September 4, 2013

Camelot and the Syrian Crisis

November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the end of Camelot. During its tenure, President John F. Kennedy’s administration set national security precedents that have influenced the way Washington has approached military commitments to the present day.

For instance, in January 1961, after inheriting a crisis in Laos, the newly inaugurated president asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for advice. Only the Air Force was optimistic about the prospects for intervention, as long as nuclear weapons could be used to close four passes from North Vietnam into Laos. Abjuring using nukes in Laos, Kennedy opted for a neutralization strategy. In doing so, Kennedy also retained American military advisors in Thailand to continue covert activities in Laos.  Plausible deniability distanced Washington from the continuing war.

In April 1961, Kennedy faced his next crisis, this one in Cuba. Saddled with a questionable plan initiated in the previous administration, Kennedy changed the invasion site to the nearly inaccessible Bay of Pigs, a remote area with no place to escape if the invasion went wrong. This plan required a would-be assassin to kill Fidel Castro. The hope being that Castro’s death would spark a mass uprising against the nascent communist regime. The assassin never got close, and Kennedy cut the number of covert airstrikes by B-26 bombers. Kennedy also prohibited any kind of American combat support for an armada of old freighters tasked with landing a small brigade to face 30,000 Cuban troops backed by tanks and militiamen. The Kennedy administration’s first priority was plausible deniability. The result was total failure.

Months later, facing a crisis over Berlin with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy activated reserve units and, as a warning to Khrushchev to go no further after building the Berlin Wall, released previously classified assessments proving the “missile gap” existed. Khrushchev responded by placing midrange ballistic missiles and aircraft bombers in Cuba.

The world came close to facing war during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, until Khrushchev, faced with nuclear annihilation, backed down. The Kennedy administration felt vindicated with the nuclear brinksmanship and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proclaimed that crisis management had superseded strategy. Meanwhile, the Kennedy administration vowed to “draw a line in the sand” in South Vietnam.

In November 1961, Washington dispatched an Air Force training unit to Saigon. Its mission, however, was not to train local airmen, but rather to fly covert combat support for South Vietnamese forces. Mission tactics included taking Vietnamese airman aboard converted training prop planes that were marked with South Vietnamese insignia. This tactic helped maintain Washington’s plausible deniability.

Two years later, in October 1963, after much consternation, the decision was made to back a military coup d'état in Saigon. To maintain plausible deniability, the Kennedy administration left the coup planning to South Vietnamese generals, who then murdered President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on November 1, 1963. Three weeks later, Camelot ended with Kennedy’s assassination.

Maybe it’s a commitment to preserving Camelot that drives the notion that, if Kennedy had lived, America might have been spared the tragedy in Vietnam. This is questionable considering Lyndon Johnson retained most of his predecessor’s national security team. Furthermore, just as JFK would have, Johnson was to face Sen. Barry Goldwater in the November 1964 election still unsure of carrying Dixie, which was wavering in its solid support for the Democratic Party following forced school desegregation. Additionally, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy’s top military advisor, had stated that by January 1965 the South Vietnamese would be able to fight the war alone. In the interim, all Washington had to do was not lose the war. Not losing was never winning. By January 1965, faced with sure defeat, LBJ opted for phased escalation to prevent losing Vietnam and risking his presidency.

Since Vietnam, with the exception of operations in Grenada and Libya during the Reagan administration, U.S. military operations have retained many of Camelot’s approaches to military commitment. This includes the Bush administration’s sidetrack into Iraq in 2003 without considering the possibility of a prolonged insurgency. It also includes the Obama administration’s 2009 doubling down in Afghanistan while setting a timetable for withdrawal.

Using the same halfway approaches, Washington has dithered itself into an untenable strategic position over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, with the likes of Teheran and Moscow and other nations questioning U.S. credibility.

Camelot’s legacy for foreign policy was flawed by halfway measures that betrayed credibility and emboldened our enemies. Given the escalatory potential at the world’s energy epicenter, the stakes this time are much higher.

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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