Excerpt from John F. Kennedy Commander in Chief: A Profile in Leadership by Pierre Salinger
"Kennedy's relationship with the armed forces, forged by his own years of service in World War II and the turbulent world circumstances of the early 1960s, was complex. Nearly every memorable international event, crisis, or action of his administration had a crucial military component that Kennedy himself personally oversaw. And the troubled world of the 1960s was quite different from the world his predecessor, General Dwight Eisenhower, faced in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was so different that the new president immediately set about dismantling and reshaping the massed-force doctrines and practices of the D-Day commander's army, much to the irritation and outright contempt of the military old guard, which considered Kennedy a weak and naive usurper of traditional US. military power.
Kennedy faced no huge targets like Normandy Beach on his military map, only dozens of small guerrilla fights in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. He saw the hand of his ideological nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev, behind local insurgencies and in the provocations attending the crisis in Berlin. But he understood that the Soviet Union was an enemy that could not be attacked head-on without committing nuclear suicide. Rather, he realized the necessity of reforming the U.S. military so that it could respond quickly and lethally to the "hot spots" Khrushchev fomented, and, through military restraint, of keeping all international conflicts below the nuclear threshold.
In this military environment, vigilance was paramount. When a "domino" was in danger of falling - in Laos, Vietnam, Berlin - the United States had to be ready to deploy its arsenal. Being ready to go, being equipped properly, being superbly conditioned (the elite navy SEALS were a Kennedy favorite) was a Kennedy doctrine. So was a huge military budget. Increases in military spending on all services occurred in the Kennedy years, which gave the defense establishment a lot of men and a lot of weapons to utilize, and which, ironically, made both difficult to control. But Kennedy was determined to be an active commander in chief, especially after the mistakes of the Bay of Pigs operation. On many occasions he reviewed his "new" army, navy, and air force, spending the time to see exactly what the ground-level soldier was wearing, carrying, and thinking. The photographs that follow are the proof of his interest.
The military side of the Kennedy presidency offers a window through which to observe the man. It is a unique angle, remarkable for what it offers: a jaunty, relaxed Kennedy, enjoying his field trips and his encounters with the troops despite the gravity and tension he must have felt in the chill of the cold war. And we must remember: In three years, challenged by a belligerent enemy in Cuba, in Vietnam, and in Berlin, Kennedy the commander in chief managed to keep the United States out of global war, and never committed U.S. troops to live-fire combat."