Salt Lake Community College The COVID 19 Pandemic History Textbook Expansion

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Kennedy’s Cold War
The arrival of John F. Kennedy in the White House in 1960s helped signal a new
age of youth, optimism, and confidence in America. The son of Joseph P. Kennedy, a
wealthy Boston business owner and former ambassador to Great Britain, the younger
Kennedy served in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946. In 1952, he was elected
to the U.S. Senate for the first of two terms. As a young presidential candidate in 1960,
Kennedy represented for many a bright future in which the United States would lead
the way in resolving the Cold War. Nowhere was Kennedy’s youthful style more evident
than in the first televised presidential debate held on September 23, 1960, between him
and his Republican opponent Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Seventy million viewers
watched the debate on television; millions more heard it on the radio. Radio listeners
judged Nixon the winner, whereas those who watched the debate on television believed
the more telegenic Kennedy made the better showing.
Kennedy did not appeal to all voters, however. Many feared that because he was
Roman Catholic, his decisions would be influenced by the Pope. Even traditional
Democratic supporters, like the head of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther,
feared that a Catholic candidate would lose the support of Protestants. Many southern
Democrats also disliked Kennedy because of his liberal position on civil rights. To shore
up support for Kennedy in the south, Lyndon B. Johnson, the Protestant Texan who was
Senate majority leader, was added to the Democratic ticket as the vice presidential
candidate. Kennedy won the election by the closest margin since 1888, defeating Nixon
with only 0.01 percent more of the record sixty-seven million votes cast. His victory in
the Electoral College was greater: 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219. Kennedy’s win
made him both the youngest man elected to the presidency and the first U.S. president
born in the twentieth century.
Kennedy dedicated his inaugural address to the theme of a new direction for the
United States. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your
country,” he challenged his fellow Americans. His lofty goals ranged from fighting
poverty to winning the space race against the Soviet Union with a moon landing. He
assembled an administration of energetic people assured of their ability to shape the
future. Dean Rusk was named secretary of state. Robert McNamara, the former
president of Ford Motor Company, became secretary of defense. Kennedy appointed his
younger brother Robert as attorney general, much to the chagrin of many who viewed
the appointment as a blatant example of nepotism.
Kennedy’s domestic reform plans remained hampered, however, by his narrow
victory and lack of support from members of his own party, especially southern
Democrats. As a result, he remained hesitant to propose new civil rights legislation. His
achievements came primarily in poverty relief and care for the disabled.
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Aaron Shikler’s official
portrait “John Fitzgerald
Kennedy” (painted in
1970), where the president
stands with arms folded,
apparently deep in
thought.
Unemployment benefits were expanded, the food stamps program was piloted, and the
school lunch program was extended to more students. In October 1963, the passage of
the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction
Act increased support for public mental health services.
Kennedy focused most of his energies on foreign policy, an arena in which he
had been interested since his college years and in which, like all presidents, he was less
constrained by the dictates of Congress. Kennedy, who had promised in his inaugural
address to protect the interests of the “free world,” engaged in Cold War politics on a
variety of fronts. For example, responding to the lead that the Soviets had taken in the
space race when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to successfully orbit the earth,
Kennedy urged Congress to not only put a man into space but also land an American on
the moon (a goal finally accomplished in 1969). Investment in the space program
advanced a variety of military technologies, especially the nation’s long-range missile
capability, which resulted in numerous profitable spin-offs for the aviation and
communication industries. Investment in these technologies also funded a growing
middle class of government workers, engineers, and defense contractors in states
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ranging from California to Texas to Florida—a region that would come to be known as
the Sun Belt. At the same time, the use of massive federal resources for space
technologies did not change the economic outlook for low-income communities and
underprivileged regions.
To counter Soviet influence in the developing world, Kennedy supported a
variety of measures. One of these was the Alliance for Progress, which collaborated with
the governments of Latin American countries to promote economic growth and social
stability in nations whose populations might find themselves drawn to communism.
Kennedy also established the Agency for International Development to oversee the
distribution of foreign aid, and he founded the Peace Corps, which recruited idealistic
young people to undertake humanitarian projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He
hoped that by augmenting the food supply and improving healthcare and education, the
U.S. government could encourage developing nations to align themselves with the
United States and reject Soviet or Chinese overtures. The first group of Peace Corps
volunteers departed for the four corners of the globe in 1961, serving as an instrument
of “soft power” in the Cold War.
Kennedy’s various aid projects, like the Peace Corps, fit closely with his
administration’s “flexible response,” which Robert McNamara advocated as a better
alternative to the all-or-nothing defensive strategy of mutually assured destruction
favored during Eisenhower’s presidency. The plan was to develop different strategies,
tactics, and even military capabilities to respond more appropriately to small or
medium-sized insurgencies, and political or diplomatic crises. One component of
flexible response was the Green Berets, a U.S. Army Special Forces unit trained in
counterinsurgency—the military suppression of rebel and nationalist groups in foreign
nations. Much of the Kennedy administration’s new approach to defense, however,
remained focused on the ability and willingness of the United States to wage both
conventional and nuclear warfare, and Kennedy continued to call for increases in the
American nuclear arsenal.
