JFK Part II: The Cold War

By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer

This week, Clubhouse News examines the life of John F. Kennedy (JFK), leading up to the 50th anniversary of his assassination on November 22. In “JFK Part II: The Cold War,” we explore how JFK avoided global nuclear disaster during the intense Cold War hostilities between the US and Russia.

Bay of Pigs
The Bay of Pigs in Cuba, where the failed invasion took place.

After World War II, the US and its allies began a decades-long struggle with the communist Soviet Union (now known as Russia). While the two countries never directly fought one another (hence the “cold” war), they tried to outmatch each other for over 40 years through political games, military alliances, spying, and a nuclear arms race.

As the two world powers played tug-of-war with Europe, the Soviets spread their influence through many Eastern European countries, turning them pro-communist. Meanwhile, the Americans held sway over Western European nations like France, Greece, and Italy. This global chess match eventually spread to Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

After Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro took over his country to become a communist dictator in 1959, he allied himself with the Soviets, giving them a foothold just 90 miles from Florida. So, during the 1960 presidential campaign, the Cold War became a very hot topic! Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and his opponent, Republican Vice-President Richard Nixon, both took a tough public stand against the Soviet Union and its international spread of communism. JFK promised that the American people would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Soon after winning the presidency, JFK helped coordinate a plan with the CIA that would involve training Cuban counter-revolutionary forces to invade their homeland and overthrow Castro. JFK approved the mission, and 1,400 Cuban exiles landed at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs on April 17. Just three days before the invasion, JFK cut down the number of B-26 airplanes that were going to support the exiles from 16 to 8. This ended up proving to be an unwise decision, because the planes didn’t strike the Cuban air force strongly enough to cripple them. After the pro-US Cuban forces died or were captured, JFK took full responsibility for the failed operation.

In October 1963, JFK signs the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

In June 1961, JFK met with Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev, where they ended up arguing. Two months later, Kruschev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall to separate East Germany from West Germany, in order to stop East Germans from escaping the grasp of the Soviets. In response, JFK ordered increased production of American intercontinental ballistic missiles (that could reach another continent). Then, the Soviets began nuclear tests, so JFK reactivated US nuclear tests in early 1962. The nuclear drama really escalated when Kruschev arranged for nuclear missiles to be moved to Cuba, so that Castro could defend himself against another invasion. JFK had the island nation surrounded with naval ships and this Cuban Missile Crisis put the Soviets and Americans on the verge of global nuclear war.

Fortunately, the two countries reached an agreement: the US promised not to invade Cuba again, and the Soviets removed their missiles. However, the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t calm things down entirely. Kruschev ended up ordering an upgrade of the Soviet nuclear strike force, and an all-out nuclear arms race ignited between the two Cold War nations. In June 1963, JFK eased tensions by calling for a strategy of peace, and by October, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed between the US and Soviets. This agreement meant neither country would test nuclear weapons above the ground, and was a key step in slowing down the arms race. In these final months of JFK’s presidency, the two countries also created a “Hotline” to communicate with each other and avoid the possibility of accidental war. So, in just the few short years of his presidency, JFK managed to avoid global nuclear disaster and calmed relations between the US and the Soviets.

Images courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.