The following article on Kennedy and Khruschev is an excerpt from Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding's book A Brief History of the Cold War It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The most contentious moments of the Cold War-the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall-were borne out of the conflict between U.S. and Soviet leaders Kennedy and Khruschev.
In his eloquent inaugural address in 1961, a young and charismatic President John F. Kennedy declared that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans-born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” He spoke of a trumpet that summoned America “to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle” against “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” He made this unequivocal vow, echoing Truman and Eisenhower:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.
As a candidate for president, Kennedy had signaled his strong belief that America faced an international crisis. In September 1960 he said that “to be an American in the next decade will be a hazardous experience. We will live on the edge of danger.” In the following weeks, he intensified his rhetoric, saying, “Freedom and communism are locked in deadly embrace.” The issue, he said, was the “preservation of civilization… The world cannot exist half slave and half free.” Although a generation younger than Truman and Eisenhower, Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, shared their anticommunism and was known for his pro- defense spending record as a Democratic congressman and then senator from Massachusetts. Some of his judgment about the Cold War stemmed from his World War II service in the navy, which earned him a Purple Heart for his heroism as the commander of PT 109 in the Pacific.
The Soviet testing of the new president began almost immediately. After congratulating Kennedy for his assurance of peaceful intentions, Khrushchev renewed open air nuclear testing. The president delayed his response but at last announced he had ordered the United States to resume testing.
Kennedy took seriously Khrushchev's pledge to support “wars of national liberation.” He warned, “We are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence.” Throughout the 1960s, the terrain of the Cold War became truly global, ranging from Europe to Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with the possibility of nuclear war and the reality of guerrilla war, insurrection, and subversion. Battles hot and cold were fought in Cuba, Berlin, and Vietnam.
One of the first engagements in this new stage of the Cold War between Kennedy and Khruschev took place in Cuba. In April 1961, a small force of about fifteen hundred anti-Castro Cubans (trained and armed by the CIA) landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, hoping to spark a popular uprising against the communist government. On the eve of the operation, however, a vacillating Kennedy, concerned about too visible a U.S. role, cut by 80 percent the air support that was crucial to success. Available U.S. warships and aircraft were held back. The invasion was an abject failure, resulting in massive casualties and the capture of more than a thousand members of the invasion force. Analysts agree that Kennedy should have either provided adequate air and sea support or called off the operation.
Kennedy and Khruschev Square Off in Germany
At a June meeting in Vienna, Kennedy and Khrushchev took the measure of each other. The president concluded that America faced a ruthless opponent committed to advancing world communism through wars of national liberation. The seasoned Soviet leader was not impressed by the youthful American president and decided to challenge him.
On August 13, 1961, Khrushchev ordered the construction of a twenty-eight-mile-long concrete and brick wall dividing the city of Berlin into east and west. The draconian move was taken to stop the flood of tens of thousands of East Germans seeking freedom in the Western zone of Berlin. It took two years to complete the wall, which was topped with barbed wire and protected by minefields, police dogs, and guards with orders to shoot to kill anyone who tried to cross it. In the first year, sixty-four freedom seekers were killed by border guards-only a few escaped.
Strong protest notes about the wall were delivered to Moscow by the U.S., British, and French governments, but no military action followed aside from the arrival of fifteen hundred American troops and twenty motor vehicles as “reinforcements” for the U.S. garrison in West Berlin. Years later, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued that any Allied attempt to interfere with the construction of the wall would have brought war. When he visited Berlin in 1963, President Kennedy pointedly said, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” He described the wall as “the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, for all the world to see.” But in fact the unopposed building of the Berlin Wall was a significant Soviet victory. Before the wall, writes the foreign affairs analyst Brian Crozier, the drain of the population, including some of its most talented citizens, had threatened the survival of the East German state-“in economic terms the most important of the Soviet Union's imperial acquisitions.” The Berlin Wall would stand for another twenty-eight years.
Kennedy and Khruschev's Nuclear Rivalry
An emboldened Khrushchev again tested Kennedy's mettle by attempting in the summer and fall of 1962 to deploy offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba and redress the nuclear imbalance between the USSR and the United States, which had a seventeen-to-one advantage in nuclear warheads. Also, Khrushchev and his colleagues were delighted that a communist revolution had occurred in Cuba without assistance from Moscow, seeming to confirm Marx's prediction about the course of history; they wanted to encourage other “revolutions” in Latin America.
Kennedy and Khruschev ordered respective military build-ups. Soviet ships began unloading technicians, planes, and ballistic missiles. Cuban exiles informed members of Congress and administration officials that missile sites were being built. Soviet officials assured the Kennedy administration that the missiles were defensive. A concerned president ordered U-2 flights to determine what was really going on. Photos revealed short-range missiles that could hit targets from Washington to Panama and medium-range missiles with a range from Hudson Bay to Lima, Peru. Soviet ships with additional missiles on board were photographed headed to Cuba.
The president established an executive committee of the National Security Council to evaluate the escalating crisis and recommend an appropriate U.S. response. For Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, writes the historian Katherine A. S. Sibley, “the Munich analogy was compelling-the United States must not allow Soviet aggression as Europeans had appeased Hitler in 1938.” A majority of the executive committee's members favored direct military action although not a full-scale invasion. Attorney General Robert Kennedy blocked the idea, arguing that if the United States followed such an offensive course, its moral position in the world would be destroyed. More practically, it was almost certain that Soviet troops would be killed, provoking a military response from Moscow. A consensus formed for a “quarantine” of Cuba, using over 180 American ships.
On October 22, a stern-faced President Kennedy announced over national television that the United States was placing a quarantine around Cuba and demanded that the Soviets remove their nuclear missiles. For almost two weeks, the world wondered whether a nuclear war threatened. High priority messages flashed back and forth between Moscow and Washington. As tension mounted and U.S. forces, including sixty nuclear-loaded B-52s, were placed on high alert, the Soviets began dismantling the sites and shipping their missiles back to Russia. A chastened Khrushchev acknowledged the superior military strength, including nuclear weapons, of the United States.
But in return the United States publicly pledged that it would not invade Cuba, abandoning the Monroe Doctrine and giving Castro a safe base from which to disseminate communist agitation and propaganda in Latin America. Privately, the White House promised to remove U.S. intermediate-range missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviet Union, and nearly all of the forty-two thousand Soviet troops and experts in Cuba were allowed to remain. They began training a large Cuban army that engaged in anti-American operations in Africa and Asia in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.
This article is part of our larger collection of resources on the Cold War. For a comprehensive outline of the origins, key events, and conclusion of the Cold War, click here.
This article on Kennedy and Khruschev an excerpt from Lee Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards Spalding's book A Brief History of the Cold War. It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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