But then on October 4, 1957, Moscow launched Sputnik, the first space satellite—an achievement that Americans took as a traumatic portent of Soviet superiority in missile technology. Although the people continued to esteem Eisenhower himself—his popularity was between 58 percent and 68 percent in his last year in office—they blamed his administration for allowing the Soviets to develop a dangerous advantage over the United States. (Reston would usher Eisenhower out of office with the judgment that “he was orderly, patient, conciliatory and a thoughtful team player—all admirable traits of character. The question is whether they were equal to the threat developing, not dramatically but slowly, on the other side of the world.”) Thus a so-called “missile gap” became a major issue in the 1960 campaign: Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, charged Vice President Richard M. Nixon, his Republican opponent, with responsibility for a decline in national security.
Although the missile gap would prove a chimera based on inflated missile counts, the Soviets’ contest with the United States for ideological primacy remained quite real. Kennedy won the presidency just as that conflict was assuming a new urgency.
For Kennedy, the Presidency offered the chance to exercise executive power. After serving three terms as a congressman, he said, “We were just worms in the House—nobody paid much attention to us nationally.” His seven years in the Senate didn’t suit him much better. When he explained in a 1960 tape recording why he was running for president, he described a senator’s life as less satisfying than that of a chief executive, who could nullify a legislator’s hard-fought and possibly long-term initiative with a stroke of the pen. Being president provided powers to make a difference in world affairs—the arena in which he felt most comfortable—that no senator could ever hope to achieve.
Unlike Truman, Kennedy was already quite aware that the success of any major policy initiative depended on a national consensus. He also knew how to secure widespread backing for himself and his policies. His four prime-time campaign debates against Nixon had heralded the rise of television as a force in politics; as president, Kennedy held live televised press conferences, which the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was a special assistant in the Kennedy White House, would recall as “a superb show, always gay, often exciting, relished by the reporters and by the television audience.” Through the give-and-take with the journalists, the president demonstrated his command of current issues and built public support.
Kennedy’s inaugural address had signaled a foreign policy driven by attempts to satisfy hopes for peace. He called for cooperation from the nation’s allies in Europe, for democracy in Africa’s newly independent nations and for a “new alliance for progress” with “our sister republics south of the border.” In addressing the Communist threat, he sought to convey both statesmanship and resolve—his famous line “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” came only after he had warned the Soviets and their recently declared allies in Cuba “that this hemisphere intends to remain master of its own house.”
Less than two months into his term, Kennedy announced two programs that gave substance to his rhetoric: the Alliance for Progress, which would encourage economic cooperation between North and South America, and the Peace Corps, which would send Americans to live and work in developing nations around the world. Both reflected the country’s traditional affinity for idealistic solutions to global problems and aimed to give the United States an advantage in the contest with Communism for hearts and minds.
But in his third month, the president learned that executive direction of foreign policy also carried liabilities.
Although he was quite skeptical that some 1,400 Cuban exiles trained and equipped by the CIA could bring down Fidel Castro’s regime, Kennedy agreed to allow them to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. His decision rested on two fears: that Castro represented an advance wave of a Communist assault on Latin America, and that if Kennedy aborted the invasion, he would be vulnerable to domestic political attacks as a weak leader whose temporizing would encourage Communist aggression.