Never in history did an American chief executive owe so much to the broadcasting industry—and specifically to television—as did John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Since the time of Calvin Coolidge radio had been important to the electing of presidents. In 1928 and 1932 Herbert Hoover spent heavily for air time to speak to the nation. Franklin D. Roosevelt took advantage of radio, delivering many speeches and fireside chats. Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower slowly made the transition from radio to radio and television coverage of their speeches, news conferences, and reports to the nation. For Kennedy, TV was the principal medium of communication and persuasion.
Throughout his congressional career, Congressman and then Senator Kennedy was aware of the importance of video in making his face and name familiar to the national audience. Many times during the 1950s he shared his ideas and TV personality with viewers. Whether it was on a panel discussion program where he spoke of domestic and foreign problems, or on shows such as Person to Person when—with his lovely bride Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy at his side—on October 30, 1953, he chatted amiably from his Manhattan apartment with Edward R. Murrow, all such appearances contributed to making a burgeoning political force out of this young, handsome, articulate, and telegenic politician from Massachusetts.
For JFK, television could turn defeat into victory. At the Democratic National Convention in 1956 he was unsuccessful in a bid for the vice-presidential nomination. Ironically, Kennedy lost to another TV senator, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, whose national reputation had been created several years earlier when he chaired televised hearings into crime in America. Still, from the loss to Kefauver, Kennedy gained increased national exposure and political credibility. Further, with the defeat of Adlai Stevenson and Kefauver in the elections that fall, the young senator emerged a formidable contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960.
TV was strategic to the Kennedy campaign for that nomination, and for the election in 1960. The image so carefully crafted by JFK and his staff—chiefly his campaign manager and brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and Guild, Bascom & Bonfigli, a San Francisco-based advertising agency that fashioned his TV commercials—was crucial in sweeping away liabilities that Kennedy possessed: his religion, his youthfulness, his inexperience and lack of international standing. More important, video enabled JFK to overcome his toughest obstacle, Richard Milhous Nixon, the well-known vice-president of the popular retiring President Eisenhower.
Nixon had credentials. Eight years a successful vice-president, after Ike's heart attack in 1955 he literally had been that "heartbeat away" from the presidency until Eisenhower fully recovered 143 days later. Nixon knew well the importance of TV as a political tool. Late in the 1952 campaign he had used the medium to explain away charges of financial irregularities in office. In the famous "Checkers" speech on a half-hour of national TV time purchased by the Republican National Committee, Nixon had delivered an exemplary performance, convincing the nation that he had no political slush fund, that he should remain as Eisenhower's running mate, and that no matter what his fate, he would not return the spaniel puppy, named Checkers, that one supporter had given his children.
The election in 1960 was a TV contest. The "great debates" staged in the fall gave millions of viewers a chance to see their candidates in a conflict of ideas and issues. But television also allowed viewers to assess the "looks" of the candidates, to determine which one looked more honest, appeared more confident, and came across as more presidential. Nixon relied heavily upon the debates and only late began a campaign of TV commercials. The Kennedy campaign, however, supplemented JFK’s debate performances with guest appearances on talk shows and the evening news, and with a multimillion-dollar campaign of television commercials that began weeks before Nixon's TV spots.
Importantly, Kennedy had not been a spectacular legislator. In neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate had he sponsored significant legislation. He was not a major party leader. He had conducted no spectacular investigations. In fact, as a young lawyer, his brother Robert had worked on the staff of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy during the height of its anti-Communist activities. But John F. Kennedy looked good on TV. He knew how to exploit the new medium to deliver the image of leadership. For a nation increasingly dependent on television for the creation of cultural heroes and role models—from Disney's Davy Crockett to the suave, "cool" private eye Peter Gunn—the dashing senator appeared to know what he was doing.
TV is an image medium. It thrives on pictures, attractive personalities, action, and lightness. It was no coincidence that early television popularized the flamboyance of wrestlers like Gorgeous George and the compelling movement of roller derby. In its first years, TV also revived vaudeville—a world of slapstick, pratfalls, pies and pillows in the face, garish costumes, and facile jokes most effectively realized in the "vaudeo" style of Milton Berle.
Except for the visual hyperbole of this early fare, politics on television operated similarly. The best video politician was the person who attracted viewers, appeared self-assured, and was pleasant to watch—all within the boundaries of what was politically possible. Senator Kennedy realized this. Writing in TV Guide in 1959, he expressed approval of glamorized politics. He spoke of "a new breed of candidates" that was successful because of a "particular reliance on TV appeal." Most of this new breed were young men, for youth, according to Kennedy, "is definitely an asset in creating a television image people like and (most difficult of all) remember." While he admitted that video could be "abused by demagogues, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance," JFK endorsed the new type of TV politician:
Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence—the presence or lack of these and other qualities make up what is called the candidate's "image." While some intellectuals and politicians may scoff at these "images"—and while they may in fact be based only on a candidate's TV impression, ignoring his record, views and other appearances—my own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct.
