Kennedy Learned on the Job

Bay of Pigs fiasco helped shaped success of Cuban missile crisis.

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. This is one of a series of blogs in which I analyze key aspects of his presidency and assess what they mean for us today.

President John F. Kennedy had a quality that doesn't seem to come naturally to America's chief executives: a healthy dose of humility. He learned on the job and admitted his mistakes.

Kennedy biographer Bob Dallek ("An Unfinished Life," "Camelot's Court") told me that JFK liked to surround himself with strong-minded advisers and he was confident enough to let them disagree with him. He enjoyed the give-and-take, knew he didn't have all the answers, and recruited a team that came to be called "the best and the brightest" to help him govern.

He balanced out a willingness to listen with confidence in his own ability to gather information and make his own judgments, always guided by his closest adviser and brother, Robert Kennedy, who was also attorney general.

President Kennedy signs the test ban treaty on Oct. 7, 1963, ending the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. (Warren K. Leffler for USN&WR)
President Kennedy signs the test ban treaty on Oct. 7, 1963, ending the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. (Warren K. Leffler for USN&WR)

[SPECIAL REPORT: JFK, 50 Years Later]

A good example of JFK's willingness to learn focused on the civil rights movement. Kennedy educated himself about it, and eventually embraced it. It wasn't a very popular decision among white voters at the time but it was the moral choice, JFK said, and it placed him on the right side of history.

Perhaps the best example of his self education came in his two most dramatic foreign policy decisions, the U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs by exiles from the island in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. They had two completely different outcomes, with the first episode a debacle and the second a triumph.

The Bay of Pigs incident turned into an international embarrassment as the American-supported Cuban exiles never received direct help from the United States, notably in the form of air support, and the invasion utterly failed. In fact, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was strengthened by the episode because the Cuban people rallied to him for standing up to the United States. But Kennedy learned from his failure – to be skeptical of the hawkish military brass and the "experts" of the intelligence community, and to trust his own judgment, Dallek says.

[JFK: What Might Have Been]

Partly as a result of this, the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 turned out much differently. It briefly moved the superpowers perilously close to nuclear war, but after 13 days of tension and high drama ended up as an American success.

It started when a U-2 American spy plane photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviets in Cuba. Kennedy kept the evidence secret at first so he could meet with his advisers and plan what to do. He decided to impose a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent more arms from reaching the island nation. He publicly demanded the removal of the missiles and the destruction of the sites and on Oct. 22, he revealed the situation to the nation and the world in a televised address.

During the next few days, the superpowers slid toward the edge of nuclear confrontation. In the end, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the weapon sites in exchange for a pledge from the United States not to invade Cuba. In a separate agreement, which remained secret for 25 years, the United States agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

[PHOTOS: 50 Years Later: The JFK Assassination]

By 1963, tensions had decreased markedly.

In a June commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C., Kennedy urged Americans to rethink their attitudes and to take a more conciliatory approach toward Moscow. "For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet," Kennedy said. "We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

Clearly, Kennedy had learned something else during his brief time in office. He was no longer the hard-liner that he had been when he became president. And the result was a notable easing of superpower tensions. One example of how far both sides progressed came when a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the superpowers on July 25, 1963.

More News:

  • Obama and Clinton Visit John F. Kennedy's Eternal Flame
  • Photos: John and Jackie Kennedy
  • Where Were You When JFK Was Assassinated?
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.