John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK): 35th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
John F. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president. He said he represented America’s youth. This new generation of America was inspired by hope and a better tomorrow. There was a feeling by the youth that his election was a wonderful time.
Kennedy was in office for less than 3 years, the fabled “1000 days”, but he changed history. He changed our political system, and culturally, became the embodiment of how American men should look, dress and act.
JFK had lived a charmed existence and it showed. He and his wife Jackie looked like movie stars. During the Cold War era, they were advertising for capitalism. Both men and women were attracted to him, and fell in love with him his entire life as the man could light up a room.
While his sexual dalliances well known, JFK was able to compartmentalize his private life. The public did not know he suffered from Addison’s disease and other debilitating illnesses.
John F. Kennedy
Kennedy had an open door policy where he was his own chief of staff. He viewed himself as the hub in the middle of a wheel. Everyone spoke directly to him including the Director for Plans of the CIA.
Bay of Pigs
In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power in an armed revolt that overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. The US government distrusted Castro and was wary of his relationship with Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union.
Before his inauguration, John F. Kennedy was briefed on a plan by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) developed during the Eisenhower administration to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of their homeland. The plan anticipated that the Cuban people and elements of the Cuban military would support the invasion. The ultimate goal was the overthrow of Castro and the establishment of a non-communist government friendly to the United States.
President Eisenhower approved the program in March 1960. The CIA set up training camps in Guatemala, and by November the operation had trained a small army for an assault landing and guerilla warfare.
José Miró Cardona led the anti-Castro Cuban exiles in the United States. A former member of Castro’s government, he was the head of the Cuban Revolutionary Council, an exile committee. Cardona was poised to take over the provisional presidency of Cuba if the invasion succeeded.
Despite efforts of the government to keep the invasion plans covert, it became common knowledge among Cuban exiles in Miami. Through Cuban intelligence, Castro learned of the guerilla training camps in Guatemala as early as October 1960, and the press reported widely on events as they unfolded.
Shortly after his inauguration, in February 1961, President Kennedy authorized the invasion plan, but he was determined to disguise U.S. support. The landing point at the Bay of Pigs was part of the deception. The site was a remote swampy area on the southern coast of Cuba, where a night landing might bring a force ashore against little resistance and help to hide any U.S. involvement. Unfortunately, the landing site also left the invading force more than 80 miles from refuge in Cuba’s Escambray Mountains, if anything went wrong.
The original invasion plan called for two air strikes against Cuban air bases. A 1,400-man invasion force would disembark under cover of darkness and launch a surprise attack. Paratroopers dropped in advance of the invasion would disrupt transportation and repel Cuban forces. Simultaneously, a smaller force would land on the east coast of Cuba to create confusion.
The main force would advance across the island to Matanzas and set up a defensive position. The United Revolutionary Front would send leaders from South Florida and establish a provisional government. The success of the plan depended on the Cuban population joining the invaders.
The first mishap occurred on April 15, 1961, when eight bombers left Nicaragua to bomb Cuban airfields. The CIA had used obsolete World War II B-26 bombers, and painted them to look like Cuban air force planes. The bombers missed many of their targets and left most of Castro’s air force intact. As news broke of the attack, photos of the repainted U.S. planes became public and revealed American support for the invasion. President Kennedy cancelled a second air strike.
On April 17, the Cuban-exile invasion force, known as Brigade 2506, landed at beaches along the Bay of Pigs and immediately came under heavy fire. Cuban planes strafed the invaders, sank two escort ships, and destroyed half of the exile’s air support. Bad weather hampered the ground force, which had to work with soggy equipment and insufficient ammunition.
Over the next 24 hours, Castro ordered roughly 20,000 troops to advance toward the beach, and the Cuban air force continued to control the skies. As the situation grew increasingly grim, President Kennedy authorized an “air-umbrella” at dawn on April 19—six unmarked American fighter planes took off to help defend the brigade’s B-26 aircraft flying. But the B-26s arrived an hour late, most likely confused by the change in time zones between Nicaragua and Cuba. They were shot down by the Cubans, and the invasion was crushed later that day.
Some exiles escaped to the sea, while the rest were killed or rounded up and imprisoned by Castro’s forces. Almost 1,200 members of Brigade 2056 surrendered, and more than 100 were killed.
The brigade prisoners remained in captivity for 20 months, as the United States negotiated a deal with Fidel Castro. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy made personal pleas for contributions from pharmaceutical companies and baby food manufacturers, and Castro eventually settled on $53 million worth of baby food and medicine in exchange for the prisoners.