For its part, TV responded to the Kennedy image. Unconsciously swept up in his alluring video persona, distinguished television newsmen abandoned substance in favor of glamour. This was amply demonstrated when JFK appeared with his wife and daughter on Person to Person. The date was September 20, 1960, seven weeks before the presidential election. Here host Charles Collingwood—one of the great CBS broadcast journalists--avoided tough questions of policy and experience, preferring to pursue the flattering family side of the candidate. As the following excerpt from his conversation with Mrs. Kennedy suggests, the homey perfection communicated by this program could not hurt the Democratic nominee locked in a close contest with Richard Nixon.
Mrs. Kennedy: Would you like to see her?
Collingwood: Oh, I'd like to very much. Are you sure it is all right for us to intrude on the young lady?
Mrs. Kennedy: Well, we will see, Charles, keep your fingers crossed.
Collingwood: Hello, Caroline.
Mrs. Kennedy: Can you say hello?
Mrs. Kennedy: Here, do you want to sit up in bed with me?
Collingwood: Isn't she a darling?
Mrs. Kennedy: Now, look at the three bears.
Collingwood: What is the dolly's name?
Mrs. Kennedy: All right, what is the dolly's name?
Caroline: I didn't name her yet.
Mrs. Kennedy: You didn't name her yet?
Mrs. Kennedy: When are you going to name her?
Collingwood: Is that her favorite?
Mrs. Kennedy: It is her favorite as of this minute.
Collingwood: Oh, just like all little girls.
Mrs. Kennedy: What do you think you will name her tomorrow? What color are her shoes?
Caroline: White. Like mine.
Mrs. Kennedy: Like yours. What color is your dress?
Mrs. Kennedy: And why has she got a hat on?
Collingwood: I didn't quite get that.
Mrs. Kennedy: She has to have a hat on because the wind blows her hair. Collingwood: Oh, Caroline, you are a very, very pretty little girl and I should think, Mrs. Kennedy, that the proud father would get mighty lonesome for her when he is out on the campaign trail.
Mrs. Kennedy: Well, I think he does. We will go down and join him now.
Collingwood: Oh, that will be a treat for him.
Mrs. Kennedy: Shall we go see daddy?
Mrs. Kennedy: Can you take us to the parlor?
Mrs. Kennedy: And we will go see daddy?
Mrs. Kennedy: All right, let's go see daddy.
From the beginning of his presidency, Kennedy demonstrated great TV skills. The inauguration on January 20, 1961, was a masterpiece. First, there was Marian Anderson to sing "The Star Spangled Banner." The great African-American opera diva, who had once been denied the right to perform in Washington, D.C., because of her race, was now welding the future of black Americans to the new administration. No matter that poet Robert Frost stammered and appeared confused while reciting his original poem for the ceremony. Television recorded that the new president had brought another cultural giant into his inauguration, the nation's greatest living poet testifying to refinement of the New Frontier.
Kennedy also presented a handsome image. Dressed in top hat and waist-coat, and accompanied by his radiant wife, the new leader cut an impressive figure for the 59.5 percent of American homes viewing the ceremony. Camelot was taking shape in the national capital, and TV was showing the metamorphosis.
Even more dynamic, however, was the president's inaugural address. It was perfect for the time and for television. It exhorted the public to patriotic sacrifice. It challenged the Russians. It spoke of an idealistic future. And there were those memorable phrases so crucial to making any speech live beyond its delivery. When JFK declared, "The torch is passed to a new generation," he touched young Americans who saw in his youthfulness a reflection of their own vitality and emerging importance. When he proclaimed, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," Kennedy appealed to an altruism basic to the American character but submerged in the self-centeredness of American culture during the 1950s.
Since the end of World War II American liberalism had been on the defensive. HUAC and the forces of Senator McCarthy and others had castigated liberals for being unpatriotic, not harsh enough in their anti-Communism, too supportive of the "socialistic" legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In this one speech, however, JFK became not only the spiritual heir of FDR but also the man who restored patriotism as a outspoken value for liberals. Kennedy's address was a nationalistic, anti-Communist manifesto delivered from the American moderate left. Now liberals could wave the flag and not feel as though they had joined the ultrapatriotic John Birch Society.
As a starting point there were many Cold War slogans that Kennedy employed in his inaugural speech. He spoke of "defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger," and he warned that the United States would "support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty." In addition, Kennedy pledged that "One form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny," and he declared an unwillingness "to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this country has always been committed."
While avoiding specific policy recommendations, the new president indicated future directions. Like FDR, JFK favored government action to alleviate poverty and injustice at home. Similarly, he favored an interventionist foreign policy to protect American interests and to influence the direction of the decolonizing movement. To "old allies" Kennedy pledged "the loyalty of a faithful friend." To "those nations who would make themselves our adversary," he called for increased American military strength tempered by negotiations on arms control, technological cooperation, and general international understanding so that "a beach-head of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion."
