President Kennedy is the compelling, dramatic history of JFK's thousand days in office. It illuminates the presidential center of power by providing an indepth look at the day-by-day decisions and dilemmas of the thirty-fifth president as he faced everything from the threat of nuclear war abroad to racial unrest at home. "A narrative that leaves us not only with a new understanding of Kennedy as President, but also with a new understanding of what it means to be President" (The New York Times).
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 2.10(d)|
About the Author
Richard Reeves is the author of presidential bestsellers, including President Nixon and President Kennedy, acclaimed as the best nonfiction book of the year by Time magazine. A syndicated columnist and winner of the American Political Science Association's Carey McWilliams Award, he lives in New York and Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
January 19, 1961
In the weeks between his election and inauguration as the thirty-fifth President of the United States, John F. Kennedy spent as much time as he could relaxing in the sun at his father's house in Palm Beach, Florida. On the first Saturday night of December, at a casual dinner in the big kitchen with a few friends and members of his campaign staff, someone asked him whether he was nervous about his first meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower, the next Tuesday. Kennedy jumped up laughing. "Good morning, Mr. K-e-e-nnedy," he said, imitating Eisenhower, who sometimes mispronounced his name. Then he swept an imaginary hat from his head, bowed, and said: "Good morning, Mr. Eeeee-senhower."
Three days later, the forty-three-year-old President-elect, the youngest ever elected, was driven to the North Portico entrance of the White House to meet the seventy-one-year-old President, the oldest man ever elected. Kennedy opened the door of his limousine before it had even stopped and bounded up the six stairs alone, carrying his hat. He caught Eisenhower by surprise. The President, attended by a covey of aides, whipped off his own hat and started to reach out his hand, but Kennedy beat him to the handshake, too. "Good morning, Mr. President," he said.
"Senator," Eisenhower replied. The Marine Band struck up "The Stars and Stripes Forever."
It was the first formal encounter between two men of surpassing charm from different generations. The cameras clicking furiously were focused on the two most famous smiles in the land. The general who had commanded all of the Allied troops in Europe during World War II was born in the nineteenth century. At Kennedy's age, he was a major in the Army. His famous grin and calm public manner had convinced many of his countrymen that he was a nice guy and a lousy politician. Those who knew him well thought the opposite. Kennedy lived along a line where charm became power. Men and women fell in love with him. And politics, the career he had chosen, was a business that magnified charm and institutionalized seduction.
Kennedy and Eisenhower had a certain contempt for each other. Kennedy's campaign attacks had been muted and indirect because of Ike's popularity, but Eisenhower still took them personally. Privately, Kennedy called Ike "that old asshole," the wisecracking Navy officer mocking the commander. Eisenhower, using words of his generation, had called Kennedy "that young whippersnapper" or "Little Boy Blue."
The two men had met for the first time fifteen years earlier in Potsdam, Germany, at the end of World War II, but General Eisenhower did not remember being approached by an ex-lieutenant, junior grade, who was working as a special correspondent for the Hearst newspapers. And Senator Kennedy's status in Washington before the 1960 election might be measured by the fact that he had never met with the President in eight years in the Senate.
Their meeting on December 6 was officially unofficial. No notes were taken and no aides sat in. The senator looked at the President's bare desk as they sat down and asked him where he put his papers. Halfway through the question, he realized there were no papers. Eisenhower did not work that way. He did not like details and he preferred talking to reading.
They talked for more than an hour, mostly about national security and foreign affairs. Eisenhower realized quickly what was on Kennedy's mind and he didn't much like it. His questions were about the structure of decision making on national security and defense. It was clear to Ike that Kennedy thought his structure was too bureaucratic and slow-with too many debates and decisions outside the President's reach and control. Eisenhower thought Kennedy was naive, but he was not about to say that, and so he began a long explanation of how and why he had built up what amounted to a military staff apparatus to collect and feed information methodically to the Commander-in-Chief and then coordinate and implement his decisions.
"No easy matters will ever come to you as President. If they are easy, they will be settled at a lower level," Eisenhower told him. It was not an idea that appealed to Kennedy. He wanted to see it all.
"I did urge him to avoid any reorganization until he himself could become well acquainted with the problem," Eisenhower dictated to his secretary later. But clearly Kennedy was not interested in organization charts, or in organization itself, for that matter. Ike's bent toward order was exactly the kind of passive thinking he wanted to sweep away. He had no use for process, with its notemaking, minute taking, little boxes on charts showing the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board. He did not think of himself as being on top of a chart; rather, he wanted to be in the center, the center of all the action.
