and he stood there the personification of the nation's energy and ambition. The new president tended to speak quickly, but this noon he spoke with a careful, deliberate pace:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage-and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
The audience listened closely, the words seemingly resonating so deeply that they did not even applaud until Kennedy had spoken nearly five minutes. He appeared to be a strong young leader for a difficult new age. Kennedy had many virtues to bring to his presidency. He had a political mind as sharp as that of any of the politicians who surrounded him, but he understood nuances and subtleties on a deeper level than did most of Washington's narrow men. This was a brilliant attribute, nurtured by his father's influence, cultivated at the Court of St. James's and in his extensive travels, honed in the House of Representatives, where he was as much an observer as a participant, and seasoned in the Senate, where he had to deal with a complex, contradictory world. He had a sense of history that was not an academic's abstract vision but a vivid sense of human character moving through time.
Kennedy's father had taught him that he could make history and write it in his own name. And so he was setting out on this day as if he had a massive mandate and his youth was an added virtue. He had always been a cautious leader, and he knew that the path ahead was fraught with dangers both known and unknown, but he set forth an uncharacteristically bold and daring message:
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility -- I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
Many who heard the new president's words thought of him as a hero. Kennedy was a philosopher of courage who had written a book on the subject. Although those listening did not know it, during his life Kennedy had struggled against physical disabilities that would have hobbled most men. He considered politics at its highest level an arena for heroism, a colosseum where a few good men performed noble acts whose merits were often only dimly perceived by the rancorous, fickle masses.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
As much as Kennedy wanted to sit in the company of greatness, he knew that no longer could civilized men stand on fields of battle fighting each other with bullet, sword, and fire when at any moment they might be enveloped in mushroom-shaped clouds vaporizing all humanity. The young leader's great test would be in part to see whether he could define political courage in a new way for a nuclear age.
Kennedy called upon the citizenry to face the new era with intrepidness. The president wanted millions of Americans to rise out of their privatism, shake off their passivity and cynicism, and move forward in acts of sacrifice and selfless service. Since there appeared to be no great war to be won, and no immense frontier to conquer, it was unclear just where this journey would lead, or what this leader would light with the torch he raised.
Kennedy believed that as president, his overwhelming concern would lie in international affairs, and his entire speech dealt with America's relationship to the rest of the world. He said nothing of the greatest American moral dilemma of the age: the political and economic disenfranchisement of the majority of black people. Sorensen had added the only vague reference to civil rights on the eve of the inauguration when Wofford had lobbied the speechwriter to add the words "at home" to the president's commitment to human rights "at home and around the world."
Kennedy talked "to those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery," but he said nothing of the four million Americans who would have starved if not for the surplus foods the government gave them or of the tragic lives of millions of migrant laborers across America whom Edward R. Murrow had poignantly portrayed in his recent documentary Harvest of Shame.
Kennedy's eloquent idealism was a cup overflowing, and the new president's auditors heard what they wanted to hear and needed to hear, be they black ministers in the South, the poor and hungry of his own land, the peoples of Europe, or the masses of Asia and Latin America. Even Castro had reached out to the new administration, saying that he was willing to "begin anew" in his relations with the United States, while Nikita Khrushchev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the chairman of the Council of Ministers, hoped for a "radical improvement" in the two countries' relations. As Kennedy stood there on this day in which the sun could not heat the earth, he seemed to be promising warmth where there was cold, and light where men lived in darkness.
On the ride up the broad expanses of Pennsylvania Avenue, Kennedy insisted that he and Jackie ride in an open car so that people could see their new president in the clear cold air of the winter afternoon. Kennedy was not only a leader but also a leading man, and thirty-one-year-old Jackie a stunning model of a first lady. She was a woman of certain mysteries that would not be easily unraveled. She smiled with coy grace and waved her gloved hand.
There was yet another reason why so many Americans greeted this new president and first lady with such joy and anticipation. Just two months before, on November 25, 1960, Jackie had given birth to a son, John F. Kennedy Jr., and for the first time since Theodore Roosevelt's residency, the White House would be full of children's shouts and laughter. Since the day of John Jr.'s birth, the Kennedys had been inundated with telegrams, flowers, booties, sweaters, and a zoo of stuffed animals, the start of an immense fascination with the president's namesake, as well as a delighted interest in his sister, Caroline. It added to the president's aura of youthful vitality that his parents were still alive and healthy, and with so many brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, he seemed to belong not to a family but to a clan.