Significantly, Kennedy spoke also to the newly emerging nations of the world. He promised "those people in huts and villages of half the globe" that the United States would be active in helping them help themselves "for whatever period is required." He suggested, moreover, a moral dimension, alleging that his motivation was to help the underdeveloped world not "because the Communists may be doing it, but because it is right."
John Kennedy's political thoughts were not unknown to television audiences before his inaugural address. Throughout the 1950s he had presented his views on camera. What had emerged from those thoughts was a philosophy in harmony with the anti-Communism of the times. On Meet the Press on December 2, 1951, he sided with Republican critics of President Truman, urging the president "to clean house" and to end "corruption" in his administration. Kennedy also urged strong military commitments in Europe. Having only 28 divisions in Europe to counter 175 Russian divisions, he said, "We're going to be in the most critical time in Western Europe that we're ever going to be, about next March."
Even more significant on that Meet the Press program were Kennedy's views on East Asia. Recently returned from a trip to the region, he appeared now as an Asian expert. On the Korean War, he agreed that in some strategies General MacArthur was correct. Kennedy urged greater reliance upon air power to win the war, but he did not favor the bombing of Manchurian sanctuaries, since that "would take the chance ... of bringing us into a war with the Soviet Union."
Kennedy was also critical of Truman's policies in Southeast Asia. He called for greater assistance, better propaganda, and a bypassing of the French, going directly to the indigenous people, since "You can never defeat the Communist movement in Indochina until you get the support of the natives, and you won't get the support of the natives as long as they feel the French are fighting Communists in order to hold their own power there." For Kennedy there had to be an alternative to Communism other than continued French imperialism. That alternative was native nationalism, to "give this country the right of self-determination and the right to govern themselves." Otherwise, Kennedy noted, "This guerrilla war is just going to spread and grow and we're going to finally get driven out of Southeast Asia."
Kennedy was committed early to the rivalry with Communism in Asia. On October 7, 1952, on DuMont's program Keep Posted he explained the necessity of keeping American troops in Korea. "Unless we want to withdraw completely from Korea," he remarked, "it seems to me that we have no alternative but to stay.... because the South Koreans cannot hold the line against a nation of over 400 million [Communist China] unless they are given assistance."
Increasingly, the senator's anti-Communist attentions were focused on Southeast Asia. Shortly after the Geneva Accords, which in 1954 terminated French colonial control of the area and prescribed unifying elections for Vietnam within two years, Kennedy was on NBC radio to bemoan the agreement. On The University of Chicago Roundtable on July 25, 1954, he spoke the classic language of the domino theory, envisioning that "the future of Southeast Asia is indeed dark" as a powerful Communist China was surrounded by weak, neutralist nations—from Laos and Cambodia to India, Ceylon, Burma, and Indonesia. These countries, in Kennedy's view, were vulnerable because, as neutrals, they were outside any "system of mutual guarantees" the United States might erect against the Peking government.
Kennedy urged a military buildup to meet the Asian challenge. "We must recognize that we are the leaders of the Free World," he told his audience, and "We offer because of our strength, not because of our desires, the only real counter to the Communist forces." Further, he said, "We must be willing to bear the burdens of leadership regardless of how difficult they may be if we are not to see the balance of power in the world tilt in favor of the Communists."
Most specifically, Kennedy revealed his thinking on Vietnam in a speech before the influential lobby organization the American Friends of Vietnam. Speaking on June 1, 1956, he lauded "the amazing success" of the organization's hero, Ngo Dinh Diem, whom the United States had installed as premier of South Vietnam two years earlier. JFK saw Vietnam as strategic to American policy, calling it "the proving ground of democracy in Asia" and "a test of American responsibility and determination in Asia." In addition he reiterated his belief in the domino theory. Kennedy claimed that Vietnam represented ". . . the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the red tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam."
Kennedy used the syndicated religious-political series Zero 1960 to offer a fuller perspective on the world situation and the U.S. role in it. Appearing in late 1959, the senator suggested that was between the United States and the Soviet Union now seemed implausible, but that there could be smaller conflicts, “other Koreas” in the years before the Soviet Union finally collapsed. But collapse it would, Kennedy assured his questioner, as the strength of American ideas rallied the rest of the world to the U.S. model of personal freedom, democratic values, and spiritual openness.
With such public declarations in his background, it was no wonder that on the CBS yearly review program Years of Crisis: 1960, David Schoenbrun foresaw the foreign policy objectives of the president-elect. From his perspective in Europe, Schoenbrun claimed that JFK was "African-minded, Asian-minded," convinced that "the real problem now is to save freedom and democracy in Africa and Asia."
While Kennedy found television crucial to his election, as president he continued to manipulate the medium for political purposes. Within weeks of the inauguration, ABC political commentator Bill Shadel anticipated as much, telling a fan magazine, "I believe Kennedy has discovered he's a new TV idol. I have no doubts that he'll go on TV whenever he really wants something, such as a piece of legislation passed." Significantly, Shadel added, "He'll use television as FDR used radio, to get the people to go along with his policies."
