Post-World War II Domestic Issues
Post World War II America saw changes in everyday life scarcely imaginable in the 1930s. The military requirements of war had generated enormous advances in technology, medicine, communications and the implements of war. Medicines such as penicillin, antibiotics and techniques for the treating of injuries and diseases were greatly stimulated by the demands of warfare and its impact upon civilian populations. The research that went into the development of the atomic bomb also produced information about the phenomenon of radiation and how it applied to such things as x-ray technology. The first jet aircraft were developed by Germany during the Second World War, and all-purpose vehicles such as the famous Jeep (general purpose vehicle) fostered advances in automotive design. Radar and other sophisticated technology devices had uses that would later be applicable in the civilian arena for civil air control. Methods developed by companies such as Kaiser advanced the technology necessary for building ships of all sorts. The Kaiser-Permanente health plan was created by that corporation in the World War Two era.
As typified by the mythical figure of Rosie the Riveter, the roles of American women had changed dramatically during the world war. Approximately 800,000 women served in the Armed Forces in a variety of capacities. For the 13 million men who served, the military experience was also eye opening: farm boys, city dwellers, college students, businessmen, teachers, musicians, artists, laborers and skilled technicians serving together—not to mention an unparalleled mixing of racial and ethnic groups, and men from different geographic areas—brought new perspectives to the men who served in the armed forces during the World War II era.
The difficulty was that when those men returned, they had changed, often drastically, and so had the women they had left behind. The younger soldiers and sailors had gone off as boys of 18 and returned as old men of 21. The girls had gone to work in factories, businesses, USOs and Red Cross or other patriotic agencies and were now independent-minded women, not necessarily ready to resume the status quo. The end of the war was indeed a time for celebration, and the returning GIs were treated as heroes. But getting back to a “normal” life was difficult. Many men and women who had married during whirlwind courtships of weeks or even days before the men left discovered that their spouses were strangers; the person they remembered had changed. The result of all these changes was that marriage, birth and divorce rates all rose dramatically in the postwar years.
Domestic Issues and the Cold War. Nothing happens in a vacuum in the real world. In post-World War II America, Cold War issues and domestic issues overlapped significantly. As citizens of the most powerful nation in the world, the people of the United States were not ready to reembrace the posture of prewar isolationism; indeed, most Americans probably felt that the United States had a responsibility to help order things in the rest of the world. Programs like the Marshall Plan, which provided massive economic aid to the recovery of the devastated nations of Europe, was a measure of that sense of responsibility. The development of the interstate highway system, a project that had an enormous effects on the domestic lives of Americans, was nevertheless justified in part by national security needs. The space race, which began with the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, might be viewed as a domestic initiative. Yet part of the motivation for the massive effort to conquer space was clearly the fact that, as one political figure put it, “I do not want to sleep at night under the light of a Russian moon.”
The civil rights movement was perhaps the most significant and important domestic development in post-World War II America, at least until the end of the 20th century. Yet even that issue was propelled to a certain extent by concerns about how segregation in American society might be used against us in the competition among nations. It was difficult for Amerficans to point fingers at nations that ruled their citizens with an iron fist while millions of Americans lacked full freedom at home.
Economic issues certainly resonated with respect to the international position of America. President Eisenhower's warning in his farewell address of the “military-industrial complex” illustrated the fact that our industries, and the research being down in our universities, were focused heavily on the development of weapons and tools for the waging of war. American movies and television, created primarily for domestic consumption, nevertheless provided a window on American society to the rest of the world, and that view did not always portray America in a favorable light. Indeed, one recent Secretary of Defense pointed out that a certain American international spy drama might well have unfortunate propaganda uses for America's enemies.
The treatment of Cold War issues and domestic issues will, therefore, require some back-and-forth. Where appropriate, links will be provided to issues that straddle historic events in both the international and domestic arenas.
The Postwar Economy. Another thing that was obviously true after the war was that the Depression was over. Massive government spending during the war—twice as much as in all of America’s prior history combined—had ended unemployment and created tens of thousands of new jobs for men and women. Dust bowl farmers who had arrived in California destitute in the 1930s had found jobs in aircraft and ship building plants and were well off by 1943. Soldiers with families sent their paychecks home; there was little to spend them on in many places where they were stationed. Instead those paychecks went into savings accounts because their wives were working and also had little on which to spend the extra income: no appliances, no new cars, and very few luxury items, for industry had devoted its full attention to the war effort.
