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Colonial resolve
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     John F. Kennedy
     The Cuban missile crisis
     Lyndon B. Johnson
     Vietnam and civil unrest

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John F. Kennedy: 1960-63

In the presidential election in 1960 Senator Kennedy (junior senator for Massachussetts since 1953) is the Democratic candidate. His Republican rival is Richard Nixon who for the past eight years has been vice-president to Dwight Eisenhower. Kennedy wins, but by an extraordinarily small margin in the popular vote – just two tenths of one percent (49.7% to 49.5%). A deciding factor may well have been the first televised debate in the USA between presidential contenders. It is widely agreed that Kennedy seems relaxed and confident whereas Nixon appears nervous. The likely importance of such details in debates of this kind in the future seems evident. Kennedy becomes, at the same time, both the first Catholic president and the youngest to be elected.

In his inaugural address in January his skill in the choice of a brief inspiring headline phrase is immediately evident. Urging Americans to take an active part in society he says: 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country'. In just the third month of his presidency two crises confront him. One is an embarrassing presidential fiasco in Cuba. The other is a dramatic new challenge in the space race.

The aggressively anti-west attitude and extreme left-wing policies of Cuba's leader Fidel Castro, in control of the country since 1959, are a thorn in the side of the US administration. Castro has expropriated US properties, causing numerous right-wing Cubans to flee the country and seek refuge in Florida, the nearest part of the USA, and he has developed close links with the Soviet Union, He is too close a neighbour for this to be tolerated, and in March 1960 Eisenhower has given the CIA $13 million to devise a coup against him. The scheme is ready by the time Kennedy becomes president and he gives it the go-ahead. it is for a paramilitary group of 1500 Cuban refugees, trained by the CiA, to land in the Bay of Pigs on Cuba's south coast.

The invasion force arrives during the night of April 16 and rapidly overwhelms a local militia. They have support ships and planes hired by the CIA and displaying no national identity, but in spite of this the brigade of exiles soon has to surrender after an onslaught by tanks, artillery and troops of the Cuban army. About 1200 of them are taken prisoner. Some are executed but the majority are used as bargaining pawns. In March 1962 they are convicted of treason and sentenced to thirty years in prison. In December of that year an agreement Is reached; 1113 prisoners will be returned to the USA in return for $53 milion in food and medicine.

This fiasco is highly embarrassing for Kennedy's young administration, but the other major event in April 1961 gives him an opportunity which he makes the most of in the developing space race between the two superpowers.

One of the most dramatic and unexpected events in Eisenhower's presidency has been the launch of the Russian spacecraft Sputnik into orbit round the earth on 4 October 1957 – the first space satellite. The world is astonished by this great technical achievement by the USSR and it prompts a rapid response in the USA. Eisenhower speeds up the nation's somewhat lethargic space programme and creates NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) as a new agency to run it.

Two more shocks follow soon after. In 1957 the Soviet dog Laika becomes the first animal in space; and on 12 April 1961, by now within Kennedy's administration, Yuri Gagarin follows as the first human in space, completing a single orbit in his spacecraft Vostok 1 and, perhaps even more impressively, returning safely to earth.

Clearly the US space programme needs a newsworthy achievement if the country's superpower reputation Is not to suffer, and Kennedy's solution could hardly be more bold. He tells a Joint Session of Congress, just six weeks after Gagarin's success, that he is setting a new challenge for NASA – to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade, just eight and a half years away. He glorifies the ambition by admitting the scale of the challenge: 'No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult to accomplish.' He does not live to see the result of his bold challenge to the nation. It is achieved when Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon on 20 July 1969, with just four months to go before the end of the decade.


The Cuban missile crisis: 1962

Challenges are coming unusually fast in what will be an unusually short presidency. The next is by far the most alarming in the short term, indeed probably the most alarming for any US president since the Second World War. It is a significant moment in the dangerous arms race between the USA and USSR, each striving to achieve a nuclear advantage over the other or at least restore equality.

In the early 1960s the USA has installed nuclear weapons in Turkey aimed at Moscow, but the USSR at the time only has the ability to launch a nuclear attack against anywhere in Europe. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sees a solution to this problem; he can match the American advantage if he has nuclear weapons in Communist Cuba. The stated purpose, a year after the Bay of Pigs, will be to deter any repeated US attempt to invade Cuba. Construction work begins and is soon evident to the Kennedy administration in photographs taken by a U-2 spy plane, constantly monitoring developments on the ground from a very high altitude. The photographs are shown to Kennedy on October 15. He decides on a blockade of Cuba by US ships and planes and demands that the Russians dismantle all the sites being constructed and return any nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union. Khrushchev replies that the blockade is an act of aggression and one likely to 'propel humanity into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war'. The alarm, from a public point of view, is that Soviet ships are already approaching Cuba. Kennedy orders that if they try and break through the blockade the navy is to fire warning shots and then open fire.

