America and the Cold War: The Kennedy Years
Copyright © 2012, 2017 Henry J. Sage

An observer of the administration of John F. Kennedy once noted, “You are the staff officers of World War II, come of age.” The observer went on to comment that the Kennedy staffers had seen many things handled poorly during that earlier conflict, and they were determined to do things right. Although history has yet to conclude decisively whether or not that noble ideal was reached, one thing is certain: the most dangerous moment in the Cold War certainly came during Kennedy's presidency, and that was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which will be discussed below.

Joseph P. Kennedy, a wealthy businessman and movie tycoon, was determined that one of his sons would become the first Irish-Catholic president of the United States. When his son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., was killed in a bombing mission during World War II, the mantle passed to his next oldest son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Young Jack Kennedy, who had commanded a PT boat during the war, ran successfully for Congress in 1946 and was elected to the Senate in 1952. He married Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953 and was runner-up for the vice presidential nomination in 1956. The publicity gained from that experience enabled him to gain the Democratic nomination in 1960. He defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in a very close election.

jfkPresident Kennedy’s inaugural address set the tone for his foreign policy; people looking back on it have often noted how much it seemed to foretell coming events, especially in its military imagery. Consider his words:

Let the word go forth … that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a cold and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed …

Let every nation know, whether it wish us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.

To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If the free society cannot help the many who are poor, it can never save the few who are rich.

Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.

As a combat veteran of World War II, Kennedy viewed himself and his administration as Cold Warriors. His father had been ambassador to Great Britain during the years leading up to World War II, and Kennedy's oldest brother, Joe, was killed in that conflict. The rhetoric of JFK’s inaugural address was filled with military imagery. He saw himself as a fighter, and many Americans were prepared to follow his lead.

Once Kennedy was in office, however, it soon became apparent that his counterpart in the Soviet Union, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, saw him as young, inexperienced and perhaps naïve. Kennedy set out to prove him wrong. It is believed that his first face-to-face confrontation with Khrushchev in Vienna is what led him to increase American support for the anti-communist Diem government in Vietnam. No doubt it also led him to play hardball with the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. He reorganized the Joint Chiefs of Staff to find generals who would share his view of the world; indeed, a number of them were far more hard-line than the president.

The Bay of Pigs. As the McKinley administration was preparing to go to war with Spain in 1898, the anti-imperialist movement in the United States was growing in influence. One result was the Teller Amendment, attached to a key piece of war legislation, which stated that the United States was not going to war for the purpose of annexing Cuba. Although the U.S. did intervene very heavily in that nation following its independence from Spain, America stuck by its pledge and Cuba remained independent. 

During the 1950s Cuba was ruled by the dictator Fulgencio Batista. One wry observer noted that “Batista may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” The comment meant that whatever his flaws, Batista was staunchly anti-Communist. The revolution led by Fidel Castro began in 1953 and ended by driving out the Batista regime in 1959. Shortly after Castro took power, it became apparent that his sympathies lay with Communism and that he intended to rule Cuba with an iron hand. Many of Batista's government officials and soldiers were executed, and religious and other civil institutions were clamped down severely.

The idea of a communist nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida did not sit well with most Americans. During the early years of the Castro regime the Eisenhower administration and the CIA began catering to a group of so-called Cuban patriots, “freedom fighters,” who were determined to invade Cuba. Their goal was to reverse the Castro revolution and end his control of the country. A small army of freedom fighters was trained in Guatemala with American support. The rebels came to believe that they could depend on full American assistance and cooperation, if not an outright declaration of war on the Castro government, once the operation began.

Before that plan was executed President Eisenhower left office and was replaced by the young John F. Kennedy. Kennedy assumed office in January, 1961, and by April of that year the invasion plan was ready to be put into action. Those who have since examined the plan and the resources provided quickly saw that it was bound for disaster and never had any real chance of success. Nevertheless, President Kennedy, as the youngest man ever elected president, did not want to appear weak in the conduct of foreign policy, and he let the plan proceed.

