JFK’s Foreign Policy Legacy Offers Lessons For President-Elect Biden

JFK's Foreign Policy

President John F. Kennedy showed a keen interest in foreign policy during his undergraduate time at Harvard. His thesis analyzed Britain’s failure to sustain a military force of similar standing to the Germans in the run-in to WWII.

Kennedy traveled through Europe during his father Joseph’s years as ambassador to Great Britain. He reported on the unfolding political situations he witnessed. President John F. Kennedy studied business during a brief spell at Stanford. He also took courses in international relations and politics. He grasped the importance of foreign policy in general, and anti-communism in particular, for any politician of the time.

Foreign Policy Counts

In 1951, Kennedy delivered a campaign speech in his run for a State Senate seat in Massachusetts.

In this speech, he expounded on the impact of foreign policy on all aspects of daily, stating that factors from expenditure and taxation to domestic prosperity and the social sciences hinged on the war and peace.


The Cold War was the backdrop of JFK’s foreign policy and political career. During his presidency, he witnessed some of the most heated moments of the time

Communism loomed on all fronts. He fought against the threat in third world nations through the Peace Corps.

Vowing to beat the Russians in putting a man on the moon, Kennedy also oversaw the largest accumulation of arms during peace time.

The Bay of Pigs

Kennedy was soon confronted with the first serious foreign policy incident of his tenure. Just weeks after taking office, he learned of a covert CIA plan to overthrow Fidel Castro using an army composed of Cuban exiles. The Cubans were due to land at south Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.

On April 17, 1961, the brigade of exiles arrived as planned in an attempt to excise the first Communist regime in the western hemisphere.

Three days later, with 1198 exiles captured and 114 killed, CIA officers listened to the rebel over the radio informing them he had nothing left and was heading to the woods.

President Kennedy accepted responsibility for the Bay of Pigs incident at a press conference on April 21, even though he privately complained about doing nothing other than acting on the advice he received from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA.


Shortly after this baptism of fire, Kennedy deployed hundreds of Special Forces troops to Vietnam. They were to train and guide local soldiers in the south against the Communist North.

This was the start of an influx of more than 15,000 American troops into Vietnam over the following two years.

U.S. involvement in South East Asia was Kennedy’s most enduring legacy as far as foreign policy goes. At the time, though, few Americans grasped the depth of the task that lie ahead.

The Berlin Wall

Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Premier, in Vienna in 1961. He hoped they would arrive at a way of staving off simmering confrontation.

Khrushchev wanted to stem the tide of refugees from Communism in Germany. He claimed that if Kennedy stepped in, war would follow.

There was no resolution by the end of this summit.

Kennedy showed started ramping up the size of U.S. forces in response. He also obtained billions of dollars in funding for both conventional and nuclear weapons.

The Russians constructed the Berlin Wall that summer which Kennedy stated was “better than a war.”

Cuban Missile Crisis

Kennedy’s foreign policy success was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. This was the closest we have been to nuclear war, a situation averted by Kennedy.

JFK Foreign Policy: Cuban Missile Crisis

American pilots took photographs showing that the Soviets were installing missile bases in Cuba counter to the promises of Khrushchev that he was not arming the Cubans with these weapons.

In response, Kennedy formed Ex Comm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) with former cabinet members and advisers.

This committee found no evidence of nuclear warheads for missile on the island. Subsequent documents declassified by the Soviets shows that there were indeed 134 nuclear warheads accounted for in Cuba.

The Cuba Blockade

Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22. This was the first time that the Soviets realized they had been noticed in Cuba.

In his speech, Kennedy outlined the fact that he conceived of no other purpose for the missile sites than providing the ability for a nuclear strike against the west.

The President then announced a blockade against Cuba, declaring that any attack stemming from Cuba would be interpreted as a Soviet attack demanding a response in kind. Stepping up military readiness, Kennedy requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

Russia’s Attitude

Adlai Stevenson, the UN’s U.S. Ambassador, offered undeniable proof of these missile installations the following day in the form of photographs. The Soviet representative still denied these charges.

Stevenson’s presentation started shifting world opinion in favor of the U.S. Later that night Kennedy contacted Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador. Through this connection, he forged a channel of communication with Premier Khrushchev.

As the world edged ever nearer to war, Soviet ships came up to the blockade and then slowed down before turning back.

A few days later, the shooting down of a reconnaissance plane prompted the call for American military action, but President Kennedy would not sanction an invasion.

Russians Climb Down

On October 28, Khrushchev conceded that he would remove these missiles on condition that the U.S. did not invade Cuba.

While Kennedy made private assurances he would remove U.S. missiles from Turkey, he stopped short of declaring this in public. Fidel Castro wasn’t consulted by Khrushchev. He delivered a speech days later at the University of Havana accusing the Soviet premier of lacking “cojones”.

Foreign Policy Win

In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s stock rose. Less than 2 years after the botched invasion of Cuba, the missile crisis showcased Kennedy’s bravado and diplomatic know-how.

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