The presidential limousine finally reached the reviewing stand in front of the White House. There sat Kennedy family members, esteemed officials, and close friends. As the president drove by, Joe rose up out of his seat to salute his son. The Kennedy patriarch had been his children's great enthusiast, but no matter what honors they merited, what race they won, he had never stood to pay tribute to their achievements. But today he stood, saluting the son whom he had always called "Jack" but who now, in public or among outsiders, would be "Mr. President." Joe's simple gesture was not only a profound act of deference and respect for the office of the presidency, but equally a symbol of the passing of the generations. Kennedy looked up at the reviewing stand and saw his father standing there saluting him. The new president took off his hat and tipped it to his father.
While the president's greatest destiny was just beginning, Joe's was nearing its end. He had achieved what few men do, his transcendent dream embodied in this president bearing his name, but in doing so he had lost part of his son. "Jack doesn't belong anymore to just a family," he reflected. "He belongs to the country. That's probably the saddest thing about all this. The family can be there, but there is not much they can do for the President of the United States."
During the campaign, Joe had bragged that while he would keep quiet until election day, afterward he would have his say. "I assure you that I will do it after that, and that it will be something worthwhile," he boasted to Newsweek. "People may even see a flash of my old-time form." Once the election was over, however, Joe seemed not to be concerned anymore with embroiling himself in all the minutiae of politics, and he never made the statement he had so vociferously promised. When the president-elect asked his father to suggest candidates for secretary of the Treasury, Joe replied: "I can't."
Joe cared primarily about his sons' futures now, and he had just one request to make of his son: that he name Bobby as his attorney general. As much as Kennedy wanted to reward Bobby for his endless work in the campaign, he would no more have made his brother attorney general than name an intern as America's surgeon general. It was unthinkable to make the nation's premier attorney a man who had never practiced law. Kennedy's critics would argue that thirty-five-year-old Bobby was too young, too brash, too ambitious, and too rude.
Kennedy did not dare confront his father with these truths; instead, at the swimming pool at the Palm Beach mansion, he deputized Smathers to suggest gently to Joe that Bobby would make a formidable assistant secretary of Defense. Joe would not even listen to such drivel. "Goddamn it, Jack, I want to tell you once and for all. Don't be sending these emissaries to me. Bobby spilled his blood for you. He's worked for you. And goddamn it, he wants to be attorney general, and I want him to be attorney general, and that's it."
As ambitious as he was, Bobby had his own doubts about the political wisdom of becoming his brother's attorney general. Unlike the president-elect, Bobby had not cordoned off his inner emotions from the world. One of those who had become privy to Bobby's thinking and feeling was John Seigenthaler, a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. Seigenthaler had first covered Bobby during the McClellan hearings. Like Charles Bartlett and Ben Bradlee and a few other reporters, Seigenthaler had incomparable access to the Kennedys and got stories many of his colleagues could never get. Yet as the months went by more and more of what he heard and saw never made its way into his journalism.
Seigenthaler was sitting with Bobby after he had spent a long, discouraging day running around Washington talking to various people about whether he should become attorney general. That was the Kennedy way. Seek out the most knowledgeable people, get their best judgments, and then make up your own mind. In this instance, everyone from Supreme Court Justice Douglas to Senator McClellan had shaken his head in dismay at this harebrained idea. Only Hoover, who at the FBI would be working most intimately with Bobby, said that he should accept the appointment.
Bobby called his brother to tell him that he had decided against it. "We'll go over in the morning," Bobby said as he set down the telephone. "This will kill my father."
Early the next day, Bobby and Seigenthaler drove over to the president elect's home in Georgetown. Over breakfast, the three men discussed the appointment. Bobby detailed the reasons why he had to turn it down, and his brother told him that he had to say yes.
"You want some more coffee?" Kennedy asked.
