On this day, exactly 50 years ago, the world was in shock by the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. In the Netherlands, President Kennedy is probably best remembered for his quote from his inauguration speech: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ This call for Americans to become active citizens also appealed to people around the world and has become one of the most iconic and famous quotes in world political history. Today, as the United States pauses to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of its 35th President, we will take the opportunity to reflect on some of the most important political events and accomplishments that marked the foreign policy of his presidency.
Three months after coming in to office, President Kennedy was faced with the first major dilemma, the Bay of Pigs catastrophe, a military operation to invade Cuba. After Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, he increasingly grew antagonistic towards American interests. The US government authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to come up with ways to remove Castro. The plan for the invasion of Cuba was approved and green-lighted by President Kennedy’s predecessor President Eisenhower. The execution of the operation was left to the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy did make adjustments to the initial plan and limited the number of aircrafts involved the operation as well as changing the landing zone. The invasion was carried out by 1400 anti- Castro-insurgents who were trained in Guatemala by the CIA. On April 17th, 1961, the 'Cuban Expeditionay Force or the 2506 brigade as they were called, landed with much difficulty on Cuban territory.
For two days, the Cubans fought the invaders to a standstill. The Cubans were not as well trained or armed, but they had the numbers, supplies and motivation that comes from defending their country. On April 19, the invaders surrendered. Initial American air support was ineffective and President Kennedy refused to send more planes, due in part to his fear that such heavy-handed action would be matched by a Soviet move on West-Berlin. Even though the plan had many weaknesses, the CIA believed that Kennedy would approve additional support in case the invasion went awry. President Kennedy was heavily criticized by many for withholding air support, but experts have questioned whether such actions would have altered the outcome of the Bay of Pigs invasion. President Kennedy took full responsibility for the failed assault which damaged his credibility. The Bay of Pigs invasion increased tensions in US-Soviet relations and led to the Soviets believe that President Kennedy was a weak leader. As a result, the Soviets became convinced that they could attempt to place missiles in Cuba and get away with it. About a year and half later, when the United States found out about the missiles in Cuba, President Kennedy, after days of deliberations with his top-advisors, decided to place a naval blockade, or a ring of ships, around Cuba. This ‘quarantine as Kennedy called it, was to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies to the island. President Kennedy demanded a removal of the missiles already there and a destruction of the sites. After 13 days, the Soviets eventually did remove the missiles from Cuba and the world moved back from the brink of nuclear war. The missile crisis had come to an end but the Soviets expanded the building of their military arsenal which meant that the arms race, unfortunately, was still going strong.
It is said, that President Kennedy’s most enduring legacy is the establishment of the Peace Corps. Through the Peace Corps, President Kennedy sought to encourage mutual understanding between Americans and people from different countries and cultures. He believed that the Peace Corps could serve an a unique instrument and weapon in the war against communism. By improving the quality of life in less developed countries, the people of these nations would become more resistant to communism and convinced of America’s sincerity and ability to help them. Today the Peace Corps is no longer considered a weapon against communism. It has proved to valuable organization for the United States. It has outlived the Cold War and continues to send participants to different nations.
In 1963, there were clear signs that tensions between the US and Soviet Union were lessening. In a commencement speech given to students at American University, President Kennedy urged Americans to reexamine Cold War stereotypes and called for a strategy of peace that would make the world safe for diversity.
Here are some excerpts from his speech:
First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings." […]
‘Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles—which can only destroy and never create—is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.’ […]
‘ We shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we must labor on—not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace."[...]
Fifty years after President Kennedy’s passing, these words still ring true for our world of today. His assassination , a violent act carried out in broad daylight, was still uncommon at the time and sent shockwaves throughout the world. As President Kennedy is commemorated in many different cities in the United States, it is clear that his memory has not disappeared from political life and his legacy still continues to inspire many people around the world.
1. Renouard, J., 'The Routledge handbook of American military and diplomatic history', 1865 to the present, Routledge NY : NY, 2013.
2. Kaiser, D., 'The road to Dallas : the assassination of John F. Kennedy', Cambridge : Mass, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
JFK Presidential Library & Museum: http://www.jfklibrary.org/
JFK 50: http://www.jfk50.org/
Peace Corps: http://www.peacecorps.gov/
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Renouard, J., 'Eisenhower, Kennedy and the CIA : Guatemala and the Bay of Pigs' in The Routledge handbook of American military and diplomatic history, 1865 to the present, New York, NY Routledge, 2013.
- Scott, L., The Cuban missile crisis and the threat of nuclear war : lessons from history, London: Continuum, 2007.