On December 23, 1962, just two months after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a plane containing the first group of freed prisoners landed in the United States. A week later, on Saturday, December 29, surviving brigade members gathered for a ceremony in Miami’s Orange Bowl, where the brigade’s flag was handed over to President Kennedy. “I can assure you,” the president promised, “that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.”
The disaster at the Bay of Pigs had a lasting impact on the Kennedy administration. Determined to make up for the failed invasion, the administration initiated Operation Mongoose—a plan to sabotage and destabilize the Cuban government and economy. The plan included the possibility of assassinating Castro. It would be 50 years later when relations between Castro’s Cuba and the United States would improve.
The Bay of Pigs was a disaster, and Kennedy took complete responsibility for it. Afterwards, we would have a documented record of a president with a learning curve. Kennedy would change his method of operating, and he earned the trust of the nation by taking the entirety of the blame. Kennedy still had a noble and far reaching agenda for bettering society.
After a day of campaigning for the presidency, Senator John F. Kennedy arrived at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on October 14, 1960, at 2:00 a.m., to get some sleep, not to propose the establishment of an international volunteer organization. Members of the press had retired for the night, believing that nothing interesting would happen.
But 10,000 students at the university were waiting to hear the presidential candidate speak, and it was there on the steps of the Michigan Union that a bold new experiment in public service was launched. The assembled students heard the future president issue a challenge: How many of them, he asked, would be willing to serve their country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world?
Following up on the idea he launched at the University of Michigan, President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. Three days later, R. Sargent Shriver became its first Director. Deployment was rapid: Volunteers began serving in five countries in 1961. In just under six years, Director Shriver developed programs in 55 countries with more than 14,500 Volunteers.
War On Poverty
In the presidential election campaign of 1960, John F. Kennedy promised a “war against poverty and degradation” and “an economic drive on poverty” to address the high and persistent unemployment of the 1957–1958 and 1959–1960 recessions. Upon Kennedy’s election, the president’s Council of Economic Advisors and the Budget Bureau immediately advocated a tax cut, accompanied by an increase in spending as a Keynesian economic remedy for the recession. The result would be a deliberate increase in the federal deficit. This was an attempt to establish Keynesian economic theory as a viable basis for government economic policy. The president accepted this advice.
The particular cabinet departments and programs involved in the spending increases and tax cuts were determined in other ways. In March 1961 Kennedy called a President’s Conference on Juvenile Delinquency, chaired by his brother Robert F. Kennedy, the new attorney general. Based upon the recommendations of the March conference, the President’s Committee Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime (PCJDYC) was established on May 11, 1961. The PCJDYC was to finance projects seeking a solution to juvenile delinquency. Robert Kennedy selected his friend David Hackett as executive director.
In September 1961 Congress passed the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Act, which authorized demonstration and training programs in finding “the most effective ways of using total resources to combat juvenile delinquency in local communities.” It authorized an expenditure of $10 million over three years for the program.
In 1962 the committee gave planning grants to agencies in sixteen cities. The act also funded Mobilization for Youth in late 1961 to develop a plan of action to curb juvenile delinquency on New York’s Lower East Side. Richard Cloward then lent his principal assistant, sociologist James A. Jones, to Kenneth Clark to design a similar program for Harlem. Clark and Jones in 1962 established Harlem Youth Unlimited Inc. (HARYOU), of which Jones became research director. Harlem Congressman Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the new chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, formed a rival Harlem organization, Associated Community Teams (ACT). He then insisted that HARYOU be merged with ACT, and when this was accomplished, Clark resigned. He was replaced by ACT executive director Livingston Wingate, Powell’s assistant.
In December 1962, President Kennedy asked his Council of Economic Advisors chairman, Walter W. Heller, to pull together all available information on the poverty issue. Heller assigned this task to council member Robert J. Lampman. He and Heller suggested that Kennedy read socialist Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), along with Leon Keyserling’s Poverty and Depression in the United States (1962).
Harrington was considered a “responsible radical,” because he was a follower of former Trotskyist Max Schactman, whose tactic was to “bore from within.” This meant that instead of running Socialist Party candidates for elective office, the party would support Democratic Party candidates. Harrington, thus, had been a well known worker for left and liberal organizations and journals throughout the 1950s. In July 1959, he wrote an article on poverty for Commentary Magazine, and it was from this article that the book The Other America grew.
In an approving commentary of Galbraith’s book The Affluent Society (1958), he noted the existence of 50 million impoverished people in the United States, about one quarter of the total population. Poverty persisted from generation to generation, helped by what Oscar Lewis called a “culture of poverty,” a non-Marxist idea. It was precisely this idea that recommended him to the Kennedy administration, because it undercut left leadership of the anti-poverty struggle. Harrington’s entire body of work thus led to an eager anticipation of the book, and accounted for the wide extent of its positive reception. That he had worked for Catholic organizations did not hurt his acceptance by Kennedy, even though he had lapsed from the faith by then. After Lampman reported that the U.S. poverty rate was increasing, Kennedy directed Heller to include a “war on poverty” in the 1964 White House legislative package for Congress.