Cuba and the Berlin Wall
Kennedy’s multifaceted approach to national defense is exemplified by his
careful handling of the Communist government of Fidel Castro in Cuba. In January 1959,
following the overthrow of the corrupt and dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista,
Castro assumed leadership of the new Cuban government. The progressive reforms he
began indicated that he favored Communism, and his pro-Soviet foreign policy
frightened the Eisenhower administration, which asked the CIA to find a way to remove
him from power. Rather than have the U.S. military invade the small island nation,
fewer than one hundred miles from Florida, and risk the world’s criticism, the CIA
instead trained a small force of Cuban exiles for the job. After landing at the Bay of Pigs
on the Cuban coast, these insurgents, the CIA believed, would inspire their countrymen
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Victorious in the
revolution, Cuban leader
Fidel Castro enters
Havana in 1959.
to rise up and topple Castro’s regime. The United States also promised air support for
the invasion.
Kennedy agreed to support the previous administration’s plans, and on April 17,
1961, approximately 1,400 Cuban exiles stormed ashore at the designated spot.
However, Kennedy feared domestic criticism and worried about Soviet retaliation
elsewhere in the world, such as Berlin. He cancelled the anticipated air support, which
enabled the Cuban army to easily defeat the insurgents. The hoped-for uprising of the
Cuban people also failed to occur. The surviving members of the exile army were taken
into custody. The invasion was a major foreign policy disaster for President Kennedy
and highlighted Cuba’s military vulnerability to the Castro administration. It also
signaled to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that the new American president was not
only young and inexperienced but weak as well.
Khrushchev had another opportunity to test Kennedy over the issue of Berlin.
The United States had about 10,000 troops stationed in West Berlin. The city itself was a
hotbed of spies, and state secrets from both sides routinely crossed the border.
Thousands of well-educated East Germans were also able to flee to the West, taking
with them the human capital needed in the East for economic rebuilding. In addition,
the U.S. had failed to recognize the East German government. When Khrushchev
threatened to turn over control of East Berlin to the East German government, Kennedy
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responded with threats to send additional troops to Europe. In August 1961, the Soviet
premier walled off West Berlin, claiming the move was necessary to stop espionage
from the West. The Berlin Wall became a symbol of Soviet oppression and the Kennedy
administration was powerless to do anything about it.
In 1962, a more serious showdown with Khrushchev took place. The Soviet
Union sent troops and technicians to Cuba to strengthen its new ally against further U.S.
military plots. Then, on October 14, U.S. spy planes took aerial photographs that
confirmed the presence of medium-range ballistic missile sites in Cuba. The United
States was now within easy reach of Soviet nuclear warheads.
This low-level U.S. Navy photograph of San Cristobal, Cuba, at the left, clearly shows
one of the sites built to launch intermediate-range missiles at the United States. As
the date indicates, it was taken on the last day of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Following
the crisis, Kennedy met with the reconnaissance pilots who flew the Cuban missions,
as shown on the right.
On October 22, Kennedy demanded that Khrushchev remove the missiles. He
also ordered a naval quarantine placed around Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from
approaching. Despite his use of the word “quarantine” instead of “blockade” (a blockade
was considered an act of war), a potential war with the Soviet Union was nevertheless
on the president’s mind. As U.S. ships headed for Cuba, the army was told to prepare for
war, and Kennedy appeared on national television to declare his intention to defend the
Western Hemisphere from Soviet aggression.
The world held its breath awaiting the Soviet reply. Realizing how serious the
United States was, Khrushchev sought a peaceful solution to the crisis, overruling those
in his government who urged a harder stance. Behind the scenes, Robert Kennedy and
Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin worked toward a compromise that would allow
both superpowers to back down without either side seeming intimidated by the other.
On October 26, Khrushchev agreed to remove the Russian missiles in exchange for
Kennedy’s promise not to invade Cuba. On October 27, Kennedy’s agreement was made
public, and the crisis ended. Not made public, but nevertheless part of the agreement,
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was Kennedy’s promise to remove U.S. warheads from Turkey which were as close to
Soviet targets as the Cuban missiles had been to American ones.
The showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union over Cuba’s
missiles had pushed the world on the brink of a nuclear war. Both superpowers already
had long-range bombers with nuclear weapons either airborne or ready for launch, and
were only hours away from the first strike. In the long run, this nearly catastrophic
example of nuclear brinksmanship ended up making the world safer. A telephone “hot
line” was installed, linking Washington and Moscow to avert future crises, and in 1963,
Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting tests of
nuclear weapons in Earth’s atmosphere.
