During the Kennedy administration, ongoing tensions with the Soviet Union led to crises over Cuba and West Berlin. To contain communism and stay ahead in technology, President Kennedy created aid programs for developing nations and expanded the space program.

Containing Communism

 How were President Kennedy’s programs to combat communism different from the programs of previous administrations?

When John F. Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, the Cold War with the Soviet Union dominated all other concerns. He used a range of programs to try to stop the spread of communism. These included a conventional weaponry program to give the nation’s military more flexibility. The programs also included economic aid to Latin America and the creation of the Peace Corps to help developing nations.

A More Flexible Response

Kennedy took office at a time of growing global instability. Resentment at wealthy Western nations was on the rise in the developing world, often encouraged by the Soviet Union. Kennedy felt that Eisenhower had relied too heavily on nuclear weapons. To allow for a flexible response to resist Communist movements, the president pushed for a buildup of troops and conventional weapons. He also expanded the Special Forces, an elite army unit used in limited conflicts.

Despite his commitment to flexible response, Kennedy had warned against a "missile gap" during his campaign. Although no gap actually existed, the United States began a massive build-up of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with nuclear warheads. At the time Kennedy took office, less than 20 ICBMS were deployed by the United States, and only 50 new Minuteman missiles were planned. The Soviet Union had less than 10 ICBMs ready to fire at the United States. Nonetheless, Kennedy decided to build 1000 Minutemen ICBMs. The decision continued the arms race for the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Tensions increased as the Soviets began their own mass production of missiles, and began to look for other ways to ensure they could match the firepower of the United States.

Aid to Other Countries

Kennedy wanted to renew diplomatic focus on Latin America, where governments were often in the hands of the wealthy few and many people lived in extreme poverty. In some countries, these conditions spurred the growth of left-wing movements aimed at overthrowing their governments. In his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy said, “To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge—to convert our good words into good deeds—in a new alliance for progress. . . .”

When the United States became involved in Latin America, it was usually to help existing governments stay in power and to prevent Communist movements from flourishing. Poor Latin Americans resented this intrusion, just as they resented American corporations, whose presence was seen as a kind of imperialism.

The Alliance for Progress To improve relations between the United States and Latin America, Kennedy proposed the Alliance for Progress, a series of cooperative aid projects with Latin American governments. The Alliance was designed to create a “free and prosperous Latin America” that would be more stable and less likely to support Communist-inspired revolutions.

Over a 10-year period, the United States pledged $20 billion to help Latin American countries establish better schools, housing, health care, and fairer land distribution. The results were mixed. In some countries, the Alliance did promote real reform. In others, local rulers used the money to keep themselves in power.

The Peace Corps Another program aimed at helping developing nations fight poverty was the Peace Corps. This program sent Americans to provide humanitarian services in developing nations. After rigorous training, volunteers spent two years in countries that requested assistance. Among other projects, Peace Corps volunteers built roads, taught English, laid out sewage systems, and trained medical technicians.

The Cold War in Space

In 1961 Yury Gagarin (YUR•ee guh•GAHR•uhn), a Soviet astronaut, became the first person to orbit Earth. Again, as in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, the Soviets had beaten the United States in the space race. Kennedy worried that Soviet successes in space might convince the world that communism was better than capitalism. Less than six weeks after the Soviet flight, the president went before Congress and declared: “I believe this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon.” Kennedy’s speech set in motion a massive effort to develop the necessary technology. In 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. Six years later, the United States sent three men into orbit in a capsule called Apollo. The capsule was launched using the Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever built. The Saturn V gave both Apollo and its lunar module––which astronauts would use to land on the moon––enough velocity to reach the moon.

On July 16, 1969, a Saturn V lifted off in Florida, carrying three American astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins. On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin boarded the lunar module, named Eagle, and headed down to the moon. Minutes later, Armstrong radioed NASA’s flight center in Texas: “Houston . . . the Eagle has landed.” Armstrong became the first human being to walk on the moon. As he set foot on the lunar surface, he announced: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The United States had demonstrated its technological superiority over the Soviet Union.

In addition, the moon landing represented a potential turning point in human history. For the first time, human beings had walked on the surface of another world. Although no one has gone any further from home in the nearly 50 years that have passed since the first moon landing, the success of the mission demonstrated that human beings might one day set out to colonize other worlds.

The space program also set in motion an enormous wave of technological innovation that continues to shape the world today. The requirement for clear communications with the astronauts led to improved transmission technology, making possible the use of satellites to transmit radio, phone, and television signals. It also led to the first wireless headsets. Power requirements so far from home led to advances in battery technology and solar cell technology. Navigational concerns led to improvements in computer technology, particularly involving the use of integrated circuits to build computers that could fit in the space available.

Other inventions resulting from the space program that have improved our way of life include water filters, new types of insulation, flame resistant fabrics, the CAT scanner, memory foam for beds and chairs, and new types of rubber, now used in running shoes and hiking boots. Innovations in robotics for the space program went on to benefit manufacturers around the world and helped drive down the price of goods.

