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Height of the Cold War

Low-level photograph of nuclear missile construction site at San Cristobal, Cuba, 25 Oct 1962.
Low-level photograph of nuclear missile construction site at San Cristobal, Cuba, 25 Oct 1962.

The Kennedy presidency was an era of unprecedented tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Some of the major events which occurred include:

Jan 1961 - Kennedy assumes Presidency. In his Inaugural Speech, JFK notes: "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger."

Apr 1961 - Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained Cuban exiles. Invasion fails; Kennedy's decision not to provide overt U.S. aid embitters many participants.

Aug 1961 - Berlin wall erected, separating Western-controlled portion of Berlin from East Germany.

Nov 1961 - Operation Mongoose, a covert program of subversion and sabotage aimed at Cuba, is initiated. General Edward Lansdale is put in charge. General Taylor returns from trip to South Vietnam; recommends combat troops. Kennedy declines, in favor of increased advisory role for military.

Mar 1962 Joint Chiefs of U.S. military sign off on Operation Northwoods, a plan to create real and simulated terrorist attacks which can be blamed on Castro, as a pretext for invading Cuba.

Oct 1962 Satellite photos reveal Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The two superpowers go "eyeball to eyeball." U.S. institutes blockade of naval vessels. Diplomacy resolves crisis.

May 1963 8th SecDef conference on Vietnam lays out timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam.

Jun 1963 Kennedy delivers speech at American University pressing the need for co-existence with the Soviet Union.

Aug 1963 U.S., Britain, and Soviet Union sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty, banning nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in space, and under water.

Sep 1963 Kennedy pursues "second track" with Castro, exploring rapprochement through intermediaries. One of these, Jean Daniel, is with Castro on Nov 22 when news of Kennedy's death is received.

Oct 1963 NSAM 263 initiates withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, starting with 1000 men.

Nov 1963 U.S.-supported coup in South Vietnam leaves Premiere Diem dead. Kennedy assassinated in Dallas.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was arguably the height of the Cold War. Kennedy moved to defuse tensions in its aftermath, shutting down anti-Castro operations being run from U.S. soil for example, and later initiating secret contacts with Castro. His June 10 1963 speech at American University called for peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union, which was a radical notion among many cold warriors of the day:

"So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

Related Starting Points


Watch at jfklibrary.org:
Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.

Watch at jfklibrary.org:
JFK's "peace speech" at the American University, June 10, 1963.

Books of Interest

    "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964
Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali
W.W. Norton and Company, 1997
    Robert Kennedy and His Times
Arthur M. Jr. Schlesinger
Houghton Mifflin, 1978
    Khrushchev Remembers
Strobe (editor Talbott and translator)
Little, Brown and Company, 1970
    To Move A Nation
Roger Hilsman
Delta, 1967
    History Will Not Absolve Us: Orwellian Control, Public Denial, and the Murder of President Kennedy
E. Martin Schotz
Kurtz, UImer, and Delucia Book Publishers, 1996
Theodore C. Sorensen
Harper and Row, 1965
    JFK and Vietnam
John Newman
Warner Books, 1992

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