From John M. Newman’s Into the Storm, the third book in his series on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This excerpt is from Chapter 15, entitled: “Intermission – The Winds of War.”
THE WINDS OF WAR
At the precise moment President Kennedy launched Operation Mongoose—on 3 November 1961—official Washington was already in an uproar over the report General Taylor had made that same day recommending that 8,000 U.S. combat troops be deployed in South Vietnam (see JFK and Vietnam, 2017 edition, Chapter Seven). Taylor had just returned from a mission to Vietnam for which the president had instructed him not to come back with a recommendation for U.S. military intervention. Kennedy was so shocked by Taylor’s recommendation that he tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress it by recalling copies of the final report. Taylor’s recommendation to send combat troops was a very closely held secret.
The fact that the president tried to suppress a recommendation to send combat troops to Vietnam on the same day that he launched Operation Mongoose tells us a lot about how he would react to a similar recommendation to send American combat troops into Cuba. No record of the 3 November meeting that launched Mongoose has ever been found. However, the decisions reached that day were summarized in a 30 November 1961 memorandum from the president to his senior cabinet members, as well as General Taylor and General Lansdale. Kennedy told his subordinates to “go ahead” with the project to “overthrow” the Castro regime.
Lansdale made use of that presidential memorandum in a report he authored on 20 February 1962. But Lansdale’s report was remanded six days later by the Special Group (Augmented—SGA) because he had asked if the president would approve U.S. military intervention in Cuba. I mentioned that key SGA meeting in Chapter Fourteen and promised to revisit it here. Before I do that, I want to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that eight days before the president gave the “go ahead” for Mongoose on 30 November 1961, he had overruled a recommendation by Secretary McNamara, Secretary Rusk, the Joint Chiefs and General Taylor, for U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Etched in stone in NSAM-111 on 22 November 1961, that was the defining decision on Vietnam during Kennedy’s presidency. It was promulgated two years to the day before his assassination.
The Battle Between General Lemnitzer and President Kennedy Over War in Vietnam
The key NSC meeting leading up to President Kennedy’s decision against intervention in Vietnam occurred on November 15, 1961. During that meeting, a caustic and revealing exchange took place between JCS Chairman General Lemnitzer and the president. When Kennedy asked for the justification for sending U.S. combat troops to Vietnam, this heated moment took place:
Lemnitzer replied that the world would be divided in the area of Southeast Asia on the sea, in the air and in communications. He said communist conquest would deal a severe blow to freedom and extend communism to a great portion of the world. The president asked how he could justify the proposed courses of action in Vietnam while at the same time ignoring Cuba. General Lemnitzer hastened to add that the JCS feel that even at this point the United States should go into Cuba.
This passage was a dramatic illustration of the degree to which the president had become isolated from the cold warriors demanding full U.S. intervention in Vietnam and Cuba. It foreshadowed the uncompromising conflict that erupted three months later over Lemnitzer’s proposal for full U.S. military intervention in Cuba.
In the days immediately after Thanksgiving—26-29 November—Kennedy purged the Vietnam hawks in the State Department (see JFK and Vietnam, 2017 edition, Chapter Seven). At the same time, as I mentioned before, when the president fired DCI Allen Dulles and replaced him with John McCone, he warned the new DCI, “We want to welcome you here and to say that you are now living on the bull’s-eye, and I welcome you to that spot.”
The lesson from the president’s climactic Vietnam decision was this: Kennedy turned down combat troops, not when the decision was clouded by ambiguities and contradictions in the reports from the battlefield, but when the battle was unequivocally desperate, when all concerned agreed that Vietnam’s fate hung in the balance, and when his principal advisors told him that vital U.S. interests in the region and the world were at stake.
But the chiefs in the Pentagon remained frustrated with the president’s decision. Air Force Chief of Staff General LeMay was particularly dismayed. He later claimed that none of the Joint Chiefs at the time believed the president’s Vietnam program was “anything except some diplomatic fiddling around” with a little more aid. On 13 January 1962, General Lemnitzer authored his most strongly worded warning yet that his recommendation to send U.S. military combat forces to Vietnam had to be considered again, and asked Defense Secretary McNamara to send it on to the president. McNamara did this, along with his own comment that he did not endorse it.
In an emphatic and foreboding lecture to the president, Lemnitzer said that failure to heed his recommendation would lead to “communist domination of all of the Southeast Asian mainland.” Singapore and Malaysia would be lost as the Indonesian archipelago came under “Soviet domination.” Control of the eastern access to the Indian Ocean would be lost and India would be “outflanked.” Australia and New Zealand would be threatened, and the American bases in the Philippines and Japan would be lost.
Given Kennedy’s repeated refusals to intervene in Vietnam, Lemnitzer’s memo bordered on insubordination. His the-sky-is-falling memorandum rebuked the president for his “failure” to send in U.S. combat troops. Lemnitzer added impudently that this “will merely extend the date when such action must be taken and will make our ultimate task proportionately more difficult.” The message to Kennedy was clear: We told you a year ago to send combat troops, but you didn’t listen. If you fail to listen when your program falls apart, we’ll do it anyway.