The other matter the President wanted to discuss was "burden-sharing." Alone and in a shorter session with Cabinet members that followed, Eisenhower told his successor that it was time to start bringing the troops home from Europe. "America is carrying far more than her share of free world defense," he said. It was time for the other nations of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to take on more of the costs of their own defense. Their economies were more productive than ever in their histories and the costs of American deployment were creating a trade imbalance, draining gold from the United States Treasury. Americans, in uniform and out, were spending and buying more overseas than foreigners were spending here. Kennedy nodded. Eisenhower sounded just like his father, who had always drummed into him that nations are only as strong as their currencies.
At the end of the day, the two men had impressed each other in a grudging sort of way without really agreeing on much. Kennedy was surprised to find Eisenhower so knowledgeable, but that confirmed his conviction that Eisenhower's problem was that he had not understood the real powers of the office. Ike, too, found Kennedy surprisingly well informed about many things, but being President was not one of them.
Kennedy told his brother Robert, who had waited in the limousine, that he knew now how Ike had become President; there was a surprising force to the man. Eisenhower wrote almost the same words about Kennedy in his diary that night, though he worried that he did not begin to understand the complexity of the job. It seemed to him that Kennedy thought the presidency was about getting the right people in a few jobs here and there.
He got it. Kennedy believed that problem solving meant getting the right man into the right place at the right time. If things went wrong, you put in someone else. His man for the transition from candidate to President was his personal lawyer, Clark Clifford, who had served on President Truman's staff. In August, three months before the election, Kennedy had said to him, "I don't want to wake up on November 9 and have to ask myself 'What in the world do I do now?'"
But he did wake up as President-elect asking that question, surrounded by transition memos literally surrounded, because he liked to work in bed from Clifford, from college professors, from national security intellectuals and high-minded social reformers, from management consultants. Most of it was a waste of time: lists of three hundred appointments that could be delayed until after the inauguration were not worth much to a politician whose first priority was to begin a new campaign to win over some of the 34 million people who voted against him.
Kennedy had celebrated victory in his house at Hyannis Port with a joke about his wife and Toni Bradlee, the wife of a friend, Ben Bradlee, the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek magazine. Both women were pregnant. "Okay, girls, you can take out the pillows now. We won!" But he looked tired and subdued when he met with four hundred reporters in a National Guard Armory near Hyannis Port. "The New Frontier" the candidate had proclaimed during the campaign was approached rather timidly that morning. He announced that his first telephone calls as President-elect had been to the crustiest dons of Washington's old frontiers: J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, and Allen Dulles, director of the CIA. He had asked them both to stay on.
Then he had to lie. When a reporter asked about rumors that he had Addison's disease, an adrenal gland failure often considered terminal, Kennedy replied without hesitation, "I never had Addison's disease. In regard to my health, it was fully explained in a press statement in the middle of July, and my health is excellent." The campaign statement was not true. Kennedy had received the last rites of the Catholic Church at least four times as an adult. He was something of a medical marvel, kept alive by complicated daily combinations of pills and injections.
The necessity to project an image of tirelessness during the campaign was a tremendous physical strain on Kennedy and a personal triumph. But he was a wreck when it was over. Sometimes he was barely coherent in the month after the election. He spent most of November and December at the Palm Beach house his father had bought for $100,000 in 1933. There, and later at his house on N Street in Georgetown, he began to put together a government, beginning with Clifford's simple memos, which read like high school texts and were basically lists from McKinsey and Company, the management consultants who had done an almost identical transition study for Eisenhower in 1952. "The occupants of 71 to 74 positions in the Executive Branch and agencies will vitally influence the President-elect's power to govern," one began. "The most important posts are State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, and the UN."
Kennedy interviewed strangers for hours every day falling asleep during an interview with a candidate for Secretary of Agriculture-trying to decide whether to give them some of the most powerful jobs in the world. "We can learn our jobs together," he told one, Robert McNamara, who was president of the Ford Motor Company, when McNamara told him he didn't know anything about government. "I don't know how to be president, either."
He had read about McNamara, who was a Republican, in Time magazine on December 2 and met him six days later. McNamara asked the first question: "Did you really write Profiles in Courage yourself?" Kennedy insisted he did and then offered McNamara his choice of two of the most important Cabinet seats, Treasury or Defense. McNamara came back a week later saying he preferred Defense, then handed Kennedy a letter detailing his conditions, which included the right of final approval of all appointments in his department.
