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1963: JFK's successes, failures, and death

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The world survived the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but the Cold War continued. President Kennedy found himself waging a war against southern racism and Soviet oppression in 1963. Kennedy scored victories in the struggle against communism, but also blundered in Vietnam. His speech in Berlin and Nuclear Test Ban Treaty were major milestones in his presidency. However, Kennedy’s life and administration ended that November. As a result, his successes and the nation's optimism gave way to universal mourning.

President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev narrowly avoided nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The pair reached an agreement to dismantle nuclear sites in Cuba and Turkey. The two sides then negotiated the Limited Test Ban Treaty banning all above ground nuclear tests. The treaty marked the beginning of a new era in nuclear politics. It also helped lead to Khrushchev’s ouster in the Soviet Union. Hardliners believed the premier too weak to deal with the west after Cuba.

Khrushchev assumed control of the U.S.S.R. following Stalin’s death. In 1961, he constructed a wall separating East and West Berlin. Easterners fled to safety in the west resulting in a major drain of professionals and intellectuals. Khrushchev built the wall to keep people under Soviet domination.

The wall became a major propaganda coup for the west. After all, nations generally built walls to keep people out. Two years after initial construction of the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy visited the site. He spoke to nearly 500,000 people and declared “Ich bin ein Berliner”, or “I am a Berliner.” The speech invigorated Berliners and provided hope. It was also a clear shot at the Soviets.

Kennedy’s rhetorical shots at Khrushchev continue to echo through time, but many remain unaware of the shots the president directed at Ngo Dinh Diem. The South Vietnamese president brutally put down Buddhist uprisings across his nation. Buddhist monks set themselves on fire in protest and Diem’s sister-in-law mocked the protesters referring to the incidents as “barbeques.” The military approached Washington for help in removing Diem. Kennedy approved the operation and the CIA assisted in the coup. President Diem was arrested and then shot in the back of the head. Kennedy recoiled at images of the body. One operative wondered “what did he expect?” Meanwhile, North Vietnamese strongman Ho Chi Minh wondered if the American government was stupid enough to back the coup. Washington wanted a controllable puppet in South Vietnam, but none of Diem’s successors could create a stable government. Diem’s death helped North Vietnam eventually conquer the south.

Ngo Dinh Diem died on November 2. President Kennedy joined him less than three weeks later. The president decided to make a campaign stop in Texas to try and shore up support in the Lone Star State. Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed Kennedy in Dallas on November 22. The Kennedy Administration ended as abruptly as Diem’s presidency. The nation went into mourning and worried about the future. The next two decades brought disaster after disaster.

Kennedy’s Cold War successes in Berlin and with the Limited Test Ban Treaty were overshadowed by his assassination. His New Frontier seemed primed to launch America forward. However, the optimism gave way to sadness with his untimely death. 1963 began with much optimism and hope, but ended in tragedy.

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