Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Deep Background LeMay & JFK
President Kennedy visits SAC Command Post.
Deep Background: The Rift between President Kennedy and General LeMay
- by Douglas Horne, Chief Analyst for Military Records (ARRB)
General LeMay and President Kennedy shared a barely concealed, mutual contempt for each other which was widely known in Washington, and John F. Kennedy had more than once walked out of a meeting with LeMay in a fit of pique. President Kennedy was so upset when first briefed in September 1961 by General Lyman Lemnitzer (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) about America’s inflexible plan for total, world-wide nuclear war, SIOP -62 – the ‘Single Integrated Operational Plan’ for Fiscal Year 1962 – that he spent most of the meeting tapping on his teeth with his thumbnail, a sign of irritation in him, and said in disgust to Secretary of State Dean Rusk at the conclusion of the meeting, “And we call ourselves the human race.” (Although the target list in the fist SIOP had been developed in 1960 – and was officially the brainchild of LeMay’s protégé and replacement as head of SAC, General Power – it was at heart really LeMay’s plan, even though briefed by Lemnitzer, for it reflected LeMay’s personal philosophy of massive and continuing retaliation for several days, in the event of nuclear war).
At that time, the SIOP essentially called for the massive and overwhelming destruction of the entire Communist bloc – [National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy called SIOP-62 and its predecessors “a massive, total, comprehensive strategic attack…on everything Red.” It allowed for no flexibility once nuclear hostilities began.] – both military bases and major civilian targets (cities) – in the event of nuclear war with any one of its members. [For example, in a war with the Soviet Union, all major strategic targets in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, and North Vietnam would have been destroyed.]. It was overkill on a grand scale, and greatly upset President Kennedy, who was already preoccupied about the danger – even the likelihood – of accidental nuclear war through mistakes or miscalculation, to the point where after this briefing, he ordered the SIOP revised to allow for a more flexible response by the Commander-in-Chief than the obligatory destruction of half of the planet in the event of a nuclear conflict. The revised plan, called SIOP-63, went into effect just prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
LeMay, for his part, considered Kennedy a ‘weak sister,’ and was angry with JFK for not immediately bombing, and then invading Cuba during the Missile Crisis in October 1962.
General Thomas Power, an ‘extreme personality’ who himself sometimes made General LeMay look like a reasonable man, commanded the Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. On Wednesday, November 24, 1962, General Power not only took the dangerous and provocative step of moving SAC from DEFCON-3 to DEFCON-2 (one stage short of nuclear war) without Kennedy’s permission during the crisis, but made two unencrypted radio transmissions about this change in status to all of SAC, undoubtedly to ensure that the USSR knew what the U.S. Air Force was doing. (There was a great nuclear weapons imbalance at this time in favor of the Untied States, and both the United States and the Soviet political and military leadership knew this.)
Kennedy and his advisors were not only furious that this had happened, but actually horrified, because putting SAC at DEFCON-2 could have been interpreted by the Soviets as the prelude to a pre-emptive “first-strike” by the United States, and thereby increased the risk of general war.
General LeMay, as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was not only responsible for Power’s actions, but he supported them after the fact, even though Power had acted independently. (Thomas Power, Curtis LeMay’s former Chief of Staff when LeMay commanded SAC, was the handpicked replacement chosen to take over the powerful organization LeMay himself had succored and nurtured through its childhood and adolescence, into the maturity of adulthood.) LeMay, furthermore, had given what new Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Maxwell Taylor later called “half-assed” recommendations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, including telling President Kennedy that the Soviet Union would not respond with military force anywhere in the world – not even in Berlin – if the U.S. attacked Cuba, destroyed its missiles, and killed large numbers of its troops and technicians.
Shortly after the Missile Crisis ended, President Kennedy met with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Cabinet Room at the White House to thank them for their efforts, after achieving a negotiated settlement with the Soviet Union that both guaranteed removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba and avoided war. President Kennedy tried to put a good face on what had been a difficult and stressful two weeks with his military leadership, saying that he wanted to tell them how much he admired them and had benefited from their advice and counsel.
President Kennedy said, “Gentlemen, we’ve won. I don’t want you to ever say it, but you know we’ve won, and I know we’ve won.” At this point the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral George Anderson, exclaimed, “We’ve been had!” LeMay’s own emotional outburst followed immediately thereafter. LeMay – who was enraged that the United States had not bombed and invaded Cuba – pounded the table in the Cabinet room and blurted out, “Won, Hell! We Lost!” We should go in and wipe them out today!” LeMay then proclaimed the resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis to be “the greatest defeat in our history,” and ejaculated, “Mr. President, we should invade today!” - leaving President Kennedy stunned and stammering in amazement.
