The Soviet Menace
As soon as he took office, Kennedy became increasingly worried about turning the Cold War into a hot one, resulting in nuclear catastrophe. Nikita Khrushchev continued to aid in the spread of communism around the world and Kennedy wanted to show the American public he would not be bullied by the Soviet premier.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): This is a memorandum to David Bale, bureau of the budget...
Narrator: What truly engaged John Kennedy at the beginning of 1961 was the increasing Soviet menace. Like most Americans, the President was worried engagement with the Russians might spark a hot war, or nuclear catastrophe. But Kennedy did not want to appear afraid to face down Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet premier was making noises about annexing democratic West Berlin and actively aiding anti-colonial movements in the Congo, Laos and Vietnam. Khrushchev was even making a play in America's backyard. He had been an ardent supporter of Fidel Castro in the two years since the revolutionary had taken power in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland.
Thomas Hughes: Assistant Secretary of State: Khrushchev, as a kind of inauguration present for Kennedy, had given his big speech about national wars of liberation being the future extension of Communist influence. Kennedy made everybody read this. It was required reading in the first weeks of the Administration.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Kennedy definitely bought this idea of Communism on the march, that we were in this twilight struggle, that we had to face off against the Communists everywhere, that it was this almost sacred duty to face up against the Communist menace.
Eisenhower's formula had always been "all or nothing." Face off against the Communists and say, "We're going to go to nuclear war, or nothing." Kennedy thought the smarter thing to do was to be willing to fight small wars. It was called "flexible response." The idea was, you can't just threaten nuclear war every time. Kennedy bought into this idea that you could fight small wars, win them, check Communism that way.