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JFK’s forgotten CIA crisis

During a spectacular dinner at Mount Vernon, Kennedy pressed Pakistan’s leader for help with a sensitive spy operation against China. The magic of the Kennedy White House, Camelot, had settled in at Mount Vernon. It was a dazzling evening, a warm July night, but a cool breeze came off the Potomac River and kept the temperature comfortable. It was Tuesday, July 11, 1961, and the occasion was a state dinner for Pakistan’s visiting president, General Ayub Khan, the only time in our nation’s history that George Washington’s home has served as the venue for a state dinner.
President John F. Kennedy had been in office for less than six months, but his administration had already been tarnished by the failed CIA invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and a disastrous summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria. Ayub Khan wrote later that the president was “under great stress.” The Kennedy administration was off to a rocky start: It needed to show some competence.
The idea of hosting Ayub Khan at Mount Vernon came from Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, who was inspired by a dinner during the Vienna summit held a month earlier at the Schönbrunn Palace, the rococo-style former imperial palace of the Hapsburg monarchy built in the seventeenth century. Mrs. Kennedy was impressed by the opulence and history displayed at Schönbrunn and at a similar dinner held on the same presidential trip at the French royal palace of Versailles.
America had no royal palaces, of course, but it did have the first president’s mansion just a few miles away from the White House on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River. The history of the mansion and the fabulous view of the river in the evening would provide a very special atmosphere for the event. On June 26, 1961, the First Lady visited Mount Vernon privately and broached the idea with the director of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which manages the estate. It was a challenging proposal. The old mansion was too small to host an indoor dinner so the event would have to take place on the lawn.
The mansion had very little electricity in 1961 and was a colonial antique, without a modern kitchen or refrigeration, so that the food would have to be prepared at the White House and brought to the estate and served by White House staff. But the arrangements were made, with the Secret Service and Marine Corps providing security, and the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Regiment from Fort Myers providing the colonial fife and drum corps for official presentation of the colors. The National Symphony Orchestra offered the after-dinner entertainment. Tiffany and Company, the high-end jewelry company, provided the flowers and decorated the candlelit pavilion in which the guests dined.
The guests arrived by boat in a small fleet of yachts led by the presidential yacht, Honey Fitz, and the secretary of the navy’s yacht, Sequoia. They departed from the Navy Yard in Washington and sailed the fifteen miles downriver to Mount Vernon past National Airport and Alexandria, Virginia; the trip took an hour and fifteen minutes. On arrival the most vigorous guests, such as the president’s younger brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, climbed the hill to the mansion on foot, but most took advantage of the limousines the White House provided.
The guest list was led by President Ayub Khan and his daughter, Begum Nasir Akhtar Aurangzeb, and included the Pakistani foreign minister and finance minister, as well as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Aziz Ahmed, and various attaches from the embassy in Washington. Initially the ambassador was upset that the dinner would not be in the White House, fearing it would be seen as a snub. The State Department convinced Ahmed that having it at Mount Vernon was actually a benefit and would generate more publicity and distinction.
The Americans invited to the dinner were the elite of the new administration. In addition to the president, attorney general, and vice president and their wives, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of the Navy John Connally, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer, and their wives joined the party. Six senators, including J. W. Fulbright, Stuart Symington, Everett Dirksen, and Mike Mansfield were joined by the Speaker of the House and ten congressmen, including a future president, Gerald Ford, and their wives.
The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, William Roundtree; the chief of the United States Air Force, General Curtis Lemay; Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Talbott; Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver; and the president’s military assistant, Maxwell Taylor, were also in attendance. Walter Hoving, chairman of Tiffany, and Mrs. Hoving, and a half-dozen prominent Pakistani and American journalists, such as NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur, attended from outside the government. In total more than 130 guests were seated at sixteen tables.
Perhaps the guest most invested in the evening, however, was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen W. Dulles. The Kennedys had long been friends of Allen Dulles. A few years before the dinner Mrs. Kennedy had given him a copy of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel, From Russia, with Love, and Dulles, like JFK, became a big fan of 007.
Dulles was also a holdover from the previous Republican administration. He had been in charge of the planning and execution of the Bay of Pigs fiasco that had tarnished the opening days of the Kennedy administration, but Dulles still had the president’s ear on sensitive covert intelligence operations, including several critical clandestine operations run out of Pakistan with the approval of Field Marshal Ayub Khan.
