November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. The anniversary has become a point of reflection for Kennedy’s time in office as part of a special VOA series on his legacy. The world was a vastly different place when Kennedy became president in 1961. The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Cold War where the front lines were Berlin, Cuba and Vietnam. Kennedy came into office determined to counter Communism. But an early foreign policy failure in Cuba got his administration off to a rocky start.
From the beginning of his presidency, John Kennedy made it clear he would not bend in the face of Cold War aggression from the Soviet Union.
“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,” he said.
The administration suffered an early misstep by backing a CIA plan for the invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro exiles at the Bay of Pigs. Author Robert Dallek said the ill-conceived invasion was a debacle and Kennedy learned a valuable lesson.
“It is an utter failure, so much so that Kennedy afterwards said repeatedly, “How could I have been so stupid?” And he is mortified, deeply pained by this and it creates tremendous distrust for him in the military,” he said.
That early setback in Cuba combined with Kennedy’s youth and inexperience meant he had to earn respect from world leaders, including both allies and rivals, during an early trip to Europe.
“And so the very fact that Kennedy would be seen standing next to De Gaulle, being treated as an equal, is an enormous boost to Kennedy’s international standing. But then he goes off to Vienna to meet with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet first secretary, and Khrushchev beats up on him unmercifully as this young man who does not know what he is doing, and the issue is Berlin...If there was one thing, one thing about foreign policy, that Kennedy was determined to do during his administration it was to avoid a nuclear conflict,” said Dallek.
President Kennedy faced his greatest foreign policy test in October of 1962 when U.S. spy planes discovered Soviet military activity in Cuba.
“Within the past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island," he said.
Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba to stop the delivery of Soviet missiles. The 13-day Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. But Kennedy’s back-channel diplomacy combined with the threat of military action eventually helped to defuse the crisis, and the Soviets backed down.
The missile crisis convinced Kennedy to find ways to defuse Cold War tensions. A few months before he died came one of his greatest achievements, the signing of a limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union that set the stage for future arms agreements with Moscow.
In his final months in office, Kennedy also sent conflicting signals about the wisdom of continued U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam.
“I do not think he ever would have done what Lyndon Johnson did. I do not think he ever would have put in the massive numbers of troops that Johnson committed. Would he have gotten out? I do not know. But I just do not think he would have escalated that war the way Johnson did,” author Robert Dallek said.
John Kennedy’s time in office was brief, but his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and efforts toward world peace remain enduring parts of his presidential legacy.