Kennedy was devoted to the Great Man theory of history. As he spoke about Churchill, Stalin and Napoleon, “his eyes shone with a particular glitter, and it was quite clear that he thought in terms of great men and what they were able to do, not at all of impersonal forces,” observed the British historian Isaiah Berlin after several conversations with Kennedy at White House dinners. But of course even the greatest men, from time to time, need wise advisers to battle the impersonal forces. Kennedy surrounded himself with what he called a “ministry of talent,” personified by McGeorge Bundy, the brainy but chilly Harvard dean who became national security adviser. These men — and they were all men back then — were well-intentioned, but, as Dallek shows, they often served Kennedy badly.
In particular, they had difficulty handling the military and the intelligence community. The current Pentagon is relatively restrained about the use of force. Not so the top brass in 1961. Consider Air Force Gen. Thomas Power, the head of the Strategic Air Command. “Why are you so concerned with saving lives?” Power once asked the authors of a Rand Corp. study. “The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.”
Power’s boss, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay — a model for Gen. Jack D. Ripper in the doomsday movie
“Dr. Strangelove” — described Power as a “sadist” and “not stable.”
In his first few months in office, Kennedy was bamboozled by the CIA, which persuaded the new president to back a “secret” invasion of Cuba. The Bay of Pigs was a fiasco. After the defeat, Jackie Kennedy recalled her husband crying in the privacy of his bedroom. “He put his head in his hands and sort of wept,” she said, according to Dallek’s recounting. John Kennedy’s repeated refrain: “All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?”
But in Dallek’s retelling, the young president learned on the job. Wisely, he made clear to the press and the public that he was the responsible government officer, adding, with a characteristic edge of rueful humor, “There’s an old saying that victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.”