“President Kennedy faced a foe more relentless than Khrushchev, just across the Potomac: the bellicose Joint Chiefs of Staff argued for the deployment of nuclear weapons and kept pressing to invade Cuba. Kennedy’s success in fending them off may have been his most consequential victory.”
From JFK vs. the Military
President John F. Kennedy was one of the youngest US Presidents – he was only 43 when he took the oath in 1961. He was also one of the youngest senators in the 1950s. He never held any executive office before he became President.
Contrast it with his predecessor – President Dwight Eisenhower. He had been a five-star general in the US Army during WWII, Supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe and head of US Army before he became President. He was a WWII hero. He was President for 8 years. He was known to be a strong leader, ready to show military muscle as and when required and known for being the tough guy.
Moreover, all the US military commanders in 1961, when Kennedy became President, were WWII veterans. They were tough military men who lived and thrived in a time of massive war and nuclear destruction which was immediately followed by the bitter years of Cold War, with an ever-looming threat of nuclear conflict.
The military commanders did not get along with Kennedy – as its chronicled in the article. While he was more willing to muscle forward through diplomatic and political maneuverings, he was always thwarted and resisted by his trigger-happy military commanders, who believed in massive use of force as a first-choice rather than as a last resort.
It’s no surprise of their discomfort with Kennedy and how they viewed their inexperienced boss …
“ Lemnitzer made no secret of his discomfort with a 43-year-old president who he felt could not measure up to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former five-star general Kennedy had succeeded. Lemnitzer was a West Point graduate who had risen in the ranks of Eisenhower’s World War II staff and helped plan the successful invasions of North Africa and Sicily. The 61-year-old general, little known outside military circles, stood 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, with a bearlike frame, booming voice, and deep, infectious laugh”
This is not a history lesson – or who was right and who wasn’t. It is to exemplify a situation when a new leader has to face resistance and pushback from his own experienced team. They think of him as inexperienced, unwise, novice or an outsider. It gets worse when it’s a complete group who think this way – as was the case of all US military leaders with Kennedy – and even be public about it. It’s very easy for a new leader just finding his way to get overawed, subdued, forced into groupthink and lose his footing.
Leadership is tough. It’s not just the more visible, tangible and quantifiable forces and problems from the outside (e.g. the Soviet leader Khrushchev). Sometimes its tougher to deal with the internal discord and resistance, specially when you are new to the game and the others are not.
It becomes critical for the leader never to lose his originality and footing. He needs to have a very clear mind, very competent advisors and an iron will to stand firm and get his way – sometimes through his own inner circle, sometimes even at their cost.
Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis – and how he dealt with the ever-increasing pressure from his military command to pursue a military course – is a great example of a young leader getting his way.
Leadership is not easy. It’s all about dealing with people and people are difficult. And it’s about truly believing in yourself – even when others do not.
The article is a great read for any leader.
Image credit: same article.