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.