In general, the moon landing boosted the confidence of Americans and enhanced the nation’s stature abroad. If the United States could put men on the moon, what could it not do? Three years later, in the wake of the success of the Apollo missions, President Nixon approved the development of a new reusable spacecraft that would later be known as the Space Shuttle.

Crises of the Cold War


What was the most important foreign policy event of the Kennedy administration? Why was it the most important event?

President Kennedy’s efforts to combat Communist influence in other countries led to some of the most intense crises of the Cold War. At times, these crises left Americans and people in many other nations wondering whether the world would survive.

The Bay of Pigs

The first crisis occurred in Cuba, only 90 miles (145 km) from American shores. There, Fidel Castro had overthrown the corrupt Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. At once, Castro established ties with the Soviet Union, instituted drastic land reforms, and seized foreign-owned businesses, many of which were American. Cuba’s alliance with the Soviets worried many Americans. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was also expressing his hope to strengthen Cuba’s military.

Fearing that the Soviets would use Cuba as a base from which to spread revolution, President Eisenhower had authorized the CIA to secretly train and arm a group of Cuban exiles, known as La Brigada, to invade the island. His goal was to set off a popular uprising against Castro. When Kennedy became president, his advisers approved the plan. Kennedy agreed to the operation with some changes. On April 17, 1961, about 1,400 armed Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba. The invasion was a disaster. La Brigada’s boats ran aground on coral reefs. Then Kennedy canceled their air support to keep the United States’s involvement a secret. The expected popular uprising never happened. Within two days, Castro’s forces killed or captured almost all the members of La Brigada.

The Bay of Pigs was a dark moment for the Kennedy administration. The incident exposed an American plot to overthrow a neighbor’s government. The disastrous outcome made the United States look weak and disorganized.

The Berlin Wall Goes Up

In June 1961, Kennedy faced another foreign policy challenge when he met with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria. To stop Germans from leaving Communist East Germany for West Berlin, Khrushchev demanded that the Western powers recognize East Germany and withdraw from Berlin. Berlin was a city lying completely within East Germany. Kennedy refused and reaffirmed the West’s commitment to West Berlin.

Khrushchev retaliated by building a wall through Berlin, blocking movement between the Soviet sector and the rest of the city. Guards along the wall shot at people who tried to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin. The Berlin Wall stood as a symbol of Cold War divisions.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

During the summer of 1962, American intelligence learned that Soviet technicians and equipment had arrived in Cuba and that military construction was in progress. On October 22, Kennedy announced that the Soviet Union had placed long-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. This location made them a clear threat to the United States.

Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine to stop the delivery of more missiles, and demanded the existing missile sites be dismantled. He warned that if attacked, the United States would respond fully against the Soviet Union. Still, work on the missile sites continued. Nuclear warfare seemed more possible than ever.

Then, after a flurry of secret negotiations, the Soviet Union offered to remove the missiles if the United States promised not to invade Cuba. The United States also agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey near the Soviet border.

In reality, neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev wanted nuclear war. “Only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die, could do this,” wrote Khrushchev. “We . . . want to live and do not at all want to destroy your country.” On October 28, the leaders reached an agreement. The world could breathe again.

The Cuban missile crisis forced the United States and the Soviet Union to consider the consequences of nuclear war. In August 1963, the two countries agreed to a treaty that banned testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. In the long run, however, the missile crisis had consequences. Soviet leadership saw Khrushchev as having agreed to a humiliating retreat, and he fell from power in 1964. The crisis also exposed the Soviets’ military inferiority and prompted a dramatic Soviet arms buildup, which the United States matched.

Death of a President

Soon after the Senate ratified the test ban treaty, John F. Kennedy’s presidency ended shockingly and tragically. On November 22, 1963, Kennedy and his wife traveled to Texas. As the presidential motorcade rode slowly through the crowded streets of Dallas, gunfire rang out. Someone had shot the president twice. Government officials sped Kennedy to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead moments later.

Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of killing Kennedy, appeared to be a confused and embittered Marxist who had spent time in the Soviet Union. He himself was shot to death while in police custody two days after Kennedy’s assassination. The bizarre situation led some to speculate that the second gunman, local nightclub owner Jack Ruby, killed Oswald to protect others involved in the crime. In 1964 a national commission headed by Chief Justice Warren concluded that Oswald was the lone assassin. The report of the Warren Commission left some questions unanswered. Theories about a conspiracy to kill the president have persisted, though none has gained wide acceptance.

In the wake of the assassination, the United States and much of the world went into mourning. Kennedy was president for little more than 1,000 days. Yet he made a profound impression on most Americans. Kennedy’s successor, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, set out to promote many of the programs that Kennedy left unfinished.

When you are speaking, think about how the ideas connect. This is very important when explaining history. Describe the events of the Cuban Missile crisis. Choose connecting words to show cause, comparison, contrast, sequence, or other connections.

Reviewing Vocabulary

TEKS: 8A, 8D

TEKS: 2D, 28B


Using Your Notes

TEKS: 8A, 8B


Answering the Guiding Questions

TEKS: 8A, 8D



Writing Activity