New Wondrium Series Re-Examines John F. Kennedy

landmark presidency led to peace corps, moon landing

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy needed a win. Meanwhile, he repeatedly locked horns with Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union. Then, he promised America the Moon—literally.

Astronaut giving a salute on the moon, with the American flag
Before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced the ambitious goal of putting a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Photo by Merlin74 / Shutterstock

In April 1961, the United States faced a major setback after the CIA fed President John F. Kennedy enough faulty information to turn the Bay of Pigs military operation into a total failure. After being set up by the Agency, Kennedy had to prove he could lead effectively.

Unfortunately, his next challenge was facing off against former Premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, repeatedly, in front of the whole world. JFK’s continuing challenge included events such as a summit in Austria, the Soviet chest-thumping threats of the use of nuclear weapons, and the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Battered but determined, Kennedy found that his presidency was at a pivotal moment. In his video series Reconsidering JFK, Dr. Michael Shelden, Professor of English at Indiana State University, explains how JFK handled such a tough year.

How Did Kennedy Rebound from the Bay of Pigs?

Kennedy needed to show the world he was no amateur. In June 1961, he met Khrushchev in Vienna for a world summit.

“Not surprisingly, the Soviet leader welcomed this meeting as a chance to bully the inexperienced young American president who looked so vulnerable after the blunder in Cuba,” Dr. Shelden said. “[Khrushchev] thought that all the geopolitical advantages were his—He was wrong. The Soviet economy was weak, his military looked better on paper than in reality, and the global influence of Communism waxed and waned depending on the quality of the latest propaganda campaigns.”

Khrushchev did, however, have nuclear weapons, and could make the West fear that he may use them. On the advice of W. Averell Harriman, Kennedy’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, the president refused to take Khrushchev’s blustering and intimidation too seriously. Krushchev lacked Stalin’s cunning and a firm grip on power, but he remained contentious on every issue JFK and he discussed, and threatened to isolate the French, British, and American enclaves in Berlin.

Khrushchev got under Kennedy’s skin, causing him to lose his temper.

“At the end of the summit, Kennedy thought that his efforts were a complete failure, that the Soviet leader had treated him with contempt and was determined to cause him more trouble in the months ahead,” Dr. Shelden said. “Other observers were not so pessimistic about Kennedy’s performance.”

Why Did Kennedy Promise America the Moon?

In President Kennedy’s inaugural address, he promised big things for the United States. His aim was to show America’s greatness and innovation, partly because it would stand in such stark contrast to the tyranny of the Soviet Union.

“What he offered first was the Peace Corps, an unarmed army of volunteers willing to show how modern America could offer a helping hand to the rest of the world,” Dr. Shelden said. “His second step was to demonstrate the full measure of American ingenuity by starting a race to reach the Moon by the end of the decade—which enabled competition between the two superpowers, but without the threat of war.”

Both ideas had their detractors—Some even saw no point in landing on the Moon. However, both efforts bore fruit. On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission put the first man on the Moon, and, today, NASA is working on efforts to go back and build a permanent station there.

Meanwhile, the Peace Corps has grown to 240,000 members who have worked in Central and South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Oceania region.

Reconsidering JFK is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily