Foreign policy of the John F. Kennedy administration

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The foreign policy of the John F. Kennedy administration was the foreign policy of the United States from 1961 to 1963 while John F. Kennedy was president. Interactions with foreign nations during this period included diplomatic and military initiatives in Europe, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and other regions, all conducted amid considerable Cold War tensions. Kennedy deployed a new generation of foreign policy experts, dubbed "the best and the brightest".[1] Several of them were from the foreign policy think tanks.[1] In his inaugural address Kennedy encapsulated his Cold War stance as following: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate".[2]

Kennedy's strategy of flexible response, managed by Robert McNamara, was aimed to reduce the possibility of war by miscalculation. His administration resulted in the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis and refrained from further escalation of the Berlin Crisis of 1961. In 1961, Kennedy initiated the creation of Peace Corps, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and Alliance for Progress. On October 7, 1963, he signed into law the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was accepted by the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.

Soviet Union[edit]

Kennedy shaking hands with Nikita Khrushchev, 1961.

On November 29, 1961, American officials declared that the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) allegedly distributed a distorted, editorialized version of the Kennedy interview, given to Izvestiya employee Alexei Adzhubey. According to U.S. officials, the omissions included Kennedy's charges that the Soviets had violated the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, as well as the moratorium on nuclear tests and his claim that the issue of divided Berlin largely stems from the Soviet refusal to agree to German reunification.[3] Adzhubey promised to publish the full text in Izvestiya and Kennedy publicly expressed his appreciation for that.[3]

In January 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared his support for wars of national liberation. Kennedy interpreted this step as a direct threat to the "free world".[4] On February 15, 1961, the President asked Soviets to avoid interfering with United Nations pacification of the Congo Crisis. Khrushchev proposed to amend the United Nations Charter by replacing the position of Secretary-General with a three-person executive called the Troyka (Russian: "group of three"). On September 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed the United Nations General Assembly, revealing his commitment to veto the Troyka plan. On February 27 of that year, in his letter to Khrushchev, the President offered an early summit meeting. Khrushchev agreed to meet in the Austrian capital Vienna. The subsequent Vienna summit was tainted by the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Khrushchev, however, tended to attribute the responsibility for the invasion not to Kennedy, but to his subordinates.[5]

During his meeting with Khrushchev, Kennedy's main goal was to suggest a retraction from the Cold War. Nonetheless, he did not believe that it would be feasible to change something either in divided Europe or in the Far East. Subsequently, he spoke with very general wording. However, Kennedy did take the novel step of emphasizing the importance of Allied access to West Berlin. Previous administrations had simply referred to “Berlin.” The evidence suggests that Kennedy essentially accepted the permanent division of Berlin into East and West and implied that an East Berlin border closure would not bring a US response as long as West Berlin was left alone. Since he was already thinking about putting up a wall in Berlin, Khrushchev was encouraged to continue down this path.[6]

The U.S. State Department prepared several papers for Kennedy on how to approach Khrushchev. One of them, titled "Scope Paper", indicated that Khrushchev would "undoubtedly press hard his position on Berlin and a peace treaty with East Germany".[7] In spring 1963, Kennedy started to seek a further conciliation with the Soviet Union. In the summer of that year, he sought to wind down the confrontational mentality that dominated American–Soviet relations and to replace standard anticommunist rhetoric with a conciliatory one.

Latin America[edit]

Official motion picture on Kennedy's tour of Latin America in December 1961.

The Kennedy administration came to power in wake of the radicalization of Fidel Castro's Cuba, and saw the region as a Cold War battleground. Kennedy believed communism could be beaten by supporting the poor and promoting democracy, which he attempted by launching the Alliance for Progress. Although it achieved far less than Kennedy had hoped, its ideals, together with Kennedy's personal qualities, gave him an unusual and lasting degree of popularity in Latin America.[8] However, these motives were seriously compromised by Kennedy's determination to win the Cold War in Latin America and prevent a "second Cuba". The administration presided over a number of covert interventions, and according to historian Stephen G. Rabe, "demonstrably bolstered regimes and groups that were undemocratic, conservative, and frequently repressive."[9]

In December 1961, Kennedy toured Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Colombia.[10] Kennedy's sanguine welcome stood in sharp contrast to then-Vice President Richard Nixon's Latin America tour of May 1958.[11] On Kennedy's departure from Caracas, President Rómulo Betancourt said that "we receive as friends those who are our friends."[12]

His 1962 trip to Mexico evoked an enthusiastic response to his Alliance for Progress vision. In that year Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos told Kennedy that for the sake of improvement of the Mexican–American relations the Chamizal dispute should be solved. The U.S. and Mexican joint efforts in that field ultimately produced the Chamizal Convention.

Cuban Missile Crisis[edit]

Kennedy, signing the authorization of the naval quarantine of Cuba.

After the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion, in late July 1962, the Soviet Union began sending its weaponry and military personnel to Cuba, citing the intents to protect Cuba from further invasions. The Soviet Union planned to allocate in Cuba 49 medium-range ballistic missiles, 32 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, 49 light Il-28 bombers and about 100 tactical nuclear weapons.[13]

After their discovery Kennedy secretly met with the EXCOMM. He postponed a military solution of the crisis strenuously advocated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and decided to impose a naval quarantine on Cuba. On October 22, 1962 Kennedy informed the nation of the crisis, announcing the quarantine and demanding the removal of Soviet missiles.[14]

Kennedy managed to preserve restraint when a Soviet missile unauthorizedly downed a US Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over Cuba, killing the pilot Rudolf Anderson. On October 27, in a letter to Nikita Khrushchev Kennedy offered a noninvasion pledge for the removal of missiles from Cuba. The next day Kennedy and Khrushchev struck a deal: the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for the United States' noninvasion pledge and the dismantlement of US PGM-19 Jupiter missiles based in Italy and Turkey. By that time, the fifteen Jupiter missiles were considered obsolete and had been supplanted by missile-equipped US Navy Polaris subs.[14] They were removed the next year.

