The Politics of Deception: JFK's Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Cuba

The Politics of Deception: JFK's Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Cuba

by Patrick J. Sloyan


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Beneath the myths of Camelot lies the truth of the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

Patrick J. Sloyan, a young wire-service reporter during the Kennedy administration, revisits the last year of JFK's presidency to reveal a ruthless politician.

As the president prepared for his 1964 reelection bid that never was, he buried the truth and manipulated public opinion. Using Kennedy's secret recordings of crucial White House meetings and interviews with key inside players, Sloyan reveals:

    President Kennedy's complicity in the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, an event that planted the seed for a decade of jungle warfare and a nation dividedThe secret deal to resolve the Cuban missile crisis that contradicts the popularized "eyeball-to-eyeball" account of Kennedy's dramatic showdown with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who outfoxed the American president.Kennedy's hostile interactions with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the president's attempts to undermine the civil rights movement, which he viewed as destroying his reelection chances in the South

The Politics of Deception is a revelatory look into a JFK that few will recognize. Pulitzer Prize winner Sloyan reveals an iconic president and the often startling ways he attempted to manage world events, control public opinion, and forge his legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250030597
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/10/2015
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,038,564
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 3.40(d)

About the Author

PATRICK J. SLOYAN is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered national and international affairs since 1960. He has been awarded journalism's most distinguished prizes for domestic and foreign reporting, including the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and Spot News Reporting, the George Polk Award for War Reporting, and the Deadline Writing prize. Sloyan has written for Rolling Stone, The New Republic, The Nation, and The London Guardian. He lives in Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

The Politics of Deception

JFK's Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Cuba

By Patrick J. Sloyan

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Patrick J. Sloyan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03060-3


General LeMay's Threat


For President Kennedy, January 1963 was not too early to prepare for his 1964 reelection campaign. Ever since his stunning upset of Republican Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in the 1952 Senate race in Massachusetts, Kennedy always got an early start.

"My chief opponents followed the old practice of not starting until about two months ahead of the elections. By then, I was ahead of them. In 1952, I worked a year and a half ahead of the November election before Senator Lodge did," Kennedy said. "I am following the same practice now."

Kennedy's head start philosophy ignored the latest polls. They showed you where you were today but were no predictor of future standing. More important was a checklist of advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses, positives and negatives. Even so, the poll released January 20 showed Kennedy with a scintillating approval rating by 76 percent of voters interviewed by George Gallup's American Institute of Public Opinion. Much of it stemmed from his triumphal resolution of the Cuban missile crisis four months earlier. But in 1963, Kennedy's biggest advantage had the potential of turning into a devastating weakness. That chilling prospect hit home during a meeting with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. After disposing of some issues related to Pentagon hardware, McNamara shifted to the 1964 reelection campaign.

"LeMay and Power could cause real trouble during the campaign next year," McNamara told Kennedy. He was speaking of General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, and General Thomas Power, commander of the Strategic Air Command. Both generals knew the truth about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that Kennedy had hidden under layers of deception, manipulation, and mendacity. Kennedy had secretly agreed to Khrushchev's demand of a missile swap—U.S. Jupiter rockets in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. Since Kennedy had deployed the Jupiters in 1961, the Russian leader had raged at the U.S. warheads only a quick flight from Moscow. The cunning Russian's gambit in Cuba was designed to remove the American threat in Turkey.

To the world, Kennedy presented a very different story. He made it seem that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had overplayed his hand by secretly deploying Russian nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba that could strike targets in the southern United States. The showboating communist leader, famous for pounding his shoe on the podium at the United Nations, blundered and then stepped back from nuclear warfare in the face of a steely determination demonstrated by the young American president. "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked," said Secretary of State Dean Rusk. That quote, underlining a Kennedy victory and Khrushchev's retreat, first appeared in an inside account of White House deliberations published in the Saturday Evening Post two months after the 1962 crisis. It portrayed a president ready to launch devastating air strikes and send 140,000 troops into Cuba if Khrushchev did not remove the offending missiles. The article set the factual standard for historians, librarians, moviemakers, and teachers, and the global perception of crisis outcome.

In those days before television news became predominant, the Post and Life magazines were in millions of American homes, barbershops, hair salons, and doctor's offices. They were national publications with an impact equal to today's penetrating 60 Minutes reports based on exclusive facts from the lips of the insiders, including the president. The publications were crucial to voter perceptions. The magazine article, entitled "In Time of Crisis," was just one more example of Kennedy's burying the reality of what was the pinnacle of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kennedy and his staff had duped one of the authors of the article, Charles Bartlett, into writing a total fabrication of White House decisions. Bartlett, Kennedy's chum since their prep school days and a reporter for the Chattanooga Times, would not learn the truth himself until decades later. The cover-up was so complete and lasting because Kennedy demanded—and got—Khrushchev's silence as a condition of the missile swap. What really happened would not emerge on the public record for more than thirty-five years with the declassification of White House tape recordings and Soviet documents. Both show Kennedy quickly conceding to Khrushchev's offer of a nuclear weapons exchange—Russian missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey that the Soviet leader so bitterly resented.

