So What Happens When the Military Industrial Complex Gets Mad?

After months, even years, of planning the big John F. Kennedy 50th anniversary symposium is fast upon us. It starts Tuesday evening at BSC National Energy Center of Excellence with a keynote address by North Dakota native Clint Hill, the secret service agent who crawled up on the presidential limousine when Jacqueline Kennedy climbed up and out of the back seat on 12:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963.

In the handful of truly searing moments in my lifetime, that's the searingest. School was dismissed (second grade, Lincoln Elementary). I went to Cub Scouts, where I made my mother a Christmas corsage, which she still wears. I think about that day every time I drive by that duplex on Third Avenue in Dickinson. Every time for fifty years.

Think of Clint Hill's burden.

For many months I have been reading Kennedy books—biographies, analyses of his presidency, explorations of particular themes (Berlin 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam), books about key people around him (particularly his brother Robert), and of course books about the assassination. My tired little brain is full to bursting with Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy. He's far from my favorite president, but he is growing on me with all of this reading. I love what I get to do (read for a living), but at some point the brain just goes tilt like an old pinball machine. I've purchased 30-40 books to get ready and read most of them. For the past few days I have been hand-drawing a JFK presidential crisis flow chart on a big sheet of white paper on my kitchen counter. I know this can be done better electronically, but I'm too dense to learn the program in time. The Cuban Missile Crisis (14-28 October 1962) is without question the most significant crisis of Kennedy's presidency (towering on my silly chart), and arguably the most critical moment in the world since the splitting of the atom in 1938.

In my opinion, two men saved the world in October 1962: John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. If two others had been in charge at that time, it seems likely that we would have tripped over the nuclear precipice, and somewhere between 30 and 300 million people would have been killed. JFK's deepest concern was that once the nuclear exchange began it would be almost impossible to stop it because each outrage is so appalling—we take out Moscow, they take out Washington, D.C., so we take out Leningrad, after which they… The generals on both sides were salivating to launch nuclear missiles and drop warheads from airplanes. Kennedy's generals, principally Admiral George Anderson of the Navy and Curtis LeMay of the Air Force browbeat the young president throughout the crisis—teasing and testing the Constitutional line that insists that the American military be under civilian authority. Even afterwards, when JFK called in the Joint Chiefs to thank them for their hard work during the crisis, Anderson said America's response (a naval quarantine that forced the Soviets to back down and agree to remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba) was worse than Munich (where the Brits gave Hitler the green light to gobble Czechoslovakia and prime minister Neville Chamberlain called it "peace in our time"). And LeMay called the peaceful resolution of the crisis "the greatest defeat in our history." Flatterers!

So here's the youngest elected president in American history, a former senator with no previous administrative experience, a frightened young man with an admittedly thin (if heroic) military record, being systematically hectored and belittled by the most confident and overbearing career military men in the United States, who assure him that he is endangering the country as well as the Free World, not to mention betraying his Constitutional responsibility. Khrushchev was getting it in equal or greater measure from the other side, in a nation with much weaker constitutional restraints. But when the critical moment came, both men (Kennedy 45, Khrushchev 68) declined to push the nuclear button. They were both under unbearable pressure to ratchet the crisis up to the apocalypse, these two flawed men, both of whom were prone to wild Cold War rhetoric, both of whom felt the need to prove their masculinity in a range of often reckless ways. It would have been so much easier just to surrender to the military. It took courage, indeed something more than courage, to choose the path of peace in that crucible—in which one false step might bring western civilization to collapse.

Think about it. We get to talk about such matters this week in Bismarck, with some of the greatest experts in the world. Our focus is not lone gunman and magic bullet, though we'll do a little of that, too. Our focus is one of the most interesting periods of American history, the gravest years of the Cold War, when humans were deciding, in crisis after crisis, whether to normalize nuclear weapons in what Kennedy called the "long twilight struggle" between two world empires and two fundamentally incompatible political and economic systems.

Here's one reason I find that so fascinating. If we agree that Kennedy and Khrushchev saved the world in October 1962 by standing up, each of them independently, to the military industrial complex, it might be interesting to see what came of each of these beleaguered leaders in the aftermath of the crisis. Less than two years later, Khrushchev was deposed by the Soviet establishment, led by his deputy Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet presidium accepted Khrushchev's "voluntary retirement" on October 14, 1964, after a year of behind the scenes skullduggery. He lived out the rest of his life in bare-bones obscurity.

We know what happened to John F. Kennedy—don't we? He was assassinated in Texas thirteen months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in a mysterious episode that was captured on 8mm film by a Dallas merchant. Although the tidy narrative that the assassination of JFK was the work of an unstable drifter was circulating worldwide by the end of that terrible Friday, well before a serious investigation could get started, the American people have never really cottoned to it, in spite of the massive weight of the Warren Commission's 26-volume report (September 24, 1964). The fact that the lone gunman was struck down two days later, by a shady night club owner with known mob connections and a strangely cozy relationship with Dallas cops, while surrounded by 70 law enforcement officers in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters, does not exactly deter the conspiracy theorists.

Honestly, I have no settled opinion about who killed Kennedy. My mind is like a yoyo. When I read David Talbot's superb Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, I lean towards the Grassy Knoll and Oswald's insistence that he was a "patsy." When I read Vincent Bugliosi's Parkland (originally Four Days in November), I see Jack Ruby as a traumatized super-patriot who killed Oswald to spare Jacqueline Kennedy from having to come back to Dallas to testify in the murder trial. When I read William Manchester's magisterial Death of a President, lone gunman, but when I read Larry Sabato's new The Kennedy Half-Century, I want to know why the CIA and FBI both indisputably covered up what they knew about Oswald and the assassination.

This much is certain. Kennedy believed that a coup d'état was possible in the United States. I do too. And both Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy never bought the lone gunman narrative, even though each of them endorsed it for a range of reasons.