Kennedy glanced at the paper, then handed it to Robert Kennedy, sitting beside him on the loveseat. "Looks okay," his brother said.
"It's a deal," said John Kennedy. He repeated what he had said at their other meeting: "We'll learn together."
"Jesus Christ, this one wants that, that one wants this," he grumbled as he shuffled notes on the way to play golf in Palm Beach. "Goddamn it, you can't satisfy any of these people. I don't know what I'm going to do about it all."
His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who was sitting in the front seat, turned around and said: "Jack, if you don't want the job, you don't have to take it. They're still counting votes up in Cook County."
By the second week in December, with newspapers needling him about the slow pace of announcements, Kennedy's Georgetown living room looked like a doctor's office, with men shuttling in and out every twenty minutes or so, while reporters and cameras waited outside in the cold.
He met his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, who was the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, for the first time on the same day he met McNamara. One of Rusk's qualifications was that he was not Adlai Stevenson. "Aren't you going to choose Stevenson?" Rusk had asked him when Kennedy called. "No," Kennedy replied. "Adlai might forget who's the President and who's the Secretary of State."
He also passed over David K. E. Bruce, a former Ambassador to France and West Germany, because he thought that at sixty-two he was too old. The man he really wanted was Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It would be nice to have someone in the Cabinet I actually knew," he told Robert Kennedy when Fulbright's name was on the table, or the loveseat. But his brother thought the senator from Arkansas would be unacceptable to black African leaders (and perhaps to American Negroes) because he had signed the Southern Manifesto, an anti-civil rights declaration, in 1957.
When he came down to Washington for his interview, Rusk didn't know that by process of elimination the big job was almost his already. He was surprised when Kennedy called him the next day with the offer.
"Wait a minute...," Rusk said. He began telling Kennedy the amount of his mortgage payments and that he had only a few thousand dollars in the bank, saying he could not afford to take a cut from his $60,000 Rockefeller Foundation salary to the $25,000 paid Cabinet members. Kennedy was taken aback. "All right," he replied. "I'm going to Palm Beach tomorrow. You come down." There were a couple of calls to Rockefeller brothers, beginning with Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, and by the time Rusk arrived in Florida, the Rockefeller Foundation had provided a financial package to supplement Rusk's government salary. When Rusk got to the Kennedy mansion, the Washington Post, lying at Kennedy's feet, had a headline saying he would be Secretary of State. It had been leaked by Kennedy himself to Philip Graham, the paper's publisher.
As Rusk sat there, Kennedy picked up a telephone and called Stevenson to ask him to be Ambassador to the United Nations. Rusk listened, dazzled, as Kennedy worked on Stevenson flattering, stroking, prodding. As Kennedy described the job, Rusk thought there would be nothing left for him and the President to do. Finally, Stevenson said yes, he would serve under Rusk.
Kennedy chose Walter Heller of the University of Minnesota as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers mostly because he was not from Harvard or Yale. There were too many Ivy Leaguers around him already. Heller had met Kennedy in October before he spoke to a Minneapolis rally. The candidate was running an hour late and was changing his shirt when Senator Hubert Humphrey brought Heller in.
"You're an economist?" Kennedy asked. "Tell me, do you really think we can make this 5 percent growth rate in the platform?"
"It'll be pretty tough," said Heller, meaning it would take massive government stimulus. Kennedy asked three more questions: Is accelerated depreciation an effective way to increase investment? Why has the German economy grown so fast in the face of high interest rates? Can a tax cut be an effective stimulus? Heller had never seen anything like it. As soon as Kennedy began talking, the other dozen men in the room stopped, falling away, but still straining to hear what he was saying to the outsider.
The next time Heller saw Kennedy was in December, in the Georgetown living room. Kennedy nodded toward the dining room where C. Douglas Dillon, Eisenhower's Undersecretary of State, was on the telephone. "I've asked him to be Secretary of the Treasury," Kennedy told Heller. Dillon was calling to get Ike's permission to join the enemy. Eisenhower tried to discourage him, telling him he was being used by liberals who would inevitably undermine sound money principles.
"I think Dillon will accept and I need you as a counterweight," the President-elect told Heller. "He has conservative leanings, and I know your leanings are liberal." Kennedy had that 5 percent growth he had promised on his mind, his promise to "Get the country moving again!" Heller's mission was to figure out how to make it happen. Dillon's mission would be to make sure Heller did not go too far and take Kennedy with him.
