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.