During the crisis Kennedy showed his leadership talents, decision-making abilities and crisis management skills. By early November 1962 Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was considered by most Americans as a diplomatic success in foreign policy.[15]


United Kingdom[edit]

By 1960 the United Kingdom had ceased their work on a national missile system and Eisenhower offered to make the American GAM-87 Skybolt available to the British as soon as it was improved. The United Kingdom accepted the offer as the GAM-87 Skybolt would have ensured it a nuclear deterrent through most of the 1960s. By mid-1962, however, Robert McNamara had deemed the Skybolt project "excessively expensive... with serious technical flaws"[16] and decided to cancel it.

Because of informational mishaps Kennedy was not informed that McNamara's decision would have serious political consequences for Harold Macmillan's government.[17] At a meeting with Macmillan, Kennedy attempted to save the situation and offered the United Kingdom the UGM-27 Polaris in lieu of Skybolt.[17] The related agreement dissatisfied French President Charles De Gaulle, who resented American preference toward Great Britain.[17]


Kennedy at a White House dinner in honor of the French Minister of Cultural Affairs André Malraux, 1962.

France was the second country Kennedy visited as President. He arrived to Paris with his wife Jacqueline Kennedy on May 31, 1961. Charles De Gaulle, known for his preference to speak French to foreign guests, greeted Kennedy in English.[18] Jacqueline, who in turn spoke fluent French, intrigued the French press, which called her the "queen".[18]

The French nuclear program was pivotal in De Gaulle's aim of restoring France's international reputation. Kennedy administration had a firm commitment to the nuclear nonproliferation. In a letter to Harold Macmillan Kennedy wrote: "After careful review of the problem, I have to come to the conclusion that it would be undesirable to assist France's efforts to create a nuclear weapons capability".[19] Kennedy was particularly dissatisfied with De Gaulle's intentions to assist West Germany in developing nuclear weapons.

East and West Germany[edit]

Kennedy called Berlin "the great testing place of Western courage and will". On August 13, 1961 the East Germans, backed by Moscow, suddenly erected a temporary barbed wire barricade and then a concrete barrier, dividing Berlin. Kennedy noted that "it seems particularly stupid to risk killing millions of Americans... because Germans want Germany to be reunified".[20]

Kennedy with the Chancellor of West Germany Konrad Adenauer (center) in Bonn, 1963.

Two months later, a US-Soviet war nearly occurred as US and Soviet tanks faced off across Checkpoint Charlie. The crisis was defused largely through a backchannel communication the Kennedy administration had set up with Soviet spy Georgi Bolshakov.[21]

As a result of the Berlin crisis Kennedy's government faced a dramatic increase in the defense budget.[22] The negative balance of payments with the European allies had aggravated American fiscal problems. At the end of 1961 Robert McNamara concluded an arrangement with West Germany whereby the latter was to annually purchase some American military hardware. However this only partially alleviated the payments issue.[22]

On June 26, 1963 Kennedy arrived in West Berlin and visited Checkpoint Charlie. On that day he delivered his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in front of 150,000 West Germans. In remarks to his aides on Berlin Wall Kennedy noted that the wall "is a hell of a lot better than a war".[23]

Kennedy ordered 500 military men to travel on trucks through East Germany to West Berlin to insure that the West preserved the land-link to the city. In late October 1961, a dispute over the right of one U.S. diplomat to cross the East Berlin flared into conflict. Soviet and American tanks faced one another at Checkpoint Charlie, but Kennedy through an intermediary offered Khrushchev a conciliatory formula and both superpowers withdrew their tanks.[23]

Asia and Middle East[edit]

Kennedy's Asian initiatives particularly targeted India because it followed a noncommunist model of economic development and was a member of the Nonaligned Movement.

Israel and Arab states[edit]

Kennedy firmly believed in the U.S. commitment to Israeli security, but his Middle Eastern policy saw ambitious Pan-Arabic initiatives of Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1960, Kennedy stated: "Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom".[24]

Subsequently, as president, Kennedy initiated the creation of security ties with Israel, and he is credited as the founder of the US-Israeli military alliance (which would be continued under subsequent presidents). Kennedy ended the arms embargo that the Eisenhower and Truman administrations had enforced on Israel. Describing the protection of Israel as a moral and national commitment, he was the first to introduce the concept of a 'special relationship' (as he described it to Golda Meir) between the US and Israel.[25]

Kennedy extended the first informal security guarantees to Israel in 1962.[26] Beginning in 1963, Kennedy allowed the sale to Israel of advanced US weaponry (the MIM-23 Hawk), as well as to provide diplomatic support for Israeli policies which were opposed by Arab neighbours, such as its water project on the Jordan River.[26]

In the summer of 1960 the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv learned that Israel was assisted by France in the construction of what U.S. intelligence called "a significant atomic installation" in Dimona.[27] Although David Ben-Gurion had publicly assured the United States that Israel did not plan to develop nuclear weapons, Kennedy tried unsuccessfully to persuade Israel to permit some qualified expert (either American or from some other friendly nation) to visit Dimona. According to Seymour Hersh, the inspections were conducted in such a way that it "guaranteed that the whole procedure would be little more than a whitewash, as the president and his senior advisors had to understand: the American inspection team would have to schedule its visits well in advance, and with the full acquiescence of Israel."[28] Marc Trachtenberg argued: "Although well aware of what the Israelis were doing, Kennedy chose to take this as satisfactory evidence of Israeli compliance with America's non-proliferation policy."[29] The American who led the inspection team stated that the essential goal of the inspections was to find "ways to not reach the point of taking action against Israel's nuclear weapons program."[30]

In 1962 the United States sent to Israel the MIM-23 Hawk missiles. Nonetheless Kennedy wished to work more closely with the modernizing forces of the Arab world. In June 1962 Nasser wrote Kennedy a letter, noting that though Egypt and the United States had differences, they could still cooperate.

