Presidential transitions were not always a thing
Given the current obsession with the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, it is striking that for most of American history, presidential transitions were not really a thing. The president’s job responsibilities before the New Deal and World War II were comparatively modest, and thus, the transfer of power from one incumbent to the next was not commonly fraught with genuine risk and thus unworthy of special attention.
Too, before 1933, presidential inaugurals occurred on March 4, rather than late January. That gave incoming administrations four months to prepare for a measured and nondescript slide into the White House. It was a combination of the bombing of Hiroshima and the 20th Amendment that propelled into existence the concept of the “presidential transition.”
However, 1960 proved to be the watershed year for establishing the transition as a point of enduring concern in American politics. In part this was because John Kennedy designated two serious thinkers — Democratic Party eminence Clark Clifford and Harvard professor Richard Neustadt — to assist him in plotting out the contours of his assumption of power. In that same year, professor Laurin Henry published the first book on transitions, through the Brookings Institution, presenting undeniable evidence to Washington’s chattering classes that transitions matter.
But the most significant development associated with the 1960-61 transition, which solidified transitions as a matter for serious attention, was the Bay of Pigs invasion just three months into Kennedy’s term. That colossal cock-up rocked JFK’s young presidency and made transition problems an evergreen industry. It also is a precedent that ought to be keeping President-elect Biden’s staff awake at night.
Late in his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower set into motion a covert operation to bring down Fidel Castro’s new government in Cuba. The idea was to form and train a cadre of Cuban exiles into a small, amphibious invasion force, which would go onto the island and spark a revolution among like-minded people opposed to Castro’s communism. The beauty of the plan, according to those at the CIA who designed it, was that it would give the appearance of an entirely homegrown uprising, with no U.S. fingerprints.
Crucially, the plan could not be brought to fruition during Eisenhower’s presidency — meaning that it was ongoing during the 1960-61 transition. It fell to Kennedy and his team to carry out a plan designed by his predecessor, or to cancel it. What they green-lighted resulted in a tragically botched operation. The invaders lost the element of surprise early, so the beachhead was compromised, and they were not given the kind of American air support they believed would be provided. Over 1,000 invaders were captured or killed, with American fingerprints all over the mess. “How could I have been so stupid?” Kennedy lamented after the failure.
John Kennedy was not stupid; nor was his staff. But they were working in an improvisational, high-stakes environment, where mistakes are easy to make. This is why presidential transitions are so perilous.
Indeed, there are a number of identifiable problems endemic to transitions that the Biden team even now is wrestling with.
First, one president’s plans are not so easily reversed by a successor. In 1960, Kennedy’s reluctance to stop the operation was rooted mainly in his agreement with Eisenhower’s goal for Cuba and his respect for his predecessor’s unsurpassed military credentials. But Kennedy was also captive to other logics. Following Newton’s first law, a program set in motion tends to remain in motion unless some force is applied to stop it. What Biden cannot know now, without extensive briefings, is how many such programs exist to which he might need to apply his force to stop.
Moreover, those Cuban exiles had been sent by Eisenhower’s people to Guatemala to train. But no advanced preparation had been made for what to do with this force if Kennedy decided not to advance the invasion. This made for an explosive political situation, inasmuch as disgruntled exiles were bound to seek publicity to embarrass the United States if the plug were pulled on the mission. Every incoming president has to worry about risky programs created with no off-ramps — and how they might blow up on their watch.
Second, even smart, experienced people need time to form a functioning administration. Anybody who has watched an all-star game in any sport will know that great talent does not always make for great teamwork. It takes time and practice. The incoming Kennedy administration was populated with some of the brightest minds ever to join hands in public service, but they were unaccustomed to working with one another — and thus, overly deferential when decisions were being made about the invasion. The few checks JFK insisted on instituting didn’t work as he intended, because his people did not yet know what they did not know — especially when it came to reading the moves of their teammates. That is a recipe for disaster.
Finally, seemingly innocuous decisions made in the heat of a transition can have profoundly adverse consequences. As the Cuban invasion was in its final planning stages, the invasion site was moved from near the city of Trinidad to the Bay of Pigs. The rationale for this was laudable: Kennedy insisted on plausible deniability — that the invasion look entirely like an all-Cuban effort, not a military operation, which would too easily appear to be an American design. But this single change unwittingly introduced disaster.
The original plan had a failsafe mechanism: If the assault faltered for whatever reason, the invaders could head into the nearby mountains and blend into the population, setting up a guerrilla force to fight another day. But the Bay of Pigs site was a vast distance from those mountains — meaning that the back-up plan had unwittingly vanished. One of the core hazards of a presidential transition is in knowing which decisions a president makes that unexpectedly deprive him of options later.
It is worth emphasizing today that both Eisenhower and Kennedy were acting in good faith and working toward a shared goal. And their teams were largely cooperative. Even under those conditions, the transition created a terrible outcome for the new administration. How much greater are the hazards if the outgoing president sees fit to stoke them by adding booby traps along the way?
Russell Riley is the co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. An authority on elite oral history interviewing and the contemporary presidency, he has logged more than 1,500 hours of confidential interviews with senior members of the White House staff, cabinet officers and foreign leaders dating to the Carter and Reagan administrations.