As he was leaving, Heller asked: "What about a tax cut?" Kennedy said he was not against it, but that he could not do it just after calling on Americans to sacrifice.
What he told Dillon a moment later was that he needed the confidence of the financial community, and Dillon as former chairman of Dillon, Read Company was a member of the highest standing. "I'll put up Walter Heller because I have to for political reasons," Kennedy told him. "But I will do nothing without your recommendation. I will always refer to you as my chief financial adviser."
"How can you do this?" asked Kennedy's next visitor, Democratic Senator Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee. Not only was Dillon a Republican, he had given $30,000 to Richard Nixon's campaign. "If you want someone rich from Wall Street, pick Averell Harriman."
"Too old," said Kennedy.
Besides, he was trying to put together a bipartisan government, with Republicans as his shields on defense and economics. "Sound" was the image he wanted to project.
"Don't worry about this," he told Gore. Kennedy said he was going to appoint a liberal Harvard professor, Stanley Surrey, to be the assistant secretary in charge of tax policy.
"That's not going to work," said Gore, who had sat next to Kennedy in the Senate. "You're going to be busy with a million things. Don't you know that? Dillon will make the policy. Nobody's going to listen to some assistant secretary."
"Albert," Kennedy said, "I got less than 50 percent of the vote. The first requirement of the Treasury job is acceptability to the financial community."
Finally, he chose Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman for Secretary of Agriculture after a thirty-second, one-question interview in the downstairs bathroom of the Georgetown house. The question was: Would he accept an undersecretary from the South? Freeman said, "Yes." Kennedy said, "All right, let's go out," and they walked out to the street for the announcement.
Working down a list of the most important sub-Cabinet jobs with Dean Rusk by his side, Kennedy called Paul Nitze, one of the brightest but least personable of the Wall Street lawyers who had become the intellectual scouts of the Cold War.
"Paul, I have a friend of yours sitting next to me, and he has agreed to become my Secretary of State. He would like you to be his Undersecretary for Economic Affairs....I would like you to become either my National Security Adviser or Deputy Secretary of Defense."
"How long do I have to make up my mind?" Nitze asked.
"I choose Deputy Secretary of Defense."
"Fine, thank you, Paul."
But McNamara held Kennedy to their deal, and vetoed Nitze. Then McNamara called Nitze again and asked whether he would step down a level, to an Assistant Secretary of Defense. Stung, Nitze called the private Palm Beach number Kennedy had given him. A woman answered and came back in a minute to say: "Mr. Kennedy doesn't wish to speak with you."
The next day, Kennedy let The New York Times know "on background" meaning the paper could use the information but not his name that Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., would be appointed Secretary of the Navy. The leak was intended for an audience of one. But McNamara, who was the one-man audience, was too new at the game to get the message. He wondered how the Times had got it so wrong. He did not know FDR, Jr. He had no intention of naming him to anything.
"Bob?" The call came a few days later. "Jack Kennedy. I was wondering if you saw that story in the Times about Frank Roosevelt? Have you talked to him?"
"Do you know how I won the West Virginia primary? What he did for me there?" Kennedy had thought he might lose in West Virginia, and probably be knocked out of the race, until Franklin Roosevelt's son had come down to campaign for him. It was as if the son of God had come to give the Protestants permission to vote for this Catholic.
"I understand," McNamara said. "But I hear he's a drunk and a womanizer."
"Maybe," Kennedy said, "you could just talk to him."
McNamara telephoned Roosevelt in New York and flew up for lunch. He was barely back in his Washington hotel room when the telephone rang. "How did it go?" asked Kennedy.
"Good. Fine," McNamara said. "But I can't appoint him."
"He's a drunk and a womanizer."
Kennedy sighed. "I guess I'll have to take care of him some other way," he said.
On December 15, Kennedy told Robert Kennedy to come to Georgetown for breakfast. They had discussed a Cabinet job, perhaps Attorney General, or maybe a place in the sub-Cabinet, in the Defense Department with McNamara, but Robert had decided to go back to Massachusetts, perhaps to run for governor. "No," John Kennedy said at breakfast. "You will be Attorney General.
"l need you...I believe McNamara will make a great contribution, but I don't know him," he went on. "Dean Rusk...the truth of the matter is I've had no contact with him. I need someone I know to talk to in this government." It was true, though John Kennedy hadn't wanted his brother in the Cabinet until his father had insisted: "I want Bobby there. It's the only thing I'm asking for and I want it."