"Look, there're some more points I need to make with him," Bobby told Seigenthaler as his brother walked into the kitchen.
"I think the points have all been made," Seigenthaler said.
When Kennedy returned, Bobby set off again. The president-elect would not have put up with this endless palaver from most men. He had heard everything he needed to hear, and he had heard it tenfold. It was time to get on with things and walk outside into the cold morning and tell the waiting reporters what would become the most important appointment of his administration. "That's it, general," Kennedy said, cutting his brother off and calling him by his new title. "Let's grab our balls and go."
As Kennedy walked into the White House as president for the first time, he believed that he had surrounded himself with loyal strong men richly prepared to carry out his mandate. He had kept the obvious holdovers from the campaign, including Sorensen as special counsel in charge of domestic policy and speechwriting. Sorensen used words as the vehicle of policy. He not only wrote almost every important speech the president gave but often handed the address to the president only minutes before he spoke. Sorensen's deputy, Mike Feldman, wrote most of the other speeches and dealt with Israel, regulatory policy, and whatever other matters came his way. Feldman may have been only half the writer that Sorensen was, but he was twice the attorney, and he became the de facto legal counsel.
Kenny O'Donnell, the appointments secretary, was the gatekeeper to the presidential person, along with Evelyn Lincoln, the president's personal secretary. Larry O'Brien was in charge of congressional relations, yet another critical post. O'Donnell and O'Brien were the leaders of a small group in the White House that became known as the Irish Mafia; their ranks included Ted Reardon, Dick Donohue, and Dave Powers. These Irish-Americans shared two faiths, Catholicism and politics. Sorensen may have provided the eloquent public voice of the administration, but these tough-minded men fed the belly, and there was a natural, understated tension between the two groups.
As his chief foreign policy adviser in the White House, Kennedy brought in McGeorge Bundy as special assistant for national security affairs. The Harvard dean had arrived by bicycle for his first meeting with the president-elect at Arthur Schlesinger's Cambridge house, but there was nothing casual about either Bundy's manner or his mind. Bundy had a crucial mandate. Kennedy believed that he could not make innovative foreign policy employing the rigid, militarylike structure that Eisenhower had created with the National Security Council. The president thought the only thing to do was to pull the structure largely down, and Bundy was his engine for doing so.
Kennedy could not run his own foreign policy if he had a powerful secretary of State such as Adlai Stevenson, who lobbied for the position and was shuttled to the United Nations ambassadorship. Instead, Kennedy chose Dean Rusk, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation and a former assistant secretary of State, who willingly wore the shackles of subordination.
There was one man whom all the pundits thought would have inordinate power in the White House, and that was the president's own father. "I want to help, but I don't want to be a nuisance," Joe confessed to Steve Smith, his son-in-law. "Can you tell me: do they want me or don't they want me?"
Steve told Bobby what his father had said, and Bobby thanked his brother-in-law and said nothing. A few days later, seventy-two-year-old Joe sailed for Europe, and that entire year visited the White House only once.
Kennedy's closest White House aides had a fierce, loving loyalty to the president they served and comradely joy in what they were doing. "We had this confidence about ourselves that seems lost from the world of power now," reflected Feldman. "We thought we could do anything. We wrote over a hundred messages to Congress in our first hundred days. Those days were filled with so much excitement and such a feeling of euphoria because we achieved our goal and now we were doing what we looked forward to and you have a superhuman ability when you feel that way." The working atmosphere was one of nonchalance and wit. Sorensen occasionally sent serious memos to Feldman in rhymed couplets, and Feldman, not to be bested, replied in kind.
The humor often had a serrated edge, however, that left its mark. When Kennedy decided to find a place in the White House for his young Boston mistress who had graduated from Radcliffe, he placed her in the office of her former dean. "Kennedy put the knife into Bundy by putting her on the staff," recalled Marcus Raskin, who was only twenty-six years old when he entered the White House to serve as the resident liberal gadfly on Bundy's staff. "And since I was the junior-most person on the staff, she was put to work for me, and Bundy said to me, 'Well, I have a present for you.' I knew something was going on because the president called my office a couple times not to speak to me but to speak to her. So even I figured it out at that point. And eventually she personally told me about it."
