John F. Kennedy was sworn in as President of the United States on January 20, 1961. Robert Frost, the nation's most famous poet (and a New Englander, like JFK), delivered a poem to open the memorable inauguration. JFK followed by delivering what is still regarded as one of the finest inaugural addresses ever. "Let the word go forth from this time and place," he told the crowd, in words that are etched on his tomb in Arlington Cemetery, "that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace." Referring to the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union, he declared: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to insure the survival and the success of liberty." Most famously, the new president insisted that Americans must "ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country."
After the eloquence, the business of running the country began. JFK's Cabinet was balanced ideologically, reflecting the closeness of the election–it included two Republicans, one as Secretary of the Treasury and the other, Robert McNamara, as Secretary of Defense. Dean Rusk, an able administrator, was named Secretary of State, Adlai Stevenson became Ambassador to the United Nations, and Washington veteran J. Edgar Hoover remained as head of the F.B.I. Most controversial was the president's decision to pick his younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as Attorney General. As always, the Kennedys were looking out for each other.
JFK faced his first serious crisis just four months after being inaugurated in January 1961. In 1959, a guerrilla leader named Fidel Castro had toppled the corrupt Batista dictatorship and made himself ruler of Cuba, an island nation just south of Florida. Over the next two years, to Washington's alarm, Castro began to move toward a Communist-style government, while seeking aid from the Soviet Union. Under Eisenhower, the U.S. had formulated a plan to topple the Cuban dictator, using a force of C.I.A.-trained anti-Castro Cubans. JFK allowed the plan to go forward in April of 1961, but tried to reduce U.S. involvement. The result was a fiasco, as the invasion force was slaughtered and the survivors taken prisoner, while American warships watched, helpless, from a few miles out to sea. This Bay of Pigs disaster (named for the ill-fated landing area) was a black eye for the U.S.'s image overseas, and it emboldened the Soviet Union. JFK took "sole responsibility" for what happened, and leaders of both parties rallied around the president. The damage, however, was done.
In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev saw JFK as a weak, inexperienced figure whom the U.S.S.R. could easily bully. In June of 1961, the two world leaders met at a summit in the Austrian capital of Vienna. The central issue for discussion was the fate of Berlin. At the end of World War II, the German capital had been divided, along with the nation itself, into two zones: Communist East Berlin and democratic West Berlin. Since the city as a whole lay in Communist East Germany (which was, in turn, under the thumb of the U.S.S.R.), the Communists were constantly threatening to cut off access to West Berlin, thus strangling the democratic half of the city. In Vienna, Khrushchev renewed this threat, suggesting that the Soviet Union might sign a treaty with East Germany that would cut off all access by western nations to West Berlin. JFK stood firm, and the promised blockade never materialized; but the East Germans did throw up an ugly concrete and barb-wired wall between East and West Berlin, to prevent their own people from leaving for the West. The Berlin Wall became a symbol of the Cold War, one that would endure until 1989.
The true challenge for JFK, however, lay still ahead. Khrushchev, probing for weakness, authorized the construction of Soviet missile bases in Cuba, from which the entire United States could be threatened with nuclear attack. On October 16, 1962, JFK's military advisers handed him aerial reconnaissance photographs showing these missile emplacements. Many of the president's generals urged an immediate invasion of Cuba, but JFK held out hope for a peaceful settlement. On October 22, he announced that a United States naval and air quarantine would go into effect, preventing any further missile shipments from Russia to Cuba. He also demanded that the Soviets remove any and all nuclear weapons already in place.
So began the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. As Russian ships steamed closer to the blockade cordon, a flurry of telegrams shot back and forth between Washington and Moscow. Khrushchev, alternately conciliatory and bellicose, claimed that he was only trying to protect Castro's government from U.S. invasion, and then suggested that the missiles might be removed if the U.S. dismantled its own Jupiter missiles in Turkey, just across the Black Sea from the Soviet Union. On Wednesday, October 24, Russian ships steaming toward Cuba turned back, and by the end of the week an agreement had been struck: Khrushchev would remove the missiles from Cuba in return for JFK's public pledge that the U.S. would cease trying to undermine Castro's government, and his private pledge that the U.S. would dismantle the Jupiter missiles in Turkey.
For decades, historians have debated who "won" this exchange. In a sense, the Soviets were winners, since they could claim to have protected their client state in Cuba and forced the U.S. to remove its missiles from Turkey. In the court of world opinion, though, it looked as if the Kennedy administration had called the Soviet Union's bluff. More importantly, JFK's skillful and judicious diplomacy had managed to protect American interests and stave off the terrifying and very real threat of nuclear annihilation. The world may never have been closer to nuclear war than in October 1963, and it is to JFK's credit that such a war never came.