]The idea was to land a small force at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba, with the expectation that patriotic citizens would join the invasion force and eventually overthrow Castro's government. The success of a C.I.A. inspired coup to overthrow a leftist regime in Guatemala in 1954 had led the C.I.A. to believe a similar plan would succeed in Cuba. Although planning for the operation was ill-conceived, it took on a momentum of its own. The C.I.A. foolishly believed that American involvement could be kept secret. The area chosen for the landing was one in which Castro had strong support among the people. The military, feeling it was a C.I.A. operation and thus none of its business, kept its objections to the plan to itself. President Kennedy erroneously believed that since President Eisenhower, a career soldier, approved of the plan, it must be sound, when in fact Eisenhower had been only marginally involved in the planning process.

The invasion was a dismal failure, and within a matter of hours the entire invasion force was either killed or captured. Bitter recriminations followed, as the rebels claimed that America had not provided the promised support. The fact is that the Kennedy administration had no intention of backing an all-out invasion of Cuba. When things turned bad for the invaders, Kennedy cancelled further air support in hopes of concealing American involvement. It was too late for that, however. Far many reasons, the plot was doomed to failure from the beginning.

Because Kennedy had only been in office for a few months when the Bay of Pigs fiasco took place, he was able to publicly accept full responsibility for the operation, understanding full well that any critic must know that it had been in the works for months before Kennedy took office. His personal charisma earned him high marks for candor even as he delivered the bad news. His defenders were able to say that he did not want to reverse a policy begun by General Eisenhower, and thus he allowed the operation, about which he himself was skeptical, to go forward.

The Bay of Pigs had a significant impact on the future of the Kennedy administration foreign policy. Soviet Premier Khrushchev saw it as a sign of Kennedy's inexperience and naivety. Thus when Kennedy and Khrushchev met later in Vienna, Khrushchev was rough with Kennedy and blustered about how the Soviet Union would eventually crush the United States. Kennedy returned from Vienna shaken but determined not to be pushed around by the Soviets. Two months later Khrushchev sealed off the border between East and West Berlin and built a wall to prevent East Germans from escaping into West Berlin. Vice President Johnson was sent to Germany to reassure the German people, but the Cold War had escalated once again.

The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962: "We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." —Dean Rusk

President Kennedy was at heart a Cold Warrior. He had been critical of the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy and was prepared to take a hard line with communism. Upon returning from his Vienna meeting with Khrushchev in 1961, he acknowledged that his Soviet counterpart “beat the hell out of me.” He vowed to get tough with the Soviets in order to demonstrate that he (and the U.S.) could not be pushed around. He decided that the time was suitable for a stand, and that Vietnam would be the place. Thus he began the buildup of the American advisory cadre in Vietnam that was to lead to America’s much greater involvement during the Johnson years. (See Vietnam section.)

A greater threat than Vietnam soon emerged, however. The United States had continued to keep a close eye on Cuba following the Bay of Pigs, using spy planes to fly over the island and photograph any suspected military activity. Then, in October 1962, American reconnaissance flights revealed that the Soviets were building nuclear weapons bases in Cuba, a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and a serious threat to American security. Additional aerial reconnaissance photos confirmed that preparations were underway to install missile launchers on the island of Cuba with the potential to launch nuclear tipped weapons at the U.S.

u-2 aircraftThe Cuban missile crisis was the closest the world ever came to all-out nuclear war. Following the first sightings of the missiles being placed by Soviets, additional Russian vessels were seen heading towards Cuba carrying more missile components. Thus began what became known as “the 13 days,” a period of extremely high tension in which the Kennedy administration tried to find a way to get the missiles out of Cuba without starting World War III. Kennedy and his advisers had to walk a very tight line in order to achieve that end.

Robert Kennedy's book, Thirteen Days, is a detailed analysis of the missile crisis. Robert F. Kennedy was JFK's brother, Attorney General and closest adviser. President Kennedy had to confront not only Khrushchev and his plan to turn Cuba into a missile base for the Soviets; he also had to deal with his military leaders, who were generally in favor of bold, aggressive action. In order to foster a full discussion of all possible options, the president convened an Executive Committee of the National Security Council, known as EXCOMM, consisting of top military and civilian advisors, including the president’s brother. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and some civilians supported the bombing of missile sites in Cuba followed up by an all-out military invasion. Less aggressive options were also heatedly discussed.