During his almost three years in the presidency, Kennedy delivered nineteen speeches on live TV, nine of these being reports to the nation on matters as diverse as the Cuban missile crisis and the racial integration of the University of Mississippi. JFK was also regularly on the evening news as network journalists centered attention on the dynamic and likeable young leader. He sat for lengthy TV interviews with Walter Cronkite of CBS, Bill Lawrence of ABC, and Eleanor Roosevelt representing educational television.
Even Jacqueline Kennedy promoted the attractive presidential image. Most successfully, on February 14, 1962, she accompanied Charles Collingwood and 24.5 million viewers of CBS and NBC on a videotaped tour of the White House. This hour-long excursion was seen in 73.9 percent of those American homes with TV sets. The program was repeated two days later on most ABC stations. In promoting the telecast, TV Guide printed Collingwood's flattering description of the First Lady.
Mrs. Kennedy isn't at all like I imagined. She has a shy manner, even a sort of shy way of moving. She is very girlish and youthful, yet with all her youth and shy manner she gives you an impression of being quietly assured, though not arrogantly so. . . . She speaks very precisely, enunciating carefully. She has a beautiful smile. She was perfectly groomed—with a simple, two-piece, plum-colored wool dress with a boat neck and a three-strand pearl necklace. And low-heeled shoes.
One month later, when the First Lady toured India and Pakistan, she received extensive TV coverage. ABC supplemented its regular news reportage with daily five-minute summations of her activities. These afternoon "News Specials" were sponsored by Maybelline cosmetics. When Mrs. Kennedy returned, NBC summarized her tour in a one-hour TV special.
Such exploitation of network TV by the Kennedys, and such fawning appreciation by distinguished journalists prompted George Rosen to write in Variety in March 1962: "There's a growing awareness in the television industry of how President Kennedy and the First Lady are collectively and individually wrapping TV around their little finger."
The folksy image of JFK perhaps reached its peak on December 17, 1962, when he engaged in a wide-ranging conversation at the White House with newsmen Sander Vanocur of NBC, George Herman of CBS, and Bill Lawrence from ABC. In a one-hour filmed program aired by NBC, JFK answered questions about his first two years in office. But what made this telecast especially effective was that throughout the discussion the president was seated comfortably in a rocking chair. Solid, traditional, practical, and reliable—the traits of the rocking chair seemed to imbue the chief executive with authority and an aura of Americana. Coming at Christmas time—less than two months after the Cuban missile crisis took the planet to the brink of nuclear annihilation—the "rocking chair conversation" allowed viewers at home and around the globe (The film was distributed to markets accounting for 82 percent of the non-Communist world.) to find confidence in the relaxed, mature figure presented by Kennedy.
Of all his TV formats, however, the president was most adept at the live news conference. Upon the strong recommendation of his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, the new chief executive became the first to open his press gatherings to live video coverage. During his tenure, JFK held 64 news conferences, and fourteen of them were on live television. With no editing and no time for retakes, this was TV realizing its destiny of informing the citizenry, bringing the news source into the experience of the home viewer.
What emerged in these confrontations with the news media was the image of a bright, personable, and articulate national leader, a man whose instincts were right and whose purposefulness appeared undaunted. Those in the video audience responded. Viewers complained that their president was not being treated with enough respect when "rude" newsmen and newswomen rustled papers, yelled and waved their hands to get Kennedy's attention, and mumbled or coughed when questions were being asked. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., described these conferences as "a superb show, always gay, often exciting, relished by the reporters and by the television audience."
Kennedy's televised news gatherings had as their principal goal not the informing of the press but a direct communication between the president and the voters. During the campaign JFK had received little support from newspapers, the vast majority of them editorializing in favor of Richard Nixon. Now, via television, he could bypass the print medium and approach the citizenry directly. As adviser Theodore Sorensen explained it, the purpose was "to inform and impress the public more than the press" and to provide "a direct communication with the voters which no newspaper could alter by interpretation or omission."
Audiences reacted favorably to the president's confrontations with the press. His first conference, conducted January 25, 1961, was seen by 65 million people in 21.5 American homes. While viewer interest waned as the novelty of these news forums faded, Kennedy's televised press gatherings averaged 18 million viewers. A survey in 1961 showed that 90 percent of those polled had watched at least one of the first three conferences—and 85 percent of that total had watched on purpose. Further, another poll that same year showed overwhelming support for live televised press conferences: 79.6 percent felt they were a good idea, and only 7.8 percent called them a bad idea.
In action before the 200 to 400 journalists at his press conferences, the president was masterful. Bill Lawrence conceded that "Reporters, those friendly and not-so-friendly, never cease to be amazed at the facts and figures at the President's command." Merriman Smith of United Press International, the senior wire service correspondent who opened and closed Kennedy's press conferences, felt that JFK's intelligence and preparation intimidated journalists. The president, according to Smith, "is exceptionally well-briefed on current events and a reporter who tackles him poorly prepared is liable to be shown up before a nationwide audience."