"So, that's it, General," he said, standing up. "Let's go." They went out onto the N Street stoop.
"Nine strangers and a brother for a Cabinet," said Fred Dutton, one of Kennedy's talent scouts.
On January 19, 1961, the eve of the inauguration, Kennedy and Eisenhower met for a second time. They were alone for forty-five minutes, and Ike talked about being President. He began with the black vinyl satchel, "the Football," which contained nuclear options, commands, and codes, officially called "Presidential Emergency Action Documents." It was carried by military officers who handed it off to each other in eight-hour shifts, like quarterbacks and halfbacks. The President carried a laminated plastic card in his wallet to identify himself to electronic systems and begin choosing among deadly options outlined in the thirty thick looseleaf pages in the Football. In a couple of minutes, he could activate the command links to junior officers in the squadrons of bombers always in the air and on alert, to the missile silos under the Great Plains and in European fields, to the submarines under the Atlantic and Pacific. Then, those lieutenants could turn the keys and push the buttons to blow up the world, or the part of the world marked in red on National Security Council maps: the Soviet Union and China and their Communist allies.
"Watch this," Eisenhower said, picking up a telephone and ordering: "Opal Drill Three !" They were standing by the French doors behind the President's desk. Three minutes later a Marine helicopter settled on the lawn behind the Oval Office. Kennedy loved it.
"I've shown my friend here how to get out in a hurry," the President said as they walked into the Cabinet Room for an official working session with the old and new secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury. Eisenhower and Kennedy sat side by side at the head of the table. Secretary of State Christian Herter sat next to Rusk on one side, and Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates was next to McNamara on the other. Next to them, Secretary of the Treasury Robert Anderson sat with Dillon. On the other side, Eisenhower's transition chief, General Wilton Persons, sat with Clark Clifford.
The agenda was as formal as the arrangement of the chairs. Kennedy had requested discussion in four categories: "(1.) Trouble Spots Berlin, Far East (Communist China and Formosa), Cuba; (2.) The National Security Set-up including how the Pentagon is working; (3.) Organization of the White House; (4.) President's Confidential Comments regarding Macmillan, De Gaulle, Adenauer."
Eisenhower's talking paper on Cuba had been written by Robert Hurwitch, the State Department's Cuba desk officer, who had also prepared Kennedy's paper. Following instructions from his once and future bosses, Hurwitch handed a one-page memo to Eisenhower and a two-page version to Kennedy.
As Eisenhower began to speak, Kennedy interrupted. He was looking over at Persons, who was writing furiously. "Mr. President," he said, "I did not understand that notes were to be taken at this meeting."
Eisenhower cocked his head toward Persons, who remarked, "Everything a President says is recorded. This is historical record."
Kennedy glanced at Clifford, who pulled a pencil from his pocket and began taking notes on the back of his copy of the meeting agenda, continuing on the back of press statements prepared before the session began.
"Thailand is a valuable ally," Clifford wrote as Eisenhower began, "because Communist-dominated Laos would expose T's borders. Military training under French is poor. Would be a good idea to get U.S. military instructors in there. [Thailand]...Morale not good in Democratic forces, Ike says Communist forces always appear to have better morale Commie philosophy inspires them to be dedicated. If a political settlement cannot be arranged then we must intervene. (Herter)."
ar"If Laos should fall to the Communists," Eisenhower said, glancing at his papers, "then it would be a question of time until South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma would collapse. The United States would accept this task with our allies, if we could persuade them, and alone if we could not, our unilateral intervention would be our last desperate hope.
"This is one of the problems I'm leaving you that I'm not happy about," he said, looking directly at Kennedy. "We may have to fight."
"How long would it take to put a division into Laos?" Kennedy asked.
Eisenhower looked to Gates. "Twelve to seventeen days," answered the Defense Secretary. That was from the United States, but there were U.S. troops that could be moved in more quickly from bases in Japan and Okinawa or the Philippines.
"This is the cork in the bottle of the Far East," Eisenhower said; "if Laos is lost to the free world, in the long run we will lose all of Southeast Asia....You are going to have to put troops in Laos. With other nations if possible but alone if necessary."
"If the situation was so critical," Kennedy asked, "why didn't you decide to do something?"
"I would have, but I did not feel I could commit troops with a new administration coming to power."
