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Foreign Policy, Vietnam War, and Watergate, Kennedy Administration and the Cold War

Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Geneva Accords, Ngo Dinh Diem, Bay of Pigs invasion, French Indochina

In the early 1960s, President Kennedy vigorously pursued the Cold War policy of containment. He expanded U.S. aid to other nations, boosted the size of the armed forces, stockpiled missiles, and strove to end Soviet influence in Cuba, just 90 miles off the tip of Florida. In 1959 a revolution in Cuba brought Fidel Castro, a leftist, to power. When Castro took control, he implemented policies designed to eliminate differences between social classes in Cuba. These policies included confiscating large land holdings and seizing businesses that belonged to wealthy Cubans and U.S. firms. Concerned about Communist influence, U.S. officials were wary of Castro. In 1961 a force of Cuban exiles, trained and supplied by the United States, invaded Cuba in an attempt to topple Castro. They failed, and the Bay of Pigs invasion was a fiasco.

Tensions increased between the United States and Cuba. To deter further U.S. interference in Cuba, Castro sought economic and military assistance from the USSR. In 1962 the United States discovered that Khrushchev had set up nuclear missile bases in Cuba from which rocket-powered missiles could be launched. Kennedy faced a crisis: To destroy the bases might lead to world war; to ignore them risked an attack on the United States. In October 1962 Kennedy demanded that the USSR remove the missiles, and after a few days of suspense, the Soviets agreed to do so.

The Cuban missile crisis was a close call. Teetering on the brink of nuclear war, both superpowers leaped back in alarm. Afterward, Kennedy and Khrushchev established a telephone hot line, and in 1963 they signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that banned nuclear tests in the air and in the water. But the Cold War rivalry continued. The United States and the USSR now vied for control in Asia.

Cold War warriors in the United States believed that Communist aggression posed a threat in Asia. They especially feared a Communist takeover of Vietnam. If Vietnam fell, they believed, Communism would engulf all of Southeast Asia. Even in the 1940s, President Truman provided economic and military aid to prevent the growth of Communist power in what was then French Indochina. When France withdrew from the area in 1954, the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into two segments: North Vietnam, ruled by the Communist Viet Minh; and South Vietnam, controlled by non-Communist allies of the French.

The United States supported non-Communist South Vietnam and in subsequent decades increased its commitment to the region. Under Eisenhower, from 1955 to 1961, America sent economic aid to South Vietnam. In 1960 Communists and nationalists in South Vietnam formed the National Liberation Front (NLF), often referred to as the Viet Cong (a label attached by its foes). The NLF was organized to challenge South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, who ruled from 1955 to 1963, and to foster unification.

Kennedy continued Eisenhower’s efforts in Vietnam by tripling American aid to South Vietnam and by expanding the number of military advisers from about 700 to more than 16,000. In 1963 the United States approved a coup led by South Vietnamese military officers to overthrow Diem, who was killed. A few weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson became president. Johnson inherited the problem of U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, where Communist insurgents were gaining strength.

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