From his undergraduate days at Harvard, John Kennedy had a strong interest in foreign policy. His senior thesis was an analysis of why Britain failed to maintain a military force comparable to the Germans leading up to World War II. He had traveled throughout Europe while his father Joseph was ambassador to Britain, reporting on the political situations he observed. During a short stint at Stanford, he studied business, but took courses in politics and international relations. He also understood that foreign policy, and in particular, anti-Communism, were key issues for any politician of his day.
Foreign Policy Matters
In a campaign speech for a Massachusetts State Senate seat in 1951, John Kennedy said, “Foreign policy today, irrespective of what we might wish, in its impact on our daily lives, overshadows everything else. Expenditures, taxation, domestic prosperity, the extent of social sciences — all hinge on the basic issue of war or peace.”
Kennedy’s political career played out through the Cold War. His presidency saw some of the tensest moments of the era. He encountered the Communist challenge on every front. He fought Communism in developing nations with the Peace Corps. He vowed to beat the Russians in the race to the moon. And he oversaw the largest peacetime arms buildup in history.
Bay of Pigs
Kennedy didn’t wait long for the first confrontation of his presidency. Only weeks after he took office he was told of a secret CIA plan to send an army of Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro and rid the western hemisphere of its first Communist regime. On April 17, 1961 a brigade of Cuban exiles trained by the CIA landed at the Bay of Pigs in the south of Cuba. Three days later, CIA officers in Washington listened to the rebel leader over the radio. “I have nothing left to fight with. Am taking to the woods. I can’t wait for you.” One hundred and fourteen of the exiles had been killed and 1,198 were captured.
A Lesson Learned
President Kennedy had been in office for less than three months. At a press conference on April 21, he accepted responsibility for the incident. In private he complained about the briefings he had received from the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying, “I just took their advice.” As documents become declassified, historians have placed the truth somewhere between these claims.
Just days later, on April 29, Kennedy approved the deployment of 400 Special Forces troops to South Vietnam, where they would train and advise local soldiers against the Communist North. Within two years, more than 16,000 American troops would arrive in Vietnam. U.S. involvement in Vietnam may be Kennedy’s most lasting legacy in American foreign policy, but at the time, not many Americans understood the depth of involvement that lay ahead. Scholars continue to debate what Kennedy’s intentions would have been had he lived. Aides to the president have said that he felt an American withdrawal from Vietnam would tarnish him as an appeaser — which would have been political suicide — but that he would have withdrawn after a re-election in 1964. Historian Robert Dallek says, “Kennedy was really doubtful about the wisdom of escalating the war,” and was developing a plan as early as 1962 to remove all troops in stages.
The Berlin Wall
In May 1961 Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. Kennedy was hoping that he and Khrushchev could find a solution to avoid confrontation. Khrushchev moved to close off the flow of refugees from Communism in Berlin. He threatened that if Kennedy intervened, there would be war. The summit ended without resolution. Kennedy met Khrushchev’s challenge with a force of his own, increasing the size of America’s combat forces and obtaining billions of dollars for nuclear and conventional weapons. That summer, the Russians built the Berlin Wall. The crisis eased. “A wall is better than a war,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy did have one triumph of foreign policy: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the closest the world has come to nuclear war. On October 15, American pilots photographed evidence that Soviet ballistic missiles were being installed in Cuba, despite Khrushchev’s personal assurances that there was no plan to arm Cuba with such weapons. Kennedy immediately tapped present and former cabinet members and other advisers to form the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). The ExComm had no proof that there were nuclear warheads for the missiles on the island, although subsequently declassified Soviet documents account for 134 nuclear warheads in Cuba.
On October 22, Kennedy addressed the nation; it was the first time the Soviets understood that they had been spotted in Cuba. “Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere…. We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.” In that speech the President announced a blockade of Cuba, declared that an attack from Cuba would be understood as a Soviet attack requiring response in kind, stepped up American military readiness and asked for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
JFK meeting with Soviets including Anatoly F. Dobrynin The next day at the Security Council, Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, offered clear photographic proof of missile installations, even as the Soviet representative denounced the charges as false. Following Stevenson’s presentation, world opinion began to sway toward the United States. Late that night Robert Kennedy made contact with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Communication between the two men was understood to constitute a direct channel between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev.
The world edged closer to war as Soviet ships approached the blockade, slowed, and then turned back. Days later, a U2 reconnaissance plane was shot down, inciting American military officers to action; President Kennedy refused to launch an invasion.
Russians Back Down
Finally, on October 28, Khrushchev publicly agreed to remove the missiles in return for assurances that the United States would not invade Cuba. Privately, Kennedy promised to remove American missiles from Turkey but refused to publicly declare a quid pro quo. Fidel Castro, who was not consulted by Khrushchev before the announcement of a resolution, gave a speech at the University of Havana a few days later in which he declared that the Soviet premier lacked “cojones”.
Foreign Policy Success
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s stature rose in the eyes of his countrymen and many others around the world. Just 18 months after the bungled invasion of Cuba, the missile crisis had become a showcase for Kennedy’s diplomatic savvy and bravado.
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