Writing several years after Kennedy's death, William Small, news director and bureau manager of CBS News in Washington, argued that "Handsome John Kennedy was a perfect President for television exposure." In Small's words, Kennedy "loved intellectual combat with the press. He had wit and grace and was always well-prepared. He was an instant public success. The President was continually curious about his ratings. . . ."
A glamorous president in a medium that loved the attractive, JFK developed a powerful influence over the national press. His ability to turn aside tough questions with grace and to employ charm and wit in avoiding embarrassing answers masked the great deal of preparation Kennedy put into each news conference. Before such confrontations he conferred with advisers, anticipated questions, and prepared his responses. At the conferences he could masterfully employ facts and figures or charming rhetoric to handle his questioners. He seldom faced tough follow-up questions.
At his press conferences and in his general relationship with the press, Kennedy soon precipitated charges of news management because of such practices as planting questions with reporters, the use of controlled news leaks, highly visible political tours for himself and other administration members, and even pressuring privately for the suppression of news. In this light, the attack upon TV as a "vast wasteland" delivered in May 1961 by Newton P. Minow, Kennedy’s appointee as chairman of the FCC, takes on a political dimension.
While Minow was criticizing video for airing violent and banal programs, he also was urging broadcasters "to service the nation's needs." While threatening to make the license-renewal procedure a means to force the upgrading of programming, Minow warned, "We cannot permit television in its present form to be our voice overseas." While saying "I am deeply concerned with concentration of power in the hands of the networks," he chastised the mediocrity he perceived in TV:
And I would add that in today's world, with chaos in Laos and the Congo aflame, with Communist tyranny on our Caribbean doorstep and relentless pressure on our Atlantic alliance, with social and economic problems at home of the gravest nature, yes, and with technological knowledge that makes it possible—as our President has said—not only to destroy our world but to destroy poverty around the world—in a time of peril and opportunity, the old complacent, unbalanced fare of action-adventure and situation comedies is simply not good enough.
This was an unnerving speech. At a time of quiz-show and payola scandals, network power was being assaulted more directly than at any time in the history of broadcasting. When asked his views at a press conference, Kennedy preferred to let Minow's words speak for him. Yet, privately Kennedy told Minow to "keep it up," and Attorney General Robert Kennedy joined the criticism. In July 1961 he met with CBS president Frank Stanton and board chairman William S. Paley to indicate his interest in seeing changes in video programming.
Still, early in his tenure television was swept up in a Kennedy craze. On February 28 and April 11, 1961, NBC presented two JFK Report programs, tracing his life story, introducing his family, spending a "typical" day in the Oval Office. On its Close Up documentary series, ABC offered "Adventures on the New Frontier." Aired March 28, the program took JFK through his primary victories, to Inauguration Day, and finally to relaxation at the end of a day's work.
While he approved of flattering programs such as these, JFK's press secretary, Pierre Salinger moved quickly to quash the trivialization of the presidency that seemed to be developing. "The press conference is not a network show," Salinger reminded public service TV executives on April 11, "it is a news event." In a time of domestic and international tension, Salinger was upset by those in TV who asked "what people [in the White House ] eat for lunch, what color paper the First Lady writes on, what soap is used by the President." Salinger wanted programs that demonstrated "what we are doing in Washington," and not the trivial stories that "clog up the communications channels and are a waste of the administration's talent and time."
Nonetheless, for an administration wanting in-depth coverage, in Kennedy's first great crisis in foreign policy the administration was less than candid with network TV. The Bay of Pigs incident occurred in mid-April 1961, when a brigade of about 1,500 Cuban refugees attempted an invasion of their homeland and the overthrow of Fidel Castro. The invaders had been trained, equipped, and financed by the Central Intelligence Agency. In fact, they had been groomed by the CIA since 1960 at secret bases in Guatemala. After Kennedy took office, he decided to permit the brigade to launch its invasion of Communist Cuba. Kennedy made his decision on April 4.
At his press conference on April 12, Kennedy was duplicitous when asked if a decision had been made on how far the United States would go in helping an anti-Castro uprising or invasion in Cuba. Kennedy promised that "There will not be under any conditions an intervention in Cuba by the United States armed forces. And this government will do everything it possibly can—and I think it can meet its responsibilities—to make sure there are no Americans involved in any actions inside Cuba."
If JFK was publicly deceptive, in private he moved adroitly to control the American press. He persuaded high-level editors at the New York Times and The New Republic not to print articles on the American role in the imminent invasion. Further, anticipating reactions by American journalists once the hostilities commenced, just before the attack Kennedy penned a note asking, "Is there a plan to brief and brainwash key press within 12 hours or so?"
American spy planes photographed Cuba for the invaders. American frogmen led landing parties, and American trainers eventually flew combat missions over the island. A U.S. Navy task force maneuvered off the Cuban shore. A radio transmitter owned by the CIA beamed propaganda broadcasts toward Cuba throughout the operation. And four American citizens died in the ill-fated invasion. The anti-Castro forces, however, were wrong when, while boarding ships in Nicaragua on April 13, they assured President Kennedy that Fidel Castro could be overthrown without direct American military intervention.
