The Lost World of John Kennedy

The country that elected him, watched him govern and mourned his death was a very different America .

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Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev seemed impetuous, even unstable, as he shut down the Paris summit in May 1960 after Soviet defenses downed a U-2 spy plane and banged his shoe on his desk at the United Nations. Kennedy's show of weakness and indecision in the Bay of Pigs invasion--when he refused to disapprove a refugee invasion of Castro's Cuba but also refused to give it the military support it needed to succeed--didn't help. Khrushchev bullied him at the June 1961 Vienna summit and threatened to close down allied access to West Berlin, which could have triggered nuclear war. The threat eased when the Communists built the Berlin Wall in August 1961. But when the Soviets secretly shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962, Kennedy felt he must respond and in October declared a "quarantine" of the island. After days of tension, in which the superpowers came closer to nuclear war than at any other time before or since, Khrushchev ordered ships containing Soviet warheads to turn back in return for secret promises to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey and a renunciation of plans to invade Cuba. In June 1963, in a speech at American University, Kennedy proclaimed a new era of what would come to be known as detente.

The sense of relief was audible in the popular culture. Movies like Fail Safe and Seven Days in May, which took seriously the possibility of nuclear war and military crisis (just as Kennedy himself did), were replaced within a few years by The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, which took them not seriously at all.

The intervention issue. Kennedy's America remembered that Americans had fought to save Korea from Communists and rued that it had lost China to them. Kennedy himself was fascinated by guerrilla warfare; he created the Green Berets and prepared for brush-fire wars to prevent Communist advance. The president told reporter James Reston that the nation had to demonstrate its firmness after the Vienna summit and the only place to do it was Vietnam. He sent 15,000 troops to South Vietnam. Then, over an August weekend in 1963, his government set into motion the October coup against Ngo Dinh Diem that killed Diem and made South Vietnam an American responsibility. Many Kennedy admirers have argued that he would have withdrawn U.S. forces after the 1964 election, but little in his words or deeds supports that: Kennedy was the first hawk, not the first dove.

The civil rights issue. Back home, Kennedy, like most Americans, disliked the system of legally enforced racial segregation in the South. But he wanted to change it slowly and regarded civil rights efforts like the freedom rides of the early 1960s as a political nuisance. He was acutely conscious that no Democrat had been elected without Southern electoral votes, and he calculated, correctly, that strong support of civil rights would cost him the Deep South. So he tried to accommodate governors of those states when federal courts ordered them to desegregate public universities; he met Martin Luther King Jr. only secretly at the White House, and he never considered appearing at the March on Washington in August 1963. For years, he delayed signing a promised order desegregating public-housing units.

But like no previous president, Kennedy was alert to the impact of the new medium of television. For the first time, technology was allowing TV to show pictures of events in every corner of the nation the day they occurred. So, in May 1963, most Americans found themselves watching the police dogs and fire hoses Police Commissioner Bull Connor of Birmingham, Ala., was sending against King's peaceful civil rights demonstrators. Segregation was no longer distant and abstract; it was vivid, close at hand and unacceptably brutal. Kennedy was pressed to support a civil rights bill by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who advised it could pass Congress and would be accepted in the South, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who said it was morally necessary. The president agreed. He went on television, ad-libbing in the rocking chair he used for his bad back. The principle in question, he declared, "is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."