- U.S. Presidents
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Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1917, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) (1917–1963) became one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history. His tragic assassination on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, shocked the world. While a degree of “mythology” surrounds historic interpretations of the Kennedy presidency, JFK's “Thousand Days” in office as the thirty-fifth president witnessed significant events and crises in U.S.–Latin American relations.
The second son of Joseph Kennedy, a wealthy Boston businessman and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador to Great Britain, JFK grew to maturity in privileged circumstances. He attended private schools and graduated from Harvard University cum laude in 1940. At the beginning of World War II Kennedy received a commission as a naval officer and served until the end of the war in 1945.
Joseph Kennedy had planned a career in politics for his eldest son, but when Joseph Jr. was killed in Europe during the war, his focus turned to John Kennedy. In 1946 JFK won election to the U.S. Congress where he served until 1952. In that year Kennedy became a U.S. senator from his home state. A careful examination of his voting record indicated a staunch “Cold War” toughness regarding U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and concern regarding communist expansion in the developing world.
In 1960 he received the Democratic nomination for the presidency and ran against Richard Nixon. While the two candidates differed modestly on major issues, Kennedy's foreign policy positions centered on a concept he defined as “flexible response.” JFK believed that the massive nuclear retaliation posture of the United States under the previous administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower (President 1953–1961) lacked sound options to respond to an increasingly complex and subtle global challenge from “world communism.” He proposed adopting a variety of alternatives to confront the threat. In November he narrowly defeated Nixon, winning 49.7 percent of the popular vote to his opponent's 49.5 percent.
In 1961 Kennedy initiated one of his first efforts in “flexible response” aimed at improving U.S. relations with its Latin American neighbors. The Alliance for Progress provided a financial aid program seeking to improve economic conditions in the hemisphere. Working closely with the advice of Luis Muñoz Marín, the governor of Puerto Rico (1949–1964), the United States provided $1.4 billion annually between 1962 and 1967 to a number of Latin American governments. While critics have questioned the beneficial end results of the Alliance for Progress, it served as an example of Kennedy's interest in enhancing the U.S. image in the hemisphere through direct policy action.
In a similar vein President Kennedy pursued the creation of the Peace Corps in March 1961. The program had many authors, including Hubert H. Humphrey (Senate 1949–1964) and other congressional leaders, but JFK's executive order activated the policy of sending young volunteers to work in the developing world to assist in a variety of “help programs.” Eventually more than a dozen Latin America nations saw Peace Corps volunteers in service, working in projects from education, to agriculture, to small capital development projects.
If the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps served as examples of Kennedy's concept of “flexible response,” U.S. policy regarding the island of Cuba surfaced as the most tense and dangerous example of JFK's involvement in hemisphere affairs. In 1959 Fidel Castro Ruz overthrew the U.S.-supported government in Cuba, and its leader Fulgencio Batistay Zaldívar fled into exile. Quickly Castro's government disavowed relations with the United States, nationalized U.S. possessions and businesses in the island, and began to court the Soviet Union. The diplomatic response of the United States considered, but did not impose, an economic embargo of Cuba, threatening to cut off trade and commerce with the island. Thousands of Cuban exiles fled into Florida and served as a growing lobby group pressuring the United States to “deal” with Castro.
As President Eisenhower left office in 1961, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had funded, armed, and trained anti-Castro Cuban insurgents with a plan to invade Cuba, depose Castro, and reestablish U.S. influence there. Trained in Guatemala the invasion forces waited for a U.S. decision to act. Kennedy inherited the project. On short notice, without time to consider fully his options, the new president authorized an amphibious landing of fifteen hundred insurgents at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. The invasion failed miserably, Kennedy refused to provide U.S. air support, and in two days Castro's forces had captured or killed the invading forces involved. In effect the anti-Castro insurgents never gained the broad support, or any serious backing, from the Cuban people.
