Steve Strathmann considers what the three presidents most closely associated with World War II did during  that other great war of the twentieth century – World War I.

 

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson led the United States as it entered the First World War. In his speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war, Wilson presented Germany’s submarine warfare as the primary reason to go to war, but he also stated a greater goal:

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.

 

The two men who held the office before him supported the nation’s entry into the war. Theodore Roosevelt, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, asked to personally raise a division of troops to be sent to Europe. Wilson met with Roosevelt and politely declined the offer, explaining that the ranks would be instead filled through a draft. Another strike against Roosevelt going to Europe was his poor overall health; he would barely outlive the conflict, passing away on January 6, 1919.

William Howard Taft spoke publicly in support of the war. On June 13, 1917, he repeated Wilson’s “war for democracy” theme, declaring “...Now we have stepped to the forefront of nations, and they look to us.” Taft would be tapped by President Wilson to chair the National War Labor Board, a panel set up to handle labor/management disputes during the war.

While other future presidents would make contributions to the war effort (especially Herbert Hoover, whose work during and after the war would make him internationally famous), what did the three presidents most identified with the Second World War do in 1917? As we shall see, these three men all served their nation’s military in different ways.

 

The Assistant Secretary

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   FDR, with Secretary Daniels and the Prince of Wales, in Annapolis, 1919   
  
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FDR, with Secretary Daniels and the Prince of Wales, in Annapolis, 1919.

While the war raged overseas, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Theodore’s cousin) was a member of the Wilson administration serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. At the start of war, Roosevelt publicly called for an increase in the size of the US Navy by 18,000 men. This got him into trouble with Wilson and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, who were trying to maintain a state of neutrality. Roosevelt had to recant his statement, and learned not to step on his superiors’ toes.

By July of 1915, the administration was coming into line with Roosevelt’s beliefs on naval expansion. Increased action in the Atlantic Ocean, including the sinking of the Lusitania, convinced Wilson that the military needed to be updated and enlarged to improve the nation’s defenses. Daniels and FDR presented a plan calling for the construction of 176 new ships, including ten battleships. This was approved by the president and Congress.

Even with these preparations, the US Navy was relatively small when war was declared. This had changed by the end of the war, when the force had expanded to almost a million sailors on over 2,000 vessels. Roosevelt had a hand in this, proving to be so good at gathering military supplies that he had to be asked to share the navy’s material gains with the army.

According to biographer Jean Edward Smith, FDR’s greatest wartime work was the creation of a North Sea antisubmarine chain of mines. While the initial plan was not Roosevelt’s, his promotion of the idea and the technology to accomplish it was what led to it being implemented. The chain wasn’t installed until the summer of 1918 and it was never fully tested, but estimates of German U-boats destroyed by the mines range from four to as many as twenty-three.

Above all, Franklin Roosevelt wanted to serve in the military during the war. He knew how his cousin’s military exploits helped with his political career and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Theodore Roosevelt even encouraged Franklin to enlist. Unfortunately for FDR, his talents working for the administration meant that Wilson and Daniels would never let him leave his post.

Roosevelt did eventually make it to the Western Front, but not as a soldier. In the summer of 1918, he was sent as part of a Senate committee to inspect the situation in Europe. He insisted on going to the French battlefields, including Verdun and Belleau Wood, and came within one mile of the German front lines. Little did he know, his future vice president was serving in an artillery unit not too far away.

 

Captain Harry

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   Harry S. Truman in France, 1918   
  
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Harry S. Truman in France, 1918.

Harry S. Truman volunteered when war was declared, and the former Missouri Guard member was elected an officer in the artillery formations being organized in the Kansas City/Independence region. After training in Oklahoma, the units sailed for France, arriving on April 13, 1918.

On July 11, Truman took over command of Battery D. The battery had had issues with their previous commanders, but Truman soon earned their respect. Indeed, according to author Robert Ferrell, these soldiers would in the future be Truman’s political base, willing to do anything to support the man they called “Captain Harry.”

