Obama's Risky 'Team of Rivals'
It’s good to see President-elect Barack Obama studying history. How wonderful to have a President who actually reads book such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals about Abraham Lincoln’s inclusion of political opponents in his war-time Cabinet.
But there’s another “team of rivals” in more recent history that proved disastrous for a President's goals.
If there’s one book Obama should read before he sets any more appointments in stone, it would be James Douglass’s remarkable book JFK and the Unspeakable.
Douglass outlines in clear form how a generous-minded President Kennedy brought his rivals into his inner circle, only to find them banding together against him and working against his stated goals.
While Kennedy brought in some of “the best and the brightest” with the likes of Ted Sorenson, Richard Goodwin and Kenny O’Donnell, he also extended a hand to several political opponents, including conservative Democrats and prominent Republicans.
Evidently Obama, like Kennedy, thinks that by taking the high road he can bring out the best in his opponents. Kennedy tried that, and his plan backfired terribly, no more so than in Vietnam.
Originally, Kennedy had appointed Frederick Nolting to be Ambassador to Vietnam. When Nolting asked to be released in 1963, Kennedy turned to an old friend, Edmund Gullion, who had warned Kennedy in 1951 that it would be folly to follow in France’s path in Vietnam.
Gullion had served as Kennedy’s ambassador to Congo where, as Douglass described, “Kennedy and Gullion promoted [the late UN Secretary Dag] Hammarskjöld’s vision of a united, independent Congo, to the dismay of the multinational corporations working ceaselessly to carve up the country and control its rich resources.”
Kennedy rejected the strong urgings of his State Department and Joint Chiefs to intervene militarily in Congo, even as the CIA had already been arming the secessionist regime in the Katanga province, an extraordinarily mineral-rich region within Congo.
Gullion’s efforts ensured the UN program laid out by Hammarskjöld remained in effect after Hammarskjöld’s death on Sept. 18, 1961, in a mysterious plane crash.
(After Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the fragile alliances in Congo fell apart, and the CIA’s chosen successor, Mobutu Sese Seko, came to power, ruling by theft, raiding the public coffers for private benefit and jailing any who objected, driving his nation’s per capita income down by nearly two-thirds and planting the seeds for the violence we see there today.)
Gullion, with his less belligerent approach to foreign policy, found himself at odds with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, whom Kennedy had appointed as a gesture to Cold War hardliners within the Democratic Party. Rusk opposed Gullion’s appointment to Saigon.
Not wanting to overrule his Secretary of State, Kennedy chose instead to reach out to a former rival and scion of the establishment, Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1952, Kennedy had beat out Lodge, the incumbent, for his Senate seat in Massachusetts. Lodge had been beaten by Kennedy again in 1960, as Lodge was Richard Nixon’s vice presidential pick.
In 1962, Ted Kennedy beat out another member of the Lodge family, deepening the enmity from the Lodges.
Lodge was very close to the CIA as well, having lobbied the UN on behalf of their efforts during the Eisenhower administration, frustrating international opposition to the CIA’s coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954.
In 1963, Lodge let it be known he was very interested in becoming ambassador to Vietnam. Why would Lodge want to serve his enemy? Because he was eyeing the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. He had his own agenda to enact in Vietnam, as Kennedy would soon learn in the worst of ways.
Robert Kennedy tried to warn his brother, telling him Lodge could cause the President “a lot of difficulty in six months.” Robert underestimated the timing, as Lodge became a problem almost as soon as he was appointed.
Kennedy let his close associates know that he wanted out of Vietnam at the earliest opportunity. But he felt he could not complete it before reelection, and wouldn’t get the chance if he tipped his hand too soon.
Kennedy tried to create the impression with the military and the CIA that he supported continuing American involvement there. But he told his friends and would-be allies the opposite.
At one point, he pulled one of the most vocal voices calling for American withdrawal from Vietnam, Senator Wayne Morse, out to the White House Rose Garden in the hopes of avoiding being overheard or bugged by the CIA. There, Kennedy told Morse, “Wayne, I’ve decided to get out. Definitely!”
Kennedy even confided in his next-door-neighbor in Hyannis Port, Larry Newman, “This war in Vietnam — it’s never off my mind, it haunts me day and night. … The first thing I do when I’m re-elected, I’m going to get America out of Vietnam.”
But the CIA, and its ally Lodge, had other plans. Together, they had set in motion plans for a coup to remove Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, without permission from Kennedy.
Kennedy learned that moves were being made behind his back after the fact. For example, he considered cutting off the commodity import program that was helping South Vietnam, as a sign to Diem that he was serious about the need for internal changes.
But Kennedy found to his great chagrin that David Bell, the head of the Agency for International Development (a well-known CIA front), had already cut off that aid.
"Who the hell told you do to that?" asked Kennedy.
"It's an automatic policy," Bell told him. "We do it whenever we have differences with a client government."
The cutting off of aid was also a specific, pre-arranged green light to the coup plotters. In other words, the CIA, not the President, was determining the timeline for the coup.
Kennedy urged Lodge as strongly as he could to negotiate with Diem, to not hold to a list of rigorous demands, but to seek some option that would allow the U.S. to continue to support the Diem government. But Kennedy also stopped short of giving Lodge a direct order.
Lodge stubbornly refused to have any contact with Diem, insisting talks would have no effect. Lodge finally bowed to pressure from the President and his Secretary of State to talk to Diem on Sept. 9, 1963.
However, Lodge dismissed Diem as having a "medieval view of life," and proved an ineffective negotiator. Diem's only choice was to surrender to American interests, or risk being overthrown in a coup.
In addition, Lodge warned Kennedy that if U.S. forces were to withdraw from Vietnam, that would speed up the coup plans. So Kennedy felt trapped. He couldn't talk about his plans for withdrawal without giving further hope to the coup plotters.
Diem needed to make some motion of accommodation to give Kennedy a reason to call off the coup entirely.
Just before the coup began, Diem finally gave Lodge the message Kennedy had been seeking – that he was willing to make accommodations.
Lodge dutifully reported Diem's statement, but not until an hour and a half after the coup started, with the key statement buried near the end of his report, and he sent his cable using the slowest process, when clearly such words deserved more urgency.
According to Maxwell Taylor's account, when Kennedy learned of the coup and the subsequent assassination of Diem and his brother on Nov. 2, 1963, "Kennedy leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before."
If only Obama could read and learn from this history as well, before he completes his appointments. Bringing enemies into your camp does not guarantee they will serve your agenda.
Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era.
To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.
to Home Page