Kennedy and US Foreign Policy during the Cold War

kennedy BreznevBy Ian Howarth

The Eisenhower administration that preceded the election of President Kennedy had continued the Containment policies adopted by President Truman during the early days of the Cold War. Containment involved limiting the spread of Communism to within its own spheres of influence. This was achieved by giving aid to anti-communist regimes and promoting capitalist/western values.  The arrival of the Kennedy administration, marked a significant development in US foreign policy, as can be seen in the rhetoric of his inauguration speech.

‘Let every nation know, whether it wish us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.  This much we pledge, and more…’

Extract from the Inauguration Speech of John F. Kennedy 20th January 1961 

Since 1945 the US had attempted to contain the Soviet threat to Western Europe by allowing the USSR freedom of action within its sphere of influence and with the exception of the Berlin Blockade a quarter of a century earlier this policy had avoided a direct confrontation with the USSR.  Containment had been adopted as a pragmatic response to the understanding that Soviet conventional forces far outnumbered Allied Forces in Europe.  The maintenance by the United States of massive conventional forces in Western Europe would be expensive and unpractical, while containment offered the US a position that opposed the USSR while only requiring the defence of Western Europe not the liberation of the East.  This could be supplied relatively cheaply through the Nuclear Umbrella.  The leaders and supporters of the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings experienced the brutal consequences of this policy for themselves. With both countries firmly within the Soviet sphere of influence US policy was clear, it was a Soviet matter. The world watched on in horror as both uprisings were brutally suppressed by the USSR without US or Allied intervention despite the calls for help emanating from anti-communist forces in Prague and Budapest.

The arrival of the Kennedy administration to the White House in 1961 marked a sea change in US foreign policy towards the USSR and communism as a whole in the world, and marks the ascendance of Domino Theory within US policy making.  Under Truman, and Eisenhower the furthest the US had gone in actively preventing the spread of communism was through financial aid to states threatened by communist insurgences, or populist movements, with the one exception of Korea (1950 – 1953).  Korea was to represent the model for future engagements between East and West.  The Korean War saw a US led UN coalition supporting a US backed Capitalist South Korean regime on one side and a Soviet/Chinese backed communist Korean regime on the other.  This model of confrontation was to be repeated in Vietnam (1965–1973) and Afghanistan (1979-1989) with the US or USSR backing the insurgencies in each respectively and in the end seeing there advanced militaries suffer humiliating defeats at the hands of lightly armed yet popularly supported insurgents.

This change in policy within the US was in many ways a response to the policy that the USSR had been engaged in since the end of the Second World War.   This Soviet policy can be briefly described as the support of armed uprisings in foreign countries financially and militarily without the need for direct Soviet occupation or war waging.  This had first been seen in Korea in the early fifty’s and yet the US did not respond like with like until Kennedy.  The attempted invasion of Cuba, which led to the Bay of Pigs disaster, was a US funded operation, an attempt to remove a communist regime militarily without the direct use of US military assets, and therefore so the idea went, without the responsibility.  In this first tentative and disastrous case President Kennedy accepted full responsibility.  However, in the future official denial became the policy of many a president. This was seen in Chile where the CIA supported a coup against a democratically elected socialist regime in order to protect US interests.  With further similar examples in Afghanistan were the CIA and US special forces trained the mujahidin and supplied them with cash, intelligence and weapons, to fight off the Soviet invasion.

Without doubt the largest and most costly conflict of the Cold War involving the direct use of US troops was Vietnam.  This began during the Kennedy Administration as an Afghan or Cuban scenario, with advisors and military/financial assistance to the South Vietnamese who were facing a Soviet/Chinese supported Communist insurgency.   When it became apparent to Lyndon B Johnson following President Kennedy’s assassination that the assistance already being committed to Vietnam would not be sufficient to prevent a Vietminh takeover he committed US ground troops.   Vietnam was a punishing and ultimately futile ground war that failed to achieve any of the objectives that had been established for US Foreign Policy in South East Asia and caused the destabilisation and deaths of millions in Cambodia and Laos. The same thing was to happen in Afghanistan were repeated attempts by the USSR to establish a communist regime failed, requiring their direct intervention to bring about the desired result; like the US in Vietnam it was a futile effort.

These conflicts between East and West conducted through regional players are called proxy wars. Essentially this is where the two conflicting parties (USA/USSR) use other parties to do the dirty work. This avoids a nuclear confrontation while still achieving the strategic policy objectives against the enemy.  In Vietnam the Chinese and the Soviet Union provided assistance to the Communist Viet Cong, and in Afghanistan it was the US supplying aid to the Afghan resistance.

After Kennedy proxy wars became the norm and were waged across the world right up until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.  The results of these superpower driven conflicts in the developing world are still evident today.   Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as instability and autocratic regimes in Sudan, Algeria, Colombia and Cambodia are all remnants of Superpower intervention in the domestic disputes of nations, which in many cases intensified and prolonged the conflicts.

To quote President Kennedy again, ‘Let every nation know, whether it wish us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.  This much we pledge, and more…’

Kennedy’s inauguration rhetoric was clear in its intent for the future direction of US Foreign Policy, to ‘support any friend’, meant any friend, irrespective of intent or action as long as they backed the USA.   This is how brutal regimes like General Pinochet’s came to power with US support, ‘meet any hardship’, Vietnam, and ‘pay any price’, American assistance to Afghanistan totalled in the billions of dollars.  The benefits for US policy against the Soviet Union derived from Kennedy’s rhetoric were in the adoption of a foreign policy that allowed for a more aggressive and less restrained campaign against communist threats.   However, letting the leash off the CIA and the US military led to unsavoury practices and unexpected results, as more often than not ‘supporting any friend…’ led to corruption and scandal as well as the US becoming involved in illegal practices such as the Iran Contra Affair of Reagan’s Presidency. While ‘paying any price…’ meant inflated defence and intelligence budgets which angered Congress and worried the US taxpayer, which in turn led to more underhand dealings, again citing the Iran Contra affair were the USA was not only in violation of a UN security council resolution banning the sale of weapons to Iran or Iraq, but the CIA with the undoubted knowledge and support of the president conspired to keep the costs of this adventure hidden from Congress and the taxpayer.

Kennedy’s brief administration marked a turning point from the post war period of limited engagement and low cost support of friendly foreign regimes, to the start of the full commitment of all US military and intelligence assets to the defeat of Soviet foreign policy objectives worldwide.  The extent of its success is for others to judge, although the need of the USSR to keep pace with the relentless advances in US technologies and economic developments in the end crippled the economy of the USSR which ultimately led to its collapse.  It is arguable that this was always the inevitable consequence of Soviet polices when faced with competitive and dynamic capitalist free markets.  However, as can be seen in the case of China, without the intense pressure and relentless checking of Soviet moves globally by the US and its Allies it is possible that we could still be living in a world split between East and West, one in which the USSR was given the time to adapt and change as the Chinese did.

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3 thoughts on “Kennedy and US Foreign Policy during the Cold War

  1. Pingback: Flogging Miley | Hipster Racist

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