The post-war era was a time of economic boom. Soldiers returned with hundreds of dollars in back pay, and wives who had been working had been able to save because there were few luxuries on which to spend income. Many consumer products had been mostly unavailable; companies that had made appliances had been building the implements of war. American labor had prospered; by 1945 union membership was at almost 15 million, over 35% of the nonagricultural labor force, an all-time high. In 1946 President Truman recommended measures to Congress designed to help the economy recover. With the huge demand for consumer goods and new homes, anti-inflation measures were instituted to keep the overheating economy under control. Life did not return to what it had been in 1940—it took off in exciting and often confusing new directions.
Fears that the returning GIs would cause economic hardships did not materialize, for the need to shift the economy back to peacetime production demanded a lot of labor. Although local conflicts occurred over hiring priorities and preferences for veterans, there was plenty of work to go around. Americans spent, but not wildly, for memories of the Depression returned as those of the war began to fade. Though the economy boomed, it did not get out of control, and fear of another depression gradually waned. The postwar agonies historically faced by many nations—rampant inflation, rioting, labor disorders—were not completely absent in the U.S. from 1945-1955, but they did not rise above manageable proportions. For one thing, the demands of the Cold War and other factors kept government spending at high levels, and the demand for consumer goods and new homes kept the economy moving upward. Americans had never had it so good. They knew it and were proud, feeling they had earned it.
The Truman Years, 1945-1950
One of the great American films of all time, “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1947), explores the readjustments that had to be made by returning veterans. The ex-Army master sergeant who goes back to his position as a banker views loan applications from his fellow ex-servicemen very differently from the bank officials who had stayed behind. The sailor who returns with metal hooks instead of the hands he lost in a shipboard fire discovers that his family has even more trouble adjusting to his injury than he had in adjusting to the mechanical devices. The former Army Air Corps bomber pilot discovers that the skills required in leading 10 men in a complex machine over enemy territory do not translate readily into the postwar workplace. He also discovers that his bride, whom he had known for only days before his departure, is a total stranger; he can’t wait to get out of uniform, but she wants to parade him around in it to show him off to her friends.
The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler, starred Fredric March, Myrna Loy, and Dana Andrews. Harold Russell played the part of a sailor who had lost his hands. The film won 7 Academy Awards, including a special Oscar for Harold Russell, whose handicap was real.
I was nine years old when the war ended, but the memories remain vivid. My best friend and I each lost a brother. In the village of Pleasantville, New York, where I lived, every year on Memorial Day a parade began and ended at the village plaza near the railroad station. A scroll of honor had been erected there with the names of all the young men from Pleasantville who had served in the war. Next to the name of each one killed was a gold star. As part of the ceremony ending the parade, the names of all those who had died were read over a loudspeaker. While I do not recall the names or numbers, I remember vividly the weeping of many of the people in the crowd, for everyone in the village knew at least one person who had been killed.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine how many things we now take for granted were different in 1945. To mail a first-class letter cost three cents; air mail was extra. Practically no homes had a television set; even by 1949 less than 3% of residences had one. There were no pushbutton or dial telephones; you would pick up the receiver and wait until an operator, inevitably female, said, “Number, please?”—and you gave her the number. You had to ask for a special operator for long-distance. A significant percentage of farm homes were still without electricity or indoor plumbing; appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines and dryers were luxuries which many working-class families could not yet afford.
As virtually no automobiles had been manufactured from 1943 to 1945 because the auto companies were busy building tanks, jeeps, 5-ton trucks and military aircraft, the old 1940 and 41 models were brought out again until designs could be revamped. The Singer company went back to making sewing machines instead of machine guns, and silk was once again used for stockings instead of parachutes. Butter, sugar, meat and gasoline were no longer rationed. People took their old cars down off the blocks where they had sat during the war because of tire and gasoline rationing, and the top half of headlights no longer had to be painted black for air defense.
The Housing Boom. The critical need for the returning men starting families was housing. University campuses provide an interesting glimpse of how different effects of the war came together. The GI Bill of Rights, which included provisions for college tuition assistance, as well as job training and help with home loans, helped create a new phenomenon. Veterans who might never have thought about going to college decided that it was worth a try, since Uncle Sam was footing part of the bill. Men who chose to attend college on the GI Bill did not necessarily delay marriage, as they had postponed their lives long enough while at war. They often delayed having children so that their wives could work, but they were still families, and around the fringes of college campuses makeshift structures such as tin Quonset huts, old military barracks or other temporary buildings were converted into cheap apartments. The married college student—until 1945 an oddity for the most part—was now a fixture on the campus.
