Back Channel The Kennedy Years
Inside the John F. Kennedy White House

The Transition

This is a preview to the chapter The Transition from the book Back Channel The Kennedy Years by William Bertram MacFarland.
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I spent most of Sunday (Nov. 24th) wandering through Rock Creek Park, a beautiful national park (more than twice the size of Central Park in New York City) just north of the Washington National Zoo. It was a beautiful fall day, breezy and crisp, and though I enjoyed the weather and the exercise, I couldn’t escape the emotional maelstrom of rage and sorrow constantly swirling around in my head. This nation had suffered an incredible loss. But it hadn’t been due to the President’s being struck by lightening or being one of the innocent victims of a plane crash or some other such “Act of God” - although that would have been terrible enough. To think that instead, he had been intentionally and criminally assassinated just didn’t seem possible. His loss was incomprehensible and many people in the nation felt it on a deeply personal level. I was far from being the only person walking through the park hoping to find some solace and I found out the hard way that it was best not to make eye contact with others. I saw a lady disconsolately walking her dog and was going to comment on how beautiful the dog was but as I was about to address her, she just looked at me and started to weep and walked on past. It took all my self-control not to weep as well. The sense of loss was devastating and I hadn’t fully realized just how much I had come to rely on the ‘fact’ that for the next five years I would have the wonderful privilege to be constantly working for President Kennedy, enjoying his company and being part of his family circle. It’s hard to categorize the relationship we had – commander and soldier, boss and employee – doesn’t go nearly far enough. We were truly good friends who both trusted and respected one another and he was sort of a father figure to me. I was devastated by his loss – I felt as though some essential part of me had been savagely ripped away. I just don’t have the words to adequately convey the depth of the grief that enveloped me.

I had submitted my letter of resignation (which would certainly be accepted as Johnson and I did not, to put it mildly, get along well) but what was I going to do then? Did I really want to go to work for the newly formed Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)? I didn’t know much about them and although I was sure a recommendation from Secretary McNamara could get me a posting with them, what would I be doing? It looked like I’d better start doing some serious homework on the DIA. But the larger question of whether or not I wanted to work in any governmental organization – including the Army – kept popping up. Maybe it was the ideal time to just dump everything and move to Paris and see if Chantal still felt as strongly about me as I did about her. My French was far from perfect but I could work on it. It would be nice if I could get a doctorate in quantum mechanics and I was pretty sure the Sorbonne had an excellent quantum mechanics program in their physics department. After all, Pierre and Marie Curie did their groundbreaking work on radioactivity there. In addition, CERN – the European Center for Nuclear Research – was in Geneva, Switzerland which was an easy one day drive from Paris. Maybe, by God, I could be a real human being again and pursue the intellectual paths I truly loved. I drove home feeling decidedly better.

The next day, Monday, was the day of the funeral and I wanted to have nothing to do with it. I arrived at the White House, as usual, at 7:00 a.m. As soon as I got to my office I checked the ‘telltale’ fuzz ball on my secure file cabinet. It was in place. I considered that to be a very good sign. I opened the file cabinet, caught the little fuzz ball on its way down to the carpet, took out the troop withdrawal model I had been working on and got to work. At 4:30 or so, I tried calling Johnson’s secretary, Marie Fehmer, but could only get her secretary and left a message asking for Marie to call me. It was her secretary who finally called back with a message from Marie saying that she had given the President my letter but he was so busy she didn’t think he had looked at it yet and that either he would contact me directly or she would contact me as soon as she got any feedback. The message was pretty clear – don’t call us, we’ll call you. I was becoming more and more convinced that getting entirely out of government service would be the best path for me to follow.

November 26, 1963 – Americanizing the War

The next morning I was working on my troop withdrawal model when there was a knock on my door and someone called out, “Courier.” I covered the papers on my desk (you don’t leave classified documents open to public scrutiny) and buzzed the door to unlock it. The courier walked in, bade me a cheery good morning, dropped a sealed manila envelope stamped “Top Secret” on my desk, waved and left. I wasn’t at all sure I was still supposed to be on the distribution list but I wasn’t going to make waves and besides, I was just plain curious. When I opened it, I was astonished to find that it contained a Top Secret National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM #273).

I need to explain a little bit about NSAM’s. They are internal policy directives that have been signed off on by the President and as such, they steer the direction of the entire Administrative branch of the government with a steely hand. Once issued, they are not to be challenged. They usually involve the top two departments of the Administration – the Departments of State and Defense – and because of that, always involve long and detailed negotiations between the President and his top two cabinet officers plus his National Security Advisor to ensure they are all on board before the directive is issued. (Good leaders know the folly of acting like dictators.) The negotiation process usually takes weeks and can often take a month or so before a consensus can be achieved. The President was assassinated in the afternoon of Friday, November 22, and I’m reading a freshly issued NSAM on Tuesday, November 26th? How could that be possible?
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