President Kennedy and General LeMay no doubt both considered themselves patriots, but they were very different kinds of patriots – the type of men who were so far apart in their respective views of the world that they could not help but despise each other. LeMay was crude, bull-headed, profane, inflexible, demanding, and used to getting his way; President Kennedy was, more than anything else, flexible and open to new ideas, and his World War II experiences had made him very skeptical of the so-called wisdom of senior military officers. The animus between Kennedy and LeMay was real, and quite serious.
LeMay, who had earned his stars in the European Theater during World War II as a B-17 bomber unit commander (in the European ‘daylight precision bombing’ campaign of the Eighth Air Force) before moving to the Pacific and initiating the firebombing campaign against the Japanese cities with the high-tech B-29 Superfortresses, was the ultimate Cold Warrior. He was a strong advocate of nuclear deterrence, and had spent 8 years, from 1949 to 1957, building up the Strategic Air Command (America’s extremely efficient and formidable organization established for the purpose of delivering long range nuclear weapons) into the greatest fleet of destruction ever assembled. In doing so he had ushered into service the B-36, B-47, and B-52 bombers, and a huge fleet of tankers to support worldwide operations. Curtis LeMay was the pre-eminent symbol of America’s nuclear warfighting capability, in the era before the advent of the Polaris ballistic missile submarine. He was upset that JFK had decided the United States only needed a future projected total of 1000 ICBMs instead of the 3,000 nuclear-tipped missiles that LeMay wanted.
Some military historians actually believe that LeMay attempted to provoke a violent response from the Soviet Union during the mid-to-late 1950s – through repeated, provocative overflights by SAC aircraft – and that he wanted to use the hoped for Soviet knee-jerk response as a pretext for an annihilating “first strike” against the USSR. During the 1950s, LeMay was certain that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was not only survivable, but easily winnable, and apparently believed that since nuclear war with the Soviets was inevitable, the U.S. should consider striking first, before the USSR developed effective long-range delivery systems in large numbers. Robert McNamara has said that “LeMay believed that ultimately we were going to confront these people [meaning the Soviet Union] in a conflict with nuclear weapons, and by God, we’d better do it when we have greater superiority than we will have in the future.”
In 1962, the number of U.S. nuclear warheads outnumbered what the Soviets had by a ratio of 17 to 1, and the respective numbers and reliability of our long-range delivery systems was equally superior. LeMay knew all this, of course, and he knew President Kennedy had ‘blown’ his best political opportunity to launch a justifiable pre-emptive first strike against the Soviet Union, and “win” the nuclear conflict LeMay felt was inevitable.
President Kennedy was so upset with LeMay’s unsophisticated, bellicose response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his failure to adequately control General Thomas Power and SAC during those events, that he wanted to fire LeMay afterwards, along with the Chief of Naval Operations, George Anderson, who had openly quarreled with McNamara in the Pentagon. Kennedy was dissuaded from replacing both men by his advisors, because it would have been a public admission of serious friction between President Kennedy and his military leadership, and in the end, he only got rid of George Anderson (by appointing him as Ambassador to Portugal), and hoped to keep Air Force Chief of Staff LeMay “inside the tent pissing out,” rather than have him “outside the tent pissing in.”
[Author Richard Reeves reported in President Kennedy: Profile of Power that JFK had “a kind of a fit” every time someone mentioned LeMay’s name, and once stated to an aide, “I don’t want that man near me again,” after another frustrating exchange with America’s foremost Hawk. His extreme frustration was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that he himself had promoted LeMay from Air Force Vice Chief of Staff to Chief of Staff in June 1961. Kennedy felt obligated to do this for two reasons: first, he could not afford to have LeMay out of uniform making anti-administration speeches about how weak the President was; and second, if the U.S. did get into a major war, LeMay was clearly the kind of commander you wanted in charge of your Air Force. June 1961 was a period of extreme tension with the USSR over Berlin, and no doubt promoting LeMay to Air Force Chief of Staff was an intentional signal which the Soviet military leadership took note of.]
JFK made a final public jab at LeMay in his famous “Peace Speech” at American University in June 1963, encouraging Americans to “reevaluate our attitude towards the Soviet Union,” saying that if these two peoples could not agree on everything, that the world would be at least made “safe for diversity,” and publicly disavowing those who called for “Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.”