Vietnam
Cuba was not the only arena in which the United States sought to contain the
advance of Communism. In Indochina, nationalist independence movements, most
notably Vietnam’s Viet Minh under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, held strong
Communist sympathies. President Harry S. Truman had no love for France’s colonial
regime in Indochina, but did not want to risk French loyalty against the Soviet Union. In
1950, the Truman administration sent a small military advisory group to Vietnam and
provided financial aid to help France defeat the Viet Minh.
In 1954, Vietnamese forces dramatically defeated the French, and the country
was temporarily divided at the seventeenth parallel. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh
controlled the North. In the South, the last Vietnamese emperor and ally to France, Bao
Dai, named the French-educated, anti-Communist Ngo Dinh Diem as his government’s
prime minister. But Diem refused to abide by the Geneva Accords, the treaty ending the
conflict that called for countrywide national elections in 1956, with the victor to rule a
reunified nation. After a fraudulent election in the South in 1955, he ousted Bao Dai and
proclaimed himself president of the Republic of Vietnam. Backed by the U.S., he
cancelled the 1956 elections in the South, and began to round up Communists and
supporters of Ho Chi Minh, who won the election in the North.
Realizing that Diem would never agree to the reunification of the country under
Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, the North Vietnamese began efforts to overthrow the
government of the South by encouraging insurgents to attack South Vietnamese
officials. By 1960, North Vietnam had also created the National Liberation Front (NLF)
to resist Diem and carry out an insurgency in the South. The United States, fearing the
spread of Communism under Ho Chi Minh, supported Diem. However, Diem’s
oppressive and corrupt government made him an unpopular ruler, particularly with
farmers, students, and Buddhists, and many in the South actively assisted the NLF and
North Vietnam in trying to overthrow his government.
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Following the French retreat from Indochina, the United States intervened to prevent
what it believed was a building Communist threat in the region. Under President
Kennedy’s leadership, the United States sent thousands of military advisors to
Vietnam.
When Kennedy took office, Diem’s government was faltering. Continuing the
policies of the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy supplied Diem with money and
military advisors to prop up his government. By November 1963, there were 16,000
U.S. troops in South Vietnam. U.S. troops trained South Vietnamese special forces, and
flew air missions that dumped defoliant chemicals on the countryside to expose North
Vietnamese and NLF fighters and their supply routes. A few weeks before Kennedy’s
own death, Diem and his brother Nhu were assassinated by South Vietnamese military
officers after U.S. officials had indicated their support for a new regime.
Tragedy in Dallas
Although his stance on African American civil rights (discussed in the next
chapter) had won him support in the black community, and his steely performance
during the Cuban Missile Crisis had led his overall popularity to surge, Kennedy
understood that he had to solidify his base in the south to secure reelection. To that end,
on November 21, 1963, he accompanied Lyndon Johnson to Texas to rally supporters.
The next day, shots rang out as Kennedy’s motorcade made its way through the streets
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of Dallas. Seriously injured, Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Hospital and pronounced
dead.
The gunfire that killed Kennedy appeared to come from the upper stories of the
Texas School Book Depository building; later that day, Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee
at the depository and a trained sniper, was arrested. Two days later, while being
transferred from Dallas police headquarters to the county jail, Oswald was shot and
killed by Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner who claimed he acted to avenge the
president.
Almost immediately, rumors began to circulate regarding the Kennedy
assassination, and conspiracy theorists, pointing to the unlikely coincidence of Oswald’s
murder a few days after Kennedy’s, began to propose alternate theories about the
events. To quiet the rumors and allay fears that the government was hiding evidence,
Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, appointed a fact-finding commission headed by
Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States, to examine all the evidence and render a
verdict. The Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone
and there had been no conspiracy. The commission’s ruling failed to satisfy many, and
multiple theories have sprung up over time. No credible evidence has ever been
uncovered, however, to prove either that someone other than Oswald murdered
Kennedy. Dallas brought an early end to the era, leaving Americans to wonder whether
his vice president and successor, Lyndon Johnson, would bring Kennedy’s vision for the
nation to fruition.
Conclusion
The Cold War had begun in 1945, gaining momentum with each passing year, as
the United States and the Soviet Union eyed each other’s actions with suspicion and
fear. In this postwar world, the U.S. tended to view national independence movements
across the globe as part of an international Communist conspiracy, often backing
corrupt and dictatorial regimes whose leaders opposed Communism. Like the United
States, the Soviet Union sought ideological and economic dominance around the world,
and deployed its own brand of interventionism to achieve it. Domestically, Americans
prospered, despite being swept up in a wave of fear over nuclear annihilation and the
spread of Communism. With the assassination of President Kennedy, a new generation
of Americans stood ready to come forward and challenge the politics of fear and
America’s failure to secure rights and freedoms for all. This will be the subject of the
next chapter.
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