Following the outburst of the North Yemen Civil War Kennedy, fearing that it would lead to a larger conflict between Egypt and Saudi Arabia (which might involve the United States as Saudi ally), decided to recognize the revolutionary regime. Kennedy hoped that it could stabilize the situation in Yemen. Kennedy still tried to persuade Nasser to pull his troops out.


Relations between the United States and Iraq became strained following the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy on July 14, 1958, which resulted in the declaration of a republican government led by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim.[31] Concerned about the influence of Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) members in Qasim's administration, and hoping to prevent "Ba'athist or Communist exploitation of the situation," President Dwight Eisenhower had established a Special Committee on Iraq (SCI) in April 1959 to monitor events and propose various contingencies for preventing a communist takeover of the country.[32][33] Qasim undertook numerous repressive measures against the communists throughout 1960, and this—combined with the John F. Kennedy administration's belief that Iraq was not important to the broader Cold War—resulted in the disestablishment of the SCI within days of Kennedy's inauguration as President.[34] However, subsequent events would return Iraq to the attention of American officials.[35]

On June 25, 1961 Qasim mobilized troops along the border between Iraq and Kuwait, declaring the latter nation "an indivisible part of Iraq" and causing a short-lived "Kuwait Crisis." The United Kingdom—which had just granted Kuwait independence on June 19 and whose economy was heavily dependent on Kuwaiti oil supplies—responded on July 1 by dispatching 5,000 troops to the country to deter any Iraqi invasion. At the same time, Kennedy briefly dispatched a U.S. Navy task force to Bahrain, and the U.K. (at the urging of the Kennedy administration) brought the dispute to United Nations Security Council, where the proposed resolution was vetoed by the Soviet Union. The situation was finally resolved in October, when the British troops were withdrawn and replaced by a 4,000-strong Arab League force. The Kennedy administration's initially "low-key" response to the stand-off was motivated by the desire to project an image of the U.S. as "a progressive anti-colonial power trying to work productively with Arab nationalism" as well as the preference of U.S. officials to defer to the U.K. on issues related to the Persian Gulf.[36]

Following Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani's 1958 return to Iraq from exile in the Soviet Union, Qasim had promised to permit autonomous rule in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, but by 1961 Qasim had made no progress towards achieving this goal. In July 1961, following months of violence between feuding Kurdish tribes, Barzani returned to northern Iraq and began retaking territory from his Kurdish rivals. Although Qasim's government did not respond to the escalating violence, the Kurdish Democratic Party sent Qasim a list of demands in August, which included the withdrawal of Iraqi government troops from Kurdish territory and greater political freedom.[37] For the next month, U.S. officials in Iran and Iraq predicted that a war was imminent. Faced with the loss of northern Iraq after non-Barzani Kurds seized control of a key road leading to the Iranian border in early September and ambushed and massacred Iraqi troops on September 10 and September 12, Qasim finally ordered the systematic bombing of Kurdish villages on September 14, which caused Barzani to join the rebellion on September 19.[38] As part of a strategy devised by Alexander Shelepin in July 1961 to distract the U.S. and its allies from the Soviet Union's aggressive posture in Berlin, the Soviet KGB revived its connections with Barzani and encouraged him to revolt, although Barzani had no intention to act as their proxy. By March 1962, Barzani's forces were in firm control of Iraqi Kurdistan, although Barzani refrained from taking major cities out of fear that the Iraqi government would launch reprisals against civilians. The U.S. refused Kurdish requests for assistance, but Qasim nevertheless castigated the Kurds as "American stooges" while absolving the Soviets of any responsibility for the unrest.[39][40]

In December 1961, Qasim's government passed Public Law 80, which restricted the British- and American-owned Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC)'s concessionary holding to those areas in which oil was actually being produced, effectively expropriating 99.5% of the IPC concession. U.S. officials were alarmed by the expropriation as well as the recent Soviet veto of an Egyptian-sponsored UN resolution requesting the admittance of Kuwait as a UN member state, which they believed to be connected. Senior National Security Council (NSC) adviser Robert Komer worried that if the IPC ceased production in response, Qasim might "grab Kuwait" (thus achieving a "stranglehold" on Middle Eastern oil production) or "throw himself into Russian arms." At the same time, Komer made note of widespread rumors that a nationalist coup against Qasim could be imminent, and had the potential to "get Iraq back on [a] more neutral keel."[41] Following Komer's advice, on December 30 Kennedy's National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy sent the President a cable from the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, John Jernegan, which argued that the U.S. was "in grave danger [of] being drawn into [a] costly and politically disastrous situation over Kuwait." Bundy also requested Kennedy's permission to "press State" to consider measures to resolve the situation with Iraq, adding that cooperation with the British was desirable "if possible, but our own interests, oil and other, are very directly involved."[42][43]