Kennedy asked the President whether he would prefer a coalition government including Communists in Laos or military intervention by SEATO (the South-East Asia Treaty Organization), which had been put together by the United States as a Pacific mutual defense alliance in the manner of NATO. Eisenhower and Herter double-teamed him. Eisenhower said coalitions never worked; the Communists always ended up in control. Herter added that SEATO would not work either. Thailand, the Philippines, and Pakistan might be willing to join with U.S. troops in Laos, but the British and the French, who were also SEATO members, had already made it clear that they would quit that alliance before sending troops to Asia.
"What do you recommend as the next step to be taken?" Kennedy asked.
The most desirable solution, Herter said, would be a coalition government without Communists, but he did not think that was possible. "The government's armed forces our side has [sic] been unwilling to fight, despite our logistical support....The Thais, the Philippines, the Pakistanis, who are counting on SEATO for their own self-defense against Communist aggression, are concerned that SEATO is a paper tiger...I can't see any alternative for us but to honor our obligation."
Eisenhower then said he was sure the Thais, the Filipinos, and the Pakistanis would join in the fight. But he doubted anyone else would.
"What about China?" Kennedy asked. The President said he thought the Chinese would be cautious about the possibility of provoking a major war. Kennedy had the uncomfortable impression that Ike was enjoying this.
"It's a high-stakes poker game," Eisenhower said. "There's no easy solution."
McNamara asked only one question. He wanted an appraisal of the United States' limited war requirements versus limited war capabilities.
Eisenhower and Gates handed him a National Security Council study that had been completed two weeks earlier. It listed five places the United States might be drawn into war at some level: Laos, Korea, Formosa, Iran, and Berlin.
"We can handle one limited war, a Korean war situation," Gates said. "But not two. And any number of small wars. Small wars are no problem."ar
Eisenhower looked dubious. He said he did not like the phrase "limited war." "In other words," he said, "when do you go after the head of the snake instead of the tail?"
In answer to a list of questions from Rusk about "trouble spots," Herter began with Berlin. He said more and more refugees were fleeing from East Germany to West Berlin every day, and sooner or later the Communists had to do something to stop that.
When Herter went back to Laos, Eisenhower interrupted to offer his opinion about the country next door, South Vietnam. There was no similar danger there, but there was always a possibility of a coup overthrowing the country's anti-Communist leader, Ngo Dinh Diem.
"Should we support guerrilla operations in Cuba?" Kennedy asked.
"To the utmost," said Eisenhower.
The President-elect had been briefed twice by the CIA on the training of anti-Castro guerrillas in Guatemala. He had the impression that the operations would involve infiltration of small sabotage teams. Eisenhower said there were no final plans.
"We cannot let the present government there go on," Eisenhower said. Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson offered his own perspective: "Large amounts of United States capital now planned for investment in Latin America are waiting to see whether or not we can cope with the Cuban situation."
Kennedy asked about atomic weapons in other countries.
"Israel and India," Herter replied. The Israelis had a nuclear reactor capable of producing ninety kilograms of weapons-quality plutonium by 1963. He advised Kennedy to demand inspection and control before there were atomic bombs in the Middle East. In India, he said, the Russians were helping build a reactor.
The meeting ended before noon, twenty-four hours before John Kennedy would take the oath as President. As they got up, eight of the ten men in the room moved away from the two at the center. The outgoing President picked that moment to tell his successor quietly that whatever was said during the campaign about Soviet missile and nuclear strength (he obviously meant Kennedy's "missile gap" charges), the United States had a strategic edge because of nuclear-firing submarines along the coasts of the Soviet Union: "You have an invulnerable asset in Polaris. It is invulnerable."
John Kennedy was considered a pretty cool fellow, the most detached and rational of politicians. But he was amazed at Eisenhower's calmness as he talked of nuclear submarines, war, and disaster. "Equanimity" was the word Kennedy used later, talking to Robert Kennedy about the meeting. He thought there was something frightening about Eisenhower. There was also something politically intimidating about succeeding a man of such great popularity. The new President was determined never to cross his predecessor. Ike's approval was not necessary, but his public disapproval would be devastating.
Eisenhower knew that, of course, and now he reminded Kennedy. "I'm going to try to support you every way I can on foreign policy," he said. "But there is one point on which I would oppose you strongly-the seating of Communist China in the U.N. and bilateral recognition."
That took care of that. Kennedy thought it was stupid not to have diplomatic relations with the Communist government in China. But relations with Eisenhower were a more compelling concern.
It was snowing as Kennedy left the White House, a visitor for the last time.
Copyright © 1993 by Reeves-O'Neill, Inc.