Study Guide

Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis to Detente People

  • Lyndon B. Johnson

    Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) was the 36th President of the United States, assuming the office after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Prior to serving as Kennedy's vice president, Johnson had long represented Texas in the United States Senate.

    Johnson inherited Kennedy's foreign policy and most of his advisers. Believing he was carrying out Kennedy's legacy, Johnson massively escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War.

  • John F. Kennedy

    John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) was the 35th President of the United States. Elected in 1960 at the age of 43, he became the youngest person ever to be voted into the White House. Kennedy served from 1961 until his assassination in November 1963. To this day, many Americans remember Kennedy as an idealistic champion of freedom at home and abroad, despite the fact that his policies on civil rights, Vietnam, and Cuba sometimes failed to live up to his soaring rhetoric.

    In the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy positioned himself to the right of the Republican Eisenhower Administration by promising to close the "missile gap," the supposed Soviet superiority in long-range nuclear missiles. In reality, though, Kennedy's "missile gap" charges were false. the U.S. always had many times more intercontinental ballistic missiles than the Soviets. 

    Still, Kennedy's promises of a strong and aggressive Cold War posture appealed to voters, who narrowly elected him over vice president Richard Nixon. Kennedy's reputation as a strong Cold Warrior soon ran aground in Cuba, where he was humiliated in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and where the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis nearly led to nuclear holocaust. Spooked by the near-disaster of the Missile Crisis, Kennedy subsequently pursued more moderate policies with regard to the Soviet Union.

    For more on JFK, head over to his profile in the Historical Texts learning guide for his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

  • Henry Kissinger

    Henry Kissinger (1923–) was the powerful National Security Advisor to president Richard Nixon and then became Secretary of State during Nixon's second term. Kissinger was among the most powerful presidential advisers in American history, shaping nearly all foreign policy decisions made under Nixon's tenure.

    Kissinger's strategy for policymaking tended to rely on setting up meetings through back channels, fitting with Nixon's preference for secrecy.

    A crafty and even Machiavellian master of diplomacy, Kissinger paved the way for Nixon to visit China by making an earlier trip there himself. He also helped to negotiate peace in the Middle East following the Yom Kippur War.

  • Robert S. McNamara

    Robert McNamara (1916–2009) was an American business executive, statesman, and diplomat. In 1960, he left his seat as president of the Ford Motor Company to accept an invitation from President Kennedy to become U.S. Secretary of Defense. 

    A key adviser to the president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara is most famous—or infamous—today as the prime architect of the disastrous American intervention in the Vietnam War.

    In the early 1960s, McNamara developed the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction, which held that in a world in which both the U.S. and USSR possessed enough nuclear weapons to wipe each other off the map, both sides' fears of nuclear retaliation would prevent either from ever using the weapons for aggressive purposes. So, nuclear weapons were the best deterrent against nuclear war. 

    Although critics decried McNamara's nuclear "balance of terror" policy as mad (MAD, conveniently, was the acronym for Mutual Assured Destruction), McNamara believed his policy would help maintain a stable nuclear world.

  • Richard M. Nixon

    Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) was a Republican senator from California and the 37th President of the United States. Prior to his presidency, he also served as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president from 1953 to 1961. 

    Ultimately, his presidency ended in disgrace, with Nixon's 1974 resignation in the midst of the Watergate scandal.

    Nixon built his early political career almost entirely around the issue of anticommunism. He rode his reputation as an aggressive foe of communism at home and abroad to the U.S. Senate and the vice presidency. As president, however, Nixon changed course. With the aid of his National Security Advisor and later, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon moderated his strong anticommunist views, surprising the world by pursuing détente with the Soviet Union and opening diplomatic relations with Red China.