Presidential Reflections on U.S. Intelligence: John F. Kennedy
From President Truman on, each President has written a note of thanks to the men and women of the CIA. These notes are displayed with the President’s official photograph in the Presidential Gallery of the New Headquarters Building. This story is the fourth in a series about the relationship each president has had with the CIA. This article will focus on President John F. Kennedy.
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When John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president in January 1961, the world was in great turmoil. The Cold War was heating up, and the United States and the Soviet Union were fighting it out in a space and arms race. During his term, President Kennedy faced one of the most serious national security crises in the nation’s history: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fortunately, President Kennedy had the help of the Central Intelligence Agency at this disposal.
Kennedy Nominates a DCI
As Kennedy settled into office, he began to consider who he would nominate as the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). He decided on John McCone, a successful business executive with extensive experience in running large organizations and with significant prior service in the U.S. government. Kennedy picked him because he needed someone to carefully manage the CIA in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs operation.
And DCI McCone did just that. In fact, he provided Kennedy with invaluable insights about Soviet intentions that proved accurate. McCone became known for being the first U.S. government official to predict that the Soviet Union would place offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba.
On October 14, 1962, a U-2 passing over Cuba captured images of what looked like three nuclear bases near San Cristobal. The CIA analyzed the images, confirmed that the launch sites were real, and informed the National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. On October, 16, Bundy informed President Kennedy of the developing crisis.
President Kennedy quickly formed a working group within the National Security Council called the Executive Committee (ExComm). DCI McCone was the only member from the IC. During the next thirteen days, Kennedy and the ExComm received briefings about Soviet capabilities, including Soviet military intelligence officer named Oleg Penkovsky.
At first, President Kennedy and DCI McCone were convinced that the only way to resolve the crisis was to order air strikes to take out the launch sites immediately. However, intelligence obtained from Penkovsky detailed technical specifications of the missiles, including:
- Destructive power
- Preparation time
These facts helped persuade President Kennedy that he had enough time to develop a diplomatic solution. After further conversations, President Kennedy and the ExComm decided to issue a naval “quarantine” on Soviet ships bringing military supplies to Cuba.
On the evening of October 22, 1962, President Kennedy addressed the nation and announced the presence of the missiles and the quarantine. Six days later, Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev responded and agreed to remove the missiles if the United States promised not to invade Cuba and remove obsolete missiles from Turkey.
And with that, the crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war was over.
The Value of Intelligence
President Kennedy recognized the vital role the CIA played in keeping the nation safe. In a letter to DCI McCone, President Kennedy wrote:
“It is, of course, a great source of strength to me to know that we have such dedicated and skilled men and women in the service of our Nation in these times of peril. Although I cannot personally commend each member of the intelligence community for their individual efforts, I would like you to convey to them, through members of the United States Intelligence Board, my personal word of commendation, my deep admiration for their achievements, and the appreciation of a grateful Nation.”
Carrying on the tradition started by President Truman following the Agency’s founding, President Kennedy wrote a note thanking the men and women of the CIA for their service to the United States. He is the third president to write a note that accompanies his portrait in the CIA’s Presidents’ Gallery:
“For the Central Intelligence Agency — with esteem.”
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