President John F. Kennedy Names the General to Formulate and Spearhead Policies in His Great Cold War Challenges: Cuba, Vietnam, and Berlin

He appoints Gen. Maxwell Taylor Military Representative of the President, a counterweight to the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“You will wish to confer with the officials responsible for the planning for critical areas such as Southeast Asia and Berlin.”

Just weeks after his inauguration, Kennedy was asked to approve an operation planned under the Eisenhower administration, which had trained and equipped a guerrilla army of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba...

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President John F. Kennedy Names the General to Formulate and Spearhead Policies in His Great Cold War Challenges: Cuba, Vietnam, and Berlin

He appoints Gen. Maxwell Taylor Military Representative of the President, a counterweight to the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“You will wish to confer with the officials responsible for the planning for critical areas such as Southeast Asia and Berlin.”

Just weeks after his inauguration, Kennedy was asked to approve an operation planned under the Eisenhower administration, which had trained and equipped a guerrilla army of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow the Communist-leaning Fidel Castro. JFK had some doubts about the wisdom of the plan, as the last thing he wanted, he said, was “direct, overt” intervention by the American military in Cuba. The Soviets would likely see this as an act of war and might retaliate. The operation was a disaster, JFK was blamed, and he felt misled by the military.

From the start of his presidency, Kennedy feared that the Pentagon brass would overreact to Soviet provocations and drive the country into a disastrous nuclear conflict. There was reason for his concern, as many generals and admirals thought the Korean War was not won because President Truman refused to allow Douglas MacArthur to use nuclear weapons. So in 1961, JFK faced a Joint Chiefs of Staff that believed the United States could fight a nuclear conflict and win. The Air Force, led by its chief of staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, consumed the lion’s share of the Department of Defense’s budget at the time. It was the foremost proponent of this concept of a massive nuclear response to provocation and a winnable nuclear war – called the “doctrine of massive retaliation”, and the Eisenhower Administration had gone along with this policy.

Kennedy on the other hand thought that a nuclear war would bring mutually assured destruction, not victory. In 1959, U.S. Army chief of staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor had retired to protest the Army’s diminished role in the military. Soon after he published the book, “An Uncertain Trumpet”, which blasted the doctrine of massive retaliation and argued for a concept he called “flexible response”. This involved a strategy of calibrated force that aimed at mutual deterrence at strategic, tactical, and conventional levels, giving the United States the capability to respond to aggression across the spectrum of warfare, not limited only to nuclear weapons. The new President was attracted by this and became an admirer of Taylor. The Pentagon brass resisted Taylor’s ideas, did not accept “flexible response”, and regarded Kennedy as too reluctant to put the nation’s nuclear advantage to use, and thus resisted ceding him exclusive control over decisions about a first nuclear strike.

In April 1961 JFK created the Cuba Study Group to perform an ‘autopsy’ on the disastrous events surrounding the Bay of Pigs. He named Taylor to head the group, which met for six weeks from April to May 1961. The Taylor report exposed the military and political flaws that had doomed the invasion even before it began. It also found that the opposition to Castro was so dispirited that it could not be relied on in another action. Taylor’s superb handling of the report made him an instant hit with the Kennedy brothers. He was soon to be rewarded with a formal advisory post.

After World War II the city of Berlin was divided into four segments, and these were occupied by the Soviet Union, the U.S., Britain and France. This despite the fact that Berlin was deep within East Germany. Once the Iron Curtain went up people trying to flee Communist rule in Eastern Europe – and particularly in East Germany – could not immigrate out. Their one escape route was to go to East Berlin in the Soviet sector and from there cross over into free West Berlin. In time the Soviets and East Germans got fed up with this arrangement. In November 1958, Soviet Premier Khrushchev threatened to turn over control of all lines of communication with West Berlin to East Germany, meaning the western powers would have access to West Berlin only when East Germany permitted it and under its conditions. In May 1960 a summit was called to resolve the Berlin question, but it was cancelled in the fallout from Francis Gary Power’s U-2 spy flight, so the question remained alive and festering for the new President in 1961.

The NSC 5412 Group was a secret subcommittee of the U.S. National Security Council initiated during the Eisenhower administration and was responsible for coordinating covert operations between representatives of the CIA, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and President, to ensure that those operations were planned and conducted in a manner consistent with U.S. foreign and military policies. But after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, when Kennedy lost faith in most of his military advisers, he asked Taylor to review U.S. paramilitary capabilities. Taylor submitted a report in June 1961 that recommended strengthening high-level direction of covert operations. JFK changed the composition of the group to include his brother Robert, and named Taylor chairman of the group.

A week after Kennedy became President, he was handed a report on the situation in South Vietnam. He was heard to mutter, “This is going to be the worst one yet.” By the spring, Kennedy was under increasing pressure to make ever greater commitments to shore up the government of South Vietnam. Introduce American combat troops, he was told, again and again, by the Joint Chiefs, the State Department, the C.I.A., and the government of South Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem. If not, they all predicted, Vietnam could succumb to the Communist guerrillas. Everyone, it seemed, was for making a small war a big one – except Kennedy. He resisted, looking for less dangerous ways to intervene. He assigned Maxwell Taylor to look into the situation in Vietnam.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, June 26, 1961, marked “Secret”, to Taylor, creating the new White House post called Military Representative of the President, and naming him to it. Taylor would essentially be JFK’s personal chief advisor on military affairs. “In confirmation of our conversation this date, upon your assumption of the position of Military Representative of the President I would like you to undertake the functions generally outlined in the enclosure to this letter. As immediate tasks thereunder, please take the following actions: a. Assume the chairmanship of the present Committee as my representative. b. Review the planning being done on Berlin and submit to me your comments and recommendations. c. Review the planning on Vietnam and give me your comments thereon, along with your views on how to respond to President Diem’s request for a 100,000 man increase in his army.

“In undertaking these actions, you will wish to confer with the officials responsible for the planning for critical areas such as Southeast Asia and Berlin. With regards to Berlin, I am sure you are aware of the important assistance being rendered by Mr. Dean Acheson with whom you should meet at an early date.”

Here’s how things turned out. The East Germans built the Berlin Wall in August 1961 to stop the flow of emigration out; the U.S. could really do nothing. Taylor went to Vietnam in October 1961 to assess the insurgency and counterinsurgency. He recommended sending an additional 8,000 Americans to Vietnam, to Kennedy’s disappointment. The next month the 5412 Group would initiate Operation Mongoose, designed to change the leadership of South Vietnam.

Kennedy recalled Taylor to active service in 1962 and appointed him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Within weeks the General became a key participant in the secret meetings to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis. Taylor’s “flexible response” concept triumphed, to the chagrin of LeMay and other hard-liners, and the Limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty was signed in Moscow on August 5, 1963 as a result. It was one of the signal accomplishments of the Kennedy presidency. Taylor later served President Johnson as ambassador to South Vietnam from 1964-1965.

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