[As author Dino Brugioni states in Eyeball to Eyeball, LeMay loved to discuss how Roman strength had produced Pax Romana; how the British , through their naval and military strength, had achieved Pax Britannica; and with unabashed gall, how ‘his bombers’ had achieved ‘Pax Atomica.’ Once, during a lecture, LeMay resorted to the term ‘Pax Americana,’ and it was to this that JFK was responding in his commencement address at American University.]
...Finally, JFK’s then Top Secret order to withdraw completely from Vietnam by the end of 1965, passed on initially to the Joint Chiefs in Honolulu in May of 1963 by Secretary of Defense McNamara, and formalized by National Security Action Memo 263 on October 11, 1963, was anathema to military zealots who had been longing to defeat Communism on the battlefield ever since the Korean War ended in a stalemate and frustration in 1953. These facts did not sit well with Cold War Hawks.
All of the above is a prelude to what is admittedly an ‘urban legend,’ but at any rate is a believable one. Former Navy Hospital Corpsman Paul K. O’Connor, whom I have dubbed the ‘original body bag and shipping casket’ witness because of his historic interview with the HSCA staff in August 1977, told an anecdote for many years about something he witnessed during the autopsy on President Kennedy at the Bethesda morgue.
The anecdote’s essentials are that Dr. Humes, smelling cigar smoke in the morgue, loudly ordered whoever was smoking a cigar to ‘put the damn thing out,’ and told O’Connor to ‘see to it,’ or words to that effect. According to O’Connor, while Humes had his back turned to the gallery and was busy conducting the autopsy on the President’s body, he (O’Connor) went over to the gallery to enforce Humes’ dictate, only to run into the Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay, who arrogantly blew smoke in O’Connor’s face. When O’Conner informed Dr. Humes of the identify of the culprit, so the story goes, Humes turned quite pale, stuck his tail between his legs, and that was the end of the matter. According to O’Connor, when he saw LeMay the General had removed the four-star insignia from his uniform, but O’Connor recognized him nevertheless.
[This is not at all a farfetched possibility. LeMay was an extremely well-known military man who had a very efficient public relations machine of his own, second only to J. Edgar Hoover’s; for example in 1955, he had been glorified in a Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson Cold War film called “Strategic Air Command,” where he was appropriately portrayed by a character named “General Hawks” by actor Frank Lovejoy. Many Americans knew who the real Curtis LeMay was in 1963, and knew what he looked like. As Brugioni wrote, “his beetle brows, jutting jaw, sagging jowls, shock of slicked down black hair, and ubiquitous brown cigar,” gave him the visage of a bulldog. He was a living icon to many in 1963, especially former and active members of the military. ]
While O’Connor’s anecdotal evidence certainly does not prove LeMay was present, the behavior described sounds very much like the real Curtis LeMay. The entries in the log book rescued by Chuck Holmes prove that LeMay had more than enough time to get to Bethesda from National Airport before President Kennedy’s body arrived from Andrews AFB; LeMay landed 48 minutes prior to Air Force One, and Washington National Airport is much closer to Bethesda than Andrews Air Force Base.
Did LeMay go to Bethesda to gloat over the corpse of his nemesis, a man he considered dangerously misguided and weak? Was he the four-star general that Custer recollected giving orders, or instructions from the gallery? And if so, was he doing more than just gloating – was he a 'known integral player in a domestic conspiracy to remove the Chief Executive and replace him with ‘known quantity’ who was going to ‘play ball’ with Hawks in the government? After Custer’s deposition was over, I asked him in private if the uniform shirt of the general in the gallery was green or blue – and he said he thought it was light blue. [Air Force personnel wore light blue shirts; Army personnel wore light green shirts.]
One final item of possible corroboration for Custer’s claim is the testimony of Pierre Finck at the Shaw trial in 1969 in New Orleans. The exchange went like this;
Finck: “Well, I heard Dr. Humes staying that, he said, “Who is in charge here?” and I heard an Army General, I don’t remember his name, stating, “I am.” You must understand that in those circumstances, there were law enforcement officers, military people with various ranks, and you have to coordinate the operation according to directions.”
...Humes claimed during his ARRB testimony that the “I am” comment was a statement made by the Army General commanding the Military District of Washington (ie. General Wehle)...before the body arrived. If Finck's testimony was true, then Humes’ sworn testimony to the ARRB cannot possibly be true, and in fact constitutes perjury...
Before the reader dismisses this possibility, ask yourself two things: why would Humes use words like “hysterical” and “three ring circus” over the years to describe the atmosphere in the morgue, if he really was in charge of the autopsy, as he has always claimed; and why would the Air Force Chief of Staff ignore instructions from the Secretary of the Air Force to land at Andrews Air Force Base, where everyone in America knew the President’s body was being flown?....END OF EXCERPT.