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John F. Kennedy and the Cold War

  • 0:08 A New Frontier
  • 0:53 Spending to Defeat Communism
  • 2:37 Foreign Relations
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

Upon entering office in 1961, President John F. Kennedy was tasked with the challenge of maintaining the upper hand in the United States' battle against communism. Learn about Kennedy's successes and failures in handling the Cold War.

A New Frontier

The year 1960 marked a pivotal time in the history of the Cold War. With President Dwight D. Eisenhower leaving office, the United States was in need of a leader who could continue the battle against international communist aggression. The Election of 1960 yielded that individual. John F. Kennedy was elected to office by the narrowest of margins. He promoted the New Frontier, which called for action in four areas: economics, civil rights, social welfare and a strengthened foreign policy. President Kennedy's New Frontier foreign policy rested on the notion of flexible response, that is, the ability to tactically combat communist expansion quickly and efficiently. Let's take a look at how Kennedy handled the Cold War during his shortened presidency.

Spending to Defeat Communism

President Kennedy believed that President Eisenhower had maintained a limited approach to dealing with the Soviet Union. As a result, Kennedy contended that the United States had fallen behind its communist foe in developing defense products. This included submarines armed with missile firing capabilities, increases in surface-to-air missiles and more advanced long-range missile systems. Additionally, Kennedy called for a crash program that would minimize the missile gap between the two nations. The huge federal appropriations dedicated toward defense would translate into a stronger flexible response program, which meant responding faster and more efficiently to communist subversion.

Notwithstanding increases in defense spending, Kennedy introduced several programs that attempted to undercut communism in various Third World nations. For example, Kennedy developed the Peace Corps, which promoted democracy and shunned communism. He also established the Alliance for Progress, which dedicated billions of dollars to Latin American countries that were willing to establish democratic institutions.

Kennedy also seized the initiative in regard to the space race. The Soviets, in 1957, had triggered the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States when they launched Sputnik 1 into orbit. Several years later, in 1961, the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into space; he became the first man to orbit the Earth. The advances in Soviet space technology resulted in Kennedy calling for increased funding of the United States' space program, and hence Project Apollo, the race to the moon, commenced. While NASA and the United States had achieved incredible progress through several early Gemini and Apollo missions, the hallmark of the space program came in July 1969 when American men walked on the moon. This was the Apollo 11 mission.

Foreign Relations

Kennedy faced a number of challenges in the international arena during the Cold War. The most prominent difficulties arose in Germany, Cuba and Laos. Berlin became a major issue in June 1961. The complication arose when Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, demanded that the city of Berlin become part of Soviet-controlled East Germany. This was due to the fact that Germans were leaving East Germany in favor of a democratically controlled West Germany; the loss of people was devastating to the East German economy. Kennedy refused because he was unwilling to allow Berlin to fall into the hands of communist East Germany. In defiance, the communists erected a wall, which separated East and West Berlin, in August of 1961. The Berlin Wall, as it came to be known, was a grim reminder of the animosity found in the Cold War.

Germany was small game compared to the crises that developed in Cuba. The first incident, in 1961, was a result of President Kennedy's attempt to engage in a coup d'état against communist-supporting Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Kennedy ordered trained anti-communist Cuban forces to land at the Bay of Pigs in an attempt to secretly invade and neutralize Castro. Unfortunately, the plan backfired when the anti-communist forces were captured and placed in jail. Kennedy attempted to conceal the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but it was too late.

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