Elsewhere the demand for housing was equally strong, and thousands of young families were willing to move into new suburban communities such as Levittown, Long Island, (left) where prefabricated houses were constructed from one set of plans in row after row, even to the placing of a single tree in the same place in every yard. Some social critics found such communities appalling in their sameness. But the occupants, who perhaps remembered growing up in the Depression 1930s, found that paint, do-it-yourself landscaping and other improvements could create some sense of personal identity. All the same, cartoonists and song writers had fun with this “ticky-tacky” life style.
One extra that did not come with suburban houses but which was often indispensable to this new suburban way of life was the automobile. In the immediate postwar years, Ford, GM, Chrysler, Kaiser, Studebaker, Hudson, Packard and the other manufacturers retooled their plants from making trucks, tanks and jeeps. They dusted off prewar designs and began producing cars that looked very much like 1939 and 1940 models. But within two or three years newer, sleeker, more streamlined and modern designs appeared, and the automobile age took off. Cars and gasoline were cheap—in fact the gas war became a roadside feature in the 1950s, as did the drive-in restaurant with curbside service, the drive-in movie theater, and a new form of temporary lodging, the motel. At first few new cars had air-conditioning, fancy radios or automatic transmissions, which through the 1950s were often expensive extras. But they were bright, shiny and colorful, and when the interstate highway system was begun under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, they would take you almost anywhere in unprecedented comfort and speed.
American labor had also prospered during World War II. By 1945 union membership was at almost 15 million, over 35% of the nonagricultural labor force, an all-time high. In 1946 President Truman recommended measures to Congress designed to help the economy recover. With the huge demand for consumer goods and new homes, anti-inflation measures were instituted to keep the overheating economy under control. This attempt was made despite the fact that the Office of Price Administration, which had kept a lid on inflation during the war, was abolished in 1947. Life did not return to what it had been in 1940, it took off in exciting and often confusing new directions.
As Franklin Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman faced enormous challenges. Truman had not even wanted to be vice president, and when he received the shocking news of the president’s death from Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House, his first words were, “Mrs. Roosevelt what can we do for you?” Maintaining her composure, the president’s widow answered, “No, Harry, what can we do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
Truman initially promised to carry on with Franklin Roosevelt’s policies, but he eventually designed his own legislative program. Although President Truman did succeed in overseeing a reasonably orderly transition to a healthy peacetime economy, his ambitious political program ran into difficulty with the Republican Congress elected in 1946. Opponents of Roosevelt’s New Deal had used the war to get rid of many of Roosevelt’s measures, and conservative Democrats and Republicans were not prepared for a second new deal.
By 1947 the Armed Forces had been reduced to a size of 1.5 million, and the discharged veterans were eager to take advantage of the GI Bill. Veterans were entitled to financial support for education and vocational training, medical treatment, unemployment and loans for building houses or starting businesses. They were eager to marry and start families, and by 1946 the well-known baby-boom was underway; the birth rate in 1946 was 20% higher than in 1940 and continued at a high rate until the 1960s.
President Truman made significant advances in the area of civil rights. Because Congress was not prepared for major civil rights legislation, President Truman used the power of his office to desegregate the Armed Forces and forbid racial segregation in government employment. (See Executive Order 9981, Appendix.)
With a strong labor flexing its muscle, and with the huge demand for consumer goods, the American economy was vibrant. But workers were in a position to make demands, and they did. President Truman was at the center of the struggle between labor and management, and in order to strengthen his position with labor, a natural Democratic constituency, he vetoed the controversial Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. It was called by some the “slave labor act” because it was seen as unfriendly to labor and unions. Truman’s veto was overridden, and the act banned the closed shop (union only shop.) It also prohibited union contributions to political campaigns, required union leaders to swear that they were not Communists, and included other stern measures.
Despite conflict between President Truman and the Republican Congress, much was accomplished in the postwar years. The National Security Act of 1947 revised the Armed Forces, creating the Department of Defense, a separate United States Air Force and the new National Security Council. In addition the law made the Joint Chiefs of Staff a permanent entity and established the Central Intelligence Agency, an outgrowth of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, to coordinate intelligence gathering activity. In 1951, in a reaction against the extended term of Franklin Roosevelt, Congress passed and the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, which limited all presidents after Truman to two terms.
