American Narcissism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War

During the 1960s three of the most narcissistic Presidents in US history came to power – John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. During this period the myth of American exceptionalism became a dominant theme in U.S. politics. America now viewed itself as the world’s policeman and as the defender of global freedom. As a consequence, the U.S. became embroiled in a series of catastrophes including the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, and the bombing and invasion of Cambodia. In a world full of psychopaths, the US increasingly acted like them.    

America’s Most Narcissistic Presidents

A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science analysed data on 42 U.S. presidents and established a rating scale measuring them by their degree of grandiose narcissism. The authors define grandiose narcissism as characterized by exhibitionism, attention-seeking, inflated demands of entitlement and denial of weaknesses.

According to this measure, during the 1960s, three of the most narcissistic Presidents in U.S. history, were elected to office in succession – John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Grandiose narcissism is a dangerous personality disorder characterised by irrational decision making. Between them Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over a matter of prestige, conducted a barbarous war to avoid loss of face that cost over a million lives in Vietnam and, by lashing out in anger, paved the way for genocide in Cambodia. This is the story of how narcissism changed America and traumatised the world.

Kennedy and Cuba

‘The most serious crisis in the history of mankind, in short, turned on a question of appearances. The world came close to total destruction over a matter of prestige.’                                                         Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley [1]

In the run-up to his election victory, John F. Kennedy made Cuba a major part of his Presidential campaign, blaming Eisenhower for allowing Cuba to become “communism’s first Caribbean base”.

Two days after his inauguration, Kennedy was briefed about a proposed CIA plan to invade Cuba that had been initiated by Eisenhower. Kennedy approved the offensive. On April 17, 1961, around 1400 Cuban exiles, aided by the United States navy, air force, and the CIA, attacked Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was a disaster. Within three days, the entire invasion force had been either killed or captured. Kennedy’s first major foreign policy decision had resulted in what one commentator has described as “among the worst fiascos ever perpetrated by a responsible government”. [2]

Just months later, Kennedy suffered another humiliation when, on 13 August 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall. Kennedy’s tough rhetoric on defeating communism was beginning to sound hollow.

Author Eli Abel recounted a visit to the Kennedy at this time. When Abel told Kennedy that he wanted to write a book about the administration’s first year the president replied despondently. “Who would want to read a book about disasters?” [3] It was in this context that the Cuban missile crisis unfolded.

In August 1962 the USSR began building sites to house medium range missiles in Cuba. Kennedy instantly decided that he had to react. Kennedy’s visceral reaction was in spite of the initial advice of his close advisors, including Robert McNamara and Ted Sorensen, that Soviet missiles in Cuba did not significantly alter the balance of military power. Regardless of the facts, Kennedy believed that he had to be seen to be acting forcefully.

Faced with Kennedy’s insistence on acting tough, Charles Bohlen and Llewellyn Thompson, both diplomats and Soviet experts, argued for private negotiations first. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson also favoured this course of action. Instead, Kennedy chose to give notice to the Russians in a nationwide TV address. As Ted Sorensen has written, “the President had rejected this course [a diplomatic solution] from the outset”.[4] A Soviet withdrawal would have to be public, and it would have to be humiliating.

As the crisis escalated, Khrushchev offered to exchange the Cuban missiles for missiles that the U.S. had recently stationed in Turkey. Kennedy refused, even though he knew that those missiles were of little strategic importance to the United States. Then, as nuclear war seemed a real possibility, Kennedy accepted one of two letters sent on consecutive days by Khrushchev. The second letter contained a demand for removal of the Turkish missiles; the first did not. Kennedy responded with a public letter to Khrushchev, in which he accepted the more favourable terms of the first letter. Publishing the private terms of the interchange with the Soviet Premier amounted to yet another public demand that Khrushchev accept a humiliating climb down.

Fortunately for the world, Khrushchev decided that the humiliation involved in removing the missiles from Cuba was preferable to the danger that the conflict could result in nuclear annihilation of both the U.S. and the USSR. Khrushchev accepted American public pledges not to invade Cuba, and private assurances that the missiles in Turkey would be withdrawn, and the Soviet missiles were removed.

The world had been only hours away from nuclear war because of Kennedy’s need to humiliate Khrushchev. After the climb-down, the Russians vowed that never again would they be so humiliated and responded by strengthening their nuclear arsenal. The lasting effect of Kennedy’s ‘victory’ in Cuba was the beginning of the greatest arms race in the history of humankind.

photo credit: manhhai via photopin cc

photo credit: manhhai via photopin cc

Johnson and Vietnam

‘We are left standing before the world glutted by our barbarity.’

                                         Martin Luther King,The Casualties of the War in Vietnam

The state of South Vietnam was a creation of the French, a last ditch attempt to rescue some semblance of honour from their defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese independence movement.

Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1955, the French government reached an agreement with the Vietnamese for a ceasefire, a temporary partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel and nation-wide elections to be held to decide the fate of the nation. The United States however refused to recognise the accord. Having previously decided against military intervention to support the French, the U.S. now decided (in the wake of Mao’s victory in China and the Korean War) that an ongoing French presence in South Vietnam was necessary to stop the spread of communism. Continued French withdrawal however soon left the United States as the sole guarantor of the survival of the fragile South Vietnamese state.

South Vietnam was a brittle creation from the start. At the time of partition, the League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh, was estimated to have control over a third of the south. The subsequent installation of Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunch Catholic, as President of the predominantly Buddhist state soon lead to widespread unrest across South Vietnam. The unrest was fuelled both by Diem’s anti-Buddhist policies and his cancellation of the promised elections. By the end of the Kennedy Presidency, a combination of popular unrest within South Vietnam and a communist insurgency supported by North Vietnam had brought South Vietnam close to collapse.

This was the position when Lyndon Johnson took office.

At the beginning of Johnson’s Presidency, in January 1964, it would not have been difficult for the U.S to disengage from Vietnam. Only a few thousand American troops were stationed there and the vast majority of Americans knew little about the conflict. Most of Johnson’s advisors, chief among them Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, pressured Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement, confident that a massive injection of US power would ensure the survival of South Vietnam. Some of Johnson’s advisors did warn him against trying to prop up what was already, in essence, a failed state. However, after much deliberation, Johnson gave in to the hawks in his administration.

Johnson’s decision was to cost over one million Vietnamese lives and result in the loss of over 58,000 U.S. service personnel.

The picture of Johnson that emerges from an analysis of his decision to escalate U.S. involvement, however, is not that of a hawk rushing to escalate the war in Vietnam, but rather of a man struggling to avoid escalation against the advice of his senior advisors.

As George Ball, one of those who advised Johnson against escalation, observed ‘A determined President might at any point have overruled those advisors, accepted the costs of withdrawal and broken the momentum, but only a leader supremely sure of himself could make that decision, and Lyndon Johnson, out of his element in the Vietnam War, felt no such certainty.’

Johnson later described what was weighing on his mind as he struggled to make the most fateful decision of his Presidency,  ‘… if we lost Vietnam… there would be Robert Kennedy out in front leading the fight against me, telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam. That I had let a democracy fall into the hands of Communists. That I was a coward. An unmanly man, a man without a spine.’ [5]

In the end, a possible loss of face was a significant factor in Johnson’s decision to lead America into this most disastrous of wars.

Nixon and Cambodia

‘Let’s go blow the hell out of them.’

                                          Richard Nixon on Cambodia [6]

Johnson expressed major concerns about the costs of becoming embroiled in Vietnam but was subjected to considerable pressure by his advisors to act. In the case of Richard Nixon the pressure to begin carpet bombing Cambodia using B-52 bombers and to subsequently invade that country was largely his own idea and was opposed by a majority of his advisors.

Following the invasion, student protests spread across America. At Kent State University in Ohio the National Guard shot four students dead. Nearly 100,000 anti-war protesters converged on Washington. In response, Congress passed a bill forcing Nixon to withdraw US forces from Cambodia. Although Nixon complied, he continued the bombing, while deceiving both the Congress and the US public.

The consequences for Cambodia were catastrophic. In total, Nixon dropped three times more bombs on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan in World War Two, including the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost half of this reign of death was dropped in a six month period in 1973, as Nixon flexed U.S. military muscle one last time before reaching a final agreement with North Vietnam. U.S. bombs left half a million Cambodian people dead.

Years after the war ended, a former Khmer Rouge officer described how the U.S. bombing had driven Cambodians to join Pol Pot’s forces, ‘The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them….’ [7]

In January 1973 Nixon was forced to accept an agreement in Vietnam that failed to ensure either peace or the continued viability of the South Vietnamese state. On April 30 1975, South Vietnam finally collapsed.

That same month the Khmer Rouge took power in Phnom Penh. The Cambodian genocide had begun.


[1] Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938, Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley, Penguin Books, 2011, page 182

[2] Janis I., Victims of Groupthink, Houghton Mifflin, 1972, page 14

[3] Quoted in Belma S. Steinberg, Shame and Humiliation in the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, Political Psychology, Vol 12, No. 2, Dec 1991, 653-690

[4] Quoted in Belma S. Steinberg, Shame and Humiliation in the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, Political Psychology, Vol 12, No. 2, Dec 1991, 653-690

[5] Quoted in Shame and Humiliation: Presidential Decision Making on Vietnam, Blema S. Steinberg,McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996, p98

[6] Quoted in Shame and Humiliation: Presidential Decision Making on Vietnam, Blema S. Steinberg,McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996, p205

[7] Bombs Over Cambodia, Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, The Walrus, October 2006


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