The Kennedy humor featured put-downs in which the victim proved his mettle by quickly attacking with an even ruder counterblow. In such matters Kennedy and his friends had decorous limits that Bobby and his friends did not observe. What daring, taunting irreverence was it that allowed Claude Hooton to cable the new attorney general to remind him of the time during the campaign when he and Teddy had salted Bobby's luggage with ladies' underwear (I AM SURE THAT THE ATTORNEY GENERAL HAS NO RETROACTIVE POWERS CONCERNING PERFUMED UNDERGARMENTS INSERTED IN SOMEONE ELSES BAGGAGE). And what of Bobby, who did not fancy himself too powerful or too important to reply in kind: "There is some talk that I might turn the FBI loose on you and Teddy and that would be a full time task for all of their agents."
Bobby was not about to be imprisoned in the dignity of office or to use his exalted new position to distance himself from friends he had known all his life. On the day after the inauguration, Bobby insisted on a football game, even though his old Harvard teammates had only their good clothes. After the football game came tobogganing. The men vied for the high honor of sharing a sled with Kim Novak, the movie star, who wrapped her long legs around her momentary companion. Ethel stood on the sidelines, not amused that her husband was competing for this honor. "I don't understand, Ethel," Bobby said, as he stood holding his daughter Kathleen's hand. "Why can't a father go sledding with his daughter?"
As Kennedy was staffing his New Frontier, he talked to an old family friend, Kay Halle. She was one of the few women who spoke to the president-elect on terms approaching equality. Halle suggested that he should choose more women. He abruptly changed the subject, for as Halle observed, he considered women largely "decorative butterflies and lovely to look at." Kennedy was simply not comfortable being in a room with women who sought to be equal partners in the political process. Women tended to clutter up meetings, forcing a tedious decorum on the manly, often profane lingo of political endeavors. The best way to deal with the problem was simply not to have women present at all.
The Kennedy staffers were mainly in their thirties and early forties. They were for the most part veterans of World War II who, like their leader, had served in combat. They had the stamina to work twelve-hour days, six days a week. Like soldiers in the front line, they worked all night when they had to, and through the next day. They shared a deeply rooted patriotism and a can-do attitude about endeavors large and small. Kennedy was fond of quoting the famous St. Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry V ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother"). Kennedy paid each member of his band of brothers the same salary, $21,000, and would gladly have given them all the same title, special assistant. He wanted no staff meetings, no thicket of bureaucracy. He wanted his men to come to him.
Shortly after the election, Kennedy's staff had sat with the president-elect trying to figure out how they could make sure that only important information got to the Oval Office. Kennedy was obsessed with the fear that he would be locked off from knowledge. "Listen, you sons of bitches, I want you to remember one thing," he exclaimed as his neighbor and friend, Larry Newman, sat listening. "You know there's a guy right behind each of you who's working for me. And there's a guy behind him who's working for me. So there's not a goddamn thing any one of you guys can do to keep things away from me. So if you try to pull any bullshit, the next thing you know you'll be out."
Kennedy set up a system so that there would be no crucial information that he did not hear. He was interested in the most arcane nuances of policy, in the details of initiatives, and in the most trivial gossip. Although he appeared to take no pleasure in reading the FBI reports on his aides, he told Feldman, "I never knew my staff led such interesting lives."
Bundy's deputy, Walt Rostow, observed that Kennedy "was capable because of his great energy and human capacity to maintain more reliable bilateral human relations than any man I have ever known." He rarely praised. These were his men, and it was praise enough that they served him. They may have been his band of brothers on the field of political combat, but he would no more have socialized with them than Henry V would have sat down to dinner with his soldiers.
For the first time since the New Deal, sizable numbers of people wanted to come to Washington to work in this new administration. The president-elect deputized Shriver to seek out the best whether or not they appeared ready to come to Washington. The word went out that the Kennedy administration sought not only men who were intelligent and honest but also those who had a quality that had never been one of the necessary credentials for public service. They wanted men who were tough. "By 'toughness' I meant 'tough mindedness,"' recalled Adam Yarmolinsky, one of Shriver's aides interviewing candidates, "but when the list inevitably leaked to the press, candidates for appointment appeared in the talent search offices at the Democratic National Committee, flexing their muscles, and proclaiming, 'I'm tough, I'm tough!"'
