I think its always good to read as broadly as possible on a subject and to that end I’d like to recommend a book by Richard Shultz – The Secret War Against Hanoi.
Schultz provides considerable insights into JFK’s preference for unconventional warfare in preference to major military engagement, something that began well before the Cuban missile crisis – from the beginning JFK had a problem with the whole concept of “massive retaliation”. Schultz begins with a NSC meeting in January of 1961 (in which Lansdale appeared as a briefer on Vietnam) and Kennedy’s stated desire to conduct guerrilla operations in North Vietnam just as they were doing in the south. Lansdale had remained involved with Vietnam since his preparation of the first covert operations program targeting the North immediately following the Geneva accords separating the territories.
Kennedy was unimpressed with the CIA’s ability to conduct covert paramilitary operations, not only in Vietnam but elsewhere. In June of 1961 he issued three National Security Action memos, fundamentally eliminating CIA authority over unconventional warfare operations and moving that authority to the Pentagon. In Vietnam that led to the development of a plan by the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. Some three years after JFK’s initial call for accelerated covert operations in the north, Johnson would sign off on OPLAN 34A, a detailed program of military operations to be conducted in the north. This led to the immediate creation of an organization to control such special operations – MACV/SOG.
Schultz points out that the scale of intended operations was also new to the military and his book goes into great detail on how they tackled the challenge, the operations they ran and their overall record of success in “denied” areas beyond South Vietnam.
So, as early as the fall of 1961 the controlling responsibility for major covert paramilitary operations had been taken from the CIA – in regard to both Vietnam and in regards to Cuba. The Cuba activities were assigned to a broader team with Vietnam guru Lansdale serving as the focus for Mongoose activities against Cuba and the CIA playing a support role. We see the same limited CIA role occurring again in 1963 with the autonomous group project (Artime operation) which was intended to move attacks against Cuba offshore and make them totally deniable. Again, CIA was placed in only a support role, providing training and various logistics support for Artime under AMWORLD.
But – and not to give away the finish – Schultz tallies up the results in north Vietnam over several years and concludes that in the end the military covert operation against North Vietnam accomplished little more than what the CIA had when having responsibility for the project. A similar lack of concrete impact plagued the Cuban Mongoose effort.
JFK was a fast learner and a pragmatist even if he was action oriented. As ongoing covert operations against Cuba failed, we find him turning to the possibility of talks with Fidel Castro which might have ended in a compromise involving Cuban neutrality in the cold war. If he was open to such talks with Fidel about a potentially neutral Cuba, it’s hard to imagine him continuing in the massive escalation in Vietnam and engaging in the large scale ground war supported by his successor.