Tilting at Windmills

January/February 2012 The worst thing JFK ever did

By Charles Peters

The book, however, does not mention what I think is the worst thing Kennedy ever did. After he saved the world from a nuclear catastrophe, he then kept secret his most dovish act: the commitment to remove our missiles from Turkey. And in his own version of Soviet-style disinformation, Kennedy leaked to his friend, the journalist Charlie Bartlett, his displeasure at Adlai Stevenson for having suggested just such an action. This led to an article by Bartlett and Stewart Alsop in the mass-circulation Saturday Evening Post that depicted John Kennedy as a tough guy and Adlai Stevenson as a ninetyseven- pound weakling.

Bobby’s commitment to Dobrynin was kept so secret that I did not find out about it until 1972, when the Monthly published an article by Graham Allison that revealed the Dobrynin episode; the news did not make the front page of the Washington Post until 1987. It was so secret, in fact, that when I called Charlie Bartlett to tell him, he didn’t believe me.

The problem here is that the rest of us were left with the impression that, as Dean Rusk described the resolution of the missile crisis, “we were eyeball to eyeball and the other side blinked”—when the truth was that both sides had blinked. Was Lyndon Johnson told? Two years before Ted Sorenson died I asked him for a list of people who knew. He gave me six names, of which Johnson was not one. I then asked Bob McNamara, the only other survivor on the list, if he had told Johnson. The answer was no.

The irony is that during the deliberattions by Ex-Comm, the group of top officials Kennedy used to advise him during the missile crisis, Johnson himself had advocated removing our missiles from Turkey.

Thus Johnson may have gone into Vietnam with the impression that he had been wrong to be so dovish about our missiles in Turkey, that he had to be the tough guy, the man who didn’t blink. And even if Johnson knew the truth, the crucial fact is that the American public did not know. They thought the message was “Don’t blink,” which had a lot to do with their support of the Vietnam War in the crucial period of 1964-65, when the most serious commitment and escalation decisions were made.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.

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