The man who probably exemplified the ideals of these Kennedy men better than anyone was Robert McNamara, the new president of Ford Motor Company. McNamara and his "whiz kids" had transformed the automobile industry with their acumen. The incoming administration had the audacious idea that McNamara could do the same with the Defense Department, though he professed ignorance about defense. "Well, you better give me a day to familiarize myself with this," McNamara said. He began shortly after dawn in a room at Washington's Shoreham Hotel reading memos, books, and briefing materials and talking to knowledgeable sources. He worked until late that night and began again the next morning. Within two days he could give the reasonable impression of a man deeply versed in the theory and practice of defense policies. By these efforts, McNamara had become a legend even before Kennedy took power.
McNamara had one other quality that Kennedy found essential in his associates. He spoke the fast-paced, urgent shorthand that was the natural language of Kennedy and his siblings. It was a cinematic way of talking, following the basic rule in scriptwriting: always enter the scene as late as you can. Everyone knew the back-story, and if you didn't, if you asked for it to be repeated, then get out, get away, be quiet. "People, even if they were brilliant and even if they had things he was very interested in, if before they came to the point they had to explain the whole build-up and background to what they had to say, these people in the end bored him," reflected his old friend David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador in Washington. And if they bored him, if they courted him with their meandering soliloquies, they were often soon gone, exiled to some region where he would not have to endure their endless pedantries. Most of these men may have been numbing bores, but at times men are ponderous because there is much to ponder, and slow making decisions because the decisions are hard and close.
On his first day in office, Kennedy walked into the Oval Office early in the morning. Only a fool or a megalomaniac-and the new president was neither -- would have entered what was now his citadel of power without a momentary sense of inadequacy, uncertainty, or self-doubt. Despite his accomplishments as a politician, he had never administered anything grander than the PT-109. The new president sat in an office stripped of photos, paintings, and memorabilia behind a desk suitable for a middling insurance executive. He stared at a floor that looked as if it had been savaged by a regiment of termites who had begun gnawing their way from behind the president's desk, continuing their meal out to the door. The holes, as Kennedy soon realized, were left by the golf shoes that Eisenhower wore when he used the putting green outside his window. By the evidence, he had practiced regularly, a fact that brought the figure of the former president down to a mortal level.
"We ought to have a list of all the promises we made during the campaign," Kennedy said as he sat there for his first hours of work. His inaugural address had been singularly devoid of specific proposals, but now was the time to begin. "Didn't we promise West Virginia that we would do something about poverty? We ought to do something about it now."
"We thought about increasing the food allotment to those getting surplus food," Feldman said.
"How do we do that?" Kennedy asked, still unsure about the mechanisms of governance.
"You write an executive order," Feldman replied.
"Well, do it," Kennedy said, and turned to other matters. Feldman left the room to write Executive Order No. 10914 dated January 21, 1961, and then gave it to Salinger to issue as a press release. The release was hardly on the wires when government bureaucrats alerted the new administration that that was not how it was done. The president had to publish his orders in the Federal Register for thirty days, get comments, and then perhaps hold hearings.
Later that day, Kennedy met with John Kenneth Galbraith to discuss balance-of-payments problems. The Harvard professor seemed scarcely aware that a "briefing" is called that for a reason. On and on he went, in his professorial monotone. Kennedy had one of the greatest gifts with which a human spirit can be blessed, an Odysseus-like enchantment with the world around him. Even now, in the midst of Galbraith's lecture, he could not abide sitting any longer when there was a world to explore. He suggested that the professor continue his monologue as the two men took a tour of the White House.
