Earl Tilford

Between January 1961 and Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy fundamentally changed U.S. national security policy. These changes resulted in structures and doctrines that enabled American forces to fight in Vietnam in a new way that ultimately defined Kennedy’s national security legacy.

Shortly after taking office in 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara began reforming the Department of Defense (DoD). At the time, the Air Force, consuming the lion’s share of DoD’s budget, was rigidly focused on the doctrine of massive retaliation adopted in 1954 by President Eisenhower’s administration. In the event of war, the Strategic Air Command’s Single Integrated Operational Plan called for the delivery of 3,200 nuclear weapons on 1,065 targets in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China. In February 1965, when McNamara asked SAC commander Gen. Thomas Power if implementing that plan would have ended human life on earth, Power responded, “If three people survive and two of them are Americans, we win.”

In 1959, U.S. Army chief of staff Gen. Maxwell Taylor retired to protest the Army’s diminished role in the military. Soon after he published, “An Uncertain Trumpet” which blasted the doctrine of massive retaliation. Attracted by Taylor’s concept of flexible response, Kennedy recalled the general to active duty first as his special advisor and then named him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This appointment was much to the chagrin of other service chiefs, especially Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Curtis E. Lemay, who from 1948 to 1958 built SAC into the world’s premier strategic nuclear force.

Rather than massive retaliation, the Kennedy administration embraced the doctrine of flexible response. Flexible response involved fewer strategic bombers and more fighter-bombers to support a larger military capable of fighting across a spectrum of warfare: from counter-guerrilla to low-intensity conflict to conventional warfare to limited nuclear warfare. To ensure SAC maintained a qualitative nuclear advantage, flexible response included putting 1,000 solid-fueled Minuteman Missiles in underground silos and doubling the number of Polaris missile-firing submarines.


Earl Tilford

Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.