The Young Presidents: John F. Kennedy Learned From Early Mistakes

The Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was one of the worst blunders of any new president.

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Youth has always been a double-edged sword for America 's presidents. It tends to inject the White House with fresh ideas and energy, but it can also lead to impetuousness and a disregard for the tried and true. To fully examine the effect of youth on the presidency, U.S. News Chief White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh takes an in-depth look at the five youngest presidents in U.S. history. An installment of this series will run every day this week.

John F. Kennedy is remembered for his vigor and glamour. But he also committed one of the worst blunders of any new president by supporting the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

Born into wealth and privilege (as was Theodore Roosevelt), he was a hero in World War II as a PT boat commander in the South Pacific. He served in the House of Representatives, representing Boston as a Democrat, for six years starting in 1947. He served in the Senate from 1953 to 1961. Kennedy narrowly won the presidency in 1960 against Republican Richard Nixon, becoming, at 43, the second-youngest president after TR, and the youngest ever to win the office by election.

In his State of the Union address less than two weeks after his inauguration, Kennedy seemed somber and somewhat awed by his new responsibilities. "No man entering upon this office, regardless of his party, regardless of his previous service in Washington, could fail to be staggered upon learning, even in this brief 10-day period, the harsh enormity of the trials through which we must pass in the next four years," Kennedy said. "Each day the crises multiply. Each day their solution grows more difficult. Each day we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger, as weapons spread and hostile forces grow stronger."

Kennedy's first big test came less than three months after his swearing-in. On April 17, 1961, a group of Cuban exiles invaded Cuba to topple the government of Communist dictator Fidel Castro. It turned out that the exiles had been trained earlier by the CIA under the administrations of both President Dwight Eisenhower and Kennedy. The invasion was a total failure, with more than 1,000 exiles taken prisoner, and Kennedy took personal responsibility for the fiasco. Some historians argue that Kennedy's youth played a role because at that time he deferred too much to his military advisers and other Washington veterans who supported the invasion.

He didn't let that happen again the following year during the Cuban missile crisis. In October 1962, U.S. aerial photographs showed that Russian missiles were being installed in Cuba that could threaten the mainland United States and Latin America. Kennedy made the situation public but rejected recommendations from his advisers to strike quickly at the bases and eradicate the threat. Instead, he ordered a blockade of Cuba and demanded that Russia remove the missiles while at the same time conducting an aggressive round of private diplomacy. Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev backed down and withdrew the missiles, ending the world's most dangerous confrontation between the nuclear superpowers. Kennedy was widely praised for his toughness and coolness under pressure.

But it is also true that the new commander in chief had needed lots of on-the-job training. "Kennedy's first year in the White House had been a baptism of fire," writes author Nick Bryant in The Bystander. "Over the course of the year, he had mishandled the Bay of Pigs crisis, performed poorly at his meeting in Vienna with Khrushchev, and lost tremendous international credibility with the erection of the Berlin Wall [which the Communists installed to keep the city divided]. When, at the end of 1961, [senior aide Theodore] Sorensen informed him that a number of reporters were planning books on his first year in office, Kennedy was despairing. 'Who would want to read a book on disasters?' he asked."

The young president had high hopes that his stalled legislative agenda would finally get moving after the 1964 election. The economy was growing, his leadership abroad seemed more sure-footed than ever, and he anticipated winning another term in a landslide and bringing in more Democrats to Congress on his coattails. But his presidency was cut short when he was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Americans remember him as the man who was cut down in the flower of his youth before he had a chance to fulfill his potential.