When he assumed office in 1961, President Kennedy installed a luminous team of "the best and the brightest" atop his national security apparatus. Robert S. McNamara, the president of the Ford Motor Company, was tapped to run the Pentagon; Dean Rusk, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, was the new secretary of state; and McGeorge Bundy, the dean of the Harvard University faculty, was named the president's national security adviser, with a mandate to conceptualize and coordinate the management of American foreign and military policy.
Days after taking office, the new president was presented with a plan to topple the regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro with an invasion force of just 1,300 exiles being trained in Guatemala. "Defense and CIA now feel quite enthusiastic about the invasion," Bundy reported to Kennedy in early February.
In one of the worst misjudgments of his presidency, Kennedy approved the invasion. Within a day of the brigade's landing on April 17, 1961, the operation was doomed, as the exile fighters were swiftly surrounded by 20,000 Cuban troops while their escape route into the mountains was blocked by 80 miles of swamp. Yet when confronted with imminent failure, Kennedy refused to provide the U.S. air cover that the CIA assumed he would feel compelled to authorize. "Kennedy had refused that support," Bundy later observed, "and the lesson was burned into his mind: the Commander-in-Chief had better be careful to ensure his own control over the use of American combat forces. He is the one who will inevitably be held accountable for their success or failure."
Kennedy applied that lesson almost immediately. On April 26, just days after the Bay of Pigs debacle, the Joint Chiefs of Staff instructed the U.S. Pacific Command to prepare for potential air strikes against North Vietnam and perhaps southern China, all in response to new advances by the communist Pathet Lao insurgency in Laos. The majority of Kennedy's advisers favored the deployment of combat troops to South Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos itself. If that failed to produce a cease-fire, Kennedy was advised to use tactical nuclear weapons and air strikes against the Pathet Lao. If China or North Vietnam intervened, those countries should be bombed and, if necessary, attacked with nuclear weapons.
In a withering cross-examination Kennedy exposed the plan's profound risks and misguided military assumptions. He summarily rejected his counselors' advice. "If it hadn't been for Cuba," Kennedy told his aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., "we might be about to intervene in Laos. I might have taken this advice seriously."
Kennedy was forced to reject his counselors' military recommendations once more in 1961, as momentum built to deploy the first ground combat forces to South Vietnam, where the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem faced an increasingly potent communist insurgency. Kennedy's advisers badgered him with more than half a dozen different proposals to Americanize the war. "The chances are against, probably sharply against, preventing the fall of South Vietnam by any measures short of the introduction of U.S. forces on a substantial scale," McNamara, Rusk, and the Joint Chiefs argued in a memorandum to Kennedy that November. For his part, Bundy advised Kennedy to be prepared to deploy a division of combat forces -- roughly 20,000 troops -- to prop up the regime in Saigon. "Laos was never really ours after 1954," Bundy explained to the skeptical president. "Vietnam is and wants to be."
As he weighed their recommendation to deploy American combat troops to Vietnam, Kennedy was encircled by his secretary of defense, his secretary of state, his national security adviser, and the top Pentagon brass in Washington and in Saigon. But long before becoming president, Kennedy had spoken out against the disastrous French experience in Vietnam, citing it as a cautionary rationale for the United States to never fight a ground war there. In the summer of 1961, Kennedy also told various advisers that he accepted the conclusion of General Douglas MacArthur, who insisted that even a million American infantry soldiers would not be sufficient to prevail in a land war in Asia. In fact, Kennedy would later tell another adviser, Michael Forrestal, that the odds against U.S. forces beating the Vietcong were 100 to 1. And so in November 1961 Kennedy rejected his counselors' advice. He would offer military aid and training to Saigon, but he would not authorize the dispatch of ground forces. It was one of the seminal decisions of his presidency, and his advisers never again proposed engaging American ground combat troops in the war.
Three further lessons emerge from Kennedy's experience in 1961 that President-elect Obama would do well to heed in 2009:
Counselors advise but presidents decide. The disaster of the Bay of Pigs taught Kennedy that he must never defer to his advisers unless he was fully persuaded their military recommendations were sound and had a high probability of success.
Always demand a clear and achievable definition of victory. The proposed combat force deployments in Laos and Vietnam were alarming to Kennedy because they committed the United States to open-ended military campaigns with dubious prospects for success and no fixed exit strategy. Kennedy was sensitive to the risk of precipitous escalation and the risk of stalemate, and he recognized that militarily means could succeed only if the ends were precisely defined.
Do not be distracted by consensus. In November 1961, Kennedy was outflanked by a broad coalition of his advisers who believed it was time to radically refashion the American commitment to Vietnam. Following his own counsel, however, the president refused to waver, establishing a limit to the U.S. role in Vietnam that endured for his entire presidency.
Every president faces crises in his first year, and every president needs to learn how to make wise decisions in an office with demands like no other. What Kennedy's example shows is that sometimes the commander-in-chief is best served by carefully weighing the advice of his smartest and most experienced counselors -- and then rejecting it.
Gordon M. Goldstein is the author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, recently published by Times Books.