This article is the sixth installment of an HPR series exploring President Kennedy’s legacy as we reflect on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
From his time at Harvard to his days in the White House, President John F. Kennedy had a passion for foreign policy. His senior thesis was an analysis of Britain’s failure to maintain a military force comparable to that of Germany in the lead-up to World War II. Fascinated by the dynamics of international politics, he became a leading proponent of diplomacy and a steadfast opponent of communism. Ironically, while Kennedy generally favored diplomacy over military action, two crises in Cuba tested his adherence to that policy, underscoring both his competence and his vulnerability.
In his inaugural address, Kennedy said two things that have resonated through five decades of American history. The first quote, ubiquitous across American society, regarded our service to the United States. The second quote encompassed Kennedy’s approach to foreign relations: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy believed that peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union was possible. Yet, a few months into his presidency, he reverted to the aggressive policies of Eisenhower in order to subdue Soviet aggression and diminish the communist sphere of influence. On April 17, 1961, a CIA-backed paramilitary group invaded Cuba to rid the Western world of its first communist regime. The attempt failed and seriously damaged Kennedy’s image. Although Eisenhower had allocated funds for the attack, it was Kennedy who actually took action.
This fiasco, known as the Bay of Pigs invasion, was an embarrassing failure of American foreign policy. It proved to the world that the U.S. would neither succeed in every attempt to stop communism nor effectively imperialize and control smaller nations. Rebels and communists across Latin America celebrated, and Cuba became a model for the out-classed small nation seeking to resist the imperial might of the United States. Kennedy’s decision to order the invasion contradicted his stated desire to abandon slow, militaristic foreign policy tactics such as brinkmanship and massive retaliation.
Clearly, during his early days in the White House, Kennedy’s desire to check the spread of communism had trumped his preference for diplomacy. However, a subsequent crisis in Cuba demonstrated a more nuanced approach. When the White House received word from an American U-2 plane about nuclear missile sites being built by the USSR in Cuba, Kennedy decided to combine diplomacy with a show of strength. After many long, strenuous talks with his advisors, he opted for a naval blockade of Cuba. He also demanded that the missiles and the sites be destroyed.
Both Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev recognized the risk of a devastating nuclear war and acted accordingly: Khrushchev acceded to Kennedy’s demands but responded with a few of his own. Ultimately, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle and remove the missile sites, and Kennedy pledged not to attack Cuba and to remove American missiles from Turkey. Kennedy had successfully quelled what was arguably the Cold War’s edgiest situation.
Perhaps inspired by his successful diplomatic resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy attempted to pursue diplomacy in other situations. In 1963, his efforts led to the U.S. and U.S.S.R. signing the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. This was the first time that the two superpowers reached consensus on limiting nuclear weapons expansion and testing. Yet further agreements remained elusive.
Kennedy came to the White House with a vision of using diplomacy to resolve Cold War conflicts and halt the advance of communism. Yet the aggressive attitude of the Soviets, as well as other external events, made the task of finding diplomatic solutions difficult. In his first major test, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Kennedy abandoned diplomacy, with disastrous results. However, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and beyond, he achieved greater success by combining diplomatic outreach with a firm resolve.
Photo Credit: American Diplomacy, National Archives