Kennedy's record in foreign affairs has also been subjected to conflicting interpretations. His aides, several of whom are highly skilled writers, have defended him for piloting the United States safely through international crises not of his own making and for beginning the process of détente with the Soviet Union. They have praised him for having a less rigidly ideological view of the world than his immediate predecessor and for accepting a world of diversity, improving America's standing in the Third World. Kennedy's critics, many of whom are on the political left, have charged him with being as much of a cold warrior as Eisenhower and, if anything, less prudent about the application of American power and more provocative and adventuristic. The universalistic language of his inaugural address was applied, they insist, and the world was a more dangerous place as a result.
In the absence of full access to diplomatic records in this country and abroad, it is not yet possible to resolve this debate on Kennedy fully, but certain studies by dispassionate analysts, such as Graham Allison's study of the Cuban missile crisis, lend support to the more friendly view of Kennedy. The president certainly made mistakes in foreign policy, and he raised more hopes than he fulfilled. But he demonstrated a relatively cosmopolitan and sophisticated view of the world, grew in office, and had a feel for diplomacy, which has sometimes been lacking in American presidents.
In contrast to several presidents, Kennedy came to office with a preference for foreign affairs. Issues of war and peace had interested him since his youth, and the awesome responsibility of being president in the nuclear age only reinforced that interest. "Domestic policy," Kennedy often said, "can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us." He believed, with considerable historical justification, that miscalculation had been the route to war several times in the twentieth century. In Kennedy's view, it was essential to prevent such miscalculation in the future, for there could be no winners in a nuclear war. His military strategy, called flexible response and managed by his highly reputed secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, was designed to reduce the chances of war by miscalculation. By building up conventional forces and tightening up command and control procedures, Kennedy and McNamara hoped to provide time for diplomacy in the event of miscalculated Soviet military aggression.
Like several other modern presidents, Kennedy tried to be his own secretary of state, though it is not clear that he originally intended to be. Rather, he hoped to avoid being overly dependent on one person for foreign policy advice; he perceived Truman to have been dependent on Dean Acheson and Eisenhower on John Foster Dulles. Dean Rusk, who became Kennedy's secretary of state through a process of elimination, was hardworking, articulate, and loyal but apparently not highly influential with Kennedy, who, according to his brother Robert, came to depend more on the national security assistant, Mc-George Bundy, and his small staff than he did on Rusk and the State Department.
Kennedy became president at a time when Communism seemed to be gaining ground. The Soviet Union had taken the lead in space exploration, had developed missiles that made the United States vulnerable to nuclear attack, and was using more belligerent rhetoric. Communism and revolution were also on the rise in the world's former colonies, including Cuba, which lay ninety miles from American shores. Just prior to Kennedy's inauguration, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a speech promising to support wars of national liberation, and such wars were under way in Southeast Asia. As a candidate for president, Kennedy had stressed the growing Communist menace abroad, and as president, he aimed at thwarting it and meeting new challenges that arose during his time in office. This meant that much of his foreign policy was reactive, though in his last year he showed some initiative in trying to reduce Cold War tensions and improve American-Soviet relations.
Kennedy was sometimes trapped in anti-Communist logic partly of his own making, as in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that occurred soon after he became president. This was a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba by thirteen hundred Cubans who had become disaffected with the revolution led by Fidel Castro. Kennedy had reservations about proceeding with the plan; he was worried about its chances of success and about how it might affect his image and the country's to be involved in a foreign, antirevolutionary invasion. For the latter reasons, he refused to authorize overt American involvement in the fighting. But he failed to cancel the operation because it would have been politically embarrassing to call off an anti-Castro effort that had been hatched in the Eisenhower administration, especially when Allen Dulles heartily endorsed it. Kennedy foolishly allowed himself to believe that the United States would be able plausibly to deny involvement in such a large-scale and well-publicized operation. He also allowed himself to be swept along by sheer bureaucratic momentum, and he failed to demand an adequate military review of the invasion plans.