Truman’s battery saw action in the Vosges Mountains, Meuse-Argonnes and Verdun. Before Meuse-Argonnes, the captain marched his battery for twenty-two nights to reach their destination. During the two weeks there, Truman’s men sometimes fired their guns so often that, according to the battery’s chief mechanic, “...they’d pour a bucket of water down the muzzle and it’d come out of the breach just a-steaming, you know.”

Verdun was a particularly grizzly posting. The area where the unit was stationed was part of the 1916 battlefield, so every shell that landed around the battery would churn up graves from the previous action. Truman would describe waking up in the morning and finding skulls lying nearby. The battery would serve at Verdun until the end of the war.

While Truman was learning to become a leader of men under fire, one of his future generals was fresh out of West Point, desperate to join in the action, but continually thwarted in his attempts.

 

Ike

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   Dwight D. Eisenhower, with tank, in Fort Meade   
  
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Dwight D. Eisenhower, with tank, in Fort Meade.

Dwight D. Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915, sixty-first in a class of 164. Despite his wishes to be posted in the Philippines, he ended up in Texas. When the United States entered the war, Eisenhower was appointed regimental supply officer of the new 57th Regiment.

Unfortunately for the ambitious Ike, he proved to be an excellent training officer and was turned down every time he requested a transfer to Europe. Like Roosevelt, he was too valuable to let go. He was soon transferred to Fort Meade to help organize the 301st Tank Battalion, one of the United States’ first tank units. He was supposed to leave for France with the 301st as its commander, but at the last minute was told that he would remain behind (once again) to set up a training base, Camp Colt, to be located on the old Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.

Eisenhower did a fantastic job setting up Camp Colt, which soon held more than 10,000 men training on the site of Pickett’s Charge. Due to a lack of tanks, they would use guns mounted on flatbed trucks to practice firing at targets while in motion. Finally all was going well and Eisenhower was scheduled to leave for Europe with the next group of recruits, but the war ended just as they were preparing to leave.

 

War to End All Wars?

As the war ended, these three men probably thought what most others did: this war was the last of its kind to be fought. Eisenhower would remain in the army. Truman would return to Missouri and try his hand in business. Roosevelt would continue in politics, running for vice president on the unsuccessful 1920 Democratic ticket. Little did these three men know that they were destined to meet in just over a couple of decades, fighting the next world war.

 

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References

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "U.S. Entry into WWI" StudyNotes.org. StudyNotes, Inc., Published November 17, 2012. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Duffy, Michael, ed. “Primary Documents- U.S. Declaration of War with Germany, 2 April 1917.” FirstWorldWar.com. Published August 22, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Duffy, Michael, ed. “Primary Documents- William Howard Taft on America’s Decision to go to War, 13 June 1917.” FirstWorldWar.com. Published August 22, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman: a life. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Korda, Michael. Ike: An American Hero. New York: Harper, 2007.

Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, 2007.

 

Photos

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/npc2007000705/resource/ (FDR, with Secretary Daniels and the Prince of Wales, in Annapolis, 1919)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harry_S._Truman_WW_I.jpg (Harry S. Truman in France, 1918)

http://www.ftmeade.army.mil/museum/Eisenhower_with_Tank.jpg (Dwight D. Eisenhower, with tank, in Fort Meade)

This is the third in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the US presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991). The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning and The Central Intelligence Agency – Eisenhower and Asia’s Back Door are the preceding posts. 

JFK delivering a speech

JFK delivering a speech

A very tired John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was sworn into office on a clear, windy, brutally cold January 20, 1961.(1) It wasn’t an easy day. Eight inches of snow had fallen the night before, causing a monumental traffic jam. The streets were littered with abandoned vehicles.  Former President Herbert Hoover missed the entire inauguration event because Washington National Airport was closed due to the weather.  An inauguration is an important national symbol that characterizes the Republic and the all-night effort to clear Pennsylvania Avenue greeted the sun with space to accommodate the large crowd that would gather to witness the duly elected president assume the helm of the ship-of-state.  

