Given the emerging role of the United States in mid-20th Century world affairs, what evaluation can be made of the leadership styles of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy that made them effective or, conversely, limited their effectiveness?
General Dwight Eisenhower and Senator John Kennedy ascended to the presidency from vastly differenct backgrounds that influenced their approach to government and foreign policy. Those differences were reflected in their approach to U.S.-Soviet relations, the dominant foreign policy issue of the time.
As president, Eisenhower adopted the same kind of low-key, thoughtful approach that he had exhibited throughout his military career and, most importantly, during his time as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II. Having experienced the enormously difficult and stressful process of deciding when and how to launch the D-Day invasion of France in June 1944, Eisenhower had a keener, calmer sense of how to react to emerging crises than would the young, less experienced senator who succeeded him. While President Eisenhower's tenure can hardly be described as lacking in excitement -- crises in the Suez Canal zone in 1956, the ongoing Korean War, C.I.A.-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala, fear about Soviet intentions in the developing world and that country's development of hydrogen bombs, revolution in Cuba, and more -- the president invariably projected a calm, commanding demeanor. And, of course, a developing U.S. military commitment in Southeast Asia would increasingly preoccupy U.S. policymakers.
When John F. Kennedy was elected president, he faced a number of international developments that quickly tested his fortitude and demeanor. Among the C.I.A. activities that would now fall under his realm of responsibility was the intelligence agency's preparations for a military incursion in Cuba conducted by anti-Castro rebels. Given the go-ahead by President Eisenhower, the impending invasion of Cuba was thrust upon the new president. The subsequent invasion at the Bay of Pigs would prove an unmitigated disaster that would greatly influence the new president's perception of his foreign policy commitments and the instruments to conduct foreign policy at his disposal.
President Kennedy's approach to foreign policy was deeply imbued with a sense of mission to both stop the spread of communism and to advance the cause of democracy. Toward this end, he began an escalation of the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam and authorized the C.I.A. to conduct covert operations aimed at the assassination of Cuban leader Castro.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was interested in testing the young American president to determine how far the Soviet Union could go in advancing its interests abroad at the expense of U.S. interests. In meetings between the two leaders, Kennedy gave Khrushchev the impression that U.S. interests in Berlin were limited to the western half of the city and that the U.S. commitment to the divided city was of less importance than he intended. Khrushchev responded by ordering the construction of the Berlin Wall, the defining symbol of the Cold War until its fall in 1989.
Because Khrushchev was under the impression that President Kennedy was less decisive and less committed to the defense of U.S. interests abroad, he secretly launched a plan to place nuclear weapons in Cuba, a close Soviet ally since its revolution. The resulting Cuban Missile Crisis represented not just the closest the world would come to a full-scale nuclear war, but the redemption of the Kennedy Administration's ability to conduct foreign policy.