However, behind the scenes, negotiations are under way. The eventual solution will be part public and part secret. The public will know that the USSR has agreed to dismantle the Cuban sites and return any weapons to Russia, both actions being verified by the United Nations, and that in return the USA will guarantee never to invade Cuba. What the public does not know is that the USA also guarantees to dismantle and remove the nuclear weapons installed in Turkey.

The agreement is signed on October 28. It has very nearly been derailed at the last moment by a sudden act of aggression by the USSR on October 27, when a U-2 plane is shot down. Kennedy decides not to react.



Lyndon B. Johnson: 1963-69

Johnson begins his unexpected presidency with plans for a range of social and welfare measures that are exceptional in the fiercely individualistic American political scene where welfare has often been regarded as not the business of the state. He groups them under the title the Great Society Programme, and the speed with which he accomplishes most of them is extraordinary. Two of his first legislative achievements are economic, part of a War on Poverty declared by him in his 1964 State of the Union Address. Both develop projects initiated by President Kennedy. The Revenue Act reduces taxes and the Equal Opportunity Act authorizes the creation round the country of Community Action Agencies, controlled by the federal government and tasked with reducing poverty. A third major achievement in 1964, also deriving from Kennedy's time, is the Civil Rights Act.

But it is in the next year that Johnson has a truly astonishing range of achievements. In this he is greatly helped by his overwhelming victory over the ultra-conservative Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, in the presidential election of 1964. He wins 61% of the popular vote and carries 46 of the country's 50 states. Equally important is the large swing in votes for the House of Representatives and the Senate, giving the Democrats a two-thirds majority in each. With the freedom that this gives a president from the same party, Johnson is able to sign in 1965 legislation on many of the Great Society themes.

The numerous Acts dating from that year share one primary purpose, to help the poor in society in essential areas of life – education, medical aid and household income. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act allocates for the first time large amounts of federal money to the nations' public schools. The Higher Education Act provides support for poorer students in postsecondary and university education. In medicine two very important schemes are launched, both still in use today. Medicare is a national programme guaranteeing medical insurance to Americans aged sixty-five or more and to younger people with disabilities. Medicaid, by contrast, is means-tested rather than age-related. It supports people of any age who are unable to pay for commercial health care. In addition there is support provided in the field of culture. The National Endowment for the Humanities gives grants to institutions such as museums and libraries, colleges and universities, television and radio stations.

Every one of these Acts is still, in revised and updated form, in use today. It is an impressive record for a single presidential year. During Johnson's presidency the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line falls by almost half, from 23% to 12%.


Vietnam and civil unrest: 1964-68

Johnson is a passionate believer in the domino theory and the need to contain the expansionist efforts of Soviet Communism anywhere in the globe. The obvious region of maximum danger at this time is Vietnam, and he inherits a major increase in US involvement during the early 1960s. The growing commitment of American military personnel in the region is largely unseen because all of them are acting in advisory roles. But the increase in the number seconded there during Kennedy's presidency has been startling – from 900 inherited from Eisenhower's administration in 1961 to 15,000 when Johnson becomes president in 1963.

Two mysterious incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 lead to Johnson having increased power to take action in Vietnam. They are mysterious in the sense that subsequent government investigations have discovered that the reality at sea was rather different from what the Johnson administration puts out. The story at the time is that three north Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the US destroyer Maddox on 2 August 1964, but it turns out that the Maddox seems to have fired first. A second intended attack, this time on two US destroyers, seemed to have been identified on August 4, and it was claimed at first that they had sunk two torpedo boats. But one of the captains soon suggests that there were no north Vietnamese boats anywhere near the US ships that day, and that they were probably firing at non-existent targets wrongly identified from radar signals.

President Johnson is unaware of this when he makes a speech to the American people about the incidents and asks Congress to reply with a military response. Congress grants him the Southeast Asia Resolution, giving him the power to conduct military operations in the region without the need for a declaration of war, which would normally be required from Congress.

This gives him an entirely free hand. He uses it to escalate the conflict in Vietnam. The first US combat troops arrive in March 1965, By the end of 1968 there are 550,000 US troops in Vietnam. In that year and the previous one they are being killed at the rate of about 1000 a month. The Vietnam War has begun in earnest.

From 1966 Lyndon Johnson's previously very high rating with the public declines steadily. One reason is the nation's increasing dislike for the Vietnam War. The other is a mounting number of urban riots during long hot summers, with extensive looting and arson and violent clashes with the police. Two of the first riots, attracting a lot of coverage, are in Harlem in 1964 and in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965. Far more violent than either are the riots in Newark, New Jersey, and in Detroit, both in 1967. In Newark the riots last six days, leaving the city devastated by fire with 26 dead and about 1500 injured. Detroit is even more dramatic. Troops sent in by the governor of Michigan fail to stop the violence, which is not ended until President Johnson sends federal troops with machine guns and tanks. In the following year there is rioting nation-wide in more than a hundred cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

By this time President Johnson is a spent force. He declares in March 1968 that he will not seek re-election. He knows how low his stock is with the electorate and it may be that he fears his health may not see him through another four-year term. If so, his fear was uncannily close to what happens– even without the pressures of office, he dies in 1973 just two days after his term would have ended.


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