America Didn’t Sleep

By shoring up U.S. military strength and resolve, President Kennedy persuaded the Soviet Union to back down in Berlin and Cuba, bringing a measure of peace to a world frightened about the threat of nuclear war.

On October 9, 1961, the presidential plane was en route to Dallas, Texas. John F. Kennedy was flying there to visit Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House of Representatives, who was dying. A correspondent aboard the president’s plane was reading a copy of Why England Slept, which Kennedy had written when he was a senior at Harvard and which had just been republished. The correspondent asked the president if he would autograph the book for his son, then a college freshman.

The president quickly wrote: “For Andy—With the hope that he will not be compelled in his senior year to write ‘Why America Slept.’ With warm regards, John F. Kennedy.”

President Kennedy did not let America sleep …

Our chances for peace

In his last public utterance … in Fort Worth a few hours before he was cruelly slain, Kennedy said: “I’m confident as I look to the future that our chances for security, our chances for peace, are better than they’ve been in the past. And the reason is because we’re stronger. And with that strength is a determination to not only maintain the peace but also the vital interests of the United States. To that great cause Texas and the United States are committed” …

For a time during the Eisenhower administration, hopes for some kind of adjustment and easing of the Cold War were bright. But the conditions were not ripe. Although recent hopes may again be shattered (Kennedy warned in his Fort Worth speech that “no one expects that our life will be easy—certainly not in this decade and perhaps not in this century”), Washington does believe that the Cuban crisis of October 1962 was one of those watersheds in history comparable to the beginning or end of a great war. Russia had been halted decisively …

Toward an easing of tension

After his inauguration, President Kennedy’s first objective was to strengthen the American military so that it could be used as a subtle and effective political instrument. When Khrushchev realized toward the end of 1961 that this power was growing rapidly in a sophisticated way, and that the American nerve was equal to his, he withdrew his Berlin ultimatum.

Khrushchev’s bold and exceedingly dangerous plan to place Soviet missiles in Cuba was the most daring exercise of Soviet blackmail in the nuclear age. George F. Kennan has said that he never fully understood why the usually cautious Soviet leaders would expose themselves to such dangers so far from home. It was a desperate gamble to neutralize American power.

When the gamble failed, to the humiliation of the Soviet leaders, the world breathed more easily than it had in 15 years.