Category Introduction: International Affairs

Senator John F. Kennedy’s World in 1960: “Half Slave and Half Free” (Kennedy-Nixon Debate)

When the United States elected John Kennedy in 1960, no one knew the decade would have twice as many presidents as the 1950s – with different executive styles, experience, and political inclinations. By the calendar, the 1960s seemed to follow the 1950s as most decades do, but the very change of administrations showed that great changes might lie ahead.  Dwight Eisenhower who began the 1960s was quite different from John Kennedy, who in turn proved different from Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, or Gerald Ford.  Turnover in the Oval Office was sure to affect the character of the times, and it did. But the numerous changes of leadership from 1958 to 1974 match numerous changes in the international realm and they are key parts of the 1960s, often overlooked.

Most associate foreign affairs in the 1960s with two things: Cuba and Vietnam.  As crucial markers of the era, these no doubt loom large, and rightly make up part of foreign policy coverage in surveys of the 1960s.  Important as they are, Cuba and Vietnam are simply two of many developments in the large, varied, and dangerous world of international relations during this time; and a portrait of the 1960s without discussion of places like Europe, Japan, China, Russia, Canada, South America, or the Middle East is, to say the least, incomplete.  Diplomacy, in fact, takes us across five continents in the 1960s – as it does in other times – and indeed was so important that a recent book on the subject labeled these years as nothing less than “the crucial decade” in international relations.[1]

The Cold War in 1961 was more intense than it had been when Eisenhower came to the presidency in 1953. For eight years, Eisenhower kept the United States at peace, and deftly avoided military involvement.  (Divine).

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953-61

Six months after taking office, he brought fighting in Korea to an end, and resisted intense pressure to commit American resources to Indochina.  He balanced on a tightrope between war and peace in the two Taiwan Straits Crises. With Suez, he aligned the United States against European imperialism while maintaining a firm posture toward the Soviet Union.  He earnestly sought an overall reduction in Cold War tensions, and traveled twice to Europe for summit meetings for this purpose – to Geneva with modest success, and to Paris for humiliation and failure due to the U-2 affair.

In 1960 the American public passed the presidential baton to a new and untested man.  Contrasted with the elder Eisenhower, Kennedy’s enthusiastic style descended from what one might easily expect of youth, and the confidence of the Senator from Massachusetts seemed to confound his lack of experience in the affairs of state.  During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy rendered lip service to black civil rights and to the rising tide of the rights of women, and conveyed to these and other constituencies that their concerns were his concerns.  In the years to 1963, Kennedy was reluctant to lead on these domestic issues.  During his presidency, he was largely quiet on feminism and in the face of such civil rights milestones as the Freedom Riders or James Meredith at Ol’ Miss, events appeared to move him rather than the other way around.

Events outside the United States appeared to be different. From the start, Kennedy indicated that he would continue, or even intensify, the vigilance of his predecessor in the area of rivalry with the Soviet Union.  He was a cold warrior and for the defense of liberty, Americans should prepare, he said, “to pay any price, bear any burden” in a time of “maximum danger.”  The scope and scale of Kennedy’s inaugural address was breathtaking, grand, and concise; and his “New Frontier” appeared to dwarf Eisenhower’s “New Look” in ambition as well as urgency.

Many accounts of the 1960s attest to a new elegance in the White House that energized the nation and, though the trumpet calls to action came from many directions in his speech – including domestic – nowhere were they more passionate, complicated, or extraordinary than in the international field.