When the invasion came on 17 April 1961, Murphy's Law prevailed: If anything can go wrong, it will. Most of the invaders were captured, later to be ransomed to the United States; over a hundred were killed; and some were rescued at sea by the United States Navy. Kennedy was stunned and wondered how he could have been so stupid. The invasion plan had turned out to have been based on false, unrealistic assumptions. Some of the invaders and their supporters later grumbled that Kennedy had fatally undermined the plan by denying United States air cover, but retrospectively it appears far more likely that air cover would only have prolonged the inevitable. Castro's military forces were too strong and his regime too popular for a counterrevolution to prevail. The American denial, far from being plausible, became instantly and totally implausible. Kennedy had worried about appearances, but he now appeared naive, weak, or aggressive, depending on where one stood.
About the best that can be said for Kennedy in this instance is that he did a good job of picking up the pieces. He publicly accepted total responsibility for the failure, and he consulted with both Eisenhower and Nixon. These steps helped minimize political fallout. He took care to avoid recriminations within the government, appointing a panel of inquiry that included Allen Dulles and the chief of naval operations, who were in effect investigating themselves; Kennedy thus signaled the military and the CIA that he was not looking for scapegoats. After an appropriate interval, Kennedy did make high-level personnel changes in both the CIA and the military, and he strengthened oversight and coordinating functions. In time, he came to regard the Bay of Pigs as an object lesson in the need for a president to have firm operational control during international crises and not to place too much faith in the experts. This lesson served him well during the Cuban missile crisis.
On the other hand, the Bay of Pigs did not teach Kennedy to stay out of the internal affairs of foreign countries, only to keep down the "noise level." Prodded by Robert Kennedy and Maxwell Taylor, the president's military adviser, the CIA continued to seek Castro's removal, which the CIA interpreted to mean assassination. Although the assassination efforts failed, their discovery by Castro, it has sometimes been speculated, triggered retaliation in the form of President Kennedy's assassination. Although the Bay of Pigs taught Kennedy the need to control the CIA, later investigations made it clear that he was much less than completely successful in achieving it.
The Bay of Pigs also reinforced Kennedy's belief in the need for a better nonconventional or counterinsurgency capability in order to prevent future Castros from obtaining power in the first place. Thus, American advisers taught Latin American governments, including ones far to the right, techniques for crushing leftist opposition. To South Vietnam, where the United States already had a substantial commitment to the anti-Communist government of Ngo Dinh Diem when Kennedy took office, he increased American aid and eventually sent sixteen thousand military advisers, some of whom saw combat, to train Diem's troops in counterinsurgency warfare against the threatening guerrilla forces that had begun to operate there. When Diem, a Catholic, repressed Buddhist monks, who were part of the country's religious majority, he became an embarrassment to the United States. Kennedy's subordinates, if not Kennedy himself, gave a green light to a coup by South Vietnamese generals in the fall of 1963, which resulted in Diem's assassination. Kennedy was shocked and disturbed by Diem's death, though not by the coup, which in effect only further tied American prestige to the success of anti-Communist forces in South Vietnam. That was Kennedy's legacy to Lyndon Johnson, and there is, of course, no way of knowing whether Kennedy would have handled Vietnam any differently than his successor did.
Although he supported counterinsurgency warfare, Kennedy recognized in Vietnam and elsewhere the supremacy of politics over force, and he was skeptical of solutions that required direct American military involvement. Laos, which probably took more of Kennedy's time than any other issue in his first several months in office, had the potential to become another Bay of Pigs. It was in utter crisis in 1961, an obscure and murky battleground of political factions, personalities, feudalism, tribal culture, and social revolution set against the background of the Cold War. Eisenhower had backed a conservative group, but Kennedy, according to Schlesinger, believed that "the effort to transform it into a pro-Western redoubt had been ridiculous and that neutralization was the correct policy." Kennedy nevertheless came close to sending American troops there, and he gave the impression that he would send them; but in the end he managed to arrange a cease-fire and eased the way toward neutralization.