Kennedy's interest in music reached no higher than the Broadway musical. His knowledge of art was limited to the greatest hits of Western culture that his mother had drilled into her sons. His curiosity about antiques stopped at the price. For the most part, his cultural taste developed by osmosis, from living with Jackie. Yet he did not envision himself living in a White House that was decorated with all the panache of a businessman's hotel. He roamed through the rooms, criticizing the lackluster furniture, the sad reproductions, the dreary decor. Despite his bad back, he got down on his hands and knees and looked underneath some of the tables. He moved from room to room, even entering storerooms where presidents rarely or never ventured. On another one of his early explorations, he discovered what appeared to be two large covered portholes upstairs in the wall of the Oval Room. The mysterious coverings opened up to disclose matching his and her television sets that the Eisenhowers enjoyed in their cozy evenings at home.
Kennedy was no more willing to live in what he considered a pedestrian decor than he was to surround himself with pedestrian human beings whose ideas were as much reproductions as the furniture. "I won't have this," he said. "We must replace these with the correct pieces."
He took the derivative, mediocre furniture as a perfect metaphor for what he considered the derivative, mediocre presidency of his predecessor. "I'd like to make this White House the living museum of the decorative arts in America," he said, a task that Jackie would brilliantly fulfill.
As Kennedy settled into office, the White House was inundated by phone calls, few of which reached Lincoln's secretarial desk. One of the few calls that did reach the president's office on his sixth day in office was from Marguerite Oswald, whose son, Lee Harvey Oswald, had defected to the Soviet Union. Mrs. Oswald had come to Washington seeking help, and though apparently the president did not talk to her, Lincoln noted the call in the official list of calls.
Kennedy had been in office for less than a month before those officials who could not speak the president's idiom were pushed to the antechambers. "Jack feels that Stewart Udall [Secretary of Interior], though very bright, talks too much and that Arthur Goldberg [Secretary of Labor], also very bright, goes on and on," Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote on February 22 after a small private dinner at the White House.
Schlesinger, a liberal Harvard history professor, had been brought into the administration in part to write its official history and to provide a liaison with his close friend and ideological colleague, Adlai Stevenson, the UN ambassador. "He [O'Donnell] has caught Adlai Stevenson in two lies regarding agreements that he's made with Jack [Kennedy] as to personnel at the United Nations," Schlesinger wrote after the dinner. "As Kenny [O'Donnell] said, the people that he has got around him now at the United Nations are mostly queers and I don't think that is far from the truth." Whether true or not, "queer" was the ultimate epithet in the Kennedy White House, for queers were weak sissies, the complete antithesis to the bold men of the New Frontier.
As the first director of the Peace Corps, Sarge Shriver was forming an advisory council to include the novelist Gore Vidal, who was not only a Democratic activist but also Jackie's stepbrother. "I can't remember whether it was the president or his brother," Wofford recalled, "but one of them got the full story that he was gay . . . and they canceled him from being on the advisory council."
Shortly before the inauguration, Allen Dulles, the legendary director of the CIA, had dinner with a small group of Kennedy aides, among them Sorensen and Feldman. Dulles told the men that during the Eisenhower years the president had not known everything the agency was doing. Dulles's seemingly casual remarks were often the vehicle for his most crucial, calculated utterances. Although Kennedy's men were unsettled by Dulles's comments, the CIA director was suggesting to the new administration that his agency should be left alone to work its will on a dark, troubled world.
A week after the inauguration the president and his top foreign policy advisers met with Dulles for a briefing on Cuba. Kennedy felt an emotional affinity with Dulles and other top CIA officials. The CIA leaders belonged to the old upper-class Protestant world to which the Kennedys had long aspired. These men were doubly elite: members of the American establishment, they were also from a private world that worked its will without following any of the prissy necessities of law and politics that governed other men. Their successes, be it overthrowing governments in Iran or Guatemala or manipulating elections in France or Italy, were all secretly accomplished and privately celebrated. They were men who walked as easily into a secret rendezvous in Tehran or Lima as they did into the Somerset or Metropolitan Club.
These CIA leaders were for the most part sophisticated men who were not terrified by words like "socialist" and "social democrat," so-called progressives who seemed to want the same world that the president wanted. One of the president's favorites, and his putative choice to become the next director when sixty-seven-year-old Dulles retired, was Richard Bissell, the CIA director of covert operations. An economist, Bissell was an accomplished man who had come into government during the New Deal as a protege of the liberal Chester Bowles in the Office of Price Administration. Fifty-year-old Bissell had developed the U-2 program, which, until the Russians shot down Francis Gary Powers in 1960, had been indispensable in getting accurate information about Soviet defenses and missile sites.
