With Eisenhower out of the running, Republicans nominated Vice President Richard M. Nixon at their national nominating convention in 1960. Conservatives loved the former Red hunter for his tough-talking stance against Communism and the Soviet Union. As vice president, Nixon had traveled abroad extensively to handle “brushfire” crises and had even engaged Khrushchev in a televised debate in Moscow. Democrats, meanwhile, nominated the relatively unknown John F. Kennedy, a young but accomplished senator from Massachusetts who had served with distinction in World War II and had won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1956 book Profiles in Courage .
At only forty-three years old, Kennedy exuded a youthful confidence that contrasted sharply with Nixon’s serious demeanor—a contrast that was plainly evident in the first-ever live televised presidential debates in 1960. Tens of millions of Americans tuned in to watch the two candidates discuss the issues. Although radio listeners might have concluded that Nixon “won” the debates, Kennedy took full advantage of the visual television medium by projecting strength, coolness, and even cheerfulness, whereas Nixon appeared nervous, pale, and shaken on-screen. Largely thanks to these TV debates, Kennedy defeated Nixon by a slim margin to become the youngest and first Catholic president.
During his campaign, Kennedy had promised voters to revive government liberalism, which had withered under Eisenhower, with a new set of reforms collectively called the New Frontier. The young president wanted to expand Social Security to benefit more Americans, help the elderly pay their medical costs, fund educational endeavors, raise the national minimum wage, and reduce income inequality.
In his famous inaugural address, Kennedy appealed to American youth by instructing them to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He later launched the Peace Corps to support this effort, encouraging young Americans to assist people in developing countries. Kennedy also responded to national fears and pressures regarding the space race with the Soviet Union by challenging Americans to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. His enthusiasm spread across the country.
Despite these enthusiastic promises and a great amount of public support, Kennedy achieved only a few of his goals because conservative southern Democrats united with Republicans in Congress to block almost all New Frontier legislation. Congress did raise the minimum wage to $1.25 per hour and funneled a little more money into Social Security, but it refused to pass any major reforms.
Kennedy’s first foreign policy crisis surfaced just months after he took office, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened to sign a treaty with East Germany that would cut off the city of Berlin from the United States and Western Europe. Although the Soviet Union never signed any such treaty, it did construct a massive wall of concrete and barbed wire around West Berlin in 1961 to prevent East Germans from escaping to freedom in the Western-controlled part of the city. Over the years, guard towers were installed, and the “no-man’s-land” between the inner and outer walls was mined and booby-trapped, making it incredibly difficult for East Germans to escape to West Berlin without being killed or captured. Over the ensuing decades, the Berlin Wall came to be the most famous symbol of the Cold War.
During Kennedy’s term, the issue of decolonization posed a particularly difficult problem for a U.S. government committed to halting the spread of Communism. As more and more new, independent countries were formed from old European colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, Kennedy faced an increasingly difficult task of ensuring that Communists did not seize power. Complicating the situation was the fact that Eisenhower’s stated policy of “massive retaliation,” which threatened to use nuclear weapons to halt the Communist tide, effectively tied the president’s hands. On one hand, Kennedy would lose credibility if he allowed Communism to take root in any of these newly decolonized countries. At the same time, however, he wanted to do anything he could to avoid using nuclear weapons.
The growing Communist power in the Southeast Asian country of Laos made this catch-22 very real. After carefully considering his options, Kennedy finally decided not to use military force and instead convened a multination peace conference in Geneva in 1962 to end the civil war that had erupted in Laos.
Kennedy, hoping never to have to decide between nuclear war and political embarrassment again, devised a new strategy of “flexible response” to deal with the USSR. Crafted with the aid of foreign policy veteran Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, the flexible response doctrine was meant to allow the president to combat Soviet advances around the world through a variety of means. In other words, Kennedy could send money or troops to fight Communist insurgents, authorize the CIA to topple an unfriendly government, or, as a last resort, use nuclear weapons.
Kennedy first applied his new doctrine to the problem in Vietnam, which was becoming an even greater problem than Laos had been. The United States had been funding Ngo Dinh Diem’s corrupt South Vietnamese regime since Eisenhower first pledged support after the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Most South Vietnamese, however, hated Diem, resented the United States for keeping him in power, and threatened to overthrow him on numerous occasions. To prevent Communist-backed insurgents from taking control of South Vietnam, Kennedy increased American commitment by sending approximately 15,000 U.S. servicemen to Saigon, ostensibly as mere “military advisors.” When anti-Diem sentiment continued to intensify, however, the United States supported exactly what it had tried to prevent—it allowed a 1963 coup to overthrow Diem.