Kennedy often tried to pressure allies endangered by revolution to institute reforms in order to enhance their domestic popularity and the viability of their governments. Yet because these endangered governments often had a lot to lose from the reforms themselves and because they knew that stopping Communism was the higher American priority, they could ignore Kennedy's pressure with impunity. Thus, the Alliance for Progress, the highly touted aid program for Latin America that Kennedy proposed in March 1961, achieved far less social and economic reform than the president had hoped, but the ideals that surrounded the Alliance gave him an unusual degree of personal popularity in Latin America. Similarly, his expressed ideals, youth, and opposition to colonialism enhanced his personal prestige and America's image in the new nations of Africa.
Toward the Soviet Union itself, Kennedy's policies differed little at the start of his administration from those of Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy held a summit conference with Khrushchev, though in contrast to the hopeful spirit that accompanied Eisenhower's summits but evaporated soon afterward, a grim mood emerged from Kennedy's meeting with the Soviet premier in June 1961. The meeting was intended to allow the two men simply to get to know each other, but when Khrushchev challenged him verbally, Kennedy had little choice but to respond in kind.
Repeatedly, during Kennedy's first two years as president, the Soviets made threatening noises about West Berlin and, in August 1961, even built a wall around it to keep East Germans from emigrating. Kennedy responded through words and deeds, including at one point calling up American military reserves. He upheld America's longstanding commitment to defend that city and its access to the West. Finally, in 1963, Soviet pressure receded. When Kennedy traveled to West Berlin on 26 June 1963, he received the most overwhelming public reception of his life. A sea of faces chanted his name and a vast audience roared its approval when he said, "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner.' "
Given Soviet provocations over Berlin in particular, it is not surprising that Kennedy called for a significant buildup in America's conventional forces and that he accelerated an expansion of America's missile program that had begun under Eisenhower. Retrospectively, some of Kennedy's own national security advisers regarded the missile buildup as a mistake, an example of the ratcheting effect in the arms race, whereby America built up its forces on the basis of Soviet capabilities, which America interpreted as intentions, and the Soviets then matched the American buildup. It does seem clear that Kennedy accelerated missile deployments more on the momentum of his election campaign charges of a missile gap than he did on the basis of hard intelligence. Information gathered from satellite reconnaissance and from a Soviet spy showed irrefutably that there had been an intelligence gap rather than a missile gap. Kennedy had McNamara acknowledge the missile gap's demise off the record, but Kennedy neither reversed the American buildup nor educated the public on the true nature of the gap.
It has sometimes been argued that the Soviets decided to install missiles in Cuba in 1962 because they were worried about the American buildup. It has also variously been argued that they were seeking a quick and inexpensive strategic advantage, that it was a tactical move which they thought they could get away with because Kennedy was weak, that they were merely trying to protect their client in Cuba from American invasion or subterfuge, or that they did it for some combination of these and other reasons. There can be little question that it was a provocative act and that any American who might have been president when it occurred was bound to respond to it.
Ever since Castro's Communist sympathies had become clear, Cuba had been a sore point in American politics, for Americans were uncomfortable with a Communist government so close at hand. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion had made Kennedy and his party vulnerable to charges from the political right. When Soviet military personnel and equipment began to arrive in Cuba in the summer of 1962, the Republican campaign committee announced that Cuba would be "the dominant issue of the 1962 campaign." Several Republicans specifically charged that missile sites were being constructed, and Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution initiated by the Republican leadership expressing American determination "by whatever means may be necessary, including the use of arms, . . . to prevent in Cuba the creation or use of an externally supported military capability endangering the security of the United States." Kennedy reassured the public that offensive weapons would not be permitted in Cuba and that Soviet representatives had repeatedly assured him that they were not installing such weapons in Cuba.
When, in mid-October, Kennedy received incontrovertible photographic evidence that the Soviets were building launching sites for intermediate-range missiles, he simply had to stop them. Some people, both at the time and since, have discounted the strategic significance of the missiles on the grounds that it did not matter whether a missile was launched from the Soviet Union or from Cuba. Others emphasized the increased accuracy that the Soviets would have gained from having missiles in Cuba and the possibility that they were seeking a first-strike capability.
