The Kennedy Administration, 1961–63
Inauguration Day dawned bright and cold following a snowstorm. Standing bare headed in the sun, the new president offered not promises but a challenge. He called on foreign adversaries to “begin anew the quest for peace” and on his “fellow Americans” to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
One of Kennedy’s first acts as president was to create the Peace Corps, a program that sent young people to developing nations, to live among the people they helped. In addition to technical assistance for projects in health, sanitation, and education, their objective was “to promote peace and friendship.” More than seven thousand idealistic Americans, young and old, signed up. Kennedy asked Congress for legislation that increased the minimum wage, provided health insurance for the aged, and scholarship aid for those studying medicine, dentistry, and nursing. He reinvigorated America’s space program with a commitment to landing a man on the moon, and bringing him safely back to earth, “before this decade is out.”
But several months into his administration Kennedy’s attention to domestic issues was interrupted by a foreign crisis. He had approved an Eisenhower-era plan for overthrowing Cuba’s communist dictator, Fidel Castro. But when CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, they were captured. Kennedy accepted full responsibility, then turned to his predecessor for wisdom, inviting former President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Camp David. Sobered by failure, Kennedy stood firm when he met Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June. Khrushchev sought to force the Allied powers out of Berlin, which had been divided at the end of World War II. When Kennedy would not withdraw, Khrushchev ordered a wall built between the Soviet and Allied zones of the city. Cold War tensions escalated, and a nuclear arms race resumed.
The next year brought a much more dangerous crisis. In October, when the Soviets began to install missile sites in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. shores, the superpowers were brought to the brink of nuclear war. Putting the U.S. military on high alert and assembling a panel of security advisers, Kennedy considered possible responses. On October 22 he announced a quarantine of the island and sent the U.S. Navy to enforce it. As Soviet ships with supplies for the missile sites approached, the whole world was watching. At the last minute the ships turned around, and in the next days behind the scenes communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev opened a resolution. Khrushchev agreed to remove the Cuban missiles if Kennedy would promise that the United States would not invade Cuba and, in an agreement secret at the time, would remove U.S. missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviet heartland. On November 2 Kennedy announced that “progress is now being made toward peace in the Caribbean.”
Meanwhile Kennedy and the nation faced a series of domestic crises over civil rights. In 1954 the Supreme Court had ordered that racial segregation in schools be ended, but southern resistance was strong. Violence against protests by young people sitting in at lunch counters, riding interstate buses, and attempting to attend previously all-white state colleges led Attorney General Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy’s younger brother and closest adviser, to send in federal marshals, again and again. In June 1963, when the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, “stood in the schoolhouse door,” as he promised, to prevent African Americans from registering at the University of Alabama, President Kennedy went on television to address the issue of civil rights head on. It is not a sectional issue, he said, not a partisan issue, or even just a legal or legislative issue, but “a moral issue.” “The heart of the question,” he continued, “is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” He called on Congress to enact legislation protecting the rights of all Americans to be served in places of public accommodation and to vote without penalty or intimidation.
Kennedy’s comprehensive civil rights bill was under debate in Congress, when, in August, a March on Washington brought a quarter of a million supporters to the National Mall. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers led the crowd in “We Shall Overcome,” and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the nation “to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . ‘that all men are created equal.’” In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act through Congress in tribute to Kennedy, and a Voting Rights Act followed the next year.
Kennedy’s confidence in the purpose of America and in Americans’ ability to solve problems seemed on the way to being realized that summer. In June, at a commencement address at American University, he announced that his topic would be “the most important on earth: world peace.” “Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I’m talking about genuine peace,” he said, “the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for all their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.” He called on Americans to “reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union,” not to give in to propaganda and distorted views that “see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.” “Let us direct our attention to our common interests,” he said, “for, 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.”
At the end of the speech Kennedy announced negotiations under way for a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets; it was signed in August, and a few weeks later a “hot line” was installed, a direct link between Washington and Moscow that would permit instantaneous communication between the superpowers. Visiting the Berlin Wall that summer, Kennedy repeated his themes of freedom and peace. “Freedom is indivisible,” he said. “Lift your eyes beyond the dangers to today, to the hopes of tomorrow . . . to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.”