In April 1962, the State Department issued new guidelines on Iraq that were intended to increase American influence in the country. Around the same time, Kennedy instructed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—under the direction of Archie Roosevelt, Jr.—to begin making preparations for a military coup against Qasim.[44] On June 2, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hashim Jawad ordered Jernegan to leave the country, stating that Iraq was also withdrawing its ambassador from Washington in retaliation for the U.S. accepting the credentials of a new Kuwaiti ambassador on June 1, which Iraq had repeatedly warned would result in a downgrading of diplomatic relations. Despite the Iraqi warnings, senior U.S. officials were stunned by the downgrade; Kennedy had not been informed of the likely consequences of accepting the Kuwaiti ambassador.[45][46] By the end of 1962, a series of major defeats at the hands of Kurdish rebels had severely damaged both the Iraqi army's morale and Qasim's popular support. From September 1962 through February 1963, Qasim repeatedly blamed the "criminal activities" of the U.S. for the battlefield successes of the Kurds, but the State Department rejected requests from the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in Baghdad, Roy Melbourne, to publicly respond to Qasim's allegations out of fear that doing so would jeopardize the remaining U.S. presence in Iraq. On February 5, 1963 Secretary of State Dean Rusk informed the U.S. embassy in Iraq that the State Department was "considering carefully whether on balance U.S. interests would be served [at] this particular juncture by abandoning [its] policy of avoiding public reaction to Qasim's charges," with the reluctance stemming from the desire to avoid compromising the CIA's "significant intelligence collecting operations": On February 7, State Department executive secretary William Brubeck informed Bundy that Iraq had become "one of the more useful spots for acquiring technical information on Soviet military and industrial equipment and on Soviet methods of operation in nonaligned areas."[47][48] The CIA had earlier penetrated a top-secret Iraqi-Soviet surface-to-air missile project.[49] With access to crucial intelligence hanging in the balance, U.S. officials were showing "great reluctance about aggravating Qasim."[50]

After reaching a secret agreement with Barzani to work together against Qasim in January, the anti-imperialist and anti-communist Iraqi Ba'ath Party overthrew and executed Qasim in a violent coup on February 8, 1963. While there have been persistent rumors that the CIA orchestrated the coup, declassified documents and the testimony of former CIA officers indicate there was no direct American involvement, although the CIA was actively seeking to find a suitable replacement for Qasim within the Iraqi military and the U.S. had been notified of two aborted Ba'athist coup plots in July and December 1962.[51][52] Despite evidence that the CIA had been closely tracking the Ba'ath Party's coup planning since "at least 1961," the CIA official working with Roosevelt to instigate a military coup against Qasim, and who later became the head of the CIA's operations in Iraq and Syria, has "denied any involvement in the Ba'ath Party's actions," stating instead that the CIA's efforts against Qasim were still in the planning stages at the time.[53] Qasim's former deputy Abdul Salam Arif (who was not a Ba'athist) was given the largely ceremonial title of President, while prominent Ba'athist general Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr was named Prime Minister. The most powerful leader of the new government was the secretary of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, Ali Salih al-Sa'di, who controlled the militant National Guard and organized a massacre of hundreds—if not thousands—of suspected communists and other dissidents in the days following the coup.[54] The Kennedy administration viewed the prospect of an Iraqi shift in the Cold War with cautious optimism.[55][56] However, U.S. officials were worried that a renewal of conflict with the Kurds could threaten the Iraqi government's survival. While Barzani had released 1,500 Arab prisoners of war as a gesture of good faith, Iraqi Foreign Minister Talib Shabib told Melbourne on March 3 that the government was unwilling to consider any concessions beyond cultural autonomy and was prepared to use anti-Barzani Kurds and Arab tribes in northern Iraq to co-opt the Kurds' guerrilla methods.[57] On May 4, Melbourne delivered a message warning Shabib of the U.S. government's "serious apprehensions at [the] trend of events" and urging Iraqi officials to make "serious counter-proposals." Nevertheless, on May 22 al-Bakr bluntly told Melbourne he "could not permit this Kurdish challenge to Iraqi sovereignty to continue [for] much longer."[58] The fighting resumed on June 10, when the Iraqi government—which had amassed 45,000 troops in Iraqi Kurdistan—arrested members of the Kurdish negotiating delegation and declared martial law throughout northern Iraq.[59] Meanwhile, the Soviet Union actively worked to undermine the Ba'athist government, suspending military shipments to Iraq in May, convincing its ally Mongolia to sponsor charges of genocide against Iraq at the UN General Assembly from July to September, and sponsoring a failed communist coup attempt on July 3.[60] The Kennedy administration responded by urging Arab allies of the U.S. to oppose the genocide charge at the UN and by approving a $55 million arms deal for Iraq.[61] Furthermore, "Weldon C. Mathews has meticulously established that National Guard leaders who participated in human rights abuses had been trained in the United States as part of a police program run by the International Cooperation Administration and Agency for International Development."[62] Because, in the words of State Department official James Spain, the "policy of the nationalist Arabs who dominate the Baghdad government does in fact come close to genocide"—as well as a desire to eliminate the Soviets' "Kurdish Card"—the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Robert Strong, informed al-Bakr of a Barzani peace proposal delivered to the U.S. consul in Tabriz (and offered to convey a response) on August 25. While a Barzani-initiated ceasefire would have allowed the government to claim victory, al-Bakr "expressed astonishment" over American contacts with the Kurds, asking why the message had not been delivered through the Soviets.[63]

The Ba'athist government collapsed in November 1963 over the question of unification with Syria (where a rival branch of the Ba'ath Party had seized power in March) and the extremist and uncontrollable behavior of al-Sa'di's National Guard. President Arif, with the overwhelming support of the Iraqi military, purged Ba'athists from the government and ordered the National Guard to stand down; although al-Bakr had conspired with Arif to remove al-Sa'di, on January 5, 1964, Arif removed al-Bakr from his new position as Vice President, fearful of allowing the Ba'ath Party to retain a foothold inside his government.[64] On November 21, 1963, the Kennedy administration determined that because Arif remained the Iraqi head of state, diplomatic relations with Iraq would continue unimpeded.[65]


After the election, Eisenhower emphasized to Kennedy that the communist threat in Southeast Asia required priority; Eisenhower considered Laos to be "the cork in the bottle" in regards to the regional threat.[66] As Pathet Lao received Soviet support, Kennedy ordered the United States Seventh Fleet to move into the South China Sea and drew marines with helicopters into Thailand. He also instructed the American military advisers in Laos to wear military uniforms instead of the civilian clothes as a symbol of American resolve. Nonetheless Kennedy believed that if both superpowers could convince their respective allies to move toward neutrality in Laos, that country might provide a pattern for settlement of future Third World conflicts. In March 1961, Kennedy voiced a change in policy from supporting a "free" Laos to a "neutral" Laos as a solution.[66] In April, 1961 the Soviet Union endorsed Kennedy's appeal for the cease fire in Laos. Eventually an agreement was signed in July 1962, proclaiming Laos neutral.


