In 1991, as commander of an armored cavalry troop in the Persian Gulf War, it was clear to me that our unit’s experience was dramatically different from the Vietnam accounts that I had read. The ease with which we could connect our combat mission to strategic objectives that seemed clear and attainable contrasted starkly with combat actions in Vietnam, which seemed to achieve nothing beyond adding more enemy dead to the weekly body count. I wondered how and why Vietnam had become an American war—a war in which men fought and died without a clear idea of how their actions and sacrifices were contributing to an end of the conflict. When I arrived at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1992 to begin my graduate work in American history, I began to seek answers to those questions.
I discovered that the military’s role in Vietnam decision making was little understood and largely overlooked. By law the Joint Chiefs of Staff were the “principal military advisers to the President, the National Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense.” That was not the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) during the escalation of the Vietnam War.
In the beginning when he's looking at the early days of Kennedy's administration and his cabinet formation reveals some interesting parallels that I didn't know about before:
[Kennedy] regarded Eisenhower’s National Security Council (NSC) structure as cumbersome and unnecessary. Immediately after taking office, he eliminated the substructure of the NSC by abolishing its two major committees: the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB). Kennedy resolved not to use the NSC except for the pro forma consultation required by the National Security Act of 1947. In place of the formal Eisenhower system, Kennedy relied on an ad hoc, collegial style of decision making in national security and foreign affairs. He formed task forces to analyze particular problems and met irregularly with an “inner club” of his most trusted advisers to discuss problems informally and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of potential courses of action.
Kennedy’s structural changes, his practice of consulting frankly with only his closest advisers, and his use of larger forums to validate decisions already made would transcend his own administration and continue as a prominent feature of Vietnam decision making under Lyndon Johnson.
Kennedy and the young New Frontiersmen of his administration viewed the Eisenhower JCS with suspicion. Against the backdrop of Kennedy’s efforts to reform the Defense Department, and under the strain of foreign policy crises, a relationship of mutual distrust between senior military and civilian officials would develop.
The very first disaster that this dysfunction led to was the botched Bay Of Pigs invasion. A debacle that can be traced to miscommunication inside of the Kennedy administration, largely due to the new JCS structure.
John Kennedy had not considered the consequences of going forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion. The president’s informal style and structure of decision making did not allow for a systematic review of the planned invasion of Cuba. Under Eisenhower a White House intelligence office closely monitored CIA plans and operations. Eisenhower had approved only planning and preparation for the invasion. When Kennedy abolished the intelligence office of the OCB, he impeded his staff’s ability to gain familiarity with and take control of the Eisenhower administration’s policies and programs. The CIA was able, therefore, to present the plan for the invasion as a decision already made by Kennedy’s predecessor.