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.