When Kennedy came to power, the American–Turkish relations were solidly based on the containment doctrine. In April 1961 Kennedy asked for a review of the PGM-19 Jupiter deployment in Turkey. The response, drafted in June by George McGhee, indicated that cancellation of the deployment might be seen as a sign of weakness in the aftermath of Nikita Khrushchev's hard-line position at the Vienna summit.[67]


In January, 1961 Kennedy assigned 28.4 million dollars to the enlargement of the South Vietnamese army and 12.7 million dollars to enhance the civil guard.[68] In May, he dispatched Lyndon Johnson to meet with South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem. Johnson assured Diem of more aid to mold a fighting force that could resist the communists.[69] Kennedy announced a change of policy from support to partnership with Diem to defeat of communism in South Vietnam.[70] In October of the same year Kennedy dispatched General Maxwell D. Taylor and Walt Rostow to South Vietnam to study the situation there. They recommended sending 8,000 troops, but Kennedy authorized only a much smaller increase in the American advisers.[71]

During his administration, Kennedy continued policies that provided political and economic support, and military advice and support, to the South Vietnamese government.[72] Late in 1961, the Viet Cong began assuming a predominant presence, initially seizing the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh.[73] By the end of 1961 the American advisers in Vietnam numbered 3,205[71] and that number increased from 11,000 in 1962 to 16,000 by late 1963, but Kennedy was reluctant to order a full-scale deployment of troops.[74][75] Before his assassination, Kennedy used military advisors and special forces in Vietnam almost exclusively. A year and three months later on March 8, 1965, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, committed the first combat troops to Vietnam and greatly escalated U.S. involvement, with forces reaching 184,000 that year and 536,000 in 1968.[76]

In late 1961, President Kennedy sent Roger Hilsman, then director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to assess the situation in Vietnam. There, Hilsman met Sir Robert Thompson, head of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam and the Strategic Hamlet Program was formed. It was approved by Kennedy and South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem. It was implemented in early 1962 and involved some forced relocation, village internment, and segregation of rural South Vietnamese into new communities where the peasantry would be isolated from Communist insurgents. It was hoped that these new communities would provide security for the peasants and strengthen the tie between them and the central government. By November 1963 the program waned and officially ended in 1964.[77]

In early 1962, Kennedy formally authorized escalated involvement when he signed the National Security Action Memorandum – "Subversive Insurgency (War of Liberation)".[78] "Operation Ranch Hand", a large-scale aerial defoliation effort, began on the roadsides of South Vietnam.[79] By the end of 1962, 109 American military personnel had been killed compared to 14 the previous year. During 1962, Viet Cong troops increased from 15,000 to 24,000. Depending on which assessment Kennedy accepted (Department of Defense or State) there had been zero or modest progress in countering the increase in communist aggression in return for an expanded U.S. involvement.[80]

In April 1963, Kennedy assessed the situation in Vietnam: "We don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can't give up that territory to the communists and get the American people to re-elect me."[81] Kennedy faced a crisis in Vietnam by July; despite increased U.S. support, the South Vietnamese military was only marginally effective against pro-communist Viet Cong forces.

On August 21, just as the new U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. arrived, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu ordered South Vietnam forces, funded and trained by the CIA, to quell Buddhist demonstrations. The crackdowns heightened expectations of a coup d'état to remove Diem with (or perhaps by) his brother, Nhu.[82] Lodge was instructed to try to get Diem and Nhu to step down and leave the country. Diem would not listen to Lodge.[83]

Cable 243 (DEPTEL 243), dated August 24, followed, declaring Washington would no longer tolerate Nhu's actions, and Lodge was ordered to pressure Diem to remove Nhu. If Diem refused, the Americans would explore alternative leadership.[84] Lodge stated that the only workable option was to get the South Vietnamese generals to overthrow Diem and Nhu, as originally planned.[85] At the same time, the first formal anti-Vietnam war sentiment was expressed by U.S. clergy from the Ministers' Vietnam Committee.[86]

A White House meeting in September was indicative of the very different ongoing appraisals; the president was given updated assessments after personal inspections on the ground by the Department of Defense (General Victor Krulak) and the State Department (Joseph Mendenhall). Krulak said that the military fight against the communists was progressing and being won, while Mendenhall stated that the country was civilly being lost to any U.S. influence. Kennedy reacted, saying: "Did you two gentlemen visit the same country?" The president was unaware that the two men were at such odds that they had not spoken to each other on the return flight.[87]

In October 1963, the president appointed Defense Secretary McNamara and General Taylor to a Vietnam mission in another effort to synchronize the information and formulation of policy. The objective of the McNamara Taylor mission "emphasized the importance of getting to the bottom of the differences in reporting from U.S. representatives in Vietnam."[88] In meetings with McNamara, Taylor, and Lodge, Diem again refused to agree to governing measures, helping to dispel McNamara's previous optimism about Diem.[89]

Taylor and McNamara were enlightened by Vietnam's vice president, Nguyen Ngoc Tho (choice of many to succeed Diem should a coup occur), who in detailed terms obliterated Taylor's information that the military was succeeding in the countryside.[90] Kennedy insisted, the mission report contain a recommended schedule for troop withdrawals: 1,000 by year's end and complete withdrawal in 1965, something the NSC considered a strategic fantasy.[91] The final report declared that the military was making progress, that the increasingly unpopular Diem-led government was not vulnerable to a coup, and that an assassination of Diem or Nhu was a possibility.[92]

