WASHINGTON -- After Navy SEALS shot Osama bin Laden early this month, the Situation Room photo of President Obama and his national security team gravely monitoring the operation across the globe quickly became a defining image of that long night.
The White House’s high-tech bunker, where the president held a ceremony today, was quickly built in what had been an old basement bowling alley fifty years ago because of another overseas operation that ended with far less success: the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
“The seeds of what we saw in that photo were planted in the Kennedy administration,” said Tom Putnam, director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Tying together the half-century of history, President Obama renamed a secure conference room today after President Kennedy. The assassinated president's daughter Caroline Kennedy attended, along with grandson, John "Jack" Schlossberg.
"It’s the nerve center for the U.S. government, the place where we come together to make policy and respond to crises from wars abroad to floods at home," President Obama said.
The attempt in April of 1961 to overthrow Fidel Castro’s socialist government badly marred Kennedy’s image, left the White House reeling and gave the impression of a president who was not in control of his administration.
Documents released from the Kennedy Library in Boston reveal that in aftermath of the Cuba operation, the president’s advisers counseled Kennedy to take charge of his staff, organize himself more effectively and create a gathering place where crises could be monitored and managed.
Just days after the Bay of Pigs, US Air Force Colonel Godfrey T. McHugh sent a memo to the president proposing what he called a “Nerve Center for the White House.”
Among its functions would be “up-to-the-minute intelligence from all government agencies” on world events and conflicts with Communist adversaries. “As such it would be a war room for the cold war,” McHugh wrote, underlining his own words for emphasis.
And a primary goal of that nerve center would be for the president to “exert vigorous, personal leadership of the government.” Doing so would have an “electrifying effect” throughout the administration, McHugh wrote.
Some of the president’s advisers suggested that such a take-command attitude was badly needed in the free-wheeling Kennedy White House.
In a startlingly frank memo, the president's special assistant for national security, McGeorge Bundy, complained that Kennedy's calendar was erratic and poorly managed, and that the president needed to set aside time for a regular daily security briefing.
“Will you try it? Perhaps the best place for it would be the new Situation Room which we have just set up in the basement of the West Wing,” he wrote in the memo from May 16, 1962.
Navy Sea Bees build the Situation Room in just a week, working at night, according to an oral history from Tazewell Shepard, the president’s naval aide. Ironically, Kennedy apparently did not spend much time in the room; daily schedules suggest that he occasionally took secure calls there, but his staff mostly used it. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he met with his advisers in the Cabinet Room, Putnam said.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.