Never-before-seen personal documents and correspondence preserved for fifty years from my journal and collection of original Warren Commission documents. I have used these documents and my journal as a primary source in my book about the Warren Commission.

JFK, The Cold War, and Vladimir Putin

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Despite a crowded news docket, Russian aggression in the Ukraine region continues to draw the attention of the world. Under the Presidency of Soviet-throwback and former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, Russia has undertaken an expansionist mode not seen since the end of the Cold War.

Indeed, given Putin’s Soviet background, the comparisons are inevitable—and prompt the question of how President Kennedy might have handled the current situation.

Age of Soviet Expansion

Back in the early 1960s, the USSR was assertively in expansion mode. Across Asia, China, Eastern Europe, South America and the Caribbean, the Communist system of government was gaining footholds. These developments were met with concern and attempted counter-measures by the Eisenhower administration, but the global situation was becoming increasingly unfavorable.

Trip to Western States: White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico  Please credit "Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston"

JFK Trip to Western States: White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico
“Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston”

President Kennedy took it on himself to reverse this trend. According to the JFK Presidential Library, he “ordered substantial increases in American intercontinental ballistic missile forces… added five new army divisions and increased the nation’s air power and military reserves”.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The single greatest test Kennedy faced as President came when the USSR began to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, a move that would have fundamentally altered cold war strategic calculations. President Kennedy simply could not allow nuclear missles 90 miles off of the coast of Florida.

President John F. Kennedy  addresses a worried nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis

President John F. Kennedy addresses a worried nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba, and after a tense showdown with his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, the Russians removed the missiles in return for an American promise not to invade Cuba.

Foreign Engagement

When it came to fighting  outside of the American sphere of influence, JFK was more cautious about committing force. He sent a small military contingent to Vietnam, but said “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it—the people of Vietnam against the Communists.”

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Moving Forward

President Kennedy walked a line; defending our homeland, while not getting American forces entangled in extended war campaigns. Presidents Johnson and Nixon after him escalated the War in Vietnam to the extent that it became a national quagmire. This in turn helped influence Nixon and Kissenger to seek détente and arms reduction as their chief strategy to contain the Soviet threat.

In what ways is today’s global strategic balance like the Post-Vietnam era? Do you think President Obama is constrained in his options in confronting Putin’s Russia because of the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? What do you think JFK would do differently?

 

Sources:

http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/The-Cold-War.aspx

http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Vietnam.aspx

http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ukraine-crisis/russians-are-coming-putins-end-game-ukraine-n191521

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Howard Willens

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