Compared to the relative quiet of Eisenhower's presidency in the 1950s, the 1960s were rife with political activity. President Eisenhower left the White House after serving for eight years, opening the door for a vibrant young man to be elected on his promise of a New Frontier—John F. Kennedy.
The Republican ticket in the election of 1960 featured a familiar face. Richard M. Nixon had served two terms as Vice President under Eisenhower. Although far from beloved, his familiarity, coupled with his association with the popular past president, made him a strong candidate for the presidency.
While Democrat John F. Kennedy did not possess Nixon's political experience, he was nonetheless a popular candidate. He had returned a hero from World War II, a factor that added to his natural charm and charisma. At only 43, his vitality and his attractive young wife gave him an appeal that Nixon could not match.
As television sets became commonplace, Kennedy's charisma was beamed into people's homes through a series of televised debates. On political matters, Nixon and Kennedy did not hold vastly different opinions, so many viewers made their decisions based on intangibles like personality and allure.
During the debates, particularly in the all-important first one, Nixon was recovering from a recent illness and appeared tired and worn. Kennedy, on the other hand, came across as healthy, optimistic, and enthusiastic. Although neither candidate "won" the debates, the voters were definitely leaning Kennedy's way.
Kennedy did have his detractors, however. Many voters, especially those in the Bible Belt of the South, expressed concern that Kennedy's affiliation with the Roman Catholic church could result in the Pope controlling the White House. Kennedy neutralized these concerns by addressing them directly, stating that members of the Catholic Church would not expect to hold undue influence over a Catholic president and encouraging Protestant officials to refrain from telling their flocks how to vote.
Kennedy developed a two-fold plan for winning the support of the South: first, he selected a Texan, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, as his running mate. In addition to being a Southerner, Johnson carried a particularly strong record on civil rights. Second, he pursued the black vote by developing a special committee to garner African American support and to increase the number of registered black voters.
It was an unusual turn of events that solidified Kennedy's popularity in the black community. Political activist Martin Luther King, Jr., and 50 demonstrators were arrested upon entering an all-white restaurant. Shortly after the arrests were made, the protesters were released—all except King, who was sentenced to four months in prison for a traffic violation.
Naturally, King's supporters were outraged. Kennedy's brother and campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, made a phone call to the judge presiding over King's case and strongly encouraged King's release "by sundown." Shortly thereafter, King was released on bail, and Robert Kennedy's spin on the incident resulted in widespread support of his brother by black voters.
That support proved to be critical in a tight presidential race. Nixon won the electoral votes from the large western states and four of the six southern states that Eisenhower had carried. However, Kennedy swept the Middle Atlantic and garnered important electoral votes from the South and New England. Although the popular vote was close—separated only by 118,574 votes—Kennedy held a large advantage with 303 electoral votes to Nixon's 219.
Kennedy, the youngest elected president in U.S. history, took office with the same vigor he had used to earn the presidency. An inspiring orator, Kennedy used his inauguration speech to encourage Americans to become patriots and participants in the democracy. He asked his fellow Americans to "...ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Throughout his presidency, Kennedy continued to give the public a clear understanding of his priorities. He committed to landing on the moon by the end of the decade, and he addressed the need for the Soviet bloc to respect human rights, while affirming the U.S. determination to "pay any price, bear any burden" in the fight to contain communism. He referred to his idealistic notions as the New Frontier.
President Kennedy's vision of a New Frontier represented a country hungry for economic expansion and social development. However, global events quickly shifted his focus to the international stage.
Kennedy's administration got off to a rocky start in April of 1961 with the Bay of Pigs invasion. During Eisenhower's second term in the White House, Fidel Castro had come to power in Cuba and proved to be a brutal and totalitarian leader. When Castro came to power, he quickly aligned himself with Soviet Communists, much to the despair of American leaders who hoped to maintain Cuba as an ally.
Eisenhower approved a plan that called for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to train approximately 1,500 anti-Castro Cuban exiles for a Cuban invasion and takeover. Eisenhower's term ended before the training was complete, so Kennedy inherited responsibility for the program. His advisors assured him that the CIA-trained rebels would be victorious, so on April 17, 1961, the militia invaded the south coast of Cuba at the Bahía de Cochinos, or the Bay of Pigs.
The militia hoped to incite an insurrection with the local population; however, the outcome proved that the CIA was drastically wrong in their assessment that the 1,500 warriors would triumph. Castro's Army and supporters quickly repelled the invasion, leaving all but a few hundred of the invading militia either captured or killed.
Just three months into his presidency, Kennedy suffered the humiliation of financing and backing the disastrous scheme. Americans questioned Kennedy's leadership, both for his refusal to provide air support for the invading force and for allowing the invasion to take place at all. He did make some progress in Latin America with his Alliance for Progress, a program created in 1961 and designed to provide financial assistance and social welfare to Cuba and its neighbors. However, this program too would eventually fail when Latin American countries refused to adopt the reforms necessary to significantly reduce poverty.
That same year, Kennedy played a role in another major event of the decade and the Cold War—the Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall, which divided the German city into East and West Berlin. Soviet Premier Khrushchev, an experienced politician, refused to take the inexperienced Kennedy seriously as a world leader. Believing he had to take a forceful stance against Khrushchev's threats to limit U.S. access to Berlin, Kennedy called up the Army Reserves and National Guard to prepare to protect Berlin.