Before sitting down for dinner just after eight o’clock, the guests toured the first president’s home and enjoyed bourbon mint juleps or orange juice. Both dressed in formal attire for the occasion, Kennedy took Ayub Khan for a walk in the garden alone. At that time, the CIA was running two very important clandestine operations in Pakistan. One had already made the news a year earlier when a U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union by Russian surface-to-air missiles; this plane had started its top secret mission, called Operation Grand Slam, from a Pakistani Air Force air base in Peshawar, Pakistan.
The U-2 shoot down had wrecked a summit meeting between Khrushchev and President Eisenhower in Paris in 1960 when Ike refused to apologize for the mission. The CIA had stopped flying over the Soviet Union, but still used the base near Peshawar for less dangerous U-2 operations over China.
The second clandestine operation also dated from the Eisenhower administration, but was still very much top secret. The CIA was supporting a rebellion in Communist China’s Tibet province from another Pakistani Air Force air base near Dacca in East Pakistan (what is today Bangladesh). Tibetan rebels trained by the CIA in Colorado were parachuted into Tibet from CIA transport planes that flew from that Pakistani air base, as were supplies and weapons. U-2 aircraft also landed in East Pakistan after flying over China to conduct photo reconnaissance missions of the communist state. Ayub Khan had suspended the Tibet operation earlier that summer. The Pakistani president was upset by Kennedy’s decision to provide more than a billion dollars in economic aid to India.
Pakistan believed it should be America’s preferred ally in South Asia, not India, and shutting down the CIA base for air drops to Tibet was a quiet way to signal displeasure at Washington without causing a public breakdown in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Ayub Khan wanted to make clear to Kennedy that an American tilt toward India at Pakistan’s expense would have its costs. In his memoirs, Khan later wrote that he sought to press Kennedy not to “appease India.” Before the Mount Vernon dinner, Allen Dulles had asked Kennedy to meet alone with Ayub Khan, thinking that perhaps a little Kennedy charm and the magic of the evening would change his mind. The combination worked; the Pakistani dictator told Kennedy he would allow the CIA missions over Tibet to resume from the Pakistani Air Force base at Kurmitula outside of Dacca.
Ayub Khan did get a quid pro quo for this decision later in his visit: Kennedy promised that, even if China attacked India, he would not sell arms to India without first consulting with Pakistan. However, when China did invade India the following year, Kennedy ignored this promise and provided critical aid to India, including arms, without consulting Ayub Khan, who was deeply disappointed.
The main course for dinner was poulet chasseur served with rice and accompanied by Moët and Chandon Imperial Brut champagne (at least for the Americans), followed by raspberries in cream for dessert. President Kennedy hosted a table at which sat Begum Aurangzeb, who wore a white silk sari. Khan enjoyed the beauty of a Virginia summer evening with America’s thirty-one-year-old First Lady; he sat next to Jackie, who wore an Oleg Cassini sleeveless white organza and lace evening gown sashed at the waist in chartreuse silk. In his toast the Pakistani leader warned that “any country that faltered in Asia, even for only a year or two, would find itself subjugated to communism.” In turn Kennedy hailed Ayub Khan as the George Washington of Pakistan. After midnight the guests were driven back to Washington down the George Washington Parkway.
The CIA operation in Tibet had its detractors in the Kennedy White House, including Kennedy’s handpicked ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, who called it “a particularly insane enterprise” involving “dissident and deeply unhygienic tribesmen” that risked an unpredictable Chinese response. However, the operation did produce substantial critical intelligence on the Chinese communist regime from captured documents seized by the Tibetans at a time when Washington had virtually no idea what was going on inside Red China. The U-2 flights from Dacca were even more important to the CIA’s understanding of China’s nuclear weapon development at its Lop Nor nuclear test facility. But Galbraith was in the end correct to be skeptical. The operation did have an unpredicted outcome:
The CIA operation helped persuade Chinese leader Mao Zedong to invade India in October 1962, an invasion that led the United States and China to the brink of war and began a Sino-India rivalry that continues today. It also created a Pakistani-Chinese alliance that still continues. The contours of modern Asian grand politics thus were drawn in 1962.
The dinner at Mount Vernon was a spectacular social success for the Kennedys, although they received some predictable criticism from conservative newspapers over its cost. It was also a political success for both Kennedy and the CIA, keeping the Tibet operation alive. As an outstanding example of presidential leadership in managing and executing covert operations at the highest level of government, it is an auspicious place to begin an examination of JFK’s forgotten crisis.

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