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.


The Power of the Presidency in the United States and its Limits

By Ian Howarth

The Constitution of the United States of America under Article two invests in the Presidency, ‘Executive Power’ (US constitution Article 2, Section 1), article two also award’s the office of the presidency with the following positions ‘Head of State, Head of Government, Chief Executive, Leader of the National Party, Chief Diplomat, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy’. (US Constitution Article 2, Section 2)obama

The President is therefore the head of the federal government and responsible for the proposal and exclusive execution of federal laws, the appointment of ministers to his cabinet, and of civil servants, and the operation and appointment of hundreds of federal bodies from the FBI to the CIA.   Through these various federal agency’s the President can carry out and enforce federal law with little or no intervention from either Congress or the Supreme Court.  All this power has been invested in the presidency despite the fact that the American constitution was written to ensure that no one single body of government would hold absolute power over the American people, in short to stop the ‘perceived excesses of the British monarchy’. (Heywood, Andrew (1997) Politics, p321, Palgrave: Basingstoke)

The method by which the constitution attempted to achieve this dilution of power is through a separation of powers between the central bodies of the federal government, Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidency.   As well as these three central bodies of the Federal government there are also the powers held by the state governments, within the offices of the state governors and legislatures.   This separation of powers succeeded in keeping the presidency in check throughout the 19th century with Congress developing and implementing policy when it was needed and leaving the presidency as something of a secondary institution.  ‘However the 20th century saw the development of two key factors that have led to the ascendance of the powers of the presidency, namely the development of a national economy, and the emergence of America as a superpower after the Second World War.  These two developments had the following effects; a national economy meant that the traditional laissez-faire approach had to be abandoned for much more interventionist policies.  The best example of this being President Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ in the 1930’s which not only saw an all-encompassing national economic plan but also the creation of a myriad of new federal agencies under Presidential authority, this had the effect of giving the Presidency the role of Chief Legislator, taking the power from Congress.’ (Heywood, Andrew (1997) Politics, p320-322, Palgrave: Basingstoke)

The emergence of America the superpower and leader of the free world post 1945 also had a dramatic effect on the powers of the presidency, as one of the few areas the constitution had given the presidency freedom of movement was as the Chief Diplomat.  During the 19th century this was of little use while the president led a minor power.   However, the emergence of the USA as the predominant military and economic power after 1945, gave the office of the presidency enormous powers.  This combined with the president’s position as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, and the presidential power to veto all congressional legislation, has meant a substantial growth in the powers of the presidency.  This ultimately led to President’s Johnson and Nixon being able to wage war in Vietnam without congressional approval.

Since Vietnam however there has been some regaining of powers by Congress primarily through the ‘War Powers Act which has sharply impaired the presidents capacity to commit American troops overseas’ (Kennedy, Paul (1988) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p528, Fontana Press: London). At the same time the Supreme Court has grown in importance, becoming a much more political body, and a defender of liberal values against the American right.  This is achieved through the authority given to the Supreme Court by Judicial Review, that is the ability for citizens to challenge all presidential acts in the Supreme Court.   The chief example of the American judiciary exercising power against the will of Congress and to some degree the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson is the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  In this case the Supreme Court established the rights of black Americans and upheld the spirit of equality enshrined in the constitution.  Other such cases of broadly ‘liberal’ definitions of the constitution include abortion and IVF treatment, all pushed through by the Supreme Court in the face of an indignant right and in many cases an aggressive presidency.

It is this role that the Supreme Court holds as defender of the constitution and judge over Congressional and Presidential legislation that has been a major inhibitor of presidential power.  Despite the powers of the presidency to appoint the justices, their life long tenure has largely meant that presidents have rarely got their way in the face of opposition from the Supreme Court.

The role of Congress in restraining the powers of the presidency are two-fold, firstly as an institution.  The Senate and the House of Representatives each hold the power to propose and implement legislation and impeach a president. Alongside this is the requirement that all presidential acts be ratified by both houses of Congress. This is combined with the Congressional role of approving or rejecting all presidential federal appointments, and appointments to the Supreme Court.  These powers give the institution of Congress immense strength with which to restrain the presidency.

