JFK, McNamara, and Bloody Mary


Ask most combat veterans, and they will readily tell you that war is more art than science. The messy, chaotic, incomprehensible business of organized violence seems to defy science’s ability to draw meaningful predictions. Napoleon’s strategic brilliance is more often compared to Picasso than Einstein.

For most of history, warfare was placed firmly in the category of the liberal arts. Yet in the 1960’s, amidst the revolutions of free love, peace, and psychedelic music, another revolution was quietly taking place inside the Pentagon: the transformation of war into a science.

That scientific revolution was already taking shape as early as WWII. As Dwight Eisenhower was leading the Allied forces to victory in Europe, a small office within the British Admiralty was quietly changing warfare. A group of intellectuals called the Coastal Command Operation Research Section were led by Nobel prize-winning physicist Patrick Blackett. These scientifically minded men compiled and analyzed reams of data on projects ranging from shipping convoys to aircraft paint.

Their data-driven approach allowed the military to find optimal choices on a number of issues. They uncovered that large convoys of merchant vessels were better protected from German U-boats than small, speedy convoys. They found that painting submarine-hunting aircraft white allowed them to locate and destroy submarines more effectively. Depth charges, previously set to detonate at 100 feet below the surface, started getting set to a mere 25 feet, a change that increased the U-boat kill rate sevenfold. Operations research also helped streamline logistics, improve troop training, and select bombing targets. Slowly but surely scientific principles were working their way into the art of war.

However, at the highest levels, generals still made decisions based on gut feelings and experience. The scientists were seen as outsiders and pencil pushers who lacked a real understanding of war. The operations researchers remained on the outside looking in until 1961, when the U.S. voting public elected a new president, one who promised a younger, fresher, more modern approach to national defense: John F. Kennedy.

JFK sought to fill his cabinet with intellectual, fresh faces with new perspectives on governance. To lead the DoD, he turned to a man who had risen to fame in the private sector, Robert McNamara. Kennedy hoped that the analytic McNamara could bring the DoD into the 20th century as he had the ailing Ford Motor Company. To do this, Kennedy and McNamara recruited a team of technocratic civilians from outside the military establishment. Suddenly, the scientists had gone from military outsiders to the DoD elite.

As a result, Kennedy’s cabinet meetings often looked more like a modern tech startup than a 1960’s boardroom. He often held meetings by the pool, or during sailing excursions. Inside Air Force One, important meetings took on a casual air, with Robert Kennedy’s black lab strolling about the cabin as the president and his staff set national policy. It was well known that in the Kennedy administration, the bar was always well stocked, and the commander in chief regularly shared his favorite cocktails — daiquiris and Bloody Marys — with guests, reporters, and staff members.

It is only fitting that the leaders of this new era preferred a thoroughly modern drink like a Bloody Mary. This may not seem like a particularly controversial choice of booze, but Kennedy’s predecessor had been a scotch man, and President Truman drank bourbon. So the idea of a commander-in-chief preferring a mixed drink was novel, especially one as exotic as the Bloody Mary.

The story of the Bloody Mary begins, like any good tale of the era, in a bar in interwar Paris. The expanding expat community meant there was a market for an American-style bar in the city of love. Enter Harry’s New York Bar in 1921. “Harry” referred to the owner, a Scotsman named Harry MacElhone, but the supposed inventor of the drink was Fernand “Pete” Petiot, who tended bar while barely out of his teens. According to legend, Petiot created the drink in Paris before crossing the pond to America in 1925. In the states he continued to serve his new drink, naming it after a waitress in an old saloon called the “Bloody Bucket.” Petoit grew to become a New York bartending icon, serving “every president from 1934 to 1972 except LBJ.”

Another origin story attributes the Bloody Mary to a man named George Jessel. Jessel was a partier, socialite, “professional toastmaster,” and general embodiment of the “Roaring Twenties.” By Jessel’s own account, he created the drink in 1927 in Palm Springs, California. Following a night of drinking, he and his party were attempting to cure their hangovers. The local bartender suggested they try vodka, a rare spirit in those days. Desperate to mitigate the pungent taste of the old bottle of vodka, Jessel combined the liquor with lemon and tomato juice. Jessel offered the mix to his friend Mary Warburton, who fumbled and spilled it on her white evening gown from the evening before. “You can call me Bloody Mary!” she was reported to have exclaimed.

Regardless of its origins, the drink exploded in popularity throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, thanks in large part to the creative marketing of Smirnoff. By 1961, the drink had made its way to the Oval Office. JFK could allegedly put away four in a single evening. His fondness for the drink even reached a point where his doctors intervened, and restricted his alcohol intake.

Following the president’s death in 1964, the situation turned against McNamara and his Whiz Kids. Lyndon B. Johnson chose to escalate the war in Vietnam, sending hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to fight. At the Pentagon, the scientists and statisticians formulated data-driven strategies to beat the comparatively small state of North Vietnam. They relied on body counts, tons of bombs dropped, and supply interdiction to combat the Communist North and their Viet Cong sympathizers. Despite reams of positive data, the United States never quite made it to the light at the end of the tunnel. By 1967, even McNamara saw the writing on the wall; Vietnam couldn’t be won with operations analysis, and might not be able to be won at all. In early 1968, he tendered his resignation to President Johnson, and went on to serve as president of the World Bank, where he championed poverty reduction and development.

Operations research continues throughout the DoD, in offices and programs that range from the Office of Net Assessment to the Center for Naval Analyses to the Marine Corps Operational Test and Evaluation Activity. While an important aspect of military operations, operations research is rightly only a part of larger strategic decision-making, relying principally on military experience and leadership.

As for the Bloody Mary, there are now countless ways to make the iconic drink, but if you love the Chesapeake Bay like I do, you want one that relies on Old Bay:


3 Cups V8 Tomato Juice
1 Cup Vodka
3 Oz. Freshly squeezed lime juice (about 4 limes)
1½ Oz. Freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1–2 lemons)
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tsp. Tabasco Sauce
1 Tsp. Old Bay Seasoning
1 Tsp. Sugar
½ Tsp. Prepared horseradish
¼ Tsp. Freshly ground black pepper


Combine all ingredients except for the vodka in a large, non-reactive container or pitcher and mix well. Cover and refrigerate and let the flavors meld, overnight is best but not more than 24 hours. Add vodka a couple hours before serving and keep refrigerated. Pour into mason jars filled with ice and celery stalks. Garnish with bacon and tater tots.


Paul Lewandowski is a graduate student, veteran and writer. He prefers a good gin gimlet to just about anything else. America is his favorite country and his favorite color is a tie among red, white, and blue.