John F. Kennedy
In the spring of 1960, almost a year before Jack was sworn into office, President Eisenhower approved a CIA plan to secretly train anticommunist Cuban exiles to launch an invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro's government in Cuba. A mere two days after his inauguration, JFK was briefed on the plan. The CIA was anxious to take swift action in Cuba, fearing the rise of a dangerous communist regime only ninety miles from American soil, and urged Jack to authorize an invasion. Kennedy was ambivalent: while a successful invasion would topple Castro's anti-American government, a failed mission could be disastrous for Kennedy's image, both at home and abroad. After the CIA assured Jack that the "invasion force could be expected to achieve success," and that the United States would be only minimally implicated in the operation, Jack authorized the plans to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.21 The mission was set to commence on 15 April 1961 with a military strike against Cuban airfields. Unfortunately for Kennedy, news of the impending invasion—as well as the United States' involvement in organizing the operation—was leaked in several American newspapers. On 12 April, Kennedy lied when publicly denying claims that the United States was planning or supporting an invasion of Cuba, but the damage was done: details of the plan had been exposed and Kennedy's administration was heavily implicated.
The newspaper leak was only the first in a series of missteps, miscalculations, and unlucky developments that plagued the Bay of Pigs invasion from the beginning. For starters, the air strike on 15 April was a failure (only five of Castro's 36 planes were destroyed), leaving the invasion force totally exposed to Cuban air attack.22 When the 1,400 Cuban exiles began their amphibious invasion on 17 April, they were met on the beach by a strong, highly organized Cuban army. Though the CIA had anticipated a relatively easy overthrow of the Cuban government, the reality of the situation was starkly different. Jack and his advisers in Washington soon lost hope and by 18 April, the mission had clearly failed.
In the end, 1,200 Cuban exiles were captured (and remained in captivity for 20 months) and 100 were killed.23 The Bay of Pigs disaster was an embarrassment for the new president, and arguably, the lowest point in Jack's political career. Jackie noted that on 19 April, Jack was "upset all day and had practically been in tears"—never before had she seen him so depressed.24 Kennedy's support of the Bay of Pigs invasion ran contrary to the idealistic rhetoric of his campaign, and his middle-of-the-road approach (agreeing to support the invasion, but doing so under a veil of secrecy) disappointed politicians on both ends of the political spectrum. More than anything, Jack felt that the bungled mission in Cuba confirmed the belief—held by his detractors—that he was too young and inexperienced to handle complex foreign policy issues. Throughout the remainder of his presidency, Jack was haunted by the mistakes made in the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Strangely enough, however, Kennedy continued to demonstrate the same kind of political ambivalence in future Cold War conflicts. In Laos, he refused to send in American troops, instead supporting a cease-fire that failed to quell the Communist insurgency. In Vietnam, he was again reluctant to fully commit U.S. troops, but refused to stay out of the situation entirely. As with the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy took the middle road, sending a contingent of military advisers to the region and hoping that this minimal intervention would yield positive results. Unfortunately, JFK's indecisiveness only made things worse; the deployment of American military advisers in Vietnam entangled the United States in a deadly conflict that would ultimately last for more than a decade. When Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded Kennedy as president, he inherited a seemingly no-win situation in Vietnam.
Two months after the Bay of Pigs, Jack had regained confidence and was set to meet in Vienna with Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union. Looking to prove himself as a formidable world leader, Jack planned to speak with Khrushchev, a man known for his frankness and imposing demeanor, about improving Soviet-American relations. The Vienna Summit convened on 3 June 1961; the meeting would later stand as a defining—but not necessarily shining—moment in Kennedy's presidency. Khrushchev was quick to criticize American foreign policy, championing communist revolution in Southeast Asia and characterizing the United States as an oppressive force in world politics. Jack, outmaneuvered by the Soviet ruler's sharp tongue, had difficulty articulating the message he had come to deliver. That night, Jack was furious both with Khrushchev ("he treated me like a little boy") and with himself.25 Kennedy and Khrushchev met again the next day, and although Jack was able to hold his own better this time, the two-day conference had drawn into question Jack's perceived leadership, both domestically and internationally. Upon his return to the United States, Jack sought to restore his image as a foreign policy leader. In August of 1961, Kennedy proposed a nearly $10 billion increase for the national defense budget and the addition of 200,000 military personnel to the U.S. Armed Forces.26 Kennedy's hawkish proposal was a political success; Americans rallied behind the president's decisive anticommunist actions and seemed to forget his ill-fated meeting with Khrushchev.
JFK's progressive domestic programs also helped to buffer the negative effects of his initial Cold War errors. Early in his presidency, Kennedy established the Peace Corps, an organization that sent young Americans to third-world countries in an effort to promote development and spread a message of understanding throughout the international community. The Corps was an immediate success, particularly among young people eager to heed Jack's inaugural call to "ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy also demonstrated his forward thinking in a 1961 address to Congress in which he proposed increased spending for space exploration. Following the Soviet Union's successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's orbit of the earth in 1961, Kennedy felt great pressure to compete with the Russians in exploring space, the final frontier. He believed that a successful space program—most importantly, a program that would allow the United States to become the first country to put a man on the moon—would increase America's power and prestige in the world (he was right, by the way).