Kennedy’s decision to send “military advisors” to South Vietnam drastically increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese civil war. Eisenhower, after all, had merely funded the anti-Communist faction, just as Truman had funded such factions in Greece and Turkey in the late 1940s. Because the United States sent troops, regardless of what they were called, responsibility for the war began to shift away from South Vietnam and onto the United States. The arrival of the first group of soldiers in Vietnam opened the floodgates, and additional troops soon followed. Eventually, Kennedy and future presidents would find it politically impossible to recall U.S. forces without having first defeated the pro-Communist North Vietnamese. Kennedy’s decision to send “military advisors” ultimately proved to be a costly mistake that entangled the United States in what would prove to be the longest and least successful war in American history to date. (For more information, see the History SparkNote The Vietnam War.)
In Latin America, Kennedy used a different strategy to fight Communist forces. Hoping to reduce income inequality and quell pro-Communist stirrings in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, Kennedy decided in 1961 to give hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to the region’s nations. This so-called Alliance for Progress had very little real effect. Although Democrats lauded the alliance as the Marshall Plan for the Western Hemisphere, the money did almost nothing to reduce the Latin American poverty rate.
Hoping to topple Cuba’s Communist-leaning leader, Fidel Castro, Kennedy authorized the CIA to train and arm pro-American Cuban exiles and support them in an attempted invasion of Cuba in1961. U.S. foreign policy advisors hoped that the American-armed exiles, with U.S. Air Force support, could overpower Castro’s sentries and spark a popular uprising.
Shortly before the invasion, however, Kennedy privately decided not to commit to U.S. air support. The CIA-trained exiles, believing that American planes would cover them, stormed a beach on Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in April 1961, only to be ruthlessly gunned down by Castro’s forces. The invasion was a complete failure and an embarrassment for the Kennedy administration and the United States. Kennedy accepted full responsibility for the massacre but continued to authorize covert CIA missions to assassinate Castro, all of which proved unsuccessful.
The following year, the true cost of the Bay of Pigs fiasco became apparent, and it turned out to be even worse than it had initially appeared. Castro, understandably outraged at the U.S. attempt to oust him, turned to the Soviet Union for support. Khrushchev, eager to have an ally so close to U.S. shores, readily welcomed Castro’s friendship. In 1962, it was revealed that the USSR had installed several nuclear missiles in Cuba, less than 100 miles off the Florida coast.
Upon learning of the missiles’ existence, a stunned Kennedy ordered the U.S. Navy to blockade Cuba and demanded that Khrushchev remove the missiles. Moreover, he threatened to retaliate against Moscow if Cuba launched any missiles at the United States. With neither side willing to concede, the world stood on the brink of all-out nuclear war for nearly two weeks. Finally, Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles if the United States ended the blockade. Kennedy quickly agreed and likewise offered to remove from Turkey American nuclear warheads aimed at the USSR. The Cuban missile crisis was the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to nuclear war during the Cold War era.
Because neither Washington, D.C., nor Moscow actually wanted a nuclear holocaust, they agreed to install a “hotline” between the two capitals so that the Soviet premier and the U.S. president could speak to each other personally during future crises. The Communist Party leadership in the USSR also removed Khrushchev from power for having made the first concession to end the crisis. Meanwhile, Kennedy pressured the Soviets to sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 to outlaw atmospheric and underwater detonation tests. Although the treaty was mostly a symbolic gesture, as it did not prohibit underground tests, it nevertheless marked a key step toward reducing tensions between the United States and the USSR.
Kennedy’s presidency came to a tragic and unexpected end on November 22, 1963, while the president was riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Armed with a rifle and hiding in a nearby book depository, assassin Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy as his convertible passed. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as Kennedy’s successor later that day. Although Oswald was arrested within an hour and a half of the assassination, he himself was shot and killed two days later in a Dallas police station (and on live television) by another gunman, named Jack Ruby.
Conspiracy theories about the assassination arose almost immediately after Oswald’s death. A week after he took office, President Johnson formed the Warren Commission, headed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren, to launch an official investigation into Kennedy’s death. Although the commission’s report ultimately concluded that Oswald acted alone, it did little to silence the claims of conspiracy theorists. Another congressional investigation in 1979 questioned the Warren Commission’s findings, and speculation continues to this day.