John F. Kennedy, 1961-63

The 1960s began with a full-bore and open-ended pledge of American resources around the world in the Cold War and “against the common enemies of man” – against “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”(JFK)

The American presidency turned over twice more in the decade after Kennedy and rarely would his soaring – and surely unrealistic – rhetoric be bested. Bested or not, as Kennedy set the tone, foreign policy remained central to succeeding 1960s-era presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford.  For these men, the relations between countries were far more numerous and complicated then the caricature often portrayed by those accounts whose sole concern is Cuba and Vietnam.  International relations were likely also beyond the ability of policy complainers or war protestors to consider, evaluate, or even know.  Simultaneous events in the Middle East, China, and Southeast Asia for example were exceedingly difficult for policymakers, diplomats, or for anyone who had to manage events on the ground; and a simple awareness of the blizzard of international events during the 1960s puts into perspective the slogans on campus campuses of youthful protestors with slight understanding of the complications of getting actual things done.

International relations by their nature demand sober reflection, discretion, and time – all qualities at variance, for example, with the typical campus “teach-ins” but also with the values of the counterculture which, by its very youth, lacks maturity, tends not to value discretion, is in a great hurry, and was anything but sober especially in the 1960s.

For sure, the era of the “long 1960s” – from 1950 to 1975 – contains Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis.  But it contained much more of major import that makes the 1960s more complete and interesting, and helps us to see why today looks the way it does.


Europe was always vaguely sympathetic to the United States due to institutions, immigration, and kinship ties.  Since 1945, however, it had reasons for making its connections concrete and formal.  Europe’s first decade after the war concerned recovery from physical and economic collapse, as well as developing a set of policies to meet the Soviet Union as it revealed its approach in East Germany and to the lands it controlled militarily east of the Elbe River.  In these twin dangers – economic and territorial – the United States joined Western Europe and, in this common cause, was found the robust revival that was largely complete by the early 1960s.

International organizations, such as the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) or the Emergency Committee for Europe (ECE), met Europe’s most pressing needs until 1947 and sometimes beyond.  The crucial factor that quickened the tempo of Western European repair and revival, however, came when Secretary of State George Marshall proposed at Harvard the Economic Recovery Program (ERP) that now bears his name.  From 1948 to 1952 the “Marshall Plan” transferred $17 billion of American funds to sixteen European states to resuscitate badly-damaged agriculture, industry, and financial systems.[2]  As a bridge back to normalcy and to avoid the seductions of communism, coordination of funds required a central organization that came together in 1948 as the Organization for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) to thrash out issues of trade, exchange rates, production, credit creation and account settlements between countries.  In 1960, the OEEC’s effectiveness as an instrument to transition western Europe from war to peace evolved into the present-day Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – the OECD – and reflected its international ambitions by inviting the United States, Canada, and Japan to join as full members.

As important as economic issues were, military and ideological issues were perhaps even more direct drivers of policy after the war. In a rare public address in Moscow on February 9, 1946, Stalin declared that communism and capitalism were incompatible and that another war was inevitable.  He called for increased production in a new five-year plan to “guarantee our country against any eventuality.”  Production of materials for national defense was to be tripled; consumer goods, Stalin said, “must wait on rearmament.”  Confrontation with capitalist West, he predicted, would come in the 1950s, when America would be in the depths of another depression.[3]

Washington was stunned.  Even the liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called Stalin’s remarks the “Declaration of World War III.”  But Stalin’s remarks seemed consistent with Soviet actions.  After all, the Red Army was still in Manchuria in 1946.  A Russian garrison was still in Iran’s northern province of Azerbaijan six months after it had agreed to withdraw.

A divided Germany; a divided Europe after 1945

East-West relations were soon to break down in Western Europe over a sequence of events.  It seemed that Stalin had decided to make non-cooperation with the West a modus operandiand military power his objective; and according to some influential opinion makers – Walter Lippmann for example – the Soviet actions left the United States no choice but to do the same.