As the EXCOMM huddled in Washington trying to work out a plan to deal with the situation, Marines and army units were placed on high alert and began preparation for an invasion of Cuba. The American naval base at Guantánamo Bay was braced for action, and Marines were flown from the First Marine Division site in Camp Pendleton, California, to the East Coast to be positioned for further action. The 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were also placed on high alert. As military preparations went on, Kennedy struggled to keep the media from over-reporting the situation and causing panic in the streets. He also addressed the nation directly via television.

Continued flights by U-2 spy planes tracked the progress of the installations, and low-level flights were authorized to get a close-up view of the missile sites. As tensions mounted, the debate extended to the United Nations, where Ambassador Adlai Stevenson confronted the Soviet ambassador with pictures of the Adlai Stevenson at the UNmissile installations (left). Stevenson demonstrated for the world that America’s claims were not lies, as the Soviet minister had charged. The United States Navy placed what was called a “quarantine” around the island of Cuba (the term blockade was not used since it is a term indicating that a state of war exists), and Soviet ships were ordered not to advance any farther with their missile cargos.

As tension mounted, Soviet Premier Khrushchev sent a message offering a means to end the standoff through negotiation. Careful analysis of the message revealed that it was drafted personally by Khrushchev, who was obviously under considerable stress. The following day a much harsher message was received, apparently the result of internal bickering in the Kremlin. The president decided to respond to Khrushchev’s first message, ignoring the more threatening follow up. By using means of communication outside normal diplomatic channels and tense negotiations between Robert Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador in Washington, the Americans were able to convince the Soviets to cease development of the missile sites.

The deal that was finally struck involved a concession by the United States that some obsolete missiles in Turkey would eventually be removed (supposedly they were going to be removed anyway.) In addition the United States promised not to invade Cuba. When the crisis was over, the world breathed a little easier, and the most frightening moments of the Cold War had passed. Tensions remained; the confrontation had shaken the world. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk later put it, "We''re eyeball to eyeball and the I think the other fellow blinked." Not long afterward a “hot line” was established between Washington and Moscow to facilitate communications in case of a future crisis.

13 days film

See Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Norton, 1973) and the film of the same name based on the book starring Bruce Greenwood and Kevin Costner. See also Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1999.)

More recent scholarship has called into question the accuracy of some of the assertions made in Robery Kennedy's book. Disagreements persist, but it is clear that the crisis was real; the situation between the two nuclear superpowers was fraught with danger. A misstep on either said might have led to a disastrous encounter.

To illustrate how serious it was, here are words from a recently translated Soviet document from the period.

Premier Khrushchev is quoted as saying:

The matter is that we do not want to unleash a war, we only wanted to threaten them, to restrain the USA with regards to Cuba.

The difficulty is that we didn’t concentrate everything that we had planned to and did not publish the agreement.
The tragic aspect is that they might attack and we will repulse it. It might turn into a big war.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the world wa spared a military confrontation with nuclear weapons.

The Kennedy Legacy. The question still discussed about President Kennedy’s foreign policy—one for which there is no satisfactory answer—is: “What would Kennedy have done in Vietnam if he had not been assassinated?” Some believe that he was prepared to end what he saw as a misguided venture; however, advisers close to the Kennedy administration have indicated that if his intent was to begin a full withdrawal from Vietnam, they had seen little evidence that he would carry it further. True, he had drawn down the number of advisers in Vietnam slightly during the last months of his presidency, but some believe that that was just preparation for the election of 1964. We can only speculate about the later course of events if Kennedy had not been shot.

In the end, Kennedy followed the path of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower as a leader determined to prevent the further spread of Communism in the world by all reasonable means. He had campaigned on the issue of a missile gap between United States and the Soviet Union, and even his plan to place a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960s was, to a large extent, aimed at defeating the Russians in space. The military implications were obvious. It was during Kennedy's administration that the most dangerous point in the Cold War was reached: the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

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