American History
Passing the Torch to a New Generation

*In 1960, Eisenhower’s vice-president, Richard Nixon, ran for president against a Massachusetts senator, John F. Kennedy.  Although both were in their forties (it was the first time both major candidates had been born in the 20th Century), both were WWII veterans, and both had been Congressmen and Senators, Kennedy seemed to represent youth and change. 

 

*Eisenhower had used television effectively during his presidential campaigns, and television probably was the deciding factor in 1960.  That was the first time the presidential debates were broadcast live, and although Nixon raised good points (to such an extent that many radio listeners thought he had won the debate), Kennedy was tanned and handsome, while Nixon was under the weather, sweaty, had a five o’clock shadow, and refused to wear makeup for the cameras.  People watching on television preferred Kennedy.

 

*Even though some people distrusted Kennedy for being Catholic, he won the election by a very narrow margin of the popular vote (but a fairly wide margin in the Electoral College), becoming the youngest man to be elected president (although TR was younger when he succeeded McKinley).

 

*In his inauguration speech, Kennedy declared that the torch had been passed to a new generation, but said that it also faced new challenges in the Cold War.  Read the selections from his address on page 615 and page 619.

 

*Kennedy wanted to build up the military, both to close a ‘missile gap’ between the US and USSR and to allow flexible responses to crises by recruiting more men for the Army and Navy (especially the Special Forces).

 

*To gain support in the Third World (mostly poor Latin American, Asian, and African countries not aligned with the US or USSR) he offered more American aid and created the Peace Corps to send young Americans on missions of freedom to foreign countries to offer technical, medical, and education assistance.

 

*Kennedy was concerned about Third World countries turning communist because Cuba had done so in 1959 when Fidel Castro led a communist revolution there (with Soviet support).  Many Cubans fled to Florida after losing their businesses, and they demanded the US government help them win Cuban freedom again.

 

*On 17 April, 1961, Cuban exiles led by the CIA invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.  Kennedy had promised their air support and other assistance, but at the last minute, he changed his mind.  Most of the invaders were killed or captured.

 

*The next year (1962), Nikita Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, beginning the Cuban Missile Crisis when they were discovered by American spy planes.  Kennedy blamed Khrushchev for bringing the world to the brink of war, although he also pushed the world towards war by blockading Cuba to keep out any more Soviet supplies (although he called it a quarantine, because a blockade is an act of war).  For thirteen days in October, 1962, it seemed the world might be destroyed in a nuclear war, but in the end, the USSR backed down and removed the missiles (in exchange for the US removing missiles from Turkey).  In the end, it did not matter much, as both sides developed ICBMs that could hit any part of the globe.

 

*After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US and USSR created a hot line—a direct telephone connection between Washington and Moscow so that the leaders of the two countries could discuss crises instantly.

 

*Cuba was not the only problem. In Communist East Germany, the government claimed that too many people (and spies) were coming to East Germany from the cruel, cold, capitalist West.  In fact, too many people were leaving East Germany to escape communism.  To stop this, the East German government decided to build an anti-fascist protection wall.  At midnight 12/13 August 1961, the East German army began to close the border with guards and barbed wire.  On 15 August, pre-fabricated concrete barriers were put in place along portions of the border, and eventually all of West Berlin was surrounded by a 12-foot wall with barbed wire, machine gun towers, land mines, and other security around it.  Border guards were given orders to shoot anyone who tried to escape, and about 200 people were killed trying to do so (and many also succeeded).  On the western side of the wall there was no security, and West Berliners covered it with graffiti.

 

*The West feared that East Germany and the USSR would soon try to take over all of Berlin, and sent more troops to defend it.  In 1963 President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin and said that it stood for all the peoples divided by the Iron Curtain:  Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner'... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner!'

*The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years as a physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain.  Fences, guard posts, and land mines also ran the entire length of the Inner German Border and along the Czechoslovakian borders with
West Germany and Austria.

 

*Kennedy also increased the support that America gave the South Vietnam, where a pro-American government was threatened by Communism.

 

*At home, Kennedy promised a New Frontier that would improve the economy, health care, education, and civil rights.

 

*The Equal Pay Act required equal pay for equal work, meant primarily to get companies to pay women the same wages they paid men.  Although there were loopholes in this Act, it helped begin the process of getting equality for women in the workplace.

 

*In other areas of Civil Rights, Kennedy moved cautiously, unwilling to anger Southern Democrats.  He did offer some support for freedom riders and for black students who tried to enrol in white colleges, and he did support what later became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but did not live to see it enacted.

 

*Kennedy did not mind deficit spending (spending more than the government made) to finance his plans.  He even supported large tax cuts for middle-class Americans so they would have more money to spend, while he raised taxes on the very wealthy to make up for it.

 

*He certainly needed this money, not only to enlarge the military but to pursue the space race.  Not only did he pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, but Alan Shepard became the first American in space (1961) and John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth (1962) while Kennedy was president.

 

*Kennedy might have done much more as president (particularly in the area of Civil Rights), but in November, 1963 he visited Dallas.  While riding in an open car through the city, he was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and Lyndon Johnson became president.  Although there have always been conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s murder, the Warren Commission determined that Oswald had acted alone.

 

 

 



This page last updated 14 November, 2009.