In late October, intelligence wires again reported that a coup against the Diem government was afoot. The source, Vietnamese General Duong Van Minh (also known as "Big Minh"), wanted to know the U.S. position. Kennedy instructed Lodge to offer covert assistance to the coup, excluding assassination, and to ensure deniability by the U.S.[93] Later that month, as the coup became imminent, Kennedy ordered all cables to be routed through him. A policy of "control and cut out" was initiated to ensure presidential control of U.S. responses, while cutting him out of the paper trail.[94]

On November 1, 1963, South Vietnamese generals, led by "Big Minh", overthrew the Diem government, arresting and then killing Diem and Nhu. Kennedy was shocked by the deaths. He found out afterwards that Minh had asked the CIA field office to secure safe-passage out of the country for Diem and Nhu, but was told that 24 hours were needed to procure a plane. Minh responded that he could not hold them that long.[95]

News of the coup led to renewed confidence initially—both in America and in South Vietnam—that the war might be won.[96] McGeorge Bundy drafted a National Security Action Memo to present to Kennedy upon his return from Dallas. It reiterated the resolve to fight communism in Vietnam, with increasing military and economic aid and expansion of operations into Laos and Cambodia. Before leaving for Dallas, Kennedy told Michael Forrestal that "after the first of the year ... [he wanted] an in depth study of every possible option, including how to get out of there ... to review this whole thing from the bottom to the top." When asked what he thought the president meant, Forrestal said, "it was devil's advocate stuff."[97]

Historians disagree on whether Vietnam would have escalated if Kennedy not been assassinated and had won re-election in 1964.[98] Fueling the debate were statements made by Secretary of Defense McNamara in the film "The Fog of War" that Kennedy was strongly considering pulling the United States out of Vietnam after the 1964 election.[99] The film also contains a tape recording of Lyndon Johnson stating that Kennedy was planning to withdraw, a position in which Johnson disagreed.[100] Kennedy had signed National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, dated October 11, which ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 military personnel by the end of the year, and the bulk of them out by 1965.[101][102] Such an action would have been a policy reversal, but Kennedy was moving in a less hawkish direction since his speech about world peace at American University on June 10, 1963.[103]

In a recorded conversation following a televised interview of September 2, 1963 with CBS News journalist Walter Cronkite, Kennedy can be heard telling the television crew after the television camera went off the air that in relation to his comments on Vietnam, "you can cut out a little of those except for the Communists."[104] He told Cronkite that the interview was "maybe just a little I don't mind if they decide to edit any of this stuff."[104] Kennedy also told Cronkite that he intended to do half-hour discussions on the matter of Vietnam on the CBS Evening News program and was willing to pay the network's TV time cost of "roughly $50,000.00 a day."[104]

At the time of Kennedy's death, no final policy decision had been made as to Vietnam.[105] In 2008, Theodore Sorensen wrote: "I would like to believe that Kennedy would have found a way to withdraw all American instructors and advisors [from Vietnam]. But... I do not believe he knew in his last weeks what he was going to do."[106] Sorensen added that, in his opinion, Vietnam "was the only foreign policy problem handed off by JFK to his successor in no better, and possibly worse, shape than it was when he inherited it."[106] U.S. involvement in the region escalated until his successor Lyndon Johnson directly deployed regular U.S. military forces for fighting the Vietnam War.[107][108] After Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson signed NSAM 273 on November 26, 1963. It reversed Kennedy's decision to withdraw 1,000 troops, and reaffirmed the policy of assistance to the South Vietnamese.[109][110]


Kennedy, his wife and Côte d'Ivoire President Félix Houphouët-Boigny with his wife at a state dinner in the White House, 1962.

Kennedy's approach to African affairs contrasted sharply with that of his predecessor, Eisenhower. Particularly, in naming young appointees to several embassies, such as William Attwood to Guinea and William P. Mahoney to Ghana, Kennedy broke with Eisenhower's pattern. Other appointees included scholar John Badeau (to Egypt), liberal Democrats with government experience Philip Kaiser, John Ferguson and James Loeb (to Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco and Guinea). The Kennedy administration believed that the British African colonies would soon achieve independence. Under Kennedy a civil rights activist Mennen Williams was tasked with management of the African affairs. According to Nigerian diplomat Samuel Ibe, "with Kennedy there were sparks"; the Prime Minister of Sudan Ibrahim Abboud, cherishing a hunting rifle Kennedy gave him, expressed the wish to go out on safari with Kennedy.[111]

It was believed that through what Kennedy team termed as "middle-class revolution" the Third World nations would grow to economic and political maturity. By the spring of 1962 in particular American aid made its way to Guinea. On his return from Washington to Conakry, Guinean leader Ahmed Sékou Touré reported to his people that he and Guinean delegation found in Kennedy "a man quite open to African problems and determined to promote the American contribution to their happy solution".[112] Touré also expressed his satisfaction about the "firmness with which the United States struggles against racial discrimination".[112]

Congo Crisis[edit]

President Kennedy with Congolese Prime Minister Cyrille Adoula in 1962

Of all of the Africa-related issues confronting Kennedy upon assuming the presidency, the Congo Crisis was the most pressing. According to White House aide Roger Hilsman, "history could have hardly devised a more baffling and frustrating test" for the administration than the situation in the Congo.[113]

