35 John F. Kennedy

After Eisenhower’s two terms in office, Democrat John F. Kennedy defeated Republican and sitting Vice-President Richard Nixon in the election of 1960 in a very close election.  To many Americans, Kennedy—the youngest President ever elected—was symbol of hope and change, much like President Obama.

Kennedy’s domestic policy was called the New Frontier.  He promised changes in the space program, reforms in civil rights (the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech took place during Kennedy’s Presidency), urban renewal, social welfare and a new image in foreign policy.  Unfortunately, Kennedy faced resistance from Congress and little was done before his assassination in Dallas.

One thing he was successful in doing was in creating the Peace Corps.  This government programs placed American volunteers in other countries to provide technical assistance in an effort to improved relationships with these developing countries.

Despite Kennedy’s ambitious domestic agenda, his short Presidency was dominated by foreign policy issues related to the Cold War.  Several crises arose around the Cuba.  In 1959, Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, overthrew an unpopular, American-supported dictator in the Cuban Revolution.  Castro, with support from the Soviet Union, then established a new communist government.

Even before Kennedy took office, the CIA had a plan in the works to train Cuban refugees and supply them to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro’s communist regime.  Three months into Kennedy’s Presidency, the Bay of Pigs invasion took place and it was a huge disaster.  Castro was tipped off and was able to fend of the attack, killing Cuban-American relations.  Castro’s reaction was to nationalize all businesses—including American owned ones—in Cuba.  They were seized by the government.

Kennedy’s reaction was to issue and Executive Order instating an embargo on trade with Cuba that is still in effect today.  The purpose was to punish Cuba for being communist, allying with the Soviet Union and nationalizing American businesses.  But it did not force Cuba to change anything.

Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  With Cuban-American relations so poor, Cuba agreed to let the Soviet Union build nuclear missile bases that were capable of hitting Washington, DC.  The Americans had missiles bases in Europe capable of hitting Moscow for a while, so the Soviets were eager for the ability to have bases on Cuba.  American spy planes discovered the bases under construction.  Kennedy was faced with a decision on how to react.  Some military brass wanted to bomb the bases.  Kennedy chose to order a naval blockade to prevent the missiles from being delivered from the Soviet Union.  After a stand-off at sea—with the world on the verve of all-out war between the two superpowers—the Soviets backed down and the ships with the missiles on-board turned around and headed back to the Soviet Union.

Further issues with the Soviet Union arose during Kennedy’s Presidency.  One was the U2 incident.  Both superpowers spied on each other quite a bit.  Of course, both claimed they weren’t.  The Soviet, for instance, accused the Americans of flying over them with high altitude spy planes.  The U.S. said they weren’t.  But when the Soviets shot down one of these top secrets planes—called the U-2—and captured the pilot, they were caught red handed.  This caused international embarrassment, but it didn’t stop the espionage.

During Kennedy’s watch, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall, sealing off West Berlin to stop the escape of East Germans to West Germany.  He gave a famous speech there where he tried to say to the people living in Berlin that he sympathized with them by saying, “I am a Berliner.”  Unfortunately, he actually said—due to an improper translation—“I am a jelly donut.”

During Kennedy’s Presidency the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a nuclear arms race, with each side stockpiling weapons, trying to build a larger arsenal than the other.  In fact, they made so many that it was more than enough to blow the whole world up.  As part of this, they continued to compete in the Space Race.  The Soviet were first to put a satellite into orbit, a monkey into space, a man into space and a man into orbit.  Kennedy put the race to the moon by as the goal of the American space program.

America continued to getting deeper and deeper into the conflict in Vietnam between the communist North and non-communist South, ruled by an unpopular dictator supported by the United States.  A motivation to this was the belief in the “Domino Theory.”  If one country fell to communism, we believe, all the others around it would fall too.  That’s why the policy of containment was so important.  The U. S. would send troops and aid to any country fighting communist rebels.

During the Kennedy era, there were several key Supreme Court decisions made.  In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the Court ruled that State governments—just like the federal government—cannot use evidence that is found through “unreasonable search and seizure,” as outlined in the Fourth Amendment.  Baker v. Carr (1962) had to do with whether federal courts could rule on redistricting—drawing new boundaries of electoral districts.  The Court ruled that the federal government could.  In the ruling for Engle v. Vitale (1962), the Court made prayer in school—which was commonplace before this time—illegal in public schools.

During the Kennedy years, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) launched the environmental movement.  Originally serialized in the New Yorker, it was published as a book and became a best seller.  In particular, it examined the effects of chemical pesticides such as DDT and the negative impacts it had.  It led to the banning of that particular pesticide in 1972.

Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was huge blow to the country.  Controversy and conspiracy theories still abound as to who killed him and why.


Mapp v. Ohio (1961)

Baker v. Carr (1962)

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)


BEFORE:  Eisenhower         *          AFTER:  L. B. Johnson


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