Denials of U.S. complicity were most eloquently presented by Adlai Stevenson, now the chief American representative at the United Nations. He denied Cuban accusations as "charges without any foundation." He explained that two anti-Castro airplanes in Florida were actually Cuban Air Force jets flown to the United States by defectors from Communism. To prove his point, he showed photographs of the planes. Apparently, Stevenson was not aware of CIA and Kennedy involvement in the invasion. The photographs he displayed had nose guns where Cuban aircraft had no such armament.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was a short-lived operation. It began on April 15 with an air strike by CIA-owned airplanes against Castro's paltry Air Force, knocking out all but three training jets. Troop landings began the following day. Unfortunately for the invading brigade, those unscathed Cuban jets were able to destroy air and sea support for the operation. Also, there was no spontaneous anti-Castro uprising on the island as had been expected. Cuban militia with Russian tanks and superior firepower badly crippled the rebels, forcing them to surrender on April 19.
For the Kennedy administration, the incident was a fiasco. Kennedy alienated anti-Communists in the United States who felt this to be the opportunity to aid the insurgents and introduce American military might to crush Castro. Kennedy, however, refused to commit direct U.S. military power to the invasion. To many liberals the affair was an unnecessary loss of life, secretly plotted by the CIA and the president, with no input from Congress or the citizenry.
In international affairs, the new administration was seriously compromised. Its spokesmen and legislative supporters, indeed the president himself, were all caught in public lies. In addition, foreign leaders openly criticized the American action. Castro, and especially the Cuban delegate to the United Nations, Raul Roa, assailed the "Vandalistic aggression" and "imperialistic piracy" of the Kennedy government. They likened the CIA to the Gestapo. Khrushchev pledged "all necessary assistance" to the resistance, and the Russian delegate urged the United Nations to assist Cuba against the assault. Prime Minister Nehru of India accused the United States of having encouraged the adventure. By April 21, even bitter anti-Castro rebels were assailing the CIA for its "monumental mismanagement" of the invasion.
At home Fidel Castro was hailed as a hero. If ever his power over the Cuban revolution had been questioned, he emerged from the Bay of Pigs incident as the uncontested head of state. Moreover, if ever Communism had not been totally accepted as the Cuban destiny, the failure of the invasion permanently discredited democratic or anti-Communist influences on the island.
American television was curiously quiet following the collapse of the counterrevolution. One of the few introspective TV programs was WCBS-TV Views the Press, seen only in the New York City area on April 23. Aired at 3:45 P.M. on Sunday, this program raised several questions about the silence of American journalism in the face of colossal government military initiative. Charles Collingwood pointed out that the secret invasion had not been too clandestine, since it was mentioned in the Hispanic American Review in October 1960, and on the front page of the New York Times in January 1961. Collingwood was critical of those journalists who pleaded ignorance of the CIA intervention. He accused the press of dropping news leaks and not carrying through on leads. George Rosen described this program as presenting "a stinging rebuke of U.S. journalistic standards and practices."
But 15 minutes of criticism on a Sunday afternoon in New York City did not shake American journalism. On April 20 the president spoke to the American Association of Newspaper Publishers and referred to the invasion as "a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator." The anti-Castro insurgents became "a small band of freedom fighters [that] has engaged the armor of totalitarianism." Admitting no wrongdoing, Kennedy offered a staunchly anti-Communist speech in which he said the United States would never concede Cuba to Communism, and although no new invasions were contemplated, Yankee patience with the island was "not inexhaustible." The speech was broadcast live on network television.
The following day, at his non-televised press conference, Kennedy refused to elaborate on the U.S. role in the invasion. He dodged several inquiries on the subject and referred reporters to his defensive speech of the previous day. The closest the president came to a public admission of error was "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan." The important matter, he declared, was that "I am the responsible officer of the government."
By the time of his press conference on May 5, Kennedy had to answer only two questions about Cuba. To one, he spoke of a possible trade embargo against the island; to the other, he responded that he had no plans to train an invasion force of Cuban exiles in the United States or elsewhere "at this time."
By early May the crisis had passed. The New Frontier and its journalistic chroniclers were back in high gear. While he evaded further questions about the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy sparked national excitement when he spoke of speeding up the American space program, of beating the Russians in the race to land a man on the moon. A week before the invasion, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had announced that the administration was accelerating its timetable, and instead of the "beyond 1970" target date envisioned in Eisenhower's space program, Kennedy's NASA was predicting a lunar landing by 1969-70—or perhaps as early as 1967. This announcement was made all the more credible when, on May 5, Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard, Jr., aboard his "Freedom 7" capsule, was launched 115 miles into space and returned to earth 15 minutes later. America had its first spaceman.