Secondly is the party political role of Congress, for example the Democratic President Clinton had to contend with a Republican Congress after the 1994 congressional elections. (Heywood, Andrew (1997) Politics, p321, Palgrave: Basingstoke) This meant that for all the dazzling performances of Clinton on the international stage after 1994 he was almost impotent as far as domestic policy was concerned.  A prime example of this can be seen in the Medicare bill, the centre of President Clinton’s attempt to provide a free and uniform access to healthcare for poor Americans, which in the end it was overwhelmingly defeated by the Republican Party in Congress.  However control of ‘the hill’ by a US president is not guaranteed even if their party is in the majority, as President Carter found out in the 1970’s when despite Congress being controlled by the Democrats he faced his legislation repeatedly being thrown out.

Even President’s like Clinton or Carter who retreat into international politics still have to contend with a bipartisan Senate which must ratify all treaties signed by the President before they become law.   We have all seen since George Bush’s presidential victory countless treaties signed by President Clinton being dropped by the new Republican White House.  The Kyoto accord being the best known example of this.  This is largely due to the fact that the Senate never ratified the treaties, because Clinton knew he couldn’t get them through a republican congress.

Therefore despite the massive growth in the powers of the presidency it is important not to overstate them.  The political colour of Congress, and the makeup of the Supreme Court (liberal/conservative) all play a major role in limiting the powers of the US presidency.  We must also not forget to allow for the constitution itself which clearly defines the powers of the presidency.  It does however remain the fact that the powers of the presidency have grown beyond what was initially intended.

The most important ability of the presidency is the power to persuade Congress or the American People that the course of action proposed is the correct one.  This has been facilitated by the growth of the media, giving the president the means by which to put his point straight to the nation on his terms.  This give presidents the ability to go over the heads of Congress and the Supreme Court and appeal directly to public opinion.  This power to influence the national debate has had the effect of making congressmen/women think twice before taking on the president, (they stand for re-election every two years), and Senators desperate to maintain support for the same reason’s despite their longer mandate.  A Congress that appears isolated from the public will face electoral defeat.

The use of the media by Presidents such as Regan, Clinton and Obama can work in the opposite direction.  With continuous twenty four hour scrutiny of the actions and policies of the presidency by not only the national but also the international media, one slip up can lead to a public relations disaster and even the fall of a president.  The Iran-Contra affair, Watergate and Monicagate, are all examples of presidents falling victim to what has been termed the ‘fourth pillar of government’ (Heywood, Andrew (1997) Politics, p321-322, Palgrave: Basingstoke) the media.

Another institutional and constitutional limitation on the presidency is the existence of limited government, which means that the powers of the presidency are limited to those granted to the federal government under the constitution.  This means that the president cannot act on matters which are the sole responsibility of the States.  Therefore only a State Governor can propose legislation to a state congress, and only the state congress can ratify or otherwise that legislation.  Finally there are the constraints of Popular Sovereignty, simply meaning that the presidential term is limited to four years, and a presidential candidate can only stand for election to that office twice.  Which is why President Clinton despite his popularity could not run for nomination in the 2000 presidential race.

The powers of the presidency within the federal government and as the Commander in Chief are considerable.  However, the effects of a strong Congress combined with a weak party political system, loyalty to one’s party is not guaranteed, and the separation of powers guaranteed by the constitution leave the president with little or no power in internal state politics.  This means that the office of the President of the United States is a fairly constrained institution, and with the rare exceptions of a national crisis such as war or economic collapse, it must barter and horse trade with the various other strands of government to achieve legislative success.  While at the same time rigidly observing the constitution or facing the Supreme Court for not doing so.  As President Truman said of his successor President Eisenhower ‘He’ll sit here and he’ll say ‘Do this! Do that!’ and nothing will happen.  Poor Ike – it won’t be a bit like the army.’ (Heywood, Andrew (1997) Politics, p322, Palgrave: Basingstoke)


Heywood, Andrew (1997) Politics, p320, 321,322, Palgrave: Basingstoke

The Constitution of the United States of America Article 2, Section’s 1 & 2:

Kennedy, Paul (1988) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p528, Fontana Press: London