Beginning late in 2011, U.S. Army Special Forces (SF – the Green Berets) began to celebrate a special event from their past: the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to the Special Warfare Center (SWC) at Fort Bragg, N.C. This single visit by the young president was the seminal event that launched the transformation of the Special Forces and began the creation of the modern Green Berets as we know them today. Though often told, the story of this event is much more than just the tale of how the Green Berets got official Army permission to wear their signature headgear. On the contrary, it is the story of how a promising force of special men were able to evolve into the elite fighting force known to Americans today.
Nov. 17, 2011, was a raw, icy, rainy morning at the gravesite of JFK, where hundreds of military and government officials, guests, and Kennedy family members gathered to remember the one and only visit by the president to the school that today bears his name: the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (JFKSWCS) at Fort Bragg. Hosted by the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI), the Honorable Michael G. Vickers, the event recalled Kennedy’s Oct. 12, 1961, visit to the SWC, where he met then-Brig. Gen. William Yarborough, USA, and his SF soldiers.
Of the event, Vickers, himself a former Green Beret and CIA operative, said, “ … It’s very rare that an element of the [U.S.] armed forces gets singled out by a president like that, and so this is a special thing to honor and I was glad to be part of it … both my alma maters, if you will, the [Army] Special Forces and the CIA [Central Inteligence Agency], both grew out of the [World War II] OSS [Office of Strategic Services] tradition and share that heritage today. But it really wasn’t until the 1960s with President Kennedy that [we saw] one of the periods of great growth in Special Forces, and it really put us on a path that we remain on to this day. There really is a lot of continuity in it. Missions have changed a little bit, and tactics have changed, but the path that was set forward in the early 1960s really remains with us today.”
The popular history of Kennedy’s visit primarily revolves around Yarborough’s efforts, involving the Presidential Military Aide Brig. Gen. Chester V. “Ted” Clifton Jr., USA, to get official U.S. Army permission for his soldiers to wear their distinctive green berets as an official piece of uniform headgear. Yarborough had encountered considerable resistance from Army leadership on the matter, and had arranged through Clifton, a West Point classmate, for Kennedy’s help in overcoming the opposition. Kennedy, always a lover of snappy fashion, had asked officially to see Yarborough’s SF soldiers with “their green berets,” during his visit.
Army leadership, seeing the presidential interest in the headgear, soon after approved it as the official headgear of SF, and thus Special Forces’ trademark name was born. But there was much more going on that sunny October day than a fashion show: There was a transformation taking place within the special warfare community itself.
In 1961, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) and clandestine warfare capabilities were a mere shadow of what they had been at the end of World War II in 1945. Legendary SOF units and communities like the OSS, the Rangers, the 1st Special Service Force, Marine Raiders, Air Commandos, and others were rapidly disestablished as part of the postwar demobilization. Within a few years however, the discarding of American clandestine/discretionary warfare capabilities began to be felt, and gradually made good. It began with the establishment of the CIA in 1947, and continued with the establishment of the Army Ranger School during the Korean war, and the standing up of the first SF group, the 10th Special Forces Group (SFG)in 1952.
By the start of the 1960s, the U.S. Army had grown the Special Forces with several additional SFGs, but had done little to incorporate them institutionally or assign them formal roles and missions in U.S. military strategy. SF tactics, doctrine, and organization had advanced little since 1944, when the OSS Jedburgh teams had been part of Operation Overlord. SF teams were fine as intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) elements and “stay-behind” elements to work with resistance or partisan forces, but had little capability against the rising spectre of rural or national insurgency. The 1950s had seen a number of such movements rise and overthrow their former colonial governments, along with some of the despotic dictators who had taken over during World War II. In particular, the successes of Communist insurgencies on Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh and in Cuba under Fidel Castro were proving difficult to counter, and growing in popularity around the world.
Enter President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Kennedy came to the job of president with a very different worldview than his processors. Born into wealth and privilege, Kennedy’s wartime experience had not been a conventional one. Where future President Dwight Eisenhower had commanded an entire theater of war, the U.S. Army, and NATO, Kennedy’s view of World War II had been from the deck of a patrol torpedo (PT) boat with responsibility for a dozen sailors. Perhaps more important, however, had been the fact that Kennedy had been part of the “junkyard” Navy, and usually fought apart from the rest of the fleet.
The littoral areas of the Solomon Islands had been where Kennedy had done battle, fighting up-close and, unconventionally, apart from the fast carriers and battlewagons of the “big” Navy. So when Kennedy came to office, it did not take him long to notice the rising threat of Communist insurgencies, the handful of SOF units in the U.S. military, and a possible strategy. By the spring of 1961, Kennedy had spoken to a joint session of Congress on the matter, and was looking to enlarge America’s SOF community. There were already plans to create a maritime SOF force, which would become the U.S. Navy SEa, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams, and organize more Army SFGs.