And, as we know from the subsequent history of events, they did do it anyway.
The Battle Between General Lemnitzer and President Kennedy Over War in Cuba
The battle over U.S. intervention in Vietnam was the context for Lansdale’s 28 January 1962 submission of his “sensitive” Task 33 false-flag operation to create a pretext for U.S. intervention in Cuba. As I mentioned in Chapter Fourteen, Lansdale took a surprising step forward on the path to U.S. intervention in his 20 February report titled “The Cuba Project.” Lansdale’s report began with this sentence:
In keeping with the spirit of the presidential memorandum of 30 November 1961, the U.S. will help the people of Cuba overthrow the communist regime from within Cuba and institute a new government with which the U.S. can live in peace. [Emphasis added]
That statement was essentially true. The president’s memorandum was simpler: “We will use our available assets to go ahead with the discussed project in order to help Cuba overthrow the communist regime.”
But Lansdale’s report ended with a question that was completely at odds with presidential policy:
If the conditions and assets permitting a revolt are achieved in Cuba, and if U.S. help is required to sustain this condition, will the U.S. respond promptly with military force to aid the Cuban revolt? …An early decision is required. [Emphasis added]
Of course, Lansdale knew that the president had barred U.S. military intervention from being considered in the Mongoose operation. So, why had Lansdale become the stalking horse for a proposal specifically opposed by the president? There can only be one answer: just as Lansdale had cast his lot with the chiefs on intervention in Vietnam back in the spring of 1961, now he was once again casting his lot with them on intervention—this time in Cuba. While the president would keep Lansdale around for a while longer, that episode effectively ended his usefulness to the Kennedy brothers. Lansdale’s embrace of U.S. military intervention in Cuba ensured that he would never be rewarded with his coveted prize—an assignment to Vietnam as a special U.S. advisor to President Diem.
As I mentioned in Chapter Fourteen, the Kennedy brothers had seen the false-flag pretext for U.S. military intervention in Lansdale’s 18 January memorandum. Two days later, Lansdale’s 20 February report went even further by asking if the president would agree to U.S. intervention to save a Cuban revolt. It is likely the Kennedys understood that Lemnitzer was behind Lansdale’s switch to an intervention track. And so, the brothers conducted countermeasures by using a key 26 February SGA meeting to 1) restrict Lansdale’s future mission to “short-range actions” to acquire “hard intelligence” about Cuba, and 2) order the deletion of Lansdale’s reference to the president’s memorandum in his (Lansdale’s) 20 February paper. The message was unmistakable: Lansdale’s question about intervening militarily to save a Cuban revolt was decidedly not “in keeping with the spirit” of the president’s memorandum.
The Kennedy brothers knew that clipping Lansdale’s wings was only the beginning of the battle that was about to unfold. If the false-flag pretext was only Lansdale’s idea, then there was nothing more to worry about. But the brothers intended to force the real snake in the grass out into the open. And General Lemnitzer had no qualms about stepping to the front of the line.
Not surprisingly, Lemnitzer had already swung into action in the Pentagon. A later (13 March 1962) memorandum traced the evolution of the activity Lemnitzer assigned to his Joint Staff. By the time of Lansdale’s 18 January false-flag pretext proposal, Lemnitzer had already placed his chief of covert action, General Craig, in charge of a working group of five officers—from the Joint Staff’s J-5 plans and policy component—on a full-time basis. After Lansdale’s 18 January recommendation, Lemnitzer enlarged Craig’s working group by “the addition of full-time representatives of the Joint Staff’s J-1 (manpower and personnel), J-2 (intelligence), J-3 (operations), J-4 (logistics), and representatives from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Lemnitzer was ahead of his skis at this point.
While neither of the Kennedy brothers was physically present at the crucial 26 February SGA meeting, their interests were well represented. The presence of the president’s security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, and Defense Secretary McNamara, along with his deputy, Roswell Gilpatrick, was sufficient to apply the brakes on Lansdale’s future duties. Lansdale was there to witness the first step on his journey toward impotence. That surprise undoubtedly pleased William Harvey—who was also a witness to Lansdale’s falling star—but he was hardly oblivious to the worrisome implications. Little did Harvey suspect at the time that Lansdale’s last act, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, would be to dismantle his own (Harvey’s) CIA fiefdom on the orders of Robert Kennedy.
In Chapter Fourteen I mentioned that there was a lot more than met the eye taking place during that seminal February SGA meeting. The unseen hand of the Kennedy brothers was responsible for the use of a bureaucratic trick the president had fashioned after the Bay of Pigs failure. The participants at the SGA meeting were informed about several “papers for higher authority” that had to be drafted “before the coming weekend”—i.e. in four days. There were two key papers. The first paper was to plan for the maximum use of Cuban resources, while recognizing that final success will require decisive U.S. military intervention. The second paper was to plan for the development of Cuban resources to facilitate, support, and justify that intervention.