The Republic of the Congo had earned its independence from Belgian colonial rule on June 30, 1960, but quickly fell into chaos five days later when the army mutinied. On July 11, the breakaway State of Katanga under Moïse Tshombe declared independence from the Congo, followed the next month by South Kasai. Both had the support of the Belgian government. On July 13 the United Nations Security Council authorized the formation of the United Nations Operation in the Congo (known as ONUC) to help restore order in the country. The Eisenhower administration hoped to reach a diplomatic solution before the Soviet Union intervened. Attempts to exert influence on Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba failed, who alternatively brought in Soviet assistance to aid in suppressing the secessionist states. Plans were drawn up by the United States government to depose Lumumba, including an assassination plot. However, on September 5 the prime minister was dismissed by Congolese President Joseph Kasa-Vubu. Lumumba contested the action, and on September 14 Colonel Joseph Mobutu launched a coup which definitively removed him from power and ordered the Soviets to leave the country.[114] On 27 November Lumumba fled the capital to form his own government in east with his deputy, Antoine Gizenga. With technical support from the United States and Belgium, Mobutu's troops managed to arrest him before he could succeed in reaching Stanleyville.[115] On 17 January 1961 discipline at the army base where Lumumba was detained faltered and he was flown to Élisabethville, Katanga. Once there, he was brutally tortured at the hands of Tshombe and subsequently executed via firing squad.[116]

Kennedy and his incoming advisers were apparently unaware of the CIA's involvement in Lumumba's death.[117] In fact, Kennedy wasn't even aware Lumumba had been killed until 13 February.[118] He had been of the opinion that Lumumba, though not to resume power, was to be released from prison.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State J. Wayne Fredericks of the Bureau of African Affairs, the Kennedy administration's leading specialist on Africa, played a major role in constructing American policy for the suppression of Katanga.[119]

On October 2, 1962 Kennedy signed United Nations bond issue bill to ensure American assistance in financing United Nations peacekeeping operations in the Congo and elsewhere. Around this time, the Kennedy Administration was making private attempts to convince Tshombe to reunite the breakaway Katanga that he led with the Congo, in advance of UN intervention.[120]

Free trade: Kennedy Round GATT talks[edit]

The Kennedy Round is a name of the fourth round of GATT talks. It was ensured in 1962, when Kennedy won congressional approval for U.S. participation in that round of GATT talks. Kennedy's negotiations were the most fruitful GATT round after 1951 and led to a considerable expansion in world trade.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Hastedt, Glenn (2004). Encyclopedia of American foreign policy. Infobase Publishing. p. 275. ISBN 0-8160-4642-5.
  2. ^ "Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy". American Rhetoric. January 20, 1961. Retrieved 2011-02-19.
  3. ^ a b Stewart Hensley (November 29, 1961). "Tass Distorts Version of Kennedy Interview". The Altus Times. Retrieved 2011-02-18.
  4. ^ Larres, Klaus; Ann Lane (2001). The Cold War: the essential readings. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 103. ISBN 0-631-20706-6.
  5. ^ The Cold War: the essential readings, p. 104
  6. ^ Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin, 1961. Penguin Group (USA). p. 247. ISBN 0-399-15729-8.
  7. ^ Goduti, Philip (2009). Kennedy's kitchen cabinet and the pursuit of peace. McFarland. p. 50. ISBN 0-7864-4020-1.
  8. ^ Rabe 1999, pp. 1–3.
  9. ^ Rabe 1999, pp. 195–199.
  10. ^ Andersen, Christopher (2014). These Few Precious Days: The Final Year of Jack with Jackie. Simon and Schuster. p. 157. ISBN 9781476732336.
  11. ^ Rabe 1999, p. 101.
  12. ^ "New York Times Chronology". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. December 18, 1961.
  13. ^ Giglio, James; Stephen G. Rabe (2003). Debating the Kennedy presidency. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 39. ISBN 0-7425-0834-X.
  14. ^ a b Kenney, Charles (2000), John F. Kennedy: The Presidential Portfolio, pp. 184–186, ISBN 1-891620-36-3
  15. ^ Brinkley, Douglas; Richard T. Griffiths (1999). John F. Kennedy and Europe. LSU Press. p. 288. ISBN 0-8071-2332-3.
  16. ^ Pagedas, Constantine (2000). Anglo-American strategic relations and the French problem, 1960-1963: a troubled partnership. Routledge. p. 184. ISBN 0-7146-5002-1.
  17. ^ a b c Siracusa, Joseph (2004). The Kennedy years. Infobase Publishing. p. 53. ISBN 0-8160-5444-4.
  18. ^ a b McElrath, Jessica (2008). The Everything John F. Kennedy Book: Relive the History, Romance, and Tragedy of Americas Camelot. Everything Books. p. 166. ISBN 1-59869-529-0.
  19. ^ John F. Kennedy and Europe, p. 324
  20. ^ Paterson, Thomas; J. Garry Clifford; Shane J. Maddock; Deborah Kisatsky; Kenneth Hagan (2009). American foreign relations: a history. Since 1895, Volume 2. Cengage Learning. p. 332. ISBN 0-547-22569-5.
  21. ^ Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin, 1961. Penguin Group (USA). pp. 478–479. ISBN 0-399-15729-8.
  22. ^ a b Anglo-American strategic relations and the French problem, 1960-1963: a troubled partnership, p. 189
  23. ^ a b Debating the Kennedy presidency, p. 27
  24. ^ John F. Kennedy: "Speech by Senator John F. Kennedy, Zionists of America Convention, Statler Hilton Hotel, New York, NY," August 26, 1960
  25. ^ Shannon, Vaughn P. (2003). Balancing Act: US Foreign Policy and the Arab–Israeli Conflict, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., p. 55
  26. ^ a b Walt, Stephen M. (1987). The Origins of Alliances, Cornell University Press, pp. 95-96
  27. ^ Druks, Herbert (2005). John F. Kennedy and Israel. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 65. ISBN 0-275-98007-3.
  28. ^ Hersh, Samson Option, pp. 110–111
  29. ^ Trachtenberg, Marc (February 8, 1999). A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963. Princeton University Press. p. 403, Appendix Eight (Chapter Nine, Note 134). Archived from the original on August 3, 2016. Retrieved November 20, 2012.
  30. ^ Hersh, Samson Option, p. 112
  31. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 3-5.
  32. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 19-20.
  33. ^ "Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs (Rountree) to Secretary of State Dulles: Recognition of New Iraqi Government". Foreign Relations of the United States 1958-1960 Volume XII, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula. 1958-07-23. Retrieved 2016-04-21. cf. "Briefing Notes by Director of Central Intelligence Dulles". Foreign Relations of the United States 1958-1960 Volume XII, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula. 1958-07-14. Retrieved 2016-04-21.
  34. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 27-28, 35.
  35. ^ Gibson 2015, p. 36.
  36. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 36-37.
  37. ^ Gibson 2015, p. 37.
  38. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 37-38.
  39. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 38-40.
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  41. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 37, 40-42.
  42. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 35, 41-43.
  43. ^ "Memorandum From Robert W. Komer of the National Security Council Staff to the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)". Foreign Relations of the United States 1961–1963, Volume XVII, Near East 1961-1962. 1961-12-29. Retrieved 2016-03-22.
  44. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 43-45.
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  46. ^ See footnote 6, "Telegram From the Embassy in Iraq to the Department of State". Foreign Relations of the United States 1961–1963, Volume XVII, Near East 1961-1962. 1962-06-02. Retrieved 2016-03-22.
  47. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 48, 51-54, 219.
  48. ^ cf. "Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Iraq". Foreign Relations of the United States 1961–1963, Volume XVIII, Near East 1962-1963. 1963-02-05. Retrieved 2016-03-22.
  49. ^ Gibson 2015, p. 45.
  50. ^ Gibson 2015, p. 200.
  51. ^ Gibson 2015, pp. 45, 53, 57-58.
  52. ^ Citino 2017, pp. 218-219.
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  58. ^ Gibson 2015, p. 66.
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  65. ^ Gibson 2015, p. 79.
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  70. ^ Reeves 1993, p. 119.
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  98. ^ Ellis, Joseph J. (2000). "Making Vietnam History". Reviews in American History. 28 (4): 625–629. doi:10.1353/rah.2000.0068.
  99. ^ Talbot, David (June 21, 2007). "Warrior For Peace". Time Magazine. Retrieved March 1, 2012.
  100. ^ Blight & Lang 2005, p. 276.
  101. ^ Bundy, McGeorge (October 11, 1963). "National Security Action Memorandum # 263". JFK Lancer. Archived from the original on August 3, 2016. Retrieved February 19, 2012.
  102. ^ Dallek 2003, p. 680.
  103. ^ "Marking the 50th Anniversary of JFK's Speech on Campus". American University. Retrieved 2 August 2016.
  104. ^ a b c
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  110. ^ "NSAM 273: South Vietnam". Archived from the original on August 3, 2016. Retrieved February 19, 2012.
  111. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur (2002). A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 559–560. ISBN 0-618-21927-7.
  112. ^ a b A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, pp. 569-570
  113. ^ Paterson 1989, p. 260
  114. ^ "The Congo, Decolonization, and the Cold War, 1960–1965". Office of the Historian. United States Department of State. Retrieved 22 January 2017.
  115. ^ Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002, p. 110
  116. ^ Gondola 2002, pp. 126–127
  117. ^ Ashton 2002, p. 116
  118. ^ Douglass 2010, p. 212
  119. ^ Gibbs 1991, p. 113
  120. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur (2007). Journals: 1952-2000. The Penguin Press. p. 181. ISBN 978-1-59420-142-4.


