John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara
JFK and Flexible Response
Kennedy and Khrushchev
John F. Kennedy entered the White House wanting to create an alternative to Eisenhower’s policy of Massive Retaliation. Kennedy believed Eisenhower’s emphasis on developing nuclear weapons had greatly weakened the United States’ conventional forces. The new president and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, introduced the policy of “flexible response.” In describing the approach, Kennedy stated that the nation must be ready “to deter all wars, general or limited, nuclear or conventional, large or small.” Under this approach, the United States could call on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMS) or Special Forces, including the newly created Green Berets, to battle communist aggression.
Kennedy’s first foreign policy test did not come in Europe, rather 90 miles off the coast of Florida. In 1959, a revolutionary named Fidel Castro led a successful overthrow of Cuba’s dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The United States quickly recognized Castro’s new government, but relations between the U.S. and Cuba soon deteriorated. Almost immediately after achieving power, Castro set out to end Cuba’s dependency on the United States by nationalizing businesses and confiscating private property, much of which was owned by American companies. In response, the United States imposed an economic embargo of the island and reduced import quotas on key items, including sugar. The Soviet Union offered Cuba economic aid, and Castro established ties with the Soviet Union. In 1961, Castro announced that he was a Marxist-Leninist and that Cuba was a communist nation.
During Eisenhower’s second administration, the CIA began planning for a covert operation designed to topple Castro’s government. Upon becoming president, Kennedy reviewed the plan and decided to move forward with the operation. On April 17, 1961, nearly 1,500 CIA-trained Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. As a result of poor planning and bad intelligence, Castro’s troops quickly defeated the invaders. Embarrassed, President Kennedy appeared before the American public and accepted full responsibility for the failed mission.
Construction of the Berlin Wall
Constructing the Berlin Wall
Kennedy’s attention turned to Europe during the summer of 1961. During a summit meeting in June, Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union proposed reuniting Berlin under East Germany’s control. In part, the Soviet leader’s proposal resulted from the fact that East Germany’s best and brightest escaped the country through West Berlin. Kennedy refused and on July 25 delivered a televised address to the American people in which he described the defense of Berlin as “essential to the entire Free World.” He followed up by asking for an increase in defense spending and called up over 150,000 reservists to active duty. Khrushchev backed off from his proposal, and in August 1961 the Soviet Union sealed off East Berlin with barbed wire and, later, a concrete wall that became known as the Berlin Wall.
Reconnaissance photo showing missile sites in Cuba
Cuban Missile Crisis
Kennedy’s cabinet room during the Cuban Missile Crisis
In 1962, U-2 spy planes flying over Cuba discovered nearly complete missile sites being built on the island. The Soviets had begun supplying Castro with missile technology to protect him from an American invasion. In all, over thirty sites were constructed, capable of delivering missiles with 1000 and 2000 mile ranges. Kennedy immediately demanded that the Soviets remove the missiles from the island. Privately, the president contemplated his options, which included air strikes, a military invasion, or a blockade of the island. Kennedy chose to blockade the island and went on television and radio on October 22 to inform the American people of the missiles and his decision to quarantine Cuba. Meanwhile, American forces began practicing in Florida for a possible invasion of Cuba while Strategic Air Command kept a fleet of nuclear bomb carrying B-52s in the air at all times. In exchange for reassurances from Kennedy that the United States would not invade Cuba, the Soviets removed the missiles from Cuba and the crisis passed.