The Marshall Plan was followed by a remarkable military alliance between the United States and ten western European countries in 1949.  Designed to meet the “inevitable confrontation” that Stalin had forecast in his speech three years before, it was also born of a specific sequence of events. The foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow in the spring of 1947 had failed because of the punishing approach the Soviets took in its part of occupied Germany.  Six weeks of negotiations revealed Stalin’s disinterest in Allied plans for a self-reliant Germany, for the inclusion of the Soviet zone within a reconstructed Germany, or for giving any kind of details on Russia’s stripping of industrial assets from its East German zone.  Here was the backdrop for the Truman Doctrine whereby the United States took over Britain’s support role in Greece and Turkey in 1947 for fear of the advancement of communism in those countries.[4]  In 1948 Moscow refused anything having to do with Marshall Plan aid to the eastern and central European countries it occupied; and challenged the West in June of that dangerous year by cutting road, canal, and rail traffic to the western sectors of Berlin.  The urgent operation that supplied the allied-controlled parts of the city entirely by air for a year became known as the Berlin Airlift.  And it was successful.  But when the blockade ended in the middle of 1949, it was clear that the realities of the Cold War were beginning to “bite,” and affect geopolitical realities and political decisions in Washington on a bipartisan basis.

In April of that year, western policymakers crafted an extraordinary collective security arrangement in response to Berlin that trumped all agreements to date, and was designed to counter massive Russian land forces still arrayed across Eastern Europe.[5]

Soviet Atomic Bomb, 1949

The North Atlantic Treaty was signed by the United States, Canada, and ten European countries and was, at first, thought by some to be a provocative over-reaction.  In August 1949, however, the Soviets exploded an atomic device, ending the American nuclear monopoly and the West’s trump card against superior Soviet land forces in Europe.  Two months later, Mao Zedong declared victory over the Nationalists in China, established a Marxist-Leninist “People’s Republic,” and signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union.  In the early morning of Sunday, June 25, 1950, North Korean forces, supported by Russian-made tanks, struck across the 38thparallel in a surprise attack and began the first armed conflict of the Cold War.  By the end of that year, these events in close succession snapped the “North Atlantic Treaty” into a permanent planning organization – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – under American supreme command and, by 1954, into a planned force of 96 active divisions with 9,000 aircraft in Europe with by long-range American air power stationed remotely.

NATO differed from previous treaties because of its transatlantic character and for the reversal of America’s historical reluctance to take part in European affairs.

The US joins NATO, its first European military alliance since 1777

It contained the United States’ hard intention to remain in Europe and even play the role of a European power of sorts for the long term.  For Europeans, the American presence was new, but certainly vice versa.  The United States after all had avoided formal commitments to Europe since George Washington and others had warned of the hazards of “entangling alliances” 150 years before.[6]

The wrenching events of the later 1940s convinced American policymakers that an entanglement was apt because of the threat of the Soviet Union and communism spreading as a philosophy and system around the world.[7]  The shape and scope of the alliance appeared to illustrate the magnitude of the threat: a large grouping of European countries west of an imaginary line running north to south – west of Poland on the Baltic to the city of Trieste on the Adriatic – along Churchill’s “Iron Curtain.” In addition to the Western European bloc, the alliance included the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean west to North America, forming a vast theater of operations, and a principal instrument in the waging of the Cold War.

In May 1955, the hardening of East-West relations in Europe was reinforced when Moscow established a mutual assistance pact with eight communist states of Eastern Europe in response to the integration of West Germany into NATO. The Warsaw Pact created a bloc of eastern “People’s Republics” on the map of Europe to answer the American alliance with Western Europe, and mirrored earlier Cold War splits in Asia such as Korea with the end of hostilities in 1953 and Vietnam after the French withdrawal in 1954.

In the mid-1950s, the division of specific countries and continents was part of the extraordinary state of a larger divided world — what John Kennedy in the presidential debates of 1960 called “a world half slave and half free.”  The American method to manage this state of affairs had been earlier outlined by George F. Kennan in the late 1940s.  In a very long telegram to President Truman, then in a subsequent public article, the Counselor of the American Embassy in Moscow outlined what he saw as the “Sources of Soviet Conduct.”  He recommended a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containmentof Russian tendencies . . . to force upon the Kremlin a greater degree of moderation and circumspection, . . . in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”[8]  This description that came simply to be called “containment” grew out of the immediate need to manage Soviet behavior in Europe just after World War II, and it acted as sort of a shorthand rationale behind the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO.

