The Kennedy Years

From the aura of idealism surrounding John F. Kennedy, the youngest person ever elected president, to the confrontations in the streets at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the 1960s began as an era of expectation and hope and drew to a close in discord and division. Throughout the '60s, the country experienced upheavals created by an increasingly unpopular war, a civil rights movement that led to demands for ethnic power, and political violence on an unprecedented scale, including the assassinations of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The decade was also a time of heightened social awareness, in which legal barriers to equality began to tumble, and a concerted effort was made, albeit unsuccessfully, to address the problems of the poor and underprivileged.

In 1960, the Republicans chose Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's Vice President, for their presidential candidate and named Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., former Massachusetts senator and the ambassador to the United Nations, as his running mate. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts emerged from a crowded Democratic field to win his party's nomination, and he selected Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas to balance the ticket. Kennedy's success in the primaries had eliminated any concerns that his being a Roman Catholic would become an issue in the campaign.

The 1960 campaign was hard fought. Nixon had been a highly visible vice president, having assumed some presidential duties when Eisenhower was hospitalized twice during his administration with a heart condition. Even so, Kennedy — who was less well known and had, at best, a mediocre record in Congress — managed to put Nixon on the defensive by blaming the Eisenhower administration for the economic recession that the country was experiencing and by decrying the decline of American international influence. The turning point in the race was a series of four debates between the two candidates that were televised nationwide. Although most people believed that in substance the candidates' arguments were evenly matched, Kennedy looked better than Nixon on television; he appeared younger and more in control. On election night, Kennedy's margin of victory in the popular vote was just over 100,000, the smallest amount in 75 years. The shift of a few thousand votes in pivotal states like Illinois would have given the election to Nixon.

The New Frontier. Kennedy referred to his domestic and foreign programs as “a New Frontier.” However, with no clear electoral mandate and a conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans in control of Congress, Kennedy was unable to get major pieces of his domestic program approved. Significant federal aid to education that was earmarked for school construction, teacher salaries, and scholarships failed. Legislation for hospital and nursing care for the elderly, known as Medicare, faced the determined opposition of the American Medical Association, as Truman's proposals had a decade earlier. The plan for a Department of Urban Affairs, which would have addressed the problems of housing and crime in the nation's cities, was also rejected.

Despite the resistance he met in Congress, Kennedy did succeed in getting some significant portions of his domestic agenda enacted during his 1,000 days in office. The Housing Act (1961), for example, provided $5 billion for urban renewal and new housing construction. The Minimum Wage Act (1961) raised the minimum wage to $1.25 an hour and increased the number of workers eligible for minimum wage. Additionally, the Social Security Act was amended in 1961 to provide benefits to those who retired at the age of 62 rather than 65. Kennedy's most enduring legacy, the Peace Corps, was the embodiment of his inaugural address challenge to Americans to serve their country. Created by executive order in 1961, the Peace Corps bridged the gap between domestic and foreign policy. Through the program, Americans volunteered in developing countries around the world as teachers or to share their technical skills. The president also had success in reviving the economy through increased defense spending and tax cuts, all the while keeping inflation under control. Foreign trade was given a boost by the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which gave Kennedy the authority to significantly lower tariffs and to eliminate duties completely on certain goods exported by both the United States and the newly formed European Economic Community (the Common Market).

Kennedy and civil rights. Throughout most of his presidency, Kennedy paid little attention to civil rights. He introduced civil rights legislation only in June 1963, and by that time, African‐Americans were pushing the movement in new directions. In early 1960, demonstrations known as sit‐ins began to force the desegregation of lunch counters and restaurants in the South. Blacks, often college students, sat down at a lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served. Getting service could sometimes take months. Similar nonviolent tactics were used to integrate other public facilities, such as libraries, beaches, and swimming pools. In the following year, the Congress of Racial Equality ( CORE) organized the first “freedom rides,” in which both blacks and whites rode buses throughout the South to integrate bus terminals and to demand the enforcement of the Supreme Court decision banning segregation from interstate transportation. Through these efforts, Jim Crow laws gradually lost their influence.

