Notes on Cabinet Meeting, Chester Bowles, April 20, 1961

Source:  U.S., Department of State, FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES, 1961-1963, Volume X, Cuba, 1961-1962

Washington, April 20, 1961.

//Source: Yale University, Bowles Papers, Box 392, Folder 154. Personal. Drafted by Bowles. A handwritten notation on the source text indicates that the notes were written in May 1961. The President's appointment book indicates that the meeting took place between 11 a.m. and noon. Those listed as participants included the President, the Vice President, Bowles, Dillon, McNamara, Attorney General Kennedy, Postmaster General Day, Udall, Freeman, Secretary of Labor Goldberg, Secretary of Commerce Gudeman, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Ribicoff, David Bell, Director of the Bureau of the Budget, John Macy, Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, and Jerome Wiesner, Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. (Kennedy Library, President's Appointment Book)


Cabinet Meeting on Thursday, April 20th, the first day immediately after the collapse of the Cuban expedition became known.

I attended the Cabinet meeting in Rusk's absence and it was about as grim as any meeting I can remember in all my experience in government, which is saying a good deal.

The President was really quite shattered, and understandably so. Almost without exception, his public career had been a long series of successes, without any noteworthy set backs. Those disappointments which had come his way, such as his failure to get the nomination for Vice President in 1956 were clearly attributable to religion.

Here for the first time he faced a situation where his judgment had been mistaken, in spite of the fact that week after week of conferences had taken place before he gave the green light.

It was not a pleasant experience. Reactions around the table were almost savage, as everyone appeared to be jumping on everyone else. The only really coherent statement was by Arthur Goldberg, who said that while it was doubtful that the expedition was wise in the first place, the Administration should not have undertaken it unless it was prepared to see it through with United States troops if necessary.

At least his remarks had an inherent logic to them, although I could not agree under any circumstances to sending troops into Cuba--violating every treaty obligation we have.

The most angry response of all came from Bob Kennedy and also, strangely enough, from Dave Bell, who I had always assumed was a very reasonable individual.

The discussion simply rambled in circles with no real coherent thought. Finally after three-quarters of an hour the President got up and walked toward his office. I was so distressed at what I felt was a dangerous mood that I walked after him, stopped him, and told him I would like an opportunity to come into his office and talk the whole thing out.

Lyndon Johnson, Bob McNamara, and Bob Kennedy joined us. Bobby continued his tough, savage comments, most of them directed against the Department of State for reasons which are difficult for me to understand.

When I took exception to some of the more extreme things he said by suggesting that the way to get out of our present jam was not to simply double up on everything we had done, he turned on me savagely.

What worries me is that two of the most powerful people in this administration--Lyndon Johnson and Bob Kennedy--have no experience in foreign affairs, and they both realize that this is the central question of this period and are determined to be experts at it.

The problems of foreign affairs are complex, involving politics, economics and social questions that require both understanding of history and various world cultures.

When a newcomer enters the field and finds himself confronted by the nuances of international questions, he becomes an easy target for the military-CIA-paramilitary type answers which are often in specific logistical terms which can be added, subtracted, multiplied, or divided.

This kind of thinking was almost dominant in the conference and I found it most alarming. The President appeared the most calm, yet it was clear to see that he had been suffering an acute shock and it was an open question in my mind as to what his reaction would be.

All through the meeting which took place in the President's office and which lasted almost a half hour, there was an almost frantic reaction for an action program which people would grab onto.

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