Kennedy not only embraced Khrushchev's missile swap the day it was offered, he ordered the Air Force to defuse the fifteen Jupiter rockets in Turkey that had so angered the Soviet leader. American Air Force troops stationed near Izmir where the missiles were deployed were ordered to remove all of the W49 warheads, each with an estimated blast of 1.44 megatons. "We could not take them out unilaterally, "Rusk said twenty-three years later, explaining how the Jupiters were technically under the control of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "So Kennedy had them remove the warheads from the missiles in Turkey during the Cuban missile crisis." The crisis ended on Sunday, October 28, the day after Kennedy's secret agreement with Khrushchev. Kennedy, Rusk, McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy, in top secret discussions on October 27, seem to think the order to remove the warheads was done that day. It was a different story at Cigil Air Force Base in Turkey, where Airman Fred Travis, then twenty-one, had a more accurate version. "The order came down October 27, but you couldn't remove fifteen warheads in one day," Travis said. "We could lock them down, make them safe. But it took days to remove the warheads. This was a sixty-five-foot rocket that you had to lay down on its side on a special truck. Then another crew removed the nose cone that contained the warhead." Work was under way well after Khrushchev announced removal of Russian rockets from Cuba.

Those Jupiters were never the focus of the showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev, according to the White House rewrite of history for the Saturday Evening Post. Kennedy would lead Bartlett to believe that it was Adlai Stevenson, his ambassador to the United Nations, who pushed for the missile swap while the president was standing firm against it. "Adlai wanted a Munich," said an unidentified source quoted by Bartlett, referring to Britain's craven diplomatic surrender to Adolf Hitler in 1938. In fact Stevenson first raised the idea of the missile exchange that Kennedy swiftly accepted from Khrushchev. And it was Kennedy himself who manipulated Bartlett into smearing Stevenson, according to McGeorge Bundy, the president's national security affairs adviser.

Kennedy and McNamara's concern about these truths leaking into the 1964 presidential campaign was a legitimate fear. General LeMay, a table-pounding critic of Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis, knew of the secret Jupiter disarmament and the missile swap. Also, LeMay was close to Senator Barry Goldwater, the conservative Arizona Republican. Goldwater, already seen in 1963 as the GOP standard-bearer in 1964, was a leading critic of Kennedy's policy toward Cuban leader Fidel Castro. While diplomatic spin could—and eventually would—mute suspicions of the Jupiter removal from Turkey, a leak about defusing the warheads would underscore a Kennedy concession and a political cover-up.

Before their removal, the thermonuclear Jupiter warheads—a hundred times more powerful than the weapon that incinerated Hiroshima—were less than a fifteen-minute flight from Moscow. The brevity of the flight time posed a first-strike threat to Kremlin military planners—destroying Soviet weapons with a sneak attack before bombers and missiles could be used or dispersed. In those days, according to the CIA, Russia had only ten rockets that could threaten the United States. Kennedy's Jupiter deployment in 1961 was done over the objections of his defense chief, Congress, and other experts. While a dubious addition to the American strategic arsenal, the deployment outraged the Russian leader. Khrushchev ignored thirty Jupiters deployed in Italy during the Eisenhower administration. Nor did he mention sixty American-made Thor missiles based in the United Kingdom. His personal ire was reserved for the fifteen Jupiters in Turkey that he objected to in person when first meeting with Kennedy in Vienna. Surrounding Russia with nuclear weapons was unwise, the Soviet leader told Kennedy at their 1961 summit meeting. "We must be reasonable and keep our forces within our national boundaries," Khrushchev told Kennedy. "This situation may cause miscalculation."

However, Khrushchev's threats to seize Berlin within six months stunned Kennedy at Vienna, who resolved to deploy the Jupiters as a show of strength. The deployment was completed by March of 1962. The Soviet leader saw the Jupiters in Turkey as a personal insult. To illustrate his anger, Khrushchev put on a little show for visitors, including American newspaper columnist Drew Pearson, at his vacation home at Sochi. The site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the town is a Russian resort on the Black Sea that borders Turkey. Khrushchev would hand binoculars to guests and ask them to look at the sea's horizon. Saying they saw nothing, the guests would return the binoculars. With a flourish, Khrushchev would hold them to his eyes. What did he see? they asked. "U.S. missiles in Turkey aimed at my dacha!" Khrushchev would bellow. The CIA picked up the Russian's outbursts and Kennedy knew of Khrushchev's anger over the Jupiter deployment. When it became apparent that the Soviet missile deployment was under way in Cuba, Kennedy understood it was linked to the U.S. missile deployment in Turkey. When the White House sent out the first alarm to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department about the Cuban deployment, Kennedy asked for advice on how the Jupiters could be removed. "What actions can be taken to get the Jupiter missiles out of Turkey?" demanded McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security affairs adviser, in an all-points memo on August 21, 1963.