In the fall of 1962, James Meredith, an African‐American student, obtained a federal court order allowing him to enroll at the University of Mississippi. When Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett prevented him from doing so twice, U.S. Marshals were sent to enforce the court ruling. Violence erupted on campus, leading to two deaths and several injuries. At this point, Kennedy sent in federal troops to restore calm and to ensure that Meredith was protected while he attended class. In June 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace personally kept two black students from attending summer school at the University of Alabama. He quickly backed down, however, when the president federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent it to the university.

To pressure Congress to enact Kennedy's civil rights bill, black leaders organized a massive march on Washington, D.C., in August 1963. More than 200,000 blacks and whites gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Although certainly a high point in what has been called the “integrationist” phase of the civil rights movement, the march did not fulfill its objective. Congress had still taken no action on civil rights legislation when the president was assassinated in November 1963.

Kennedy's foreign policy. Cuba provided the Kennedy administration with both its greatest foreign policy failure and its greatest success. Soon after taking office, Kennedy learned of a CIA plan to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro using Cuban exiles living in the United States. Although the president approved the Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961), he withheld crucial American air support at the last minute. The operation was a disaster and resulted in the Soviet Union increasing direct military aid to Cuba.

Tensions between the USSR and the United States, which were already high because of Berlin and the construction of the Berlin Wall (August 1961), intensified in October 1962, when aerial photographs revealed that the Russians were constructing medium‐range missile sites in Cuba. Faced with this nuclear threat to the United States, Kennedy acted quickly. On October 22, he ordered a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent the Soviet Union from bringing in any more missiles and insisted that the Russians dismantle and remove any missiles already there. The Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, ended four days later when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev backed down and conceded to Kennedy's demands. The missiles were shipped back to the USSR, and in return, the United States promised not to invade Cuba and (in a much less publicized move) removed its own missiles from Turkey.

Soon after the missile crisis, American‐Soviet relations began to improve. A “hot line” telephone link was established between Washington and Moscow to facilitate communications between the superpowers. In August 1963, with the Soviet Union increasingly concerned about a possible threat from China, the USSR, Great Britain, and the United States signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere or underwater. France and China, who had recently become nuclear powers, refused to sign the agreement. The signing of the treaty with the Soviet Union did not mean, however, that Kennedy was no longer wary of communist expansion.

Kennedy significantly increased American aid to South Vietnam, in the form of both military equipment and advisers. By the end of 1963, there were 16,000 U.S. military personnel in the region. As the communist Viet Cong increased their presence in the countryside, the Kennedy administration supported the plans of the South Vietnamese Army to depose the increasingly unpopular President Ngo Dinh Diem. After Diem was killed during the coup on November 1, 1963, the United States recognized the new government, which turned out to be a succession of military leaders who hardly bothered to construct even a facade of democracy. Kennedy supporters claim that the president was moving toward a withdrawal from Vietnam after the 1964 election; critics believe that he accepted the domino theory, viewing Communism as a monolithic entity, and would have escalated U.S. participation in the conflict. In any event, Lyndon Johnson made the critical decisions about American involvement in Vietnam.

The assassination of Kennedy. President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas. The president was in Texas to help resolve the differences between the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party in the state before his 1964 reelection bid. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine with ties to the Soviet Union and Cuba, was accused of the murder. A few days after Oswald's arrest, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby killed Oswald — an event that was captured on national television.

Kennedy's death shocked the nation and the world. President Johnson appointed a 17‐member commission, chaired by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren, to investigate the assassination. The Warren Commission issued its report in September 1964, concluding that Oswald had killed Kennedy and that both Oswald and Ruby had acted alone. The report, however, left many questions unanswered and did not put to rest the idea that the assassination was the culmination of a conspiracy.