The Cold War Continues
During Kennedy’s and Johnson’s presidencies, tensions
remained high with the USSR. These tensions peaked most notably
in Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam.
The Berlin Wall
In 1961, the USSR completed construction of the Berlin
Wall, which physically separated East and West Berlin and
was patrolled by East German guards. The wall was meant to prevent
the exodus of talented and intelligent East Germans to West Germany,
but it also came to symbolize the division of the entire world into
two carefully guarded Cold War spheres.
The Cold War in Cuba
After Fidel Castro and the Cuban communists
overthrew the Cuban government in 1959, the island nation became
a subject of much anxiety to the U.S., since it represented an extension
of the Soviet sphere of influence close to American territory. In
1961, JFK authorized a plan, drawn up by the Eisenhower administration,
to send 1,500 Cuban exiles, trained and armed by the U.S., back
to Cuba to spark an insurrection. The Bay of Pigs Invasion,
as this operation was known, took place in April 1961, and resulted
in an embarrassing defeat for the returning exiles and the United
The focus of the Cold War turned toward Cuba once again
in 1962, when Americans discovered Soviet missile bases under construction
in Cuba. In what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis,
JFK vowed to quarantine Cuba with a naval blockade to prevent the shipment
of more missiles and to dismantle the existing missile bases by
force if the USSR did not do so. Some 250,000 troops gathered in
Florida to prepare to invade Cuba, and U.S. naval forces readied
themselves to intercept Russian freighters en route. U.S.-USSR relations
became tenser than ever. Nuclear war seemed very possible: U.S.
B-52s carrying nuclear weapons remained constantly airborne, ready
to strike. After several days, Soviet Premier Khrushchev recalled
the Russian freighters and sent Kennedy a message that he would
dismantle the Cuban missiles in exchange for a U.S. promise never
to invade Cuba. Kennedy accepted the compromise. The Cuban Missile
Crisis has been viewed as the defining moment of JFK’s presidency.
The discovery of Soviet missile sites in Cuba
in 1962 led to a standoff between the U.S. and the USSR. The Cuban
Missile Crisis brought the world’s two superpowers closer to nuclear
war than any other Cold War episode.
In July 1963, the U.S. and USSR signed the Limited
Test-Ban Treaty, which prohibited undersea and atmospheric
testing of nuclear weaponry. This effort at easing tensions would
later be known as détente.
Vietnam and the Vietnam War
Vietnam, divided at the seventeenth parallel between communist
North Vietnam and U.S.-dominated South Vietnam, concerned Kennedy
from the very beginning of his presidency. He believed in Eisenhower’s “domino
theory,” which held that when one nation fell under Soviet
domination, others in the region would soon follow. In efforts to
stave off communist advances, Kennedy boosted the number of U.S.
forces in South Vietnam to 16,000 by 1963. These forces aimed to
protect the South Vietnamese from the pro-communist National Liberation
Front, called the Vietcong.
Less than a month later, JFK was assassinated and Lyndon
Johnson took over the presidency and the oversight of American operations
in Vietnam. In August 1964, two American destroyers allegedly clashed
with North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, off North
Vietnam. Johnson announced that Americans had been attacked without
cause and ordered air strikes. Congress passed the Gulf of
Tonkin Resolution in August 1964, which authorized the escalation
of American troops’ involvement in Vietnam. Nearly equivalent to
a declaration of war, this resolution allowed Johnson to act as
he saw fit in Vietnam. In 1965, Johnson ordered “Operation Rolling
Thunder,” which launched continuous bombing of North Vietnam. This
plan, however, failed to force North Vietnam to negotiate, and did
not stop the flow of soldiers and supplies to communist forces in
Since bombing was ineffective, Johnson decided in March
1965 to commit ground forces to the struggle. By the end of 1967,
nearly 500,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Vietnam. The enemy
these soldiers faced—the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong—used
guerrilla tactics and were well supplied, well reinforced, and determined
to fight until U.S. forces left Vietnam.
The haphazard guerrilla warfare provided little
measurable indication of failure or success, and the American public
gauged victories from casualty rates. In January 1968, the North
Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong launched a massive offensive, known
as the Tet Offensive. Though American troops repelled
the offensive after about a month of fighting, many thousands of
Americans were killed, and the enemy managed to breach many areas
thought to be secure. The American public began to believe that
victory in Vietnam was impossible. The growing antiwar movement
gained immense strength and support, and Johnson’s approval ratings
plummeted. During the 1968 presidential campaign, Johnson halted
the sustained bombing of North Vietnam and announced that he would
not seek reelection. The increasingly unpopular war would be placed
in the hands of his successor.
The Tet Offensive was a major turning
point in the Vietnam War. Though a tactical defeat for the pro-communist
forces, thousands of American deaths and the scope of the offensive
convinced many Americans of the impossibility of victory.
Protesting the Vietnam War
Opposition to the Vietnam War began on college campuses
around the nation. In 1965, the first “teach-in” was held at the
University of Michigan to discuss U.S. actions. In 1966, after a
wave of military draft calls, mass protests erupted on college campuses.
Many clergy, intellectuals, politicians, and others joined students
in voicing opposition to the war. These critics denounced American
involvement in an essentially Vietnamese war, claiming there was
no way to win without great cost and loss of life, and noted that
the war was fought predominantly by poor Americans. Television coverage
of the war further intensified antiwar sentiments, as Americans
saw firsthand the brutal devastation involved.
Although a majority of Americans still supported the war,
those who opposed it did so fervently, and the nation polarized
along the two sides. At times, violence erupted, as when antiwar
protesters clashed with police outside the Democratic National Convention
The Vietnam War sharply divided the
American people into antagonistic pro-war and antiwar camps. Student
movements, criticism from respected American luminaries, and televised
atrocities all contributed to antiwar sentiments.