New Leaders: JFK’s Nightmare

When Doing Nothing Is Doing Something

jfk face

Being chosen as a leader is an experience both heady and gratifying.

You are being recognized for what you know and what you will do.

But, one of the most difficult aspects of new leadership may be the propensity to act, even when wisdom and experience counsels otherwise.

After all, why have a leader if they don’t do anything?

John Kennedy would have an answer for that.

Just Four Months on the Job

In early 1961 Kennedy was a young and charismatic new leader when he took an action that all but ruined his presidency.

He pursued a CIA plan to invade and overthrow the government of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, a left-leaning though as yet non-communist leader.

Neither the plan nor the idea were his, they were created by the Eisenhower administration and handed off to Kennedy.  He was briefed in Palm Beach shortly after he was elected.

As a new leader Kennedy was pegged as being both young and inexperienced.

Did he let his feelings of insecurity interfere with his judgment?

The Cuban Invasion, now known as the “Bay of Pigs Fiasco” was not a strategic imperative.  It had no compelling deadline though preparation had been underway for sometime.

What it had was momentum.

On the Ground

On the Ground in Cuba

Kennedy knew his first order of business was to “review his in-box” to understand the full scope of issues, both foreign and domestic, facing him.

As a new president, time was on his side.

Atmosphere Counts

New leaders have to negotiate and navigate the circumstances they inherit.  Those circumstances can be  both personal and professional.

Kennedy’s defining circumstance was the Cold War and the fear that Communism was ascendant.

The fear was more of a domestic political threat than a confirmed fact.

Still, as a young and new president, Kennedy could not appear to be seen as weak or indecisive, or so he thought.

The trap was set.

Trust Your Advisors?

JFK parachuted into a vast bureaucracy where he felt compelled to trust Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell, both of the CIA.

Bissell was the master of the plan to put ashore about 1,500 expatriate commandos who would then be joined by other Cubans to form an army.

Kennedy was skittish about the secrecy of the plan, concerned that Russia’s  Nikita Khrushchev would find out and use it against him.

(The plan was never a secret, in fact JFK said that Castro did not need an intelligence service, he could just read the Miami Herald for details.)

Kennedy then made an implausible and inexplicable decision:  having failed to fully understand the implications of the invasion, he scaled it back so that it had virtually no chance of success.

In other words, he ensured the defeat of an effort that could doom his presidency at the outset.

(The CIA went along with the scaling back, believing that once the fat was in the fire that Kennedy would relent and add back in the resources he had cut.  They were wrong.)

Brother as Bully



Kennedy was also poorly served by having his brother Bobby as his closest advisor.

In 1961 Bobby Kennedy was a bully.  Those who knew the family said he was also a hater, “just like the old man” referring to Joe Kennedy, Sr.

Bobby Kennedy was irrational over Cuba and Castro and pressured Arthur Schlesinger, Chester Bowles and others to drop their objections.

What choice did they have, sitting across from the President’s brother?

Robert Kennedy made sure his brother heard what he wanted him to hear.

One Last Chance

Kennedy was smart. 

He was a superb listener and he knew he needed to have a broad range of views in order to make good decisions.

JFK had pulled former Truman Secretary of State Dean Acheson out of retirement to advise him on the brewing crisis in Berlin.

Importantly, Acheson was a hawk.

On the eve of Acheson’s mission to Berlin Kennedy asked him to stop by the Oval Office.

Kennedy took Acheson out to the Rose Garden on a warm spring day where they sat on a bench as Kennedy revealed the Cuban plan.

Acheson was aghast.

“Mr. President”, he said, “I don’t need to call Price Waterhouse to know that your 1,500 soldiers don’t match Castro’s 25,000.  Please don’t do it.”

Game Day

The invasion was a disaster.

Kennedy wept over the combat deaths and took personal responsibility for the failure.

But, it was not enough.

His decision to proceed, and then only half-heartedly, allowed Khrushchev to conclude that JFK was weak-willed and ineffective.

That conclusion led to both the 1961 Berlin Crisis and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the two times when we have been closest to nuclear war.

What’s the Rush?

Khrushchev  and Kennedy

Khrushchev and Kennedy

Was JFK’s error allowing himself to be rushed?

If so, why?

Did his fear of being seen as weak or indecisive cloud his judgment over the possible consequences?

In fact, the decision to act, to appear forceful and in control, led to the exact outcome he most feared: that world leaders, especially his Russian nemesis would conclude that he was in over his head.

He never fully convinced them otherwise.







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *