The Presidency of John F. Kennedy
He was rich, handsome, witty, and married to a beautiful woman, and he looked good on the increasingly important medium of television. His opponent was middle class, jowly, whiny, and married to a less beautiful woman, and on TV he looked like 50 miles of bad road.
Even so, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960 over Vice President Richard Nixon by a very narrow margin — and only, some said, because his father, bootlegger-turned-tycoon Joseph Kennedy, had rigged the results in Illinois and Texas.
After eight years of the colorless, fatherly Eisenhower, “Jack” and Jacqueline Kennedy excited the interest of the country. The administration was dubbed “Camelot,” after the mythical realm of King Arthur. Kennedy — known to headline writers as “JFK” — gave off an aura of youth, vigor, and shiny virtue.
In truth, however, he was plagued with health problems from a bad back to venereal disease, popped pain pills and took amphetamine injections, was an insatiable womanizer, and didn’t mind bending the truth when it suited his purposes.
Kennedy called on Americans to push toward a “new frontier” of challenges, and the first big challenge came very soon after he took office.
The Bay of Pigs
Cuba had been a thorn in the United States’ side since 1959, when dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by a young communist named Fidel Castro. Castro soon became an ardent anti-American, ordering the takeover of U.S.-owned businesses in Cuba and establishing close ties with the Soviet Union.
Kennedy gave his approval to a scheme that centered on anti-Castro Cuban exiles being trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for an invasion of the island. The idea was that the Cuban people would rally to the invaders’ side and oust Castro.
The invasion took place April 17, 1961, at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba’s southern coast. It was a disaster. No one rushed to their side, and many of the invaders were captured and held for two years before being ransomed by the U.S. government.
The resulting embarrassment to America encouraged the Soviet Union to increase pressure in Europe by erecting a wall dividing East and West Berlin and resuming the testing of nuclear weapons.
Kennedy, meanwhile, tried to counter the Soviet moves by renewing U.S. weapons testing, increasing foreign aid to Third World nations, and establishing the Peace Corps to export U.S. ideals, as well as technical aid. The Soviets weren’t impressed, and tensions between the two super-powers escalated.
Facing the possibility of nuclear war
During the summer of 1962, the Soviets began developing nuclear missile sites in Cuba. That meant they could easily strike targets over much of North and South America.
When air reconnaissance photos confirmed the sites’ presence on October 14, JFK had to make a tough choice: Destroy the sites and quite possibly trigger World War III, or do nothing, and not only expose the country to nuclear destruction but, in effect, concede first place in the world domination race to the USSR.
Kennedy decided to get tough. On October 22, 1962, he went on national television and announced the U.S. Navy would throw a blockade around Cuba and turn away any ships carrying materials that could be used at the missile sites. He also demanded the sites be dismantled. Then the world waited for the Russian reaction.
On October 26, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent a message suggesting the missiles would be removed if the United States promised not to invade Cuba and eventually removed some U.S. missiles from Turkey. The crisis — perhaps the closest the world came to nuclear conflict during the Cold War — was over, and the payoffs were ample.
A hotline was installed between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union to help defuse future confrontations, and in July 1963, all the major countries except China and France agreed to stop aboveground testing of nuclear weapons.
A dark day in Dallas
Even with his success in the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy admitted he was generally frustrated by his first thousand days in office. Despite considerable public popularity, many of JFK’s social and civil rights programs had made little progress in a Democrat-controlled-but-conservative Congress.
Still, Kennedy was looking forward to running for a second term in 1964, and on November 22, 1963, he went to Texas to improve his political standing in that state.
While riding in an open car in a motorcade in Dallas, Kennedy was shot and killed by a sniper. A former Marine and one-time Soviet Union resident named Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the crime.
Two days later, a national television audience watched in disbelief as Oswald himself was shot and killed by a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, while Oswald was being moved to a different jail. Whether Oswald and Ruby acted alone, or were part of conspiracies, has been debated for decades.
America was stunned. The age of Camelot was over. And a veteran politician from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson was president of the United States.