It has been 60 years since United States President John Kennedy (JFK) was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. He had been campaigning for re-election, but what was his administration’s foreign policy like, and was the foreign policy of Lyndon Johnson, his successor, any different?

On 20 January 1961, Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States of America (US). His inauguration was amid the Cold War; the Berlin Wall would be built later that year. Tensions between the West and the East were rising high, while the American interference in Vietnam was entering its sixth year

Relations regarding Europe

In August 1961, 7 months after the inauguration of Kennedy, the Soviets started with the construction of the Berlin Wall. Kennedy reacted alarmed and, among others, sent his vice-president Johnson to Berlin. In an attempt to showcase military strength, US troops crossed into East German territory and paraded into Berlin. However, at the same time, Kennedy was not surprised by the Soviets’ actions. He had mentioned to Khrushchev a few months before the building of the Berlin Wall that he could live with a border closure in Berlin if West Berlin’s access and freedom were not constrained. Kennedy felt he could not defend East Berliner’s freedom and decided to focus more on stability in Europe, which the brain-drain from East Berlin was undermining. However, as Frederick Kempe writes for the Atlantic Council, Kennedy’s remarks to Khrushchev only encouraged the Soviet leader to show off more. In June 1963, Kennedy visited the city and reassured its residents that the Americans would stand with them with the famous words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.  

Cuban missile crisis

JFK’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, calculated that if either the East or the West fired the nuclear weapons it had accumulated until then, such a strike would annihilate all humans in the northern hemisphere. Therefore, the world looked with great tension at how Kennedy would handle the Cuban crisis of 1962. Soviet Union’s ruler, Nikita Khrushchev, had made it clear that he would only place defensive weapons on Cuba, a communist country territorially close to the US. However, this was not the case. In October 1962, a reconnaissance flight over Cuba had managed to photograph Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles. Kennedy was now dealing with a complicated political situation, and his reaction could decide the future of humanity. Kennedy did not want to go to war with the Soviets, as he believed the consequences of such a move would be disastrous. The installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba could be interpreted as a preparational move for a showdown in Berlin. As previously stated, the US had promised to protect West Berlin from the Soviets, and thus, JFK could not show weakness regarding Cuba as that could empower Khrushchev to attack West Berlin. Kennedy ultimately decided to ‘quarantine’ Cuba by surrounding it with naval ships to prevent the Soviet Union from bringing any more armaments to the island. According to the JFK Library, he further demanded the removal of the already stationed missiles and the destruction of the sites. To avert the world from nuclear disaster, Kennedy agreed to Khrushchev’s demand to remove US missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. It is possible to deduct from this that Kennedy was able and willing to pose as a strong leader against the Soviet Union, but he was aware that a direct confrontation between the two superpowers would lead to a nuclear disaster. This ‘strong but danger-aware leadership’ can be seen in Kennedy’s handling when the Soviets shot down an American pilot during the Cuban crisis. Kennedy had previously made it clear in his radio and television address to the US public on the Soviet arms build-up in Cuba that he did not want to abandon diplomacy. Abandoning diplomacy at the time that the Soviets shot down an American aeroplane could have led to an all-out nuclear war, but since Kennedy did not react to the Soviets’ action as it was a ‘first strike’, nuclear war did not happen. 

Relations with Vietnam

During his presidency, JFK launched Operation Beef Up to help South Vietnam fight the communists. During his candidacy, he promised to prevent the spread of communism in places like Vietnam. With Operation Beef Up, which increased supplies to the Vietnamese military, there was a call for an increase in American operational participation in the war. Nonetheless, the year 1963 did not bring any significant changes in the situation. South Vietnam kept plunging into political chaos, with JFK cutting off aid that the USA was providing after it became clear that President Diem stood at the head of a corrupt government. The chaos culminated in the assassination of President Diem just 20 days before the assassination of JFK.

Vietnam War

President Kennedy died shortly after noon on 22 November 1963, and Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president at 2:38 pm the same day. Johnson’s presidency lasted from 1963 until 1969 and with regard to foreign policy, was mostly marked by increased American presence in the Vietnam war.

Just like Kennedy, Johnson was committed to keeping South Vietnam independent and out of communists’ hands. At the start of his time in office, Johnson affirmed the commitments of Kennedy’s administration. Just a day after Kennedy’s funeral, Johnson passed a national security memorandum directing the US government to assist the people and government of South Vietnam in their battle against communism. However, the counterinsurgency was failing, and not even two months later, Johnson approved the call for stepped-up infiltration and covert operations against the North being transmitted from the CIA to the military. In the first year of Johnson’s presidency, the situation around the Vietnam conflict escalated quickly, and by June of 1965, there were 184,000 American troops in Vietnam. Johnson had gotten the support of Congress to take all necessary measures needed to prevent further aggression against the US after two US warships were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin the previous year. Johnson later used the Congress’ declaration as the functional equivalent of a declaration of war. By the end of Johnson’s presidency, the US was fighting a war against North Vietnam with 535,000 troops deployed in the country. More and more people inside the US began to oppose the war. On 15 April 1967, more than 100,000 people demonstrated against the Vietnam War by marching through New York City and holding a rally at the United Nations. Johnson’s involvement in the Vietnam War would leave a mark on his presidency and made him decline to run for another term in office.

Relations with the Soviet Union

After the world came to the brink of a nuclear war, Kennedy and Khrushchev established the so-called ‘hotline’, which would make it easier for the two countries to communicate with each other when tensions started rising again. The hotline was used by Johnson and Brezhnev, the then-leader of the Soviet Union, in 1967 to reassure each other that the two countries would not participate in the Six-Day War between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Johnson followed in Kennedy’s footsteps after the Cuban missile crisis and remained on relatively stable terms with the Soviet Union. As an example of this relatively stable relationship, Johnson’s 1965 invitation for the new Soviet leader to visit the United States can be taken. The ‘controlled freeze’ in relationships between the US and the Soviet Union after a US strike on Hanoi, while a Russian official was visiting the city, can also be seen in the light of these relatively stable terms as the US embassy observed that the Soviets were still willing to make exceptions for initiatives they considered mostly favourable for them. 

Comparison of the administrations

Although both Kennedy and Johnson were Democrats, some differences existed between the US foreign relations under their presidency. It must be noted that those changes should be viewed in a bigger context of the time they occurred and not just as a result of a change in administration. Still, it is roughly possible to say that deducting from Kennedy’s handling of the situation around the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis, he wanted stability in Europe while still showcasing to the Soviet Union that the US was a military superpower. However, Kennedy was cautious in how far he would let things escalate to prevent a nuclear war. Having witnessed the heat around the Cuban missile crisis as a vice-president, Johnson carried on with the desire to showcase power but not let things escalate. There was, thus, not much difference regarding relations with the Soviets between Kennedy’s administration after the Cuban missile crisis and Johnson’s administration. 

Regarding the handling of the Vietnam War, there was a significant difference between Kennedy’s and Johnson’s handling of the situation. Both believed in the domino theory that if one country in South Asia fell prey to communism, others would, too. The difference was that Kennedy was more hesitant about direct US involvement in Vietnam. He provided the Vietnamese military with supplies but cut aid off after it emerged that the president of South Vietnam was the head of a corrupt government. Johnson, on the other hand, directly put hundreds of thousands of US troops on the ground in Vietnam during his presidency and was not willing to back down even though inside the US, there were more and more opposers of US involvement in the war. 

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