The 1948 Election. The 1948 presidential election was one of the most memorable in American history. The Republican candidate, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, had gained fame for his anti-crime work and had run against Roosevelt in 1944. Because of Harry Truman’s support for civil rights, including the integration of the Armed Forces and the United States Civil Service, a number of Southern Democrats left the Democratic Party. They nominated South Carolina Governor J. Strom Thurmond on a States’ Rights Democratic ticket; they were called the “Dixiecrats.” Meanwhile the left wing of the Democratic Party nominated Henry A. Wallace on a Progressive Party ticket. Those two defections from the Democratic ranks seemed to doom President Truman's chances for reelection.
By mid-September the polls were predicting a sure victory for Governor Dewey, and taking the polls seriously Dewey conducted a lethargic campaign, assuming that he had the election in hand. President Truman, however, went on a whistle-stop campaign by train in which he covered 31,000 miles and made speeches all along the way. He criticized the “do-nothing Congress,” and people in the audience yelled, “Give 'em hell, Harry!” The President responded, “I don't give them hell—I just tell the truth and they think it's hell!” His supporters would roar with laughter and applause. Post-election analyses later showed that Truman was closing the gap rapidly in the last few days before the election. Without the assistance of modern computers, however, the pollsters were unable to keep up with the changes. Thus on election night everyone still assumed that Governor Dewey could rest easy.
In one of the most famous journalistic gaffes in American political history, the Chicago Tribune came out with its famous headline, “Dewey defeats Truman.” The next morning a victorious Harry Truman held up the paper grinning broadly—he had won 49% of the vote and had achieved a 303 to 189 margin in the Electoral College. Harry Truman had won his second term and was president in his own right. The blunt, plain-spoken Missourian, who had a famous sign on his desk—“The Buck Stops Here”—would serve four more years.
In 1949, President Truman, inspired by his stunning upset victory in the election, introduced a new legislative agenda, which he called the “Fair Deal.” It sought to take up where the New Deal had left off and included repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, raising the minimum wage and expanding social security. Conservatives, however, feeling that they had seen government programs advance more than far enough under Roosevelt, gave lukewarm support at best to Truman’s ideas, although some bills were passed. Congress had also passed the 22nd Amendment, which was ratified in 1951. Although it did not apply to President Truman, his election in 1948 was the fifth straight Democratic victory. Had he chosen to run again in 1952, he probably would have met the same fate as Adlai Stevenson, who lost in a landslide to World War II hero General Dwight Eisenhower.
The 1950s: The Eisenhower Years
The 1950s were a decade of both stability and change. Inflation was tamed even as the economy continued to grow; for example government workers and military personnel received no pay raises from 1955 to 1963 because inflation remained at near zero. The civil rights revolution in the South got started in 1954 and 55 with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the Montgomery bus boycott begun by the courageous Rosa Parks. For most of middle America, however, the 1950s were a time of flashier cars, the expansion of television, the rise of rock 'n roll, mass production, the accelerated movement to suburbia, and a rising but strangely dissatisfied middle class. Underneath the somewhat tranquil exterior of American society the beat generation brought a foretaste of the rebellious 1960s.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in 1952. He was nominated over conservative Senator Robert Taft of Ohio following a lively contest at the Republican convention. He selected as his vice president Senator Richard Nixon of California. By election day it was clear that everyone liked Ike, and he was elected in a landslide. Eisenhower was better prepared for the Presidency than many imagined, for in his job as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the war he had had to deal with both political and military matters. But that experience did not quite prepare him for all the political machinations of Washington. (See Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, New York: Doubleday, 1949.)
Along with the civil rights turmoil in the South that increased during the 1950s, an undercurrent of fear and anxiety persisted because of the nuclear arms race. With the growing threat from the Soviet Union, the military was enlarged, and military spending helped stimulate the economy. One project begun by President Eisenhower as a national defense measure was the creation of the interstate highway system. Within a decade Americans could drive almost literally from coast to coast without encountering a stop light. American life became ever more focused on the automobile. Although a significant number of families still did not own a car, and few families had two cars, the automobile had become a necessity rather than a luxury for most Americans.
By the mid 1950s the Depression years seemed far away. Most Americans were enjoying a standard of living that was unprecedented. Not all of the economic news was good, however. Americans had benefited in the immediate postwar years because their industrial facilities had been untouched by the war. But as the European nations built new factories to replace the ones that had been bombed out, American industries faced obsolescence. As farming methods continued to improve, farmers were able to produce more and more, driving the prices of agricultural goods down. The federal government initiated various price supports to prop up farm commodities. The struggles of American farmers never seemed to cease, from the Populist era through the twenties and the Depression and into the late 20th century.
