In 1960 he entered and won seven presidential primaries and captured the Democratic nomination on the first ballot. To balance the ticket, he selected Lyndon B. Johnson as his vice presidential candidate. In the campaign that followed, Kennedy engaged in a series of televised debates with his Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon. Defeating Nixon by a narrow popular margin, Kennedy became at 43 the youngest person ever, and the first Catholic, elected President.
Soon after his inaugural, Kennedy set out his domestic program, known as the New Frontier: tax reform, federal aid to education, medical care for the aged under Social Security, enlargement of civil rights through executive action, aid to depressed areas, and an accelerated space program. He was almost immediately, however, caught up in foreign affairs crises. The first (Apr., 1961) was the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles trained and aided by the Central Intelligence Agency. Although the invasion had been planned under Eisenhower, Kennedy had approved it, and was widely criticized.
In June, 1961, the President met in Vienna with Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Hopes of a thaw in the cold war were dashed by Khrushchev's threat that the USSR would conclude a peace treaty with East Germany and thus cut off Western access to West Berlin. In the period of tension that followed, the United States increased its military strength while the East Germans erected the Berlin Wall.
In Oct., 1962, U.S. reconnaissance planes discovered Soviet missile bases in Cuba. Kennedy immediately ordered a blockade to prevent more weapons from reaching Cuba and demanded the installations' removal. After an interval of extreme tension when the world appeared to be on the brink of nuclear war, the USSR complied with U.S. demands. Kennedy won much praise for his stance in the crisis, but some have criticized him for what they held to be unnecessary "brinkmanship." In Aug., 1963, tension with the USSR was eased by conclusion of a treaty that prohibited the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
In Southeast Asia the Kennedy administration perceived a growing Communist threat to the South Vietnamese government; it steadily increased the number of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam and for the first time placed U.S. troops in combat situations. As disaffection in South Vietnam grew, moreover, the United States involved itself in political maneuvering and finally connived at the overthrow (Oct., 1963) of the corrupt South Vietnamese dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem (see Vietnam War). Within the Western Hemisphere, Kennedy established (1961) the Alliance for Progress, which provided economic assistance to Latin American countries. He also initiated the Peace Corps program, which sent U.S. volunteers to work in developing countries.
Many of Kennedy's domestic reform proposals were either killed or not acted on by Congress. In the area of civil rights and integration the administration assigned federal marshals to protect Freedom Ride demonstrations and used federal troops in Mississippi (1962) and a federalized National Guard in Alabama (1963) to quell disturbances resulting from enforced school desegregation. In June, 1963, Kennedy proposed civil-rights legislation, but this, like his tax reform program, languished until after his death.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.