The snowfall of the previous night and the windy, frigid temperatures of inauguration day are also apt codes for the sea change that had already gathered momentum around the relationship between the new president and his intelligence agency, the CIA.  The CIA, as authorized by The National Security Act of 1947, was still fairly young, but Allen Dulles, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was an old hand and seemingly enjoyed the game.  By 1961, the CIA, in its short life, had tripped the light fantastic around the globe; Col. Lansdale was merrily fighting rebels in The Philippines following which he ported his obsession with asymmetric guerilla warfare to Vietnam where he spent two-years as a houseguest and confidant of President Diem. Other CIA operatives overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, and raised general hell with Cuba and Chile. 

During the latter Truman and the Eisenhower administrations there was a trend to combine the Cold War objective of fighting the creep of Communism with business interests. Iran, for example, nationalized British oil interests and Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh refused to budge in spite of punishing sanctions. According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, “Eisenhower worried about Mossadegh's willingness to cooperate with Iranian Communists; he also feared that Mossadegh would eventually undermine the power of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a staunch anti-Communist partner. In August 1953, the CIA helped overthrow Mossadegh's government and restored the Shah's power. In the aftermath of this covert action, new arrangements gave U.S. corporations an equal share with the British in the Iranian oil industry.”(2)

In Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman initiated land reforms that seriously impacted the holdings of the anti-Communist, New Orleans-based United Fruit Company who controlled over forty percent of Guatemala’s arable land.  The Truman administration came to the support of American business interests by arming the anti-Arbenz rebels.  Under Eisenhower, the CIA finished the job by overthrowing the Arbenz regime and installing Carlos Castillo Armas.  Codenamed PBSUCCESS, the coup d'état was the first-ever clandestine military action in Latin America but it was certainly not the last.(3)

 

Kennedy and the CIA

After fifty years the controversy surrounding Kennedy and the CIA obscures the landscape like the white-out conditions in a blizzard.   At one end of the opinion spectrum, Marquette University’s John McAdams’ The Kennedy Assassination site concludes that Kennedy and the CIA had some rough spots but got through them. (4) At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Jerome R. Corsi, who maintains that Kennedy and the CIA locked horns and never retreated. (5) Excellent research and the documented citations for both perspectives leave the reader with many questions.  One corner of this argument does not appear to be disputed; Kennedy consistently refused to use the U.S. military to support private sector interests.  In this matter, President Kennedy was a traditionalist. The military, in his opinion, was to be used only in defense of national security interests.  If we can escape the white-out conditions of the never-ending controversy, the political landscape, once again, becomes hard and navigable.  

As Kennedy came to office, covert CIA actions initiated by the Eisenhower administration were in play in both hemispheres.  Two noteworthy examples are the storm clouds that were gathering around the Diem brothers in South Vietnam and the vexing problem of Fidel Castro in Cuba.  For discussion purposes I have separated these two significant events, but during the early days of the Kennedy administration they were unfolding concurrently linked through the CIA node.

President Kennedy and DCI Allen Dulles

President Kennedy and DCI Allen Dulles

South Vietnam

South Vietnam was a U.S. government construct, a nation-building exercise illuminated by the Pentagon Papers.

“The United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to establish South Vietnam as an American sphere. It set up in Saigon as head of the government a former Vietnamese official named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had recently been living in New Jersey, and encouraged him not to hold the scheduled elections for unification. A memo in early 1954 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that intelligence estimates showed "a settlement based on free elections would be attended by almost certain loss of the Associated States [Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-the three parts of Indochina created by the Geneva Conference] to Communist control." Diem again and again blocked the elections requested by the Vietminh, and with American money and arms his government became more and more firmly established. As the Pentagon Papers put it: "South Viet Nam was essentially the creation of the United States."(6)

By 1961, Southeast Asia was rapidly becoming a tinder box.  During a discussion of an Edward Lansdale report on Vietnam with Walt Whitman Rostow, the National Security advisor, Kennedy lamented, “'This is the worst one we've got. You know, Eisenhower never mentioned it. He talked at length about Laos, but never uttered the word Vietnam.”  Lansdale’s report brought the deterioration of South Vietnam’s political stability into focus for Kennedy as he remarked to Rostow that the “Lansdale's narrative was 'an extremely vivid and well-written account of a place that was going to hell in a hack.'…” (7)