Generating still more favorable publicity, the New Frontiersmen were off to visit the world with TV crews reporting their expeditions to the American people. In mid-May, Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Asia and, most importantly, South Vietnam. The following month Adlai Stevenson journeyed to Latin America. The president himself was an active and visible traveler. On May 16-18, JFK and his wife visited Ottawa in what Variety termed "basically a television show," filled with speeches, inspection of honor guards, and close-ups of Mrs. Kennedy accepting compliments in French and English.
At the end of May the president was off on his most glorious international visit. He and Mrs. Kennedy visited Paris, London, and Vienna, where he met with Nikita Khrushchev. As abusive as Khrushchev was at that conference, the presidential tour was wondrous television. The image of the American leader operating easily with other heads of state was reassuring. That wit and style for which the president had become known were never better evidenced than in Paris on June 2, when he opened a question-and-answer session with the self-effacing comment, "I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it." Kennedy topped his whirlwind visits with a televised report to the nation on June 6 and a news conference on TV two days later.
With so much engaging dynamism, few in American TV paid much attention to the direction Kennedy's anti-Communist politics were taking. In the speech delivered to publishing executives on April 20, as well as rationalizing the Bay of Pigs adventure, the president on several occasions reaffirmed his constant interest in Southeast Asia. Arguing that wars between large armies with nuclear weapons were inappropriate for solving contemporary problems, JFK hinted that this was now the time of the guerrilla— "subversion, infiltration, and a host of other tactics steadily picking off vulnerable areas, one by one, in situations which do not permit our own armed intervention." In facing "the insidious nature of this new and deeper struggle," the president said, "we dare not fail to grasp the new concept, the new tools, the new sense of urgency we will need to combat it, whether in Cuba or South Vietnam."
In that speech JFK argued that "the message of Cuba" was being communicated elsewhere by Communist voices: "The complacent, the self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept away with the debris of history. Only the strong, only the industrious, only the determined, only the courageous, only the visionary who determine the real nature of our struggle can possibly survive."
Clearly, the American chief executive—like the population that applauded his charming intelligence—had lived down the Bay of Pigs affair and was ready to accept other international challenges. Just as clearly, the next target of his attention would be Southeast Asia.
By the end of 1961, Kennedy had demonstrated his intention to alter American commitments in the Far East. Following the vice-president's visit to Vietnam, JFK dispatched Stanford University economist Eugene Staley to assess the South Vietnamese economic condition. In October he sent his military representative, General Maxwell D. Taylor, to Saigon to report on military realities. When Allen B. Dulles resigned in the wake of the abortive Cuban invasion, Kennedy named John D. McCone as the new CIA director. As described by The New Republic, McCone was "the kind of man who hates Communism, not because it betrayed the revolution, but because he assumes it is the revolution." And as Henry Fairlie has shown convincingly in his book The Kennedy Promise, the president spent much of late 1961 surrounding himself with long-time Cold Warriors—many of them Republicans—in preparation to wage "Total Cold War."
It is important, too, that during the last half of 1961 Kennedy perfected his thinking on the need to fight Communist guerrillas with American guerrillas. Young, tough, aggressive, and agile, John Kennedy—the hero of those touch-football games on the lawns of Hyannisport—was now convinced that similar virtues of self-discipline would be required for this new breed of American fighting man: the U.S. Army Special Forces, popularly and erroneously called Rangers in the early 1960s (this because American guerrillas in World War II and the Korean War were the U.S. Army Rangers), but later known as the Green Berets.
The stealth and purposefulness of the Communist guerrilla was passing to organized American troops. If large armies and nuclear weapons were incompatible with subversive infiltration, the new anti-Communist response would have to be in kind. For a nation raised on Cold War television—with its facile images of good guys and bad guys, protectors and defilers, honorable American ingenuity and Communist perfidy—the Green Berets were a characteristic response.
The Green Berets seemed well-suited to the culture of the United States in the early 1960s. In their recognizable green standard Army uniforms highlighted by a unique shoulder patch and the engaging beret worn tilted to the right, these specially trained, specially dedicated troops were akin to the heroes of the many TV Westerns of the day. Where Paladin had a chessman on his holster, the Lone Ranger had silver bullets, Wyatt Earp used twin Buntline Special pistols, and several heroes owned specially modified rifles, the essence of the Special Forces was embodied in the beret—signifying skill, spirit, and education. These jungle fighters were more than guerrillas. As Senator Richard B. Russell of the Armed Services Committee remarked so appropriately in early 1961, "I rather associate guerrillas and bushwackers to be on the side of the bad folks on television, and the Rangers and the Boy Scouts on the side of purity and justice."
Kennedy did not create the Green Berets—the initial Army Special Forces unit was activated in July 1952, and the familiar berets were first worn publicly in June 1955. But the vigor, intellect and commitment of the Green Berets paralleled the personal values of the young president. Kennedy in 1961 increased the number of Special Forces from 800 to 5,000. Although the Army high command in 1956 forbade the wearing of the beret—fearful of creating an elite military force within the regular Army—Kennedy in late 1961 requested that Special Forces personnel resume wearing the headpiece. The relationship between the president and these counterinsurgency soldiers was such that after the assassination of JFK in 1963, the 1st Special Forces Group was permitted to add a black border to the all-yellow shield worn on its berets. The Green Berets—described by NBC News as "those highly-trained men, designed particularly to handle the so-called limited wars"—were a prominent part of the funeral ceremonies for the slain President Kennedy.