Dulles described a Cuba that had become "for practical purposes a Communist-controlled state" in which there was "a rapid and continuing buildup of Castro's military power, and a great increase also in popular opposition to his regime." For months the United States had underwritten a series of covert actions, including sabotage, infiltration, and propaganda, while training an insurgent guerrilla force in Guatemala. Most of this Kennedy already knew before the election, and he had learned the rest immediately afterward when Dulles briefed him.
The tweedy, pipe-smoking CIA head explained that there was a renewed urgency to these efforts. The Soviet Union was shipping tons of munitions to the island. Cuban pilots had gone off to Czechoslovakia to train. Castro was steadily garroting his people's liberties until soon the populace might hardly have the strength to rise up, and his agents were provoking revolution throughout Latin America. As the agency realized the magnitude of the challenge, the program of covert actions kept expanding: from the original $4.4 million the year before Kennedy took office, the budget for fiscal year 1960/61 grew to more than $45 million.
Kennedy had met with Eisenhower on the day before the inauguration, when the Republican president had bequeathed his covert Cuba program and admonished his successor to push on with the plans. These were no longer guerrilla infiltrations that Dulles was proposing to the new president, however, but a major amphibious invasion seeking to establish an impregnable enclave that would set off an uprising across Cuba, or at least be a symbol of resistance that would grow until finally the whole island was rid of Castro and his Marxist regime. The Republican president had never authorized an invasion that might involve American troops. Kennedy was being asked to authorize a far more dangerous venture than the one that Eisenhower had signed on to, and far beyond anything the Republican president had authorized the CIA to attempt during his two terms in the White House. The CIA was hoping that its paramilitary force and its agents on the island would foment a "continuing civil war," setting brother against brother in the streets and fields of Cuba, a struggle in which the United States or its Latin surrogates could then intervene and play savior.
On January 4, 1961, before Kennedy was inaugurated, Colonel Jack Hawkins, the head of the CIA's paramilitary staff, prepared a crucial memo outlining what the United States would have to do for the operation to be successful. Hawkins was a poster-handsome marine officer who had fought on Iwo Jima and at the Yalu River in the Korean War and was on the fast track to become a general. Hawkins knew little about Cuba or intelligence and was depending on what the agency told him about Cuban realities. "My belief from the intelligence provided by the CIA was that the place was ripe for revolt," said Colonel Hawkins. "As it turned out, the CIA intelligence was hugely wrong, based largely on Cuban emigres in Miami saying things that would promote their cause."
Hawkins's CIA plan called for the brigade to liberate a small area, then to dig in, waiting for "a general uprising against the Castro regime or overt military intervention by United States forces." If the Cubans did not rise up against Castro, a provisional government would be established on the small territory and "the way [would] then be paved for United States military intervention aimed at pacification of Cuba."
At the first Special Group meeting on Cuba, held Sunday morning, January 22, two days after the inauguration, Dulles told a number of Kennedy men, including the attorney general, that he thought "our presently planned Cuban force could probably hold a beachhead long enough for us to recognize a provisional government and aid that government openly." A few days later, at another meeting on Cuba, General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he felt that the envisioned force of six hundred to eight hundred was inadequate, and he anticipated that "final planning will have to include agreed plans for providing additional support for the Cuban force -- presumably such support to be the U.S. "
As Kennedy listened to the arguments and perused the memos that passed across his desk, trying to decide what to do, he was so new in the Oval Office that he told Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador, "You don't even know which of your team you can really trust from the point of view of their judgment." He knew this was an important decision, but neither he nor anyone else had any idea that his actions here would be one of the defining moments of his administration. His decisions would lead him up the pathway to nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. His judgments would dramatically affect administration polices from Bolivia to Vietnam and help create fiercely held attitudes that would determine American policy toward Cuba until the end of the century and beyond. His decisions in early 1961 may even have inspired an assassin who would be waiting to meet the president on the saddest of November days.