At the same time, at SWC on Fort Bragg, Yarborough had had similar ideas, though his were perhaps more granular than those of a president still smarting after the CIA’s failure at the Bay of Pigs, and the Berlin Crisis. Yarborough had a number of ideas about new capabilities and improvements for the Army’s SF force, some of which would take it well beyond the modest ISR or stay-behind missions. In his vision of SF, Yarborough saw teams able to cover the full “rainbow” of warfare missions, from peacekeeping to nuclear combat. They would become America’s most capable soldiers, ambassadors with language and cultural skills as effective as their abilities with combat rifles and explosives. Perhaps most important of all, this rainbow of capabilities would be organic in the dozen soldiers in each new SF team, a concept he called “Uniteam.” But to make it all happen, he would need a powerful friend with the power to move the Army bureaucracy into seeing that a transformed SF force was in the best interests of the Army and the nation.
It was Clifton who helped connect the parallel goals and interests of Kennedy and Yarborough into the SWC visit of Oct. 12, 1961. The results for both men were impressive and still resonate today. Kennedy got the Navy SEALs, more SFGs, and the Air Commandos, and his vision led to the re-establishment of the Rangers and Marine SOF, among others. These would be among the most effective U.S. units in Southeast Asia in the coming wars there, and all continue to serve America today.
In a presidency cut short by assassination, Kennedy’s creation of the modern special warfare community must be marked, along with the lunar landing program, as one of his great achievements. And for Yarborough, Kennedy’s visit provided the inertia and support to make the SF community into everything he envisioned and more.
The Uniteam concept became the basis for the Operational Detachment-Alpha, or “A-Team,” which has been the basic building block of SF for a half-century. Yarborough also was able to turn the SWC, renamed after Kennedy’s assassination as the JFKSWCS, into the finest such school in the world. And perhaps most cleverly of all, these ideas were implanted and codified into the minds of Army leaders and the public by a brilliant public relations campaign personally orchestrated by Yarborough. He allowed well-known author Robin Moore to write a book about the Special Forces, which became the international bestseller and feature film The Green Berets. He also was instrumental in the creation of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler’s No. 1 hit song, “The Ballad of the Green Beret.” These ideas and images cemented the Special Forces into the Army in a way that allowed them to survive the difficult years following Vietnam and made them the “go-to” force after 9/11.
So the past few months spanning 2011-2012 have become a celebration of Kennedy, Yarborough, and what they did on Oct. 12, 1961, with a key event recently taking place on April 5, 2012. As part of the scheduled graduation of Special Forces Class 267, there was a dedication of a new statue celebrating the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s visit. Commissioned by computer magnate H. Ross Perot, himself an honorary Green Beret, the bronze depicts Kennedy and Yarborough during the visit, down to the last detail.
“I wanted it done just exactly the way Fort Bragg wanted it,” said Perot, “and it has been done that way. We had a great sculptor, Paul Moore of Norman, Okla., who I think did a perfect job and got the faces just right and everything. You can go back to the original photograph [from that day].”
In front of hundreds of family members and guests, Perot handed each new SF soldier his Green Beret, and urged them to reach their full potential in the honorable profession to which they had all aspired.
“We were looking for an appropriate time when everything would come together, we could get the people here, and we could set something like this up,” JFKSWCS Commander Maj. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick said about the ceremony. “So, the actual graduation ceremony today was not too dissimilar from all the previous ones – the movements, the timing, everything, but I wanted to leverage Ross Perot. And I kind of wanted to make it about the soldiers and not necessarily about the statue. This is a classroom facility. Soldiers meet out here every day. This is where they have their formations. They walk by it two or three times a day, so it’s perfectly located.”
Looking back on Kennedy’s visit in 1961, Sacolick had his own thoughts on the long-term significance of what Kennedy and Yarborough started that day.
“I think it was huge,” he said. “And it was just the beginning for Special Forces at that point. You know the SF force was back then totally kind of subordinate to the ‘big’ Army for our equipment, manpower, and even our relevance, quite frankly. It wasn’t until we became a branch, truly, in 1986 that we truly were in charge of our own destiny. I was a captain in 1986 when I came in here. I came in as an infantry officer and it was about three months later where we had to decide whether I wanted to stay in the infantry branch or go with the Special Forces. And I chose SF and an A-Team and I’ve never had another job outside of that in my life. So, I mean, I loved it.”
It is debatable whether Kennedy or Yarborough were thinking about how significant their few minutes together on Oct. 12, 1961, would be at the time. Both men were trying to help create capabilities for the American military and nation they believed were needed and required. What that meeting did, though, was change the course of world history, with results that are being seen today.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2012-2013 Edition.