Three Years in the White House: The Kennedy Administration


By Patrick AllittEmory University

The Kennedy administration believed in a more aggressive pursuit of the Cold War than Dwight Eisenhower had. Kennedy made the claim that Eisenhower had been a bit too passive in accepting that the Cold War was a stalemate, a standoff in which neither side could make effective gains against the other.

Meeting between John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower
Kennedy administration started a more proactive strategy for the Cold War. (Image: Abbie Rowe/Public domain)

The Cuban Revolution

Just before he came into office, the Cuban Revolution had succeeded under the leadership of Fidel Castro. He’d ousted the American-backed regime of Batista.

Cuban exiles, and refugees, flocked to Florida and planned a counter-invasion to try to seize Cuba back again from the Castro regime, which very quickly identified itself with the Soviet Union, and an invasion of these exiles was launched at the Bay of Pigs.

The invasion force had clearly been given American aid first under Eisenhower and then under Kennedy, and an invasion had been launched from the United States. But it wasn’t long before Castro’s forces were overwhelming it.

Kennedy Failed to Provide Support

Kennedy could have provided air and direct military support but drew back from doing so, with the result that the Bay of Pigs invasion was a failure. About 1,200 of the invaders were captured, and within three days the whole thing was a failure. 

American complicity with the invasion to begin with, followed by its failure to back it up with air support, made America look weak, and because the public relations was such an important part of the Cold War, as was giving the appearance of strength and resolution, Kennedy felt that there had been a rather severe dent to his authority and prestige as a president, and he certainly attempted to regain the initiative in the Cuban missile crisis of the next year, in 1962.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Kennedy Vs Khrushchev

Once Cuba had become a Soviet satellite, once Castro had accepted the benefits of aid from Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, he also had to inherit some of the downside. Khrushchev wanted to establish a set of missile bases in Cuba and sent ships bearing these missiles in October 1962 to land in Cuba, where the bases could be established only about 90 miles from the American mainland.

Kennedy sent the U.S. Navy and drew a “quarantine” line, an imaginary line in the ocean, saying that Soviet ships carrying these missiles must not go beyond this point. At first, the ships kept going toward the line, and this was one of the moments when the entire world appeared to be stepping towards the brink of a major conflict between the two great superpowers.

Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty

The prospect of war led Khrushchev to back down. Calmer relations prevailed after that, and America—which had got its own missiles very close to Soviet territory in Turkey—withdrew its missiles from Turkey as a quid pro quo for the Russian agreement not to force the issue of establishing its own missiles there in Cuba. 

It was the next summer, the summer of 1963, that the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty was negotiated, which prevented the testing of nuclear weapons in the open air.

Kennedy delivering a speech about the Cuban Crisis.
Kennedy’s reign was inhibited by the narrow margin of victory in 1960 and by the power of southern white Democrats in Congress. (Image: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Public domain)

Kennedy’s Support of the Civil Rights Movement

In his domestic policies, Kennedy took limited initiatives on behalf of women, minorities, and the poor, but his progress was inhibited by the very narrow margin of victory he’d enjoyed in 1960 and also by the power of southern white Democrats in Congress.

He was very anxious lest he alienates people who were one of his power bases because he was thinking ahead to the election of 1964, and fearing that he might not be able to retain the “Solid South” if he made too many concessions in civil rights, a point we raised previously.

He created a commission on the status of women. He raised the minimum wage. He began some initiatives to create low-cost housing for poor Americans, and he did become progressively more sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement as segregationist violence intensified, especially after the summer of 1963. 

Kennedy Assassination and Legacy

The Attorney General, his brother, Robert Kennedy was more attuned to the magnitude of the Civil Rights Movement than the president, but as we know, the question of the election of 1964 was entirely beside the point because Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 during a visit to Dallas.

A lot of mystery surrounds the incident of Kennedy’s assassination. Was Lee Harvey Oswald alone in shooting from the Dallas book depository? Was there a man nearby on the grassy knoll? Does the Zapruder film of the actual event support the theory of multiple assassins?

Kennedy’s actual accomplishments weren’t so great, and it’s easy to condemn his foreign policy as reckless, provoking the building of the Berlin Wall, escalating the war in Vietnam, bringing the world to the brink of war over the Cuban missile crisis, and so on.

Historians already disagree, and surely will continue to disagree, over his legacy.

Common Questions about the Kennedy Administration

Q: How did Kennedy administration’s interference in the Cuban Revolution made America look weak?

After Cuban invaders’ attempt to seize the country back from Castro’s regime, the Kennedy administration failed to continue the support the U.S. had provided for these forces. They were defeated in a matter of days. This made America look weak internationally, which motivated Kennedy to regain the initiative in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Q: What was Kennedy’s strategy regarding the missile gap crisis with the Soviet Union?

One of Kennedy’s main concerns after his election was the missile gap crisis America faced. The Soviet Union was collecting more intercontinental power by the day, making the U.S. seem weak. Taking advantage of the Soviet Union’s agreement with Cuba, Kennedy drew a quarantine line that inhibited Soviet ships carrying missiles from crossing it.

Q: How did Kennedy support the Civil Rights Movement?

John F. Kennedy supported the Civil Rights Movement by creating a commission on the status of women, raising the minimum wage, and improving the housing system in favor of the poor.

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