Examining the Presidency of John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy was the first president born in the 20th century. He was also the youngest president, at 43 years of age, to be elected to office. (Theodore Roosevelt assumed the office at age 42, after the assassination of President William McKinley, but he wasn’t elected to it until he was 46.) Kennedy was also the youngest president to die in office. He was only 46 when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963.
On January 20, 1961, President Kennedy presented one of the most unforgettable inaugural addresses in U.S. history. He outlined his “New Frontier” proposals and proclaimed that a new generation of U.S. citizens had taken over the country. In his conclusion, he called upon the U.S. citizenry to “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for you country.”
President Kennedy committed a first by appointing his brother Robert attorney general. For the first time, a president had a brother in his cabinet. Kennedy’s other surviving brother, Teddy, was elected to the Senate in 1962 and still represents Massachusetts in the Senate as of this writing.
John F. Kennedy was prepared to make major changes to U.S. foreign policy. He wanted to abandon the policy of containing communism and instead work with the Soviet Union to create a better, less violent world. Soviet aggression in Berlin and Cuba changed his mind.
Another major change in U.S. foreign policy came in the area of Third World relations. Kennedy believed in helping third-world countries. He backed up his beliefs by providing the Third World with monetary aid and U.S. volunteers in the form of the Peace Corps.
At the same time, he supported his predecessor’s policies in Vietnam, actually increasing the number of U.S. military advisors in the country.
Dealing with arms and the U.S.S.R.
Unlike Truman and Eisenhower, Kennedy believed that it was possible to bargain and compromise with the Soviet Union, and that the two superpowers could coexist peacefully. Because Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, had been liberalizing Soviet society and had abandoned Stalinism, Kennedy thought that he could deal with him.
Kennedy wanted to stop the arms race rather than build more weapons. He proposed meeting with Khrushchev to discuss arms control and even disarmament — the destruction of nuclear weapons.
Kennedy was disappointed. The Soviet Union saw Kennedy’s offer to negotiate as a sign of weakness. Instead of reaching out to the United States and its new leader, The Soviet Union started to behave aggressively in Europe (Berlin) and Latin America (Cuba). The Soviet Union miscalculated. Kennedy’s response was: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
By 1962, Kennedy had returned to the policies of his predecessors — working to stop Soviet aggression and contain the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.
The only tangible benefit of Kennedy’s efforts was the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed in 1963. It outlawed testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. After signing the treaty, Kennedy said, “Today the fear is a little less and the hope a little greater. For the first time we have been able to reach an agreement which can limit the dangers of this nuclear age.”
Helping the Third World: Creating the Peace Corps
Kennedy believed that it was the obligation of the United States not only to help the Third World economically but also to spread democracy to its countries.
To further that mission, Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961 to send U.S. volunteers to the people living in third-world countries. Thousands of U.S. citizens went abroad to help build roads and hospitals, and to help educate citizens around the world.
Stepping into the Bay of Pigs
Ironically, the first major foreign policy move of the new administration ended in disaster when Kennedy decided to proceed with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba planned by the Eisenhower administration.
The Bay of Pigs was an attempt to aid Cuban exiles after their country fell to communism in 1959. The United States provided training, equipment, and logistical support to Cubans bent on recapturing their country. The 1961 invasion failed miserably, and, as a result, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union.
The Soviets were more than happy to provide assistance to Cuba. Khrushchev had been looking for an ally in Latin America so that he could build a base for Soviet missiles. While the U.S. had missiles in Europe targeting the Soviet Union, the Soviets had none close to the U.S. mainland. What better place than Cuba?
The Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the defining moment for the Kennedy administration. On October 16, 1962, U.S. intelligence found out that the Soviets were building missile sites in Cuba. The U.S. Air Force wanted to take out the sites, and many in the military called for an invasion of Cuba. Kennedy was afraid that an invasion would lead to a world war, so he set up a blockade of Cuba instead.
Kennedy vowed that Soviet ships headed for Cuba carrying missile parts would not be allowed through the blockade. In addition, he demanded that the Soviets remove their bases and all Soviet weaponry from Cuba.
At the last moment, the Soviets backed down and recalled their ships. The Soviet Union subsequently agreed to remove the missiles and their bases from Cuba, and the United States pledged not to invade the island. World War III had been narrowly avoided. Soviet Premier Khrushchev lost his job over the debacle.
Building a wall in Berlin
The Potsdam Conference, organized after World War II, divided the German capital of Berlin into four zones — one for each victorious ally. By the 1950s, the three Western allies had created West Berlin, while the Soviet Union had set up East Berlin. During most of the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of East Germans, unhappy with their communist government, fled to the West, crossing over in Berlin because it was the easiest place to leave the country.
By the early 1960s, the number of people fleeing to West Germany had created a problem for the East German government. The country’s best educated and most skilled citizens were leaving. East Germany faced a brain drain and a shortage of skilled laborers.
In August 1961, the Soviet Union and the communist East German government built a wall to close off East Berlin from the West and prevent the flow of people fleeing the country. Border guards had instructions to shoot to kill anyone who attempted to leave East Germany.
Initially, the Western powers didn’t react to the building of the wall — a move that shocked Germans. The Kennedy administration publicly condemned the building of the wall but did nothing more. At the time, Kennedy still believed that he could establish cordial relations with the Soviet Union and didn’t want to compromise his foreign policy over Berlin.
Kennedy’s outlook changed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thereafter, Kennedy adopted a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union. He traveled to West Berlin in June 1963 to show his support for the people there and to demonstrate that the United States would pursue a hard-line anti-communist foreign policy.
More than 2 million Germans received Kennedy enthusiastically. He gave one of the most unforgettable speeches in history. He reassured the citizens of West Berlin of the commitment of the United States to the city and its defense. To demonstrate this point, Kennedy uttered the unforgettable sentence, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words: Ich Bin Ein Berliner.” (I am a citizen of Berlin.)
Increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam
When President Kennedy took office, the United States was already involved in Vietnam. President Eisenhower had guaranteed South Vietnam’s security. Eisenhower had sent military and economic aid, as well as U.S. military advisors, to South Vietnam. Kennedy escalated U.S. involvement.
South Vietnam was fighting for its survival after North Vietnam supported communist rebels’ attempts to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. Kennedy believed that North Vietnam needed to be stopped at all costs, so he sent more U.S. forces to Vietnam. By the time Kennedy was assassinated, he had increased the number of U.S. military advisors, military personal that trained and fought with South Vietnamese troops, from 700 to 15,000.