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. 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 Dwight D. 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.”