"We were not inventing anything new," Khrushchev would say years later about his secret missile deployment in Cuba. "We were just copying methods used against us by our adversaries." The Americans, he said, "would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we'd be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine." Starting in January of 1962, the Soviet leader personally directed the covert deployment in Cuba of forty-two Sandal missiles that could explode nuclear warheads over dozens of American cities 1,200 miles away in the South and Southwest. The Sandal could reach Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and smaller cities in that region. Soon, according to Kennedy, longer-range Russian rockets in Cuba could reach every city in the western hemisphere. But American intelligence never spotted in Cuba the Skean rocket that could fly 2,800 miles to strike New York or other major U.S. cities.

In the end, Khrushchev's stealthy deployment of rockets and ninety nuclear warheads in Cuba was the fulcrum to leverage the threatening missiles out of Turkey and off the Russian doorstep, out "of the left armpits of the Russians," as one American missile expert put it. Kennedy and his advisers discussed the possibilities of such a deal, but it seemed beyond their reach until the Soviet leader laid it on the table Saturday, October 27. In Moscow the day before, Khrushchev told his executive board, the Presidium, for the first time that the Cuban deployment was aimed at elevating the Soviet status in the world and removing the Turkish missiles. "If we could achieve additionally the liquidation of the bases in Turkey, we would win," said the party chairman as he outlined the missile exchange proposal sent to Kennedy. Khrushchev made the stark swap public, placing it before the eyes of global public opinion. Even Kennedy admired the politically shrewd end game by the Russian leader when it unfolded in the Oval Office on Saturday morning, October 27, 1962. "This trade has appeal," Kennedy told his advisers. "He's got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people will regard this as not an unreasonable proposal. I just tell you that." Disagreeing were Secretary of State Rusk, Defense Secretary McNamara, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Army General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. They and five others in the deliberations made for a lopsided majority against the missile swap. To them, the Kremlin solution was so laden with potentially disastrous political and diplomatic consequences. To American voters, it would seem Kennedy had sacrificed a NATO ally after being outfoxed by the communist leader. Instead of humiliating Khrushchev for taking the world to the edge of a nuclear abyss, Kennedy would be capitulating to the Soviet leader. By pulling the Jupiters out of Turkey, the rest of NATO would forever doubt American solidarity. "Kennedy's concession" was how Bundy would later characterize the agreement. Bundy had demanded that Kennedy reject the Soviet proposal outright the day it arrived. "This should be knocked down publicly," Bundy said.

Dominating the discussions was the president's brother, known to most as Bobby. He worried about the image of the United States attacking the tiny nation of Cuba because of Soviet actions. "You're going to kill an awful lot of people and we're going to take an awful lot of heat on it," Bobby told his brother. Even then, Khrushchev could send replacements for missiles damaged by air attacks. Bobby argued only an invasion of Cuba would end the Soviet threat. To whip up American support for such an invasion, Bobby recalled the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor under mysterious circumstances in 1898. "Remember the Maine" became the battle cry that led the United States into war with Spain. At one point on October 16, Bobby suggested staging an American attack on U.S. warships that could then be blamed on Cubans—an American-generated provocation at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo, Cuba. Bobby said he wondered "Whether there's some ship, you know, that ... sink the Maine again or something." Bobby led the hawk contingent against the missile exchange.

The exceptions—siding with Kennedy in the crucial hours—were Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Undersecretary of State George Ball, and Director John McCone of the CIA. All three had taken hawkish positions when the crisis started. But they were transformed to doves after the shocking word that an American U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba and the surge among other advisers for quick retaliation. Their attitudes changed after a convoluted scenario by McNamara that included an attack on Cuban sites followed by the public announcement that the Jupiters had been disabled. The defense chiefs hoped the defusing of the Jupiters would keep the Soviet Union from attacking the Turkish rockets in retaliation for U.S. air strikes in Cuba, a tortured idea designed to prevent a tit-for-tat escalation that could lead to nuclear warfare.

The vice president quickly offered the logic that if the Jupiters were to be disabled anyway, why not forgo the air strikes and just swap the missiles in Turkey for those in Cuba. "Why not trade?" interjected Johnson upon hearing McNamara's scenario. Ball applauded the vice president's common sense. "And save a few hundred thousand lives," Ball added. "Make the trade," Ball shouted at another point. "Make the trade then!" McCone also supported the vice president's logic. "I don't see why you don't make the trade then," McCone said. Later he added: "And, I'd trade these Turkish things out right now. I wouldn't even talk to anybody about it." A few hours later, Kennedy would do exactly as McCone recommended.


Excerpted from The Politics of Deception by Patrick J. Sloyan. Copyright © 2015 Patrick J. Sloyan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: JFK 1

1 General LeMay's Threat 11


3 The Crocodile 47

4 Miracles 59

5 Head Butts 73

6 Due Course 93

7 Whoppers 101

8 A Nail in the Coffin 119

9 Ratholes 133

10 Hard Condition 145

11 The Proconsul 161

12 The Guy Next to the Guy 169

13 End Run 179

14 Perfidy 187

15 Laurel and Hardy 193

16 Financial Inducements 201

17 Debacle 207

18 Luigi 213

19 Second Thoughts 219

20 Feast of the Dead 231

21 The Hit 241

Epilogue: Washington 247

Acknowledgments 271

Notes 273

Bibliography 289

Index 293

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