Diem and his brother persisted in implementing domestic policies based on impressing the Catholic religion and requiring personal loyalties that accelerated the destabilization of the country.  The prevailing religion in Vietnam was Buddhism at the time and the Diems were persecuting Buddhists terribly.  Making matters worse were two notable supporters of the Diem’s, neither of whom had a clue about the national culture of Vietnam.  Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat, lectured in Far Eastern and Latin American history in his previous life. Mansfield was also a practicing Catholic.  While Mansfield openly admitted he knew nothing about Vietnam, he very much liked Diem and he was generally considered to be Congress’ resident Vietnam expert.  The second big player who knew nothing about Vietnam was Col. Edward Lansdale, a CIA asset who befriended and used the Diems but was only committed to his concept of counterinsurgency warfare.  The Pentagon Papers revealed that, based on Lansdale’s advice, Kennedy approved secret operations to "dispatch of agents to North Vietnam" to engage in "sabotage and light harassment”.

 

Growing involvement

The Diem brothers’ refusal to cease and desist acting on their paranoia, resulted in thousands of Buddhists and dissenters being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.  The Geneva Accords permitted the U.S. to have 685 military advisers in South Vietnam. Eisenhower sent several thousand and, under Kennedy, the figure rose to sixteen thousand with some of them taking part in combat operations. Diem was losing. Most of the South Vietnam countryside was now controlled by local villagers organized by the NLF.(See Footnote 6)  It became clear that a new government was necessary if the U.S. was to be effective in keeping Vietnam out of Communist hands.  Kennedy authorized the overthrow with the provision that the Diem brothers would be extracted to live in exile. 

Henry Cabot Lodge, Ambassador to South Vietnam, received a cable (Cable 243) outlining the issues and actions that were the next steps in changing regimes or bringing the Diem regime into line with American interests, following the midnight raids on the Buddhist Pagodas on August 21, 1963.(8)  The Diem brothers would not or could not change direction and South Vietnam’s Diem government was overthrown in a military coup d'état according to play book.  What did not go ‘according to plan’ was the murder of the Diem brothers whose desperate calls for rescue went unheeded by the U.S. government that had put them in power.  The brutal assassinations of the Diems on November 2, 1963 haunted Kennedy.  By November 22, 1963, less than three weeks later, Kennedy himself would die from an assassin’s bullet(s).

“Kennedy learned of the deaths on the following morning when National Security Council staffer Michael Forrestal rushed into the cabinet room with a telegram reporting the Ngô brothers' alleged suicides. According to General Maxwell Taylor, "Kennedy leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before." Kennedy had planned that Ngô Đình Diệm would be safely exiled and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. recalled that the U.S. president was "somber and shaken". Kennedy later penned a memo, lamenting that the assassination was "particularly abhorrent" and blaming himself for approving Cable 243, which had authorised Lodge to explore coup options in the wake of Nhu's attacks on the Buddhist pagodas.  Forrestal said that "It shook him personally ... bothered him as a moral and religious matter. It shook his confidence, I think, in the kind of advice he was getting about South Vietnam."   When Kennedy was consoled by a friend who told him he need not feel sorry for the Ngô brothers on the grounds of despotism, Kennedy replied "No. They were in a difficult position. They did the best they could for their country." 

 

Cuba

While the South Vietnam pot was coming to a boil in the Eastern Hemisphere, the Cuban kettle had boiled dry with the Bay of Pigs and was heating up a second time with Operation Mongoose in the Western Hemisphere.  Without getting into the ‘why’ of it, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy left the door open to depose Cuba’s new dictator Fidel Castro during the fourth presidential debate.(9)  The New York Times the next day ran the story as the lead item on the front page with the headline: "Kennedy Asks Aid for Cuban Rebels to Defeat Castro, Urges Support of Exiles and Fighters for Freedom." James Reston wrote in the Times that "Senator Kennedy (has) made what is probably his worst blunder of the campaign.”(10)  After Kennedy was inaugurated, DCI Allen Dulles came calling to cash the Bay of Pigs check and Kennedy approved the invasion as had been planned under the Eisenhower administration except that he refused to commit the U.S. military support. 

