The American military command structure – with an elected civilian as Commander in Chief – is often challenging, especially when the president has no personal experience in the military and little understanding of its actual command structure. On occasion it is also complicated by presidents who also have no understanding of what constitute legal vs. illegal commands under U.S. legal codes, or the restrictions imposed on military personnel by the Unified Code of Military Justice.
At times situations have become tense on the military side, for example there were worries that President Nixon (who had actually attempted a “madman strategy” against the North Vietnamese) might become unbalanced enough during his impeachment to issue illegal orders related to the use of nuclear weapons. On other occasions, presidents have requested the military to conduct assassinations – only to be told that is not authorized and legally can only be done by the CIA. Unfortunately in more recent decades such niceties have faded away to a large extent, as Congress has abandoned its control over all areas of presidential military action – conventional, clandestine and covert – and the military has lost a good deal of its ability to push back against presidential directives.
Prior to such recent events, concerns over orders being obeyed tended to rest with the presidents – although circumstances sometimes protected “rogue” military commanders, at least for a time. Perhaps the most classic example would be General Douglas McArthur. It is a matter of historical record that McArthur disobeyed his standing war orders following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and even isolated himself from with the War Department in Washington, ignoring repeated attempts at communications. His failure to immediately comply with the war plan, which would have sent American strategic bombers against Japanese targets, was a major factor in the total loss of American air power in the western Pacific and of the Philippine islands. Later, in Korea, McArthur also failed to respond to repeated warnings of the major Chinese incursion that overwhelmed his own troops, ultimately becoming so independent that President Truman was forced to remove him.
Much that has been written about the Kennedy Administration and its relationship with the military focuses on Air Force General Curtis LeMay, well known for being fearless (given his personal leadership of bombing raids against Germany), extremely hawkish, and totally outspoken with his advice to civilian leaders including President Kennedy. In fact, so outspoken during the Cuban missile crisis that the question is often raised as to why Kennedy did not remove him from the Joint Chiefs or otherwise discipline him.
What gets missed in that conversation is that JFK actually learned that no matter how strongly LeMay felt or how loudly he protested – he followed orders. And as that crisis taught Kennedy, no matter how strongly he might want to avoid a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets (JFK’s plan for dealing with the ongoing Berlin issue contained an escalation strategy leading up to the use of tactical nuclear weapons if the Russians moved either in Berlin or into West Germany) he could not simply forfeit the nuclear option, and the commanders who would have to execute that if it was ordered.
In contrast to the focus on LeMay, we now know that during the missile crisis and the ensuing blockade JFK, RFK and even Defense Secretary McNamara were seriously concerned about the U.S. Navy acting beyond presidential directives and starting a full scale war. The reason for that concern has never been entirely clear, however my recent research work on In Denial revealed that there might indeed have been good reason for that concern – relating back to events in early 1961.
It appears that at least some Navy Admirals demonstrated the types of concern (or distain) for JFK as a commander that is most frequently associated with General LeMay. However rather than standing up and facing him in executive meetings, they engaged in activities – including some special relationships with the CIA – which were far less obvious and could indeed have moved the U.S. directly into war in Cuba, and a military confrontation with the Soviets.
If you have read In Denial you will have noticed such activity being discussed in several places including the chapter on Hidden Measures. The questionable actions involved the Navy Guantanamo base in Cuba, Navy intelligence officers operating with the CIA, and beyond that to the apparent deployment of a very much unauthorized American super carrier group. It’s a rather striking story which has not gotten much comment yet but it explains why a year after the disaster at the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy’s main military command concern might have been with the Navy, and the possibility of its excessive use of force in the Caribbean.