More important to Kennedy than technical military considerations were political ones, both international and domestic. Kennedy had to worry about how the Soviets might interpret a capitulation by him on this issue. If they had miscalculated this badly on missiles in Cuba, would they next miscalculate on Berlin, for example, where he would not back down, with the result a nuclear war? If Kennedy did nothing about the missiles, moreover, his political position in the United States would be compromised or destroyed. He would be impeached, Robert Kennedy said. At the very least, the Republicans would mercilessly exploit his weakness in the upcoming congressional elections.
Kennedy wondered about not whether to seek the missiles' removal, but how to achieve that end. For two weeks, an ad hoc group of high government officials deliberated in secrecy about that question. They were divided between those who favored a quick air strike to achieve a fait accompli and those who favored a naval blockade to pressure the Soviets into removing the missiles themselves. Kennedy rejected the air strike because it placed the United States in the position of launching a sneak attack when the onus of world opinion deserved to be on the Soviets and because it might trigger military retaliation. Neither some of the top military commanders nor Democratic congressional leaders were pleased with Kennedy's choice, but on 21 October he proceeded to announce the imposition of a naval blockade, which he called a quarantine, in a crisp and carefully worded television speech.
The crisis was joined, and the world held its breath to see what the Soviets would do. During the tense days that followed, Kennedy personally kept a close watch on the blockade. He decided to let certain tankers and a passenger ship through, but he ordered a Soviet-chartered ship boarded and inspected as a sign of his determination. At the United Nations, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson publicly grilled his Soviet counterpart. Meanwhile, Kennedy and Khrushchev communicated privately by cable and through emissaries. In these communications, Kennedy demonstrated considerable skill and forbearance, ignoring a tough message from Khrushchev and responding to a more conciliatory one. Kennedy carefully avoided humiliating Khrushchev. He gave written assurances against an invasion of Cuba, and his brother Robert told the Soviet ambassador that within a short time after the crisis was over, the United States would remove from Turkey certain missiles that the Soviets wanted removed and that had no bearing on American security. On 28 October, Khrushchev relented and began removal of the missiles. The crisis passed.
In later years, some people downgraded the severity of the crisis by saying that the outcome was a foregone conclusion because the United States enjoyed a huge military advantage over the Soviet Union in the Caribbean. That is, of course, easy to say in hindsight. The United States and the Soviet Union had never gone "eyeball to eyeball" like this before, so everyone was justified in feeling tense waiting for Khrushchev to blink. Everything was at stake, and the world breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviets backed down.
The crisis impelled Kennedy to take new initiatives in seeking an end to the Cold War. At American University on 10 June 1963, he gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency; it marked the beginning of a spirit of détente. Kennedy called for a reexamination of American attitudes toward the Soviet Union and said that both sides in the Cold War had "a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race." He declared:
In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.. . . We must deal with the world as it is, and not as it might have been had the history of the last eighteen years been different.
He proposed complete disarmament, to be achieved through stages, the first of which would be a ban on atmospheric nuclear tests. As a demonstration of good faith, he promised that the United States would not conduct any further atmospheric tests as long as other countries refrained from doing so.
Khrushchev told Averell Harriman, Kennedy's representative at the test ban talks, that he thought Kennedy had made the "greatest speech by any American President since Roosevelt." The negotiations proved successful, at least in banning atmospheric, though not underground, tests. In August, Kennedy sent the treaty to the Senate; it was the first arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow. The Joint Chiefs of Staff gave it only grudging approval, and certain military spokesmen vociferously opposed ratification. The public, though, was solidly behind it, and the treaty was ratified on 24 September by a comfortable margin above the required two-thirds. It was only a small step toward disarmament and an end to the Cold War, but Kennedy liked to say that great journeys began with small steps. No other accomplishment gave him greater satisfaction.