George Washington University’s National Security Archives Bay of Pigs Chronology provides a wonderfully detailed account of the invasion and reads like a spy thriller.  Prior to the invasion factories and cane fields were fire bombed using white phosphorus and other incendiaries, E. Howard Hunt and others made covert trips into Cuba to check the lay of the land, small aircraft overflew Cuba taking pictures and reporting back to the CIA (at least one was shot down by Castro’s forces), communication stations on remote islands were constructed in preparation for command and control of the prospective invasion, and exiled Cubans were trained.  The exiles wanted to return home to the country they remembered and American business interests wanted the island playground back in their domain.

The pressure was on to execute the invasion and, in April, about three months after Kennedy’s inauguration the green light was given. “On April 15, 1961, C.I.A. pilots knocked out part of Castro's air force, and were set to finish the job. At the last minute, on April 16, President Kennedy called off the air strikes, but the message did not reach the 1,511 commandos headed for the Bay of Pigs. Three days of fighting destroyed the invading force. A brigade commander sent his final messages: ''We are out of ammo and fighting on the beach. Please send help,'' and: ''In water. Out of ammo. Enemy closing in. Help must arrive in next hour.''(11) The help never came and 1500 Cuban exiles fighters did not come back.

To his credit, President Kennedy assumed full public responsibility for the debacle although he allowed the blame to spread through leaks and rumors.  Kennedy fired Allen Dulles and threatened to break the CIA apart.  The fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs, however, did not deter the effort to rid the Western Hemisphere of Castro.  In November 1961, Operation Mongoose was born with a primary objective to identify mechanisms to get rid of the Cuban leader and the CIA was not the lead player.  Robert Kennedy and General Maxwell Taylor were the operation’s overseers.  Col. Edward Lansdale was recruited to coordinate activities between the CIA, Defense Department, and State Department. 

Operation Mongoose employed intelligence collection, sabotage operations, and identifying and recruiting leaders within Cuba who could overthrow Castro. But there were other methods used. With Lansdale’s obsession on asymmetrical warfare, a subset operation known as the Northwoods operation was developed. This considered using faked and real terrorist activities which could be blamed on Castro and used as a provocation for invasion.  It has never been decisively determined whether or not assassination plots were a component of Operation Mongoose.(12)  The Church Committee did, however, uncover a 1962 memo from Lansdale to Robert Kennedy claiming that "we might uncork the touchdown play independently of the institutional program we are spurring."  Operation Mongoose was ‘officially’ ended in October 1962 with the advent of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The ‘official’ efforts to ‘get Castro’ fade from the presidential office in October 1962 and go deep underground.  The next blip on the ‘get Castro’ radar appears in New Orleans in the rabid anti-Communist, anti-Castro corporate culture at the United Fruit Company upon whose trustee board the fired DCI Allen Dulles sat.  The United Fruit Company story must be told at another time, however.

 

The CIA and Kennedy in perspective

President Kennedy’s fractured relationship with the CIA meant, for his term in office, a reduced CIA influence on foreign policy and affairs.  Kennedy, however, did recognize the usefulness of covert operators and plausible deniability’s lack of presidential fingerprints.  Publicly Kennedy was shamed twice by CIA failures and fired the powerful Allen Dulles.  Did Kennedy really forget and forgive as some analysts portray or would his ego have driven him to keep his promise to break up the CIA?  Certainly, Kennedy attempted to dilute the CIA influence during Operation Mongoose.  Kennedy’s assassination ended all of the speculation of the CIA’s relative political standing as the status quo quickly returned under the Johnson administration.