The Bay of Pigs fiasco proved an embarrassing foreign policy failure for the new president, and it convinced Castro that the United States had a long-term goal to invade Cuba and eliminate his government. Eventually, in order to gain the release of anti-Castro prisoners, the U.S. government provided Cuba with $53 million in food and medical supplies. Tension and mutual suspicion between the two nations escalated. Most scholars believe that the Bay of Pigs incident led Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier (1955–1964), to test JFK's resolve, enhance Russian strategic goals, and protect Cuba from a potential invasion from the United States. In the summer of 1962 the Soviet Union began to secretly transport and place nuclear missiles on the island. The resulting impact of that decision created one of the most dangerous crises in modern history.
On October 14, 1962, a U.S. surveillance aircraft flying over Cuba took photographs that revealed the presence of Soviet missiles. Informed the following day, President Kennedy created a strategy team (named EX-COMM) to develop a U.S. response. Opinions varied from a targeted air assault on the missiles to a major land invasion of the island. In a tense television address on October 22, the president informed the U.S. public of the situation. JFK did not mention the Monroe Doctrine as a factor in his policy thinking. He spoke primarily of the threat Soviet missiles (with ranges of one thousand to two thousand miles) posed directly to U.S. security. Clearly, however, the long-standing doctrine regarding hemisphere security loomed in the background. In fact Kennedy sought and gained the support of the Organization of American States (OAS). At the same time European allies also supported the president's stance.
As Russian naval vessels steamed toward the Caribbean, Kennedy issued an order placing a naval and air quarantine around Cuba. On October 25 he raised the U.S. defense level to DEFCON-2, the highest strategic position. At that point Khrushchev and his political and military advisors recognized that they had misjudged the president's resolve. Since neither nation wanted a nuclear war, both governments looked for a diplomatic resolution. On October 28 the Russian premier announced that all Soviet missiles would be removed from Cuba and that he remained convinced that the United States would not invade the island. In a secret commitment the United States pledged to remove its missiles from the Soviet border in Turkey.
The issue may have led Kennedy to enhance counterinsurgency efforts in a number of areas in Latin America, and his administration developed “Operation Mongoose,” a CIA plan to assassinate Fidel Castro.
The Cuban Missile Crisis enhanced Kennedy's popularity and helped erase the Bay of Pigs failure in public opinion. In November congressional elections, Democrats won a number of seats, leading one Republican to cry, “We were Cubanized.” The president had also drawn support from of a number of Latin American states and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in Europe. The Soviet premier may have lost his job as a result of “backing down.” In 1964 his colleagues removed him from office. Yet Kennedy's “victory” left a number of unresolved issues. Seventeen thousand Russian troops remained in Cuba training and arming the Cuban military. As one scholar noted, they would be “hard to move.” At the same time relations between Castro and the United States continued to be tense and suspicious. A U.S. trade embargo, begun in 1962, expanded and persisted. Cuba sought to export its brand of communism into other regions and states in the western hemisphere, and Castro challenged U.S. imperialism throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.
President Kennedy's focus shifted to Southeast Asia in 1963, as U.S. involvement in Laos and Vietnam escalated. On November 22, 1963, Kennedy arrived in Dallas, Texas, on a political junket. An assassin shot and killed him that afternoon. Lyndon Baines Johnson became the thirty-sixth president and inherited the legacy and problems that had confronted his predecessor. While the United States became fully committed to a war in Southeast Asia, policymakers in the United States continued to focus on the western hemisphere and the dangers they perceived leftist revolution posed to both U.S. and Latin American security. That concern occupied U.S.–Latin American affairs throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. Kennedy's basic perceptions continued to motivate U.S. policy.
See also Alliance for Progress; Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1961; Castro Ruz, Fidel; Counterinsurgency; Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962; Operation Mongoose; Point Four Program
- Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
- John F. Kennedy. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1974.
- Kennedy. New York: Konecky and Konecky, 1965.
- Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes since 1956. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
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