By the end of 1961 the president had decided to react more aggressively against Communism in Vietnam. The Army and militia of the Republic of South Vietnam increased greatly. The level of U.S. aid was raised. American troop commitments were boosted. Where there had been 875 advisers in South Vietnam when Kennedy came to office, in one year he raised the figure to 3,164. Many of these advisers were Green Berets who now accompanied South Vietnamese troops into battle areas. President Kennedy was moving the United States into the Vietnam War, and American television was practically silent on the matter.
In the years after his presidency, defenders of the Kennedy administration have contended that South Vietnam never commanded much of JFK's attention, and that had he lived, he would have extricated the United States from Southeast Asia following the elections of 1964. Implicit in such argumentation is the conviction that Kennedy did not start the Vietnam War, that 'the true culprit was Lyndon B. Johnson, who took a few thousand military advisers and turned a defensive military assistance program into a full-scale war.
Privately, the president was cautious about his increasing commitment in Southeast Asia. Each magnification of the American role in Vietnam was taken after consultations with advisers—some more interventionist and anti-Communist than he—and considerations of American domestic politics. It was an equivocal JFK who slid inexorably into that Asian conflict.
But Kennedy did not share his doubts with the American people. On television he never left the impression that Vietnamese affairs were of peripheral interest, or that he was uncertain about the American course of action in that area. Southeast Asia was a frequent topic in his public utterances during his first months in office. From mid-1961 until the day he died, the president openly reaffirmed his determination to fight world Communism by stopping its spread into South Vietnam. In his special message to Congress on urgent national needs, Kennedy on May 25, 1961, decried those "adversaries of freedom" who
... send arms, agitators, aid, technicians, and propaganda to every troubled area. But where fighting is required it is usually done by others—by guerrillas striking at night, by assassins striking alone—assassins who have taken the lives of four thousand civil officers in the last twelve months in Vietnam alone....
Kennedy spoke often of the situation in Vietnam. When he spoke before the United Nations on September 25, 1961, Kennedy reiterated the domino theory, noting that "the smoldering coals of war in Southeast Asia" were threatening all of Asia, for "if they are successful in Laos and South Vietnam the gates will be opened wide." He touched on Vietnam in his State of the Union addresses in 1962 and 1963. He skillfully answered questions about Vietnam in many press conferences.
On Washington Review on September 23, 1962, he informed David Schoenbrun that "If we stop helping them, they will become ripe for internal subversion and a Communist takeover. . . .if we can keep these countries free, then we can help the peace and keep our freedom." And in his "rocking chair" TV conversation in 1962, Kennedy saw American military commitments in a historically unique perspective, telling Sander Vanocur, "We have a lot of Americans in South Vietnam" (11,326 military personnel by December 1962) but that "No other country in the world has ever done that since the beginning of the world—Greece, Rome, Napoleon, and all the rest always had conquest. We have a million men outside and they are trying to defend these countries."
When Kennedy spoke to the nation about his civil rights program on June 11, 1963, he mentioned the Vietnamese commitment. When CBS and NBC expanded their evening news to a half-hour format, JFK appeared on their premiere broadcasts and touched upon Southeast Asia. On September 2, 1963, he told Walter Cronkite of CBS that "unless a greater effort is made by the [South Vietnamese] government to win popular support," the war could not be won. "We are prepared to continue to assist them," he added, "but I don't think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort. . . ." On September 9, JFK spoke with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC, returning to the domino theory, defending the CIA against charges it was operating in Vietnam without White House guidance, and concluding:
What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say because they don't like events in Southeast Asia or they don't like the government in Saigon, that we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the Communists. I think we should stay. We should use our influence in as effective a way as we can, but we should not withdraw.
On November 1, 1963, the Diem government was overthrown in a coup d'etat agreed to by President Kennedy. In the coup the autocratic South Vietnamese leader was murdered. Kennedy's response was to resume economic aid to South Vietnam, to recognize the new provisional government, and—as he told a press conference on November 14, 1963—to convene administration leaders in Honolulu to assess "how we can intensify the struggle, how we can bring Americans out of there."
The Vietnam War was a major part of John Kennedy's foreign policy. He consistently treated it in his television appearances. The last speech the president delivered before his assassination was concerned with the war. Speaking to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, Kennedy seemed more wedded than ever to his military commitment. He boasted that his administration "increased our special counterinsurgency forces which are engaged now in South Vietnam by 600 percent." He argued that "without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight." The president continued, "We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom, and I think we will continue to do as we have done in the past, our duty, and the people of Texas will be in the lead." Ironically, a few hours later Kennedy was dead and a Texan was sworn in as his successor and the new leader of the Free World.