Road To Disaster: Part Two
As noted in an earlier posting, I am currently reading a book entitled The Road to Disaster: A New History of America’s Descent Into Vietnam, by Brian Van DeMark, which purports to use some recent scientific findings about decision-making in order to explain how decent, humane, and well-intentioned men, men of significant mental capacities could make such bad decisions as those which led the United States into the disaster that was Vietnam.
Now early in the book, DeMark argues that John F. Kennedy and many of his administration were inexperienced with regard to how things worked in Washington and the American political system generally. In sum, they needed to be educated and DeMark argues that this education began with the Bay of Pigs invasion, another disaster of the Kennedy administration. DeMark argues that this “failure stemmed from inexperience and wishful thinking.”  So, assumptions were not examined, assumptions that were so “remarkably naïve, even preposterous “ that DeMark seems almost at a loss to explain why they were accepted by such intelligent men. And he turns to some academic research to try to make sense of these decisions.
However, DeMark does not comment on the fact, which is pretty clear now, that the CIA and the Kennedy administration were at cross-purposes. That is, the CIA was trying to get Kennedy to embrace an invasion of Cuba with American troops and thought that, once the Bay of Pigs invasion began to fail, as they were sure it would, Kennedy would be forced to use American military power to ensure its success. And this would allow the CIA to accomplish what it wanted to accomplish, the overthrow of Castro and his Communist regime in Cuba.
On the other hand, Kennedy had no desire and no intention of invading Cuba with American military power in order to overthrow Castro and his regime. So Kennedy went along with the CIA and its plans to invade Cuba even though he knew that such an invasion, which depended for success on the Cuban people rising up against Castro, would fail. This suited his purposes because Kennedy saw that this ‘failure” would make it possible for him to remove both Richard Bissell and Allen Dulles from the CIA, while also allowing him to move control of foreign policy into the White House for the most part. And, of course, Kennedy did both of these things in the aftermath of this “failure.”
In other words, it is not necessary to seek answers from decision-making research for why what DeMark describes correctly as “naïve” and “preposterous” assumptions went unquestioned by otherwise intelligent and powerful men. These assumptions went unquestioned precisely because they served the purposes of both the CIA and Kennedy. The CIA thought that these assumptions, even though they were naïve and preposterous, would force Kennedy to do what the CIA wanted done, authorize an American invasion of Cuba in order to overthrow the Castro regime. And Kennedy thought, correctly it turns out, that although these assumptions guaranteed the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, this would not be a bad thing because (a) there would be no American invasion of Cuba and (b) Kennedy could remove two of the most important members of “the old guard” in charge of foreign policy under Eisenhower, while (c) allowing him to gather more power to himself regarding foreign policy.
And, generally speaking, when it appears that our politicians are making decisions based on assumptions that are, at best, controversial, it is worthwhile to ask whether or how these assumptions serve the purposes of these politicians. In the context of the Cold War, which is what DeMark is writing about, the widely embraced but controversial assumption that communism was a monolithic phenomenon devoted to conquering the world clearly served those who wanted to create a great nation able to impose its will on the world economically, politically, and militarily. Our politicians are more than willing to play the fool if it helps them secure their own power and purposes. And I imagine that DeMark’s history will provide many examples of those politicians and administrators making “bad decisions” based on assumptions that are naïve and even preposterous. The trick is to identify these purposes.
Neither the purposes of the CIA nor of Kennedy in dealing with communist Cuba and Castro are hard to discern. The latter was committed to overthrowing Castro, thereby demonstrating its power, fortifying its status, and ensuring that it would continue to be intimately involved in America’s foreign policy. Kennedy, on the other hand, was seeking to establish a “New Frontier,” that is, a new way for America to be in the world, a way decidedly different than the world as seen by the Eisenhower administration and, perhaps, even earlier administrations. There was no room in this “New Frontier” for many of the policies and many of practitioners of the “old world” of Eisenhower, of the Dulles brothers, and of a CIA devoted to trying to control the world via covert activities such as overthrowing governments ala’ Iran and Guatemala.