ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY

John F Kennedy and the New Frontier


*In 1960, Eisenhower would neither wish to nor be allowed to run again.  Vice-President Nixon would run against the young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.  Nixon’s running mate would be Henry Cabot Lodge, junior, grandson of TR’s old friend.  JFK’s would be Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas, who nearly won the presidential nomination outright, and still wanted the office.

 

*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, of the two, Kennedy seemed to represent youth and change. 

 

*JFK would be feared because he was a Catholic.  One North Carolina Baptist preacher said ‘I fear Catholicism more than I fear communism.’  Kennedy accused Ike and Nixon of letting the communists get too far ahead, and with Sputnik, Cuba, and ever-escalating nuclear arsenals, it was hard for Nixon to defend his old administration.

 

*In the first televised presidential debates, JFK looked young, fit, and handsome, while Nixon looked sweaty, shifty, and unappealing.  Most people who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon had come off better--he had the experience and he could be a great speaker--but most people who saw it on television were swept away by the handsome young Kennedy.  He got many votes in the North and in big cities, he still carried much of the Deep South, and workers, Blacks, and Catholics in all parts of the country tended to vote for him.  In Chicago some of them voted several times.  JFK won with 303 electoral votes (Nixon had 219 and Harry F. Byrd, Senator from Virginia, with Strom Thurmond as a running mate, got fifteen). 

 

*John F. Kennedy thus became the youngest man to be elected president (although TR was younger when he succeeded McKinley).  In his inaugural address, Kennedy declared that the torch had been passed to a new generation, but said that it also faced new challenges in the long twilight struggle of the Cold War. 

 

*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), relying less on the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction.

 

*Closing the missile gap was necessary, because the Soviets had tested their first ICBM in 1957--the rocket that launched Sputnik.  The US did not successfully test an ICBM until 1959.  However, for several years for both countries still relied on short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles.

 

*In 1961, American spy satellites discovered that the USSR did not have as many nuclear weapons as had been thought, and Kennedy began discussing Krushchev's old idea of a nuclear test ban treaty, which was signed in 1963 by the USA, USSR, and UK.  France said it would still test nuclear weapons if it wished.

 

*In response to Sputnik, Eisenhower had created NASA, and Kennedy planned to expand on it.

 

*Laika the Space Dog became the first living creature launched into orbit on 3 November, 1957.  America would take over three years to send an animal into orbit, launching Ham the Chimp into space on 31 January, 1961, 11 days after Kennedy's inauguration.

 

*On 12 April, 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth

*The United States had been training men to go into space since 1959, and the first of them to go into space was Alan Shepherd, launched on 5 May, 1961.  He did not go high enough to enter orbit, or stay up long enough (he was only off the ground 15 minutes and 28 seconds), but he proved that an American could pilot a space craft.

 

*On 25 May, 1961 John F Kennedy pledged that the United States would place a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s.


*On 20 February, 1962, John Glenn, the third American in space, became the first American to orbit the Earth, staying up over four hours and circling the Earth three times.  His space capsule was recovered from the Atlantic Ocean by USS Noa, commanded by John Exum of Johnson City.

*On 20 July, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon, and the next day, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on it.  The USSR never landed a man on the moon, despite plans to do so.  Twelve Americans on six missions eventually did walk on the Lunar surface; the last Apollo mission left the moon on 14 December, 1972.

*Back on Earth, the world was increasingly seen not just as divided between America and her allies and the Soviet Union and its satellites, but, as Europe's colonies gained their independence, they, and other countries, mostly poor countries in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia came to be seen as a Third World between the two.

 

*To gain support in the Third World, Kennedy 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 already done so after Fidel Castro led the 1959 revolution there against the American-backed dictator Batista, began nationalising industries and seizing plantations, and soon afterwards sought 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 trained by the CIA invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.  Kennedy had promised them 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, partly to protect Cuba and partly because America had recently placed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Turkey and Italy, where they could strike the Soviet Union.

 

*This began the Cuban Missile Crisis when they were discovered by American U-2 spy planes.  Kennedy blamed Khrushchev for bringing the world to the brink of war (a strategy later known as brinksmanship), 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 produced ever more 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 (it had taken 12 hours to decode a 3,000 word message from Krushchev during the crisis, and that is too long under potentially deadly circumstances). 

 

*Back in the USSR, Khrushchev was seen as weak for standing down.  Perhaps even worse, he had presided over the USSR while Red China began to drift out of the Soviet Sphere, until in 1961, the Sino-Soviet Split became official.  In 1964 Khrushchev was forced out of power and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

 

*Cuba was not the only problem. In Communist East Germany, the government claimed that too many people (and spies) were coming to East Germany to escape 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.

 

*In this he was supported by a cabinet mostly made up of young, brilliant men, mostly educated in the Ivy League.  His brother Robert was made Attorney-General, while Robert McNamara left the presidency of Ford Motor Company to become Secretary of Defence.

 

*In 1961, Social Security benefits were increased and people could begin to receive it at 62 rather than 65, although they got a lower monthly payment to make up for it.

 

*In 1961, Kennedy began making adjustments to the Fair Labor Standards Act that raised the minimum wage to $1.25 an hour.  Over the next few years it would continue to rise.

 

*The Equal Pay Act of 1963 required equal pay for equal work, 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 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, describing the effect of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on wildlife, particularly birds and insects.  This is often seen as the beginning of the environmentalist movement.

 

*In 1963 the Clean Air act began to regulate air pollution, and many more environmental laws would be passed as the decade progressed.

 

*When it came to Civil Rights for African-Americans, Kennedy at first moved cautiously, unwilling to anger Southern Democrats.  Over time, though, he did offered increasing support for voter registration movements and for black students who tried to enroll in white colleges, and he did ultimately support what later became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but did not live to see it enacted.

 

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

 

*One of his main goals for the economy was to keep inflation down, and he used the power of his office against big business when necessary.  In 1962, his administration helped negotiate a 2.5% wage increase for steel workers.  Almost immediately, all the major steel producers announced a price increase of 3.5%.  This happened so quickly that Kennedy felt the businessmen had negotiated in bad faith and had every member of his cabinet denounce them in some way specific to his department.  Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy threatened to charge them with collusion, focusing on US Steel, the biggest of them all. 

 

*This turned many businessmen against Kennedy, until he proposed lowering the corporate tax rate to encourage American industry in what was called 'the most Republican speech since McKinley.'

 

*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 26 November, 2018.
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