Flexible Response: Definition & Policy

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  • 0:01 Kennedy's Plan for the…
  • 2:03 Defining Flexible Response
  • 3:00 Modernizing the Military
  • 4:04 Flexible Response Tested
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you'll learn about the U.S. policy of flexible response, including how it is defined, why the policy was created, and how it was used in the Cold War. When you finish the lesson, you'll also have a chance to test your own knowledge of flexible response with a quiz.

‚Äč!!!Kennedy's Plan for the Cold War

When the Kennedy Administration set out to create a new Cold War defense and deterrence strategy, known as Flexible Response, it began with the belief in two things:

  1. President Eisenhower's New Look policy was obsolete
  2. The U.S.S.R. had surged ahead of the U.S. in the weapons race

John F. Kennedy campaigned against President Eisenhower's New Look policy by claiming that massive retaliation, which promised a massive nuclear retaliation to any act of aggression, was unrealistic. Many delicate conflicts in the Third World had been neglected because, under the New Look policy, the only response would have been devastating nuclear retaliation. By 1961, many nations doubted that the U.S. would actually carry out its threat of massive retaliation for smaller, more complex conflicts.

Additionally, massive retaliation functioned as a deterrent from an initial conflict because other nations believed that nuclear retaliation would destroy them completely. However, with the development of new weapons systems, like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarines carrying nuclear-tipped missiles, the U.S.S.R. could feasibly survive a retaliatory nuclear attack and then fire back at the U.S. with its own missiles. Because of second strike capability, the policy of massive retaliation was significantly weakened as an initial deterrent.

The Kennedy Administration also believed reports that the U.S.S.R. had far more missiles than the U.S. Although these reports turned out to be false, many U.S. leaders still believed that the Soviet armaments vastly outnumbered those of the United States and were a huge threat to security in the world. While President Eisenhower had worried about the U.S. overspending itself on defense, President Kennedy believed that the U.S. budget could handle more defense spending to catch up to and surpass the Soviets.

Defining Flexible Response

Once in the White House, President Kennedy put together a task force to come up with a new policy for the Cold War that did not solely rely on nuclear weapons. The new policy, fFexible Response, was rolled out in 1961.

Flexible Response allowed the United States to respond to communist aggression with a variety of diplomatic, political, and military strategies. It stated that the U.S. would customize a response to conflict that would be proportional and not limited to the use of nuclear arms, such as canceling aid to another nation, strengthening diplomatic ties with allies, or using conventional military troops. Perhaps most importantly, President Kennedy increased the military budget to develop new weapons, which would enable his administration to tailor a response to a direct attack or limited war on the other side of the world on a case-by-case basis.

Modernizing the Military

To make Flexible Response a possibility, the Kennedy Administration was prepared to spend a lot of money to update the military, with a new focus on diversifying the U.S.'s strategic force. This meant building and maintaining more ICBMs (which could be hidden and protected from nuclear retaliation), submarine-launched missiles, and strategic bombers. As a result of this nuclear triad of weapons, it seemed much less likely that the U.S.S.R. could destroy all of the U.S.'s weapons in one attack, which would provide opportunities for counterattacks.

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