Khrushchev's response was a strong one; he constructed the Berlin Wall to divide the east and west sides of the city, tearing apart families and preventing economic exchange. This move demonstrated the Soviet's might and willingness to go toe-to-toe with the United States. To Kennedy's credit, he did not back down. He visited Berlin in 1962 and paid tribute to the spirit of Berliners and to their quest for freedom when he declared to the crowds "I am a Berliner." He also offered this commentary on the Soviet regime: "For those who say communism is a better system, let them come to Berlin." His popularity soared.
Naturally, Kennedy's refusal to back down infuriated Khrushchev, as did the U.S. missiles in Turkey that were aimed at the Soviet Union. With the understanding that Cuba was a sore spot for Kennedy after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, Khrushchev began to place missiles there and aim them at the coast of Florida. The plan also provided for protection of Cuba—an important Soviet economic partner—from another American invasion.
Kennedy was not only worried about the Russian missiles just 90 miles from the coast of Florida, but also the psychological effects they had on Americans. It was apparent that the United States government had to take action. After reviewing several options, the National Security Council decided to go with a plan they labeled "quarantine," a euphemism for a naval blockade. On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy opted to provide disclosure to American citizens of the Cuban missile sites and the U.S. government's blockade in response.
Not surprisingly, this was one of most tense episodes in American history and, by most accounts, as close as the U.S. and Soviets ever came to nuclear confrontation. Khrushchev threatened to push past the quarantine, but fortunately his threats proved idle. On Wednesday, October 24, 1962, Soviet ships came near but stopped short of the U.S. blockade. Two days later, a television reporter relayed a message from a representative of the Soviet Embassy offering to remove the Cuban missiles if the United States agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. Secretly, the Soviets also insisted on a U.S. promise to refrain from any future Cuban invasions. Kennedy accepted the proposal, and Khrushchev removed the missiles on Sunday, October 28, 1962.
After being on the brink of nuclear war, President Kennedy made huge strides in diplomatic relations with the Soviets. Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to establish a "hot line" telephone with a direct connection between the two political centers. They also arranged to enter into dialogues about peacekeeping efforts and cooperation between the two nations.
The U.S. stand against communism also required Kennedy to make foreign policy decisions concerning the growing war in Vietnam. Kennedy wanted to limit involvement in the war, yet he was also concerned about the "domino effect," first stated by President Eisenhower, of nations falling under communist control as a result of the war. Kennedy looked to his popular and successful predecessor for guidance.
Eisenhower had an established policy of support for anticommunist forces in Southeast Asia, believing that this was the only way to stem the tide of the domino effect. Kennedy adopted the same policy in hopes of limiting the spread of communism. He also determined that the United States had limited power over the outcome of the war and would withdraw from South Vietnam by the end of 1965. Unfortunately, Kennedy was assassinated before he could see that promise through.
In addition to his charm and good looks, it was President Kennedy's dedication to domestic policy initiatives that made him an extremely popular president. Kennedy emphatically supported many social programs and tax cuts that he believed would create unprecedented economic success for Americans. In fact, his tax and tariff cuts did keep the economy surging upward and kept prices from rising, even though he was not always able to garner support from Congress. He also struggled with Congress over his social programs, although he continued to propose them with great determination.
Congress blocked Kennedy on the matters of health insurance for the elderly, work initiatives for youth and migrant workers, and federal aid for education. Other initiatives for mass transit and a new Department of Urban Affairs were also halted. However, nearly $5 million was eventually appropriated by Congress—at Kennedy's request—for urban renewal efforts.
Kennedy's vision for a New Frontier brought a number of domestic successes. In 1961, the Area Redevelopment Act was established to provide nearly $400 million in benefits to "distressed areas" in order to combat chronic unemployment in impoverished cities and rural areas by increasing their levels of economic growth. Kennedy was also able to achieve increases in Social Security benefits and the minimum wage. Kennedy's space initiatives garnered support, and the government committed to his desire to see a moon landing before the end of the 1960s.
President Kennedy's commitment to social reform spread to foreign soil as well. The Peace Corps was created in 1961 to provide underdeveloped countries with technical, economic, and health education. Volunteers were paid 11 cents a day for their service. The Peace Corps remains a popular program that has helped vast numbers of people around the globe.
Unfortunately, Kennedy's efforts to develop his idealistic New Frontier were cut short. While visiting Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, the president who sparked renewed vitality throughout America was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, a pro-Castro malcontent. Oswald himself was assassinated soon after in retaliation by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner from Dallas. Both assassinations have spurred great controversy and many conspiracy theories.
Vice-President Lyndon Johnson accepted the presidency aboard Air Force One as the plane flew Kennedy's body, his family, and his staff back to Washington for the funeral. One of Johnson's first acts as President was to form a commission, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, to examine Kennedy's assassination and determine the validity of the many conspiracy theories. The commission ultimately agreed that Oswald had acted alone on a personal vendetta, although speculation about Kennedy's death has never been completely put to rest.
Regardless of the reason for the assassination, the effect was devastating. A nation watched as a young boy saluted his father's casket in a touching tribute during the funeral procession. The country mourned the loss of a bright, handsome, popular, young husband, father, and president.
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