Shorthand or not, the shocks in the four years after the start of the containment policy indicated that the Cold War was moving beyond Europe, and caused President Truman, early in 1950, to authorize a small ad hocgroup of State and Defense Department officials under the chairmanship of Paul H. Nitze to systematize containment – in effect, find the means to make it work on a global scale.[9]  The resulting sixty-six page single-spaced typed report was entitled United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, and is now known to us simply as NSC-68.  It painted a stark picture of  “momentous issues and a world crisis” in the present;  a situation born of titanic events in the first half of the twentieth century:  two global wars of tremendous violence, two revolutions – Russian and Chinese – of extreme scope and intensity, the collapse of five empires – the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, German, Italian, and Japanese – and the drastic decline of two major imperial systems, the British and the French.  In the span of a generation, the report found the international distribution of power fundamentally altered.  At the start of the second half of the century, the report continued, the world had settled into a rigid, protracted contest of wills between two antithetical forces that put the American republic in deepest peril and, for the new element of atomic weapons, threatened civilization itself.

The sweeping report contrasted the purposes of the United States and the Soviet Union, weighed each power’s capabilities and intentions, assessed present dangers, and recommended courses of action for the United States.  It warned that without urgent action the continuation of recent trends would lead to a serious decline in strength of the free world relative to the strength of the Soviet Union and its satellites.  It therefore recommended a move from Kennan’s comparatively passive “long-term, patient but firm” idea of containment to a more active posture.  It stressed the need for American leadership and for a massive American military buildup to support such leadership.  The report laid out a program not only to match, but to balance – and in some instances roll back – what it termed the “fanatical,” “subversive,” “authoritarian,” and “destructive” power of the Kremlin that threatened American interests, and the interests of free peoples.  The United States, together with the energies and resources of its allies, the report said, must frustrate Soviet designs and compel the Kremlin, through resolve and greater strength, to adjust its aspirations to world hegemony. The alternative was gradual withdrawal into isolation under Soviet pressure, and the sacrifice of America’s vital interests.

NSC-68’s sweeping mandate to action, its insistence on American leadership, indeed its very tone – articulated similarly 10 years later in JFK’s Inaugural Address – indicated that American policymakers believed the world was a dangerous place in 1950, and they urged mobilization of military, financial, industrial, and diplomatic resources.  After the completed report, American defense spending surged 200% from a postwar 1950 low of 4.6% of GNP to a high of nearly 14% in 1953. Defense spending moderated from its 1953 peak, though it remained at levels roughly double the 1950 level until 1969 in terms of GNP percentage – and triple the dollar amount by 1970 since the American economy grew smartly in the 1960s decade.[10]

Short and intermediate-term events seemed to vindicate NSC-68’s recommended increases in defense spending.  In Asia, the Korean War broke out in July 1950 involving both Chinese and Russian forces against a small democratic state.  In 1953 the Soviets tested a powerful hydrogen bomb, and new strategic bombers between 1952 and 1954 to deliver it around the world. The crushing of a democratic uprising in Hungary in 1956 showed the Soviet determination to maintain power within their European sphere, while the Sputniks put into space orbit in 1957 and 1958 gave the impression they might be determined to dominate the heavens as well.

These flights also gave the impression that the Soviet ICBM program was much further along than it actually was and led, of course, to increased American defense spending at home, and well-known educational initiatives in math and science around the United States, and to NASA.  The flights were part of a flurry of Soviet initiatives under the bombastically charismatic Premier Nikita Khrushchev who consolidated power after 1953 and established a reputation apart from his predecessor Joseph Stalin who died that year.

Soviet military expenditures and competence were notoriously hard to measure in this and later periods, but it appeared to American policymakers that the United States and the West were engaged in an ever-widening contest of wills whose stakes were mortal, and that showed few signs of letting up.  An expanding Soviet economy in the 1950s, the Sputniks, Western inaction on Hungary, and a surging weapons program gave Khrushchev and the Soviets confidence to snub the Eisenhower administration as it left office over the U-2 affair, and to henceforth test the administrations that followed in three areas that are part of all 1960s foreign policy accounts.

In 1961 Khrushchev tested Kennedy’s mettle at Vienna over the Berlin question that had festered since 1945.  He tested him again the following year in Cuba, and made Fidel Castro famous for all the wrong reasons in October 1962.  And still a third test, in Southeast Asia, preoccupied six American presidents from 1954 to 1975.

Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-1969

As our era conventionally begins in 1961, Khrushchev threw down the gauntlet to the United States as the backdrop to the three “tests” of Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam. Just before Kennedy took office, he stated that the Soviet Union would support “wars of national liberation” around the world – essentially compete in a sort of ideological jousting match with the United States for the hearts and minds of the new countries created from the gradually dissolving European empires.

Naturally, Soviet-American relations and the Cold War – now mainly of historical interest – is one of the great themes of the 1960s. President Kennedy warned unambiguously of the ideological contest unfolding on the world stage in 1961, and its perils for the United States.  The Soviet pledge to support “wars of national liberation” represented an important backdrop to the specific events of Berlin 1961, Cuba in 1963, Vietnam, and later Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Richard M. Nixon, 1969-1973


In turn, the Cold War and Soviet-American relations represent the larger canvas against which other things happened in other regions in the 1960s – some connected to the Cold War, some not. These include the Middle East, South Asia, Latin America, the Far East, Canada, Australia and others – places rarely discussed in accounts of the 1960s, but almost without exception having direct bearing on why the world looks the way it does today.

Gerald R. Ford, 1974-1977

Some regions and states were unstable, unfree, or even dangerous during our period.  Others were filled with enterprise, opportunity, and growth based on liberty. Europe, split in two by the Cold War, had both qualities, and the wall erected through Berlin in 1963 stood as a concrete reminder of the division of a whole continent into free and non-free spheres. Developments in the unfree Eastern bloc were mainly extensions of the Soviet Union until 1989. For this reason, we will cover only developments in the West for now in the Project as far as Europe; which over time, will include many important parts of Kennedy’s “half slave and half free” world of the 1960s era.


[1] Diane Kunz (ed.), The Diplomacy of the Crucial Decade: American Foreign Relations during the 1960s (New York, 1994).
[2]Secretary of State Marshall’s proposal invited the Soviets and the Eastern European states to participate in the aid program, but Stalin rejected the idea out of hand as an extension of American influence and control.
[3] David McCullough, Truman (New York, 1992), p. 476.
[4] General description of the Truman Doctrine; Kennan, Nitze, et al, description of containment
[5] Other defense alignments before NATO? Anglo-French Treaty of Dunkirk, 1947 or Treaty of Brussels, 1948?
[6] Jefferson elaboration?
[7] NSC-68
[8] Kennan, “Sources of Soviet Conduct” (1947).  The idea of containment is not new with Kennan’s proposal.  In the 20thcentury alone there are numerous examples of similar ideas. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, there were calls by Western leaders to isolate the Bolshevik government. In 1919, French Premier Georges Clemenceau called for what he called a cordon sanitaire– a belt of non-communist states to isolate the Soviet Union.  In turn, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson called for a “quarantine.”  So too, as Japan moved into China in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt called the world not to direct confrontation or war, but to “quarantine the aggressor.”
[9] John L. Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, p. 90.
[10] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C.), pp. 224, 1116 etc.   Revise; see Gaddis, p. 359.  Use Federalist Papers 23-29 regarding defense.

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