The Kennedy administration lasted just 1036 stormy days. His last day, like his first, was preceded by a storm in Dallas, Texas.  As on Kennedy’s inauguration day, the storm cleared and Kennedy elected to have his convertible open to the people; the better to relate to the people.  That, of course, worked well for the assassin(s).  I find it interesting where the ubiquitous Allen Dulles shows up; on the United Fruit Company Board of Trustees and on the Warren Commission investigating the death of the man who fired him.  The Diem brothers may have been assassinated but Fidel Castro, the object of so much time and effort, outlived them all.

 

By Barbara Johnson

Barbara is the owner of www.coldwarwarrior.com, a site about the men and women from all the cold wars who worked so hard for something they believed in and played so hard they forgot the pain.

This article has been published as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. We shall be posting about JFK on Twitter and Facebook this week.

To find out more about John F Kennedy’s life, listen to our podcast on him. Click here.

References

1.       NOAA’s National Weather Service Forecast Office; Presidential Inaugural Weather; http://www.erh.noaa.gov/lwx/Historic_Events/Inauguration/Inauguration.html

2.       University of Virginia; Miller Center; American President: Eisenhower Foreign Policy A Reference Resource; http://millercenter.org/president/eisenhower/essays/biography/5

3.       The Cold War Museum; Guatemala 1954; Article 1 of 2; http://www.coldwar.org/articles/50s/guatemala.asp

4.       Marquette University; Craig Frizzell and Magen Knuth; Mortal Enemies? Did President Kennedy Plan on Splintering the CIA?; http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/jfk_cia.htm

5.       Dr. Jerome R. Corsi; Who Really Killed Kennedy?: 50 Years Later: Stunning New Revelations About the JFK Assassination; http://www.amazon.com/Really-Killed-Kennedy-Assassination-ebook/dp/B00EMFH0M0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1379766666&sr=8-1&keywords=who+killed+president+kennedy+corsi 

6.       A People's History Of The United States; Howard Zinn; Chapter 18: The Impossible Victory: Vietnam; http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinnimvivi18.html

7.       George Washington University National Security Archives; The Wall; Episode 9; INTERVIEW WITH WALT ROSTOW; http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/coldwar/interviews/episode-9/rostow1.html

8.       George Washington University National Security Archives; Cable 243; http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB101/vn02.pdf

9.       Commission on Presidential Debates; October 21, 1960 Debate Transcript; The Fourth Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate; October 21, 1960; http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-21-1960-debate-transcript

10.   George Washington University National Security Archives; Chapter 3; Into Politics With Kennedy and Johnson; http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB116/cia/Chapter%203%20--%20Into%20Politics%20With%20Kennedy%20and%20Johnson.htm   

11.   New York Times; TIM WEINER; February 22, 1998; C.I.A. Bares Its Bungling in Report on Bay of Pigs Invasion; http://www.nytimes.com/1998/02/22/world/cia-bares-its-bungling-in-report-on-bay-of-pigs-invasion.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

12.   George Washington University National Security Archives; July 25, 1962; Brig. Gen. Lansdale; Review of Operation Mongoose; http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/620725%20Review%20of%20Op.%20Mongoose.pdf  

This is the first in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991).

20130828 Image 1 CIA_floor_seal.gif

A unique Cold War tactical weapon, the CIA was created by President Truman who did not like or trust the quality and timeliness of the intelligence he was receiving. The agency was born to serve one master, the president, not the people.  The birth of the CIA was spawned by nasty surprises beginning with Truman’s sudden rise to the oval office upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in Warm Springs, GA on April 12, 1945.[1] Truman and Roosevelt were estranged bedfellows thrown together to win an election. For his part, Roosevelt reportedly did not hold Truman’s intellect in high regard and Truman did not like Roosevelt’s politics. Certainly a portion of their mutual disdain was caused by then Senator Truman who chaired the Truman Committee. The committee had exposed considerable waste, fraud, and abuse by government defense contractors during WWII. It is not surprising that the two did not meet often and, in general, Truman was excluded from cabinet and most other high level meetings during his vice presidency.

