The Lost World of John Kennedy
The country that elected him, watched him govern and mourned his death was a very different America
Kennedy shared the view of Keynesian economists and CIA analysts that the Soviet Union was growing faster than the United States and would dwarf the U.S. gross national product by the year 2000 and that socialist planning was more productive than market capitalism. But his own major economic policies proved just the opposite. The free-trade bill, the major domestic achievement of his first two years, and the Keynesian tax cut he promised in 1962 and proposed in '63 led to six years of robust economic growth. In Kennedy's phrase, "A rising tide lifts all the boats": Sons and daughters of factory workers were going to college and getting white-collar jobs; renters were using federal housing and veterans' programs to become homeowners; kids who had grown up playing in city streets were giving their kids green lawns in the suburbs.
The upward trajectory of the young people of the Kennedy years was obvious. Statistically, young people, responding to the pill and prosperity, were waiting longer to get married and were more likely to go to college. The baby boom ended in 1962, and the teenage music of the early 1960s--songs like "Soldier Boy," "Uptown" and "Navy Blue," geared to the experiences of boys who went into military service and girls who got married soon after high school--was replaced just after the Kennedy years with the British invasion and psychedelic rock more appealing to the collegebound. As young people went upscale, class-warfare economic politics became obsolete.
The bomb issue. Overhanging everything when Kennedy became president was the threat of nuclear war. Schoolchildren huddled under their desks in regular air-raid drills, and homeowners were urged to build backyard shelters to withstand nuclear attack. Kennedy's inaugural speech committed the nation to "pay any price, bear any burden," in a "long twilight struggle"; only two words referred to domestic policy. They were "at home." Candidate Kennedy charged the United States was on the wrong end of a "missile gap" and called for more defense spending; in office, he quickly found that the United States was far ahead in missiles and warheads but stepped up spending nevertheless.
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.