Cuban Missile Crisis
In October 1962, an American U-2 spy plane secretly photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviet Union on the island of Cuba. President Kennedy did not want the Soviet Union and Cuba to know that he had discovered the missiles. He met in secret with his advisors for several days to discuss the problem.
After many long and difficult meetings, Kennedy decided to place a naval blockade, or a ring of ships, around Cuba. The aim of this “quarantine,” as he called it, was to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. He demanded the removal of the missiles already there and the destruction of the sites. On October 22, President Kennedy spoke to the nation about the crisis in a televised address.
No one was sure how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would respond to the naval blockade and US demands. But the leaders of both superpowers recognized the devastating possibility of a nuclear war and publicly agreed to a deal in which the Soviets would dismantle the weapon sites in exchange for a pledge from the United States not to invade Cuba.
In a separate deal, which remained secret for more than twenty-five years, the United States also agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey. Although the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, they escalated the building of their military arsenal; the missile crisis was over, the arms race was not.
In 1963, there were signs of a lessening of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. In his commencement address at American University, President Kennedy urged Americans to reexamine Cold War stereotypes and myths and called for a strategy of peace that would make the world safe for diversity. Two actions also signaled a warming in relations between the superpowers: the establishment of a teletype “Hotline” between the Kremlin and the White House and the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on July 25, 1963.
While Kennedy became strong on foreign policy, he was less proactive on domestic issues until 1963 when he personally saw violence in Birmingham where Martin Luther King Jr. was leading massive protests again segregation. Firehoses tearing the skin off of children and dogs attacking people changed the mood on Civil Rights in the north, nationally and within the Kennedy administration. While he gained a new appreciation of civil rights, Kennedy remained an ardent foe of communism.
Ngo Dinh Diem
While the United States publicly disclaimed any knowledge of or participation in the planning of the coup that overthrew South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, it was later revealed that American officials met with the generals who organized the plot and gave them encouragement to go through with their plans. Quite simply, Diem was perceived as an impediment to the accomplishment of U.S. goals in Southeast Asia. His increasingly dictatorial rule only succeeded in alienating most of the South Vietnamese people, and his brutal repression of protests led by Buddhist monks during the summer of 1963 convinced many American officials that the time had come for Diem to go.
Following the overthrow of his government by South Vietnamese military forces, President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were captured and killed by a group of soldiers. The death of Diem caused celebration among many people in South Vietnam, but also lead to political chaos in the nation. The United States subsequently became more heavily involved in Vietnam as it tried to stabilize the South Vietnamese government and beat back the communist rebels that were becoming an increasingly powerful threat.
The United States was now more heavily involved in the South Vietnamese quagmire than ever. Its participation in the overthrow of the Diem regime signaled a growing impatience with South Vietnamese management of the war. From this point on, the United States moved step by step to become more directly and heavily involved in the fight against the communist rebels. Three weeks later, an assassin would shoot President Kennedy.
November 21, 1963, JFK would join Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson at the opening of a new space facility in San Antonio, Texas. The next day, he and the first lady went to Dallas where he would be assassinated.
President Kennedy’s death was as traumatic to the nation as Pearl Harbor was. There was a lot of hope left in his presidency that was denied.
Those hopes and dreams deferred were actually enhanced by his martyrdom, making his legacy grow well beyond his actual accomplishments in office, The idealism, commitment to public service, and giving something of yourself back to America combined with the missive to reach for the unimaginable were huge ideas and enormous gambles the American public were ready to experience under JFK.
If you don’t like young, inexperienced Presidents elected off of the strength of the support of the young with a message of hope and change, you were bitching about JFK. If you think the presidency should not be based off of looks and marketing, then JFK was not your cup of tea either as he and Jackie represented a sort of modern day Camelot.
In JFK, you could bitch about an inexperienced commander in chief who would be easily swayed by the CIA and military leading to monumental mistakes both close to home (Cuba) and abroad (Vietnam) that would have long lasting implications. Finally, in JFK, we had a President who was not afraid to raise the possibility of thermo nuclear war. Transparency was not a hallmark of the Kennedy Administration.
Negotiating with terrorists? The whole administration was for that to recover from a blunder they themselves were responsible for.
Dwight Eisenhower preceded him.
Lyndon Baines Johnson would follow him.
It all started with George Washington.