Camelot, Robert Kennedy, and Counter-Insurgency-A Memoir

By Maechling, Charles, Jr. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Camelot, Robert Kennedy, and Counter-Insurgency-A Memoir


Maechling, Charles, Jr., The Virginia Quarterly Review


What are we doing about guerilla warfare?" asked President John F. Kennedy in January 1961, shortly after he took office. The answer-at that time-not very much. Guerilla warfare, insurgencies, and Third World revolution were pretty far down the agenda of Pentagon planners. The State Department with its longer view of history, was not unhappy at this neglect; it regarded political turmoil as endemic to large parts of the postwar world and U.S. intervention with anathema. That soon changed. During the few short years of the Kennedy administration as obsession with subliminal warfare, engendered and fostered by Cold War zealots in the President's entourage, and seconded by his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, dominated the national security agenda. It carried over into later administrations, paving the way for this country's ten-year war in Vietnam and callous human rights record in Latin America.

Until the end of the Eisenhower administration, the two priorities of American strategic thinking were the Soviet threat to Western Europe and the unpredictable menace of China. With few exceptions-the Middle East, Cuba, Taiwan, South Korea-the less developed world was viewed as peripheral to our national security interests. Terrorism was seen as an isolated phenomenon and a criminal justice problem. After the Korean conflict, it was an article of faith in the military that never again should American soldiers get bogged down in a land war in Asia.

Nonetheless, even before the 1960 election, Pentagon planners were suggesting that a moderate shift in the strategic emphasis away from nuclear deterrence was overdue. It was obvious that nuclear bombs and armored divisions had little relevance to left-wing insurgencies in the developing world. In a book titled The Uncertain Trumpet, a retired Army Chief of Staff, General Maxwell D. Taylor, called for a defense strategy based on "flexible response"-and General Taylor was now in the White House and slated to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was taken for granted that left-wing revolution in the developing world was inimical to the United States and provided an opening to communism.

In 1949 the conventional army of Chiang Kai-Shek had collapsed in the face of Mao Tse-Tung's highly motivated revolutionary forces. In Indo China, a French colonial army had been unable to crush the Viet Minh. Throughout the developing world, left-wing insurgency movements were embracing the Maoist concept of "peoples' war" which envisioned the civilian population as the ocean and revolutionary fighters as the fish. Soviet Chairman Nikita Khruschev's speech of Jan. 6, 1961 endorsing "Wars of National Liberation," added a Cold War dimension to these developments.

The wave of unrest sweeping the Third World together with Kennedy's fascination with guerilla warfare was raw meat to the New Frontier's foreign policy and defense intellectuals who had flocked to his banner during the campaign and were now stoking his rhetoric. The hard core, led by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and his deputy Walt W. Rostow, were in key positions in the White House, and feeding lesser lights from universities and think-tanks into the bureaucracy. Their commitment to activism was not, however, matched by impressive policy credentials. Bundy, a "boywonder" Harvard dean, may have been a paragon of the East Coast Establishment, but his foreign policy experience was negligible and his exposure to foreign cultures non-existent. Rostow was an MIT economist who was long on ideas but also short of overseas experience. Rostow in particular bored President Kennedy to the point where he was soon sent over to State's Policy Planning Staff.

Neither Bundy nor his colleagues had ever actually grappled with the problems of the developing world, let alone with hardened underground political leaders who marched to a different drum. They were policy wonks who had seized on Khruschev's speech as the theme around which to weave an unconnected aggregate of anti-colonial and native revolutionary movements into a global communist conspiracy, micro-managed by the mythical Sino-Soviet "bloc," aimed at eroding the U. …

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