On the surface, the guidance for these two “papers” appeared to be an approval for what Lansdale (on behalf of Lemnitzer) had proposed on 18 January and 20 February. But those instructions were a bureaucratic sleight of hand. Officials who had experience trying to convince President Kennedy to approve something he did not support were used to being told to go write a paper and get back to him. In this case, only one paper was drafted afterward, and it was written on 5 March by General Taylor with slight revisions by McGeorge Bundy and DCI McCone. The first two lines were identical, word-for-word, with the language used in the guidance from the 26 February SGA meeting.
The formula used at that meeting on behalf of the Kennedys was not a direct affront to Lemnitzer’s plans for war in Cuba. But the reprimand of Lansdale put the ball firmly in Lemnitzer’s court. He understood what he had to do. And so, Lemnitzer put his Operation Northwoods on the table two weeks later, on 13 March. In Chapter Fourteen, I discussed the morally depraved details of Lemnitzer’s plan—sinking an American ship, attacking Miami, Washington and other American cities, and blaming it all on Cuba.
Three days later, Kennedy and Lemnitzer met face-to face with, perhaps, a half dozen other officers. It is very difficult to find a formal memo of the discussion in that meeting. We do have a brief handwritten note authored by Deputy Under Secretary of State U. Alexis Johnson who witnessed the event:
The president also expressed skepticism that, insofar as can now be foreseen, circumstances will arise that would justify and make desirable the use of American forces for overt military action. It was clearly understood no decision was expressed or implied approving the use of such forces although contingency planning would proceed. [Emphasis added]
However, as this volume went to press, I discovered a memorandum indicating that a blunt rebuke of Lemnitzer by JFK took place. I will discuss that memo further in Volume IV.
Here, as a career U.S. Army officer, I am compelled to speak my mind. I speak for myself and will leave other officers of the American Armed Forces to their own counsel in this matter. General Lemnitzer betrayed his country and his oath of office to protect and defend its constitution. U.S. Army Major General Joseph Alexander McChristian, perhaps the finest Army intelligence officer ever to wear the uniform, was once asked what it means to lie about the enemy in a time of war. He spoke for what is in my heart when he replied, “It jeopardizes not only the lives of the soldiers on the battlefield, but also the future liberty of your people at home.”
As the moment of maximum danger in the Cuban Missile Crisis approached, the president finally got around to firing Lemnitzer. On 1 October 1962, Kennedy installed General Maxwell Taylor as the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The choice of Taylor, as events turned out, was a very bad mistake. Taylor would end up working secretly with other senior officers to subvert President Kennedy’s order to begin the withdrawal of U.S. military advisors from Vietnam.
The ship of the brothers Kennedy was sailing headlong into the winds of war. Though they might still stop it in Cuba, war was coming nonetheless. The miraculous conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis would be short-lived. It was only an intermission—much like the passing eye of a huge hurricane.
At the moment, for me—save for the steadily building hatred for the Kennedy brothers and the metamorphosing CIA plots to assassinate Castro—what lies on the other side of that intermission is mostly dark. But a saying John Kennedy was wont to quote comes to mind:
Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh in vain. [Psalm 127:1]
—Remarks prepared [undelivered] for speech at the Trade Mart
Dallas, Texas, 22 November 1963
 Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. 169.
 11/3/61, FRUS, Vol. X, Cuba, Document 270, Editorial Note.
 11/30/61, FRUS, Vol. X, Cuba, Document 278, Memorandum from President Kennedy.
 2/20/62, Lansdale report on “The Cuba Project”; RIF 145-10001-10003.
 Notes on National Security Council Meeting 15, November 1961, LBJ Library, VP Security File, Box 4.
 Kennedy, remarks at the swearing in of John McCone, CIA, November 29, 1961, Public Papers, 1961, p. 490.
.LeMay interview with Belden, March 29, 1972, in Air Force History, p. 91.
PP, DOD ed., Book 12, pp. 448-54.
 Ibid., p. 447.
 2/20/62, Lansdale Report, “The Cuba Project”; RIF 145-10001-10003.
 11/30/61, FRUS, Vol. X, Cuba, Document 278, Memorandum from President Kennedy.
 3/13/62, DOD/JCS memorandum, “Consolidated Status Report” for the Special Group (Augmented). Note: This important memorandum may never see the light of day. I discovered extracts from it in the Church Committee Index Card collection that I copied at NARA at a very early date after the passage of the JFK Assassination Records and Collection Act was passed in 1992. I have made back-up copies for safe keeping of these valuable records (in secure locations) which contain more than a thousand index cards on important meetings of the Special Group and the National Security Council. When the current Trump administration has finished whatever they decide to do pursuant to mandated full release of JFK records, we will take action to approach NARA and the JFK Presidential Library to ensure that what I have copied from this SSCIA Index Card collection will be available to researchers.
3/14/62, FRUS, Vol. X, Cuba, Document 314, Guidelines for Operation Mongoose.
See Newman, JFK and Vietnam, 2017 Edition, p. xxiv.