While Truman knew he was ‘out of the loop’, he discovered just how much he did not know when he assumed the presidency. In his previous life as the Senator from Missouri, Truman had heard rumors of a super-secret defense project. As vice president, he’d caught a scent of it again, but twelve days into his tenure he was fully briefed for the first time on the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project by Henry Stimson, Secretary of War. The briefing by Stimson and others coupled with the complex bureaucratic Washington, D.C. maze that horded information like gold convinced Truman that he wanted his very own intelligence gathering service. Irrespective of all the excuses he heard from various agencies and departments, Truman was determined to have the intelligence he required to do his job on a daily basis. In January of 1946, the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) was formed and, by September 1947, the National Security Act of 1947, transmuted it into the Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, headed by Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter.  

It was not smooth sailing for the CIG. Its very existence threatened the military, State, and War (Defense) Departments’ intelligence rice bowls and the governmental infighting was intense. According to John L. Helgerson’s CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992, “The President was virtually alone in expecting to receive a daily, comprehensive current intelligence product, whatever the formal charters of the CIG and CIA might say. Needless to say, his expectations carried the day.”[2]  

The go-ahead for broad-based covert activities was on Hillenkoetter’s desk a short nine months later in the form of National Security Council directive NSC 10/2.  The directive created the Office of Special Projects within which it placed covert activities. The Chief of Special Projects, who reported to the CIA director, was appointed by the Secretary of State and approved by the National Security Council. The CIA covert operations authorization was simple: 1. coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2. National Security Council approval of any plans, and 3. provided for action "against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” The directive provides a very broad loose definition of covert activities:

Specifically, such operations shall include any covert activities related to: propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world. Such operations shall not include armed conflict by recognized military forces, espionage, counter-espionage, and cover and deception for military operations.[3]

Adversity, properly channeled, yields increased resilience and strength. Professional embarrassment, properly channeled, yields a fortified resolve. A government rice bowl filled with taxpayer dollars for continued survival yields strong motivation. The CIA was still young and wet behind the ears when the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb, which the U.S called Joe-1 after Joseph Stalin. While the CIA knew the Soviets were working on the Bomb, it was the Air Force that produced the proof enabling Truman to crow ‘I-told-you-so’ at the top of his voice to the whole world.  The ‘government game’ is replete with players that run, not walk, to the boss to be the first one through the door with new information. It’s called the ‘kibble’ effect. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we in the government and the government contractor community are conditioned to receive treats when we fetch new data ‘the boss’ can use. The boss rewards those who bring the best information with kibbles, or other treats. The boss collects the data, places it in a context his boss can use and runs the information up the ladder to the next boss as soon as possible so he can get his or her kibble.

One can only imagine the pure joy the Air Force felt at being the first through the president’s door with proof of the Soviet atomic bomb test and how professionally embarrassed the CIA was. Sixty four years ago this month the Joe-1 test was conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, STS, in Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949.  Joe-1 yielded a 22 kiloton detonation over twice the estimated yield of the Hiroshima bomb. The STS is about the size of New Jersey, which is five times larger than the U.S.’s former Nevada Test Site,[4] and very remote so how was the test discovered? According to George Washington University’s Nuclear Vault, the answer to that question lies in the direction given the Army Air Force by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Army Chief of Staff, in 1947 to develop an Atomic Energy Detection System (AEDS) to remotely sense nuclear testing through the emissions it released. Between 1947 and 1949, the Defense Department developed and deployed an "Interim Surveillance Research Net" that was fully operational by the spring of 1949.

Harry S Truman

Harry S Truman

Shortly after the Soviet test, on 1 September 1949, a WB-29 ["W" for weather reconnaissance] operated by the Air Force's Weather Service undertook a routine flight from Misawa Air Force Base (Japan) to Eilson Air Force Base (Alaska) on behalf of the secretive Air Force Office of Atomic Energy-1 [AFOAT-1] [later renamed the Air Force Technical Applications Center, or AFTAC]. The plane carried special filters designed to pick up the radiological debris that an atmospheric atomic test would inevitably create.  So far none of the flights in the Northern Pacific had picked up a scent, but after this flight returned to Eilson and a huge Geiger counter checked the filters, the technicians detected radioactive traces. This was the 112th alert of the Atomic Energy Detection System (the previous 111 had been caused by natural occurrences, such as earthquakes). After a complex chain of events, involving more flights to collect more air samples, consultations among U.S. government scientists, consultants, and contractors, including radiological analysis by Tracerlab and Los Alamos Laboratory, and secret consultations with the British government, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Moscow had indeed conducted a nuclear test. On 23 September 1949, President Truman announced that "We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R."[5]