Suburban life centered around the family, and most Americans felt that life was pretty good. However, an undercurrent of frustration persisted. One tale about the apparent sameness of the suburbs had a man getting off his commuter train, walking absently toward his home, accidentally walking a block too far, entering a house that seemed to be just like his own, to be greeted by a wife who seemed familiar. Only after the couple had sat down to dinner and started to talk did everyone realize that the man had arrived at the wrong house. Sloan Wilson’s novel, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and the film of the same name starring Gregory Peck reveal the pressures of 1950s conformity and the haunting memories of the Second World War. Although the modern feminist movement had not yet begun, its seeds were being planted among bright, educated women who were finding that being a housewife and mother were not always fulfilling. (The recent AMC TV series Mad Men covers the same era and has won awards for historic authenticity.)
Although he had suffered a heart attack in 1955, President Eisenhower felt fit and competent to run for reelection in 1956, and he won by another landslide. Recognizing that that many people still “liked Ike,” the Democrats decided to stay with their 1952 candidate, Governor Adlai Stevenson. The rather dull Democratic convention suddenly came to life when Stevenson announced that he would not designate his own candidate for vice president, but opened the nomination to the convention. A lively contest ensued, pitting Senator Estes Kefauver and others against the young Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Although Kefauver won, Kennedy made a very graceful concession speech, which Democrats in 1960 obviously remembered.
For all the subliminal discontent, Americans were generally self-assured and confident in their ability to meet life challenges, both domestic and international. That certitude was ruptured, however, with the startling announcement in 1957 that the Soviet Union had launched the first orbital satellite. It was called Sputnik. While fascinating to scientists, the Russian satellite struck fear in the hearts of many who believed that the Soviets would convert their successes in outer space into military advantage. Before the United States could get its first satellite aloft, the Russians had sent a cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. While Soviet rockets seemed capable of sending large payloads into space, American rockets often blew up on the launch pad. It was not until President Kennedy announced a national goal of landing an astronaut on the moon and returning him safely to Earth before the end of the decade of the 1960s that America began closing the gap in the space race.
In reaction to the launching of Sputnik Congress passed a bill creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and another, the National Defense Education Act, to improve American education by beefing up programs in mathematics and science. While Americans continued to like and respect President Eisenhower, he seemed like a grandfather figure to many. By the time of the election of 1960, Americans sought a younger more vigorous president, whom they got in John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Life in the 1950s in America had about it rather glaring inconsistencies. On the surface, much seemed well. People were making more money than ever before; men and women were going to college in far greater numbers than ever before; television was a new form of entertainment, which by the mid-1950s was a feature of a majority of households, though most households had only one small black-and-white set (left). Sports were more popular than ever, popular music was going off in new directions with the emergence of Elvis Presley and rock and roll, and industries like aircraft changed people’s transportation habits almost as much as the train or automobile. The St. Lawrence Seaway connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean was also opened in 1959. Ceremonies in Chicago and elsewhere were attended by President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II. Nostalgic films have shown the 1950s to be good, comfortable, at least, and free from turmoil, although some might say they were bland and often uninteresting, maybe even boring. But overall, the “nifty fifties” were still good.
But there were dark sides. In the South, and in parts of the North as well, racial tensions that had been smoldering since Reconstruction began to emerge with the birth of the modern civil rights movement. And while the world was relatively at peace, various crises in Europe, Asia and the Middle East kept tensions high. And above all-there was the bomb. Until 1949 the U.S. was the only nation that had produced (and used) atomic weapons. When Soviet Union scientists, whom many believe were aided by secrets stolen from the U.S., exploded its first atomic device, the atomic (later nuclear) arms race was on.
The two superpowers established what became known as the balance of terror as more and more powerful weapons were produced and tested. School children were drilled on what to do in case of a nuclear attack, subterranean bomb shelters were built (sometimes in people’s back yards), and for a long time the assumption was that sooner or later World War III—more horrible than World Wars I and II put together—was bound to start. One did not have to be a pessimist to think the unthinkable, that it was not a matter of “if,” but “when.” It was for understandable reasons that the Cold War was also known as the balance of terror.
The Kennedy Years
The 1960 election was a milestone in terms of the impact of television on electoral politics. Richard Nixon, who had been vice president under President Eisenhower for eight years, and who had a number of notable achievements on his record, was a formidable, intelligent candidate with broad experience and a sophisticated understanding of foreign affairs. Although he received only lukewarm support from the outgoing president, Richard Nixon was not to be taken lightly.
Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, on the other hand, had many visible assets, including a charming young wife and family, a Harvard education, a record of heroism in World War II, and the backing of a wealthy and powerful family. Yet his years in Congress and the Senate had been undistinguished, and when Adlai Stevenson opened the nomination for vice president during the 1956 Democratic convention, Kennedy lost his bid to Estes Kefauver. Kennedy also had to reckon with the fact that he was attempting to become the first elected Irish Catholic president in American history. If he won, he would also be the youngest man ever elected president of the United States.
In retrospect the outcome of the election and seems to have turned on the first televised debate between Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon. Kennedy's movie star good looks and smooth performance overshadowed the haggard, pale appearance of Richard Nixon, who had recently been hospitalized, and who looked far less appealing to the television audience, having declined to use makeup. Those who heard the debate on the radio and did not see it divided their sentiments regarding the winner 50-50 between the two candidates. For those who saw the debate on television, Kennedy came out ahead by a substantial margin. The vote was one of the closest in American history; Kennedy's margin was 118,000 votes out of 68 million cast.
The 1960 election was also notable in that for the first time, citizens in Hawaii and Alaska were able to vote in a presidential election; both had become states in 1959.
Probably because of his assassination and the nonstop television coverage of all of events during the weekend leading up to the funeral, including the heroic performance by Jacqueline Kennedy and the tragic image of the her two young children saying farewell to their father on camera, Kennedy's popularity was probably even greater after his death than during his administration, and people without a deep knowledge of politics considered him to have been a great president. In fact, Kennedy's domestic record was quite modest. He was unable to persuade Congress to follow his lead in a number of his initiatives, and most of his proposals, especially in the civil rights area, were finally realized under the powerful Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy after his death. Congress did support Kennedy's creation of the Peace Corps and passed economic programs for urban renewal, raising the minimum wage, and increasing Social Security benefits. Critics have claimed that Kennedy's performance in office had more style than substance, but there is no question that the White House seemed a far more glamorous place with the Kennedy family in residence. There is also little doubt that his handling of the Cuban missile crisis was his finest hour.
See also Cold War.
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.
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 and to use all reasonable means to keep the Soviet Union from taking advantage of any perceived American weakness. 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, of course, during Kennedy's administration that the most dangerous point in the Cold War was reached: the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
The Space Race. During the mid 1950s most Americans were aware that the government was doing research on the exploration of space and that one day, probably in the far distant future, men would go to the moon and beyond. But when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, an artificial satellite, into Earth orbit in 1957, Americans were stunned. Russian scientists had been portrayed as less capable than their American counterparts, and Soviet successes were supposedly based on borrowing of western ideas. But when the Soviets leaped out in front in space exploration, even with a primitive vehicle, Americans reacted with a combination of disbelief and panic. Articles with titles like “Why Johnny Can’t read-And Why Ivan Can” began to appear, and the entire U.S. educational system was hauled into court and placed under scrutiny. Reflecting people’s attitudes, Congress passed legislation that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and passed additional laws meant to improve American science and math curricula. The space race was seen as part of the cold war, and Americans felt they had to win.
No one played this theme more strongly than President Kennedy. Early in his administration he dedicated that nation to putting a man on the moon and returning him safely by the end of the decade, defined as January 1, 1970. The seven Mercury astronauts made flights in the early 1960s, and then the Gemini and Apollo programs began to prepare for an eventual lunar landing. With the assistance of former German V-weapon rocket scientists and an aviation industry with much talent, the Americans caught up with and passed the Soviets and reached Kennedy’s goal: Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in July, 1969.
NASA eventually oversaw six landings on the moon, the last one on December 11, 1972. Since then all space flights have been limited to low orbits. The Space Shuttle program, which followed Apollo, accomplished much but was plagued by accidents, as the Challenger shuttle was destroyed during a launch in 1986, and the Columbia was destroyed during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. NASA plans to retire the remaining shuttle craft in 2010 and replace them with a new vehicle, the Orion, designed to take astronauts back to the moon and perhaps beyond.
See Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff and the film of the same title; Norman Mailer, Of A Fire on the Moon; Also dramatic and historically sound are the Tom Hanks film Apollo 13 and his HBO series, From the Earth to the Moon. The NASA web site is one of the most popular and frequently visited on the World Wide Web.