Further reading[edit]

  • Beschloss, Michael R. The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963 (1991)
  • Brinkley, Douglas, and Richard T. Griffiths, eds. John F. Kennedy and Europe (1999) essays by experts.
  • Angelo, Anne-Marie, and Tom Adam Davies. "'American business can assist [African] hands:' the Kennedy administration, US corporations, and the cold war struggle for Africa." The Sixties 8.2 (2015): 156-178.
  • David, Andrew, and Michael Holm. "The Kennedy Administration and the Battle over Foreign Aid: The Untold Story of the Clay Committee." Diplomacy & Statecraft 27.1 (2016): 65-92.
  • Dunne, Michael. "Kennedy's Alliance for Progress: countering revolution in Latin America. Part I: From the White House to the Charter of Punta del Este." International Affairs 89.6 (2013): 1389-1409.
    • Dunne, Michael. "Kennedy's Alliance for Progress: countering revolution in Latin America Part II: the historiographical record." International Affairs 92.2 (2016): 435-452.
  • Gioe, David, Len Scott, and Christopher Andrew, eds. An International History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2014), essays by scholars.
  • Kempe, Frederick (2011). Berlin 1961. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  • Hybel, A. US Foreign Policy Decision-making from Truman to Kennedy: Responses to International Challenges (Springer, 2016).
  • McKercher, Asa. Camelot and Canada: Canadian-American Relations in the Kennedy Era (Oxford UP, 2016).
  • Muehlenbeck, Philip Emil. Betting on the Africans: John F. Kennedy's courting of African nationalist leaders (Oxford University Press, 2012).
  • O'Brien, Michael (2005). John F. Kennedy: A Biography. Thomas Dunne. ISBN 978-0-312-28129-8.
  • Rizas, Sotiris. "Formulating a policy towards Eastern Europe on the eve of Détente: The USA, the Allies and Bridge Building, 1961–1964." Journal of Transatlantic Studies 12.1 (2014): 18-40.
  • Selverstone, Marc J. ed. A Companion to John F. Kennedy (2014) chapters 11-25 pp 207–496; a chapter on each country or region of importance
  • Selverstone, Marc J. "Eternal Flaming: The Historiography of Kennedy Foreign Policy," Passport: The Newsletter of the SHAFR (April 2015), Vol. 46 Issue 1, pp 22–29.
  • Shields, David Brandon. "Kennedy and Macmillan: Cold War Politics" ISBN 978-0761834069 (Roman & Littlefield, 2006).

External links[edit]