Joe-1 was a nasty surprise for the U.S., which had no idea the extent of the Soviet penetration into the Manhattan project and really did not expect the Soviets to develop nuclear capability until 1953 at the earliest. And Truman’s revelation of the test was a nasty surprise to the Soviet Union, which had no idea the U.S. had the capability to detect the test. And the test was a nasty surprise to the newly hatched CIA. Director Hillenkoetter contended that "I don't think we were taken by surprise" because of an error of only a "few months".  As you might imagine, Hillenkoetter’s lame excuse signaled the end of his CIA leadership.

By 1950, the Truman Doctrine that would become labeled as the ‘Domino Theory’ was entrenched, the pieces of the CIA puzzle were in place and recognizable as the CIA we know and love today, and President Truman received daily CIA briefings with a sharp focus on Korea and its ramifications. ‘Beetle’, General Walter Bedell Smith, who had served as Eisenhower’s chief of staff during the invasion of Italy during WWII, was selected to replace Hillenkoetter, who returned to active duty commanding a cruiser division in the Korean War.

Can the CIA or any agency be effective at both covert action and intelligence analysis? David Fromkin’s brilliant review of Daring Amateurism: The CIA's Social History authored by Jeffrey T. Richelson in the Council on Foreign Relations book section begins:

In his 1928 Ashenden stories, W. Somerset Maugham, who had undertaken missions for British intelligence in the First World War, portrayed espionage even for our side as morally corrupting, usually incompetent, and more likely to harm our friends than our enemies. Graham Greene and John le Carré later made these their themes. We now know that this body of literature should not be classified as fiction.[6]

Truman breathed life into the CIA and made it his intelligence water bearer. His action has had profound effects on the geopolitics of the world. Truman insisted that no president should enter office as clueless as he had been and used the CIA to brief the primary presidential candidates; a practice still in place. An agency that tends to go rogue, the CIA appears to operate with little or no oversight. Remember, though, it is the President who commands it and one of the CIA operating mission directives is to maintain plausible deniability for the U.S. government for its actions. Over the next several posts, we will explore how various presidents chose to use the CIA and what the consequences have been. When it comes to the CIA, never forget Harry S Truman’s most famous words, “The buck stops here.”

 

How much has the CIA benefitted the US? Let us know below..

 

By Barbara Johnson

Barbara is the owner of www.coldwarwarrior.com, a site about the men and women from all the cold wars who worked so hard for something they believed in and played so hard they forgot the pain.

 

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References 

[1] The Truman Library; Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman edited by Steve Neal; http://www.trumanlibrary.org/eleanor/index.html

[2]  George Washington University NSA Archives; John L. Helgerson; CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992; http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB116/cia/CIA%20Briefings%20of%20Presidential%20Candidates.htm

[3] The Department of State Office of the Historian; National Security Council Directive on Office of Special Projects; NSC 10/2; http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1945-50Intel/d292

[4] Department of Defense; Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS); Posted: March 2012; http://www.dtra.mil/docs/system-documents/DoD_Fact_Sheet-SemipalatinskTestSite.pdf?sfvrsn=0

[5] George Washington University, NSA Archives, Nuclear Vault; September 23, 2009; Edited by William Burr; U.S. Intelligence and the Detection of the First Soviet Nuclear Test, September 1949;  http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb286/index.htm#top

[6] Council on Foreign Relations; January/February 1996; David Fromkin; Daring Amateurism: The CIA's Social History; http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/51639/david-fromkin/daring-amateurism-the-cia-s-social-history

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones