You think it can’t happen here?
In 1961 and ’62, President John F. Kennedy was hugely unpopular with some very high-ranking officials in the military. I’m talking multi-star generals and admirals. Even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a fellow named Lyman Lemnitzer, the US Army four-star general, unapologetically and openly dissed the prez. They despised him for his often confusing stance on Cuba, for appearing to want to stay the hell out of Vietnam, and for trying to play nice with the Soviets. Just a tad more than 15 years after World War II, when Americans and their military leaders liked to flatter themselves that they — and they alone — had won the global struggle against the Nazis and the Japs and other tyrannies, a prevailing mood in this country was We’re the leaders of the whole wide world and the rest of humanity had goddamned well better do what we say or else.
The else being code for We’ve got The Bomb and we’ve shown we’ll use it.
A president who seemed loath to plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust was a coward, a sissy, even a fag. Yep, lots of Kennedy bashers threw around that term when describing the president and his brother Bobby.
Lemnitzer (L) & Kennedy
The military men went so far as to proselytize their troops against the president. Some even told their men that to vote for Kennedy in the 1964 election would be tantamount to treason.
The brass was supported in this by the then-lunatic John Birch Society and the far right nutty wing of the Republicans that gave us Barry Goldwater as the Party’s candidate in ’64. (Of course, now those “lunatics” and “nuts” are the mainstream of the GOP. Yikes.)
Anyway, Lemnitzer actually formulated a plan in 1962 to organize like-minded commanders to stage a military coup in the United States, ousting Kennedy as president, and replacing him with a “temporary” leader.
Think of that for a minute. This holy land cam thisclose to being transformed into a military dictatorship — in my lifetime!
Kennedy himself, when he caught wind of this plot, called it “a regular damn South American junta.” David Talbot in his book on the Kennedys, Brothers, wrote:
When people “feel helpless, they start going to extremes,” the president had mused aloud with his most trusted aides when he first heard about the coup plot. “Look at the history — Joe McCarthy, then the Birch Society…. The climate for democracy in this country is the worst it’s ever been… People have seriously started looking for a superman.”
Kennedy nipped the revolt in the bud when he fired Lemnitzer as Chair of the Joint Chiefs.
There are those who say Lemnitzer and his gang finally carried out their nefarious aim on November 22nd, 1963, although so far there has been no concrete evidence to that effect. If you’re of the conspiracy theorist bent, you might look at Lyndon Johnson’s decision to turn Vietnam into a war just eight months after the assassination, clearly at the behest of the generals. Fighting a major land war in Southeast Asia couldn’t possibly have been a priority for LBJ — not when he’d already made The Great Society the touchstone of his administration. Sure, America was rich but it wasn’t rich enough to do both things at once. Had the generals reminded LBJ of what had happened on Dealey Plaza?
I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I do believe that American presidents view the military with wariness, though. I also believe the American military sees itself as capable of solving any problem on Earth with guns and bombs and doesn’t take kindly to anyone who might be skeptical of that. There are enough chickenhawks fluttering around Washington to put into effect the military’s fever dreams — witness Iraq and Afghanistan — so that the brass doesn’t have to play hardball with our elected leaders.
I do get one takeaway from the Lemnitzer incident. That is, Kennedy’s observation about a frightened people wanting a superman to save them. The American people today are a frightened lot. And they elected a superman last November.