Crisis of the Sixties

A Review of Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam
by Lawrence Freedman

Author Biography

Since 1982, Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College. He received his education from Whitley Bay Grammar School and the Universities of Manchester, York and Oxford. He has written on nuclear strategy, the Cold War, and the contemporary security issues. His interest in escalation encouraged him to write a book on Kennedy’s wars.

During the 1960s, conflicts of the Cold War continued to flourish with rebellious insurgencies, assassination attempts, and interlocking clashes with the Soviet Union. In Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam, Lawrence Freedman depicts the 35th president as less of a poser and more as a great influential conflict mediator during America’s most difficult and potentially explosive eras. With Freedman’s access to newly released government documents and recent bibliographies of John F. Kennedy, Freedman portrays JFK as more “thoughtful, serious, and consistent than the ambitious playboy of the revisionists.”1

Freedman evaluates Kennedy’s cabinet and its influential status in the government. Some of the prominent advisors in Kennedy’s administration such as Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Robert Kennedy, Dean Acheson, and Walt Rostow guided him to the decisions that prevented military confrontation and explored diplomatic options. In crisis of Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam, Kennedy prevented the declaration of war and admitted his failure rather than trying to save his pride. Freedman depicts the president as someone who “believed statesmanship required viewing the world from the adversary’s perspective and not just dealing with him as an implacable, single-minded foe with whom no common ground could be shared.”2 The president stepped in his adversary’s shoes and viewed the opposite side’s motives also. The author discusses JFK’s sympathetic side passionately throughout the chapters of this book.

After the Second World War, the desolate nation, Germany, was divided between the Allied superpowers. West Germany was shared between France, Britain, and America while East Germany was controlled by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). Both sides of Germany were afraid of reunification because they didn’t want to be influenced by the other side, which had either communism or capitalism. Berlin was one of the prominent triggers that could possibility have ignited a Third World War because during this time, tensions were most heated between the Russians and the Americans over this city. Though even with a hard-liner like Dean Acheson as an advisor, Kennedy stood to his ground and maintained negotiation with the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. Both Khrushchev and Acheson were itching for a confrontation, but Kennedy still tries to “resolve to outtalk the Russians rather than outfight them.”3 He extended more compromises for Khrushchev and tried to convince his opponent that war wasn’t the right path to go. Khrushchev, on the other side, was suffering with economic and social problems in East Germany. The government, Federal Republic of Germany (FDG), decided to build a wall to keep East German refugees from escaping to the West. The wall became a trap for the West because “if the West moved to break down the barriers, the communists would have a pretext to occupy all of Berlin.”4 In response to the Berlin crisis, America developed a “flexible response, the Poodle Blanket.”5 This strategy involved four phases of graduated response to the Berlin contingency. “First was interference with access; then came actually blockage of access, if these failed, by an attempt to restore access of non-nuclear means.”6 And lastly, if the battle group was stopped, the next step was an airlift in response to Soviet’s blockade. If all four phases failed, the involvement of nuclear weapons would be allowed. Khrushchev stopped his pressure on Kennedy after realizing the possibility of a World War. During the Berlin crisis, Kennedy not only did not rage a war but also improved the relation with the Soviets, leading to other benefits such as the compromise to ban testing nuclear weapons.

“While Berlin was the priority, the link had been made to Cuba.”7 Although the crisis in Europe settled down, problems shifted to Latin America. Fidel Castro, first supported by American liberals, overthrew the old dictator Fulgencio Batista. Despite the fact that the new dictator cooperated with America’s economic needs and capitalism ideal, communism started to grow in the Cuba. During Eisenhower’s administration influential leaders such as Richard Bissell tried to create a full scale anti-Castro force. Kennedy remained inactive knowing that increasing American involvement in Cuba would only lead to a catastrophe. A “New Plan” was quickly produced, rejecting the old full strike counterinsurgency in Trinidad with guerrilla operation.8 Kennedy cut Cuba’s economic ties with United States and pressured the regime economically. He also changed the location of the guerrilla operation to Zapata, also known as the Bay of Pigs. Landing at Zapata, US interventions couldn’t overcome Castro’s well-built army. Kennedy realized that “he was digging a deeper hole for himself,”9 because the more troops he put in Cuba, the more defensive aids came from Khrushchev. He rejected everyone’s proposal to further get involved in the war and wished to compromise and surrender. JFK’s sudden change from counterinsurgency to surrender at Bay of Pigs damaged his image as a great president, which showed his flaws and but revealed his ability to admit his mistakes rather than to continue with more aggression in a revolting country. Another option was provided, which Freedman calls the “quick fix” of assassination.10 Although Kennedy stated that “we cannot as a free nation, compete with our adversary in tactics of terror, assassination, false promise, counterfeit mobs, and crisis,” politicians under him ordered mafias to eliminate Castro.11 Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations attempted the assassination option as a way to solve the issue. Khrushchev was convinced that America would strike in Cuba, so he sent defensive missiles there. Fearing the damage the nuclear missiles could cause, Kennedy equipped the missiles in Turkey. This problem that could have transformed into a nuclear battle was later named as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy suppressed the Cuban crisis with a method similar to that he had used in the Berlin Crisis. As a result, Khrushchev negotiated with America, demanding the removal of missiles—the Jupiter—in Turkey. Kennedy “achieved his core political objective of removing the missiles,” allowing Khrushchev to “save face.”12 Feeling insecure about the situation, Khrushchev finally caved in and agreed with Kennedy’s compromises.

The issue present in Laos was a crisis that “tends to be forgotten because it was eventually subsumed into the larger Vietnam problem,” however, it was prominent during the Kennedy administration because “until the last few months of his life it took up more of [his] time than Vietnam.”13 Laos is a small country that shares long borders with China, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam and so provides a route for communication between the communist and noncommunist areas. With uncommitted agreements about Laos’ identity during the postwar agreements, America and Soviets continuously fought to gain this piece of land, quarrelling over whether Laos should join the communist or the anticommunist blocs, or whether it should sustain permanent neutrality.

At the same time as the crises of Berlin, Cuba, and Laos, growing involvement in the Southeast Asia became apparent. The target was Vietnam, which became the critical trigger between the Soviets and United States. Having political and geographical advantages, Vietnam was thought to be the “key to the future of the cold war in Asia.”14 Geographically, access to the sea in this location gave military advantages. Politically, unlike Laos’ inefficient troops, Vietnam’s soldiers were “tigers and real fighters.”15 Divided at the seventeenth parallel, North Vietnam was under the leadership of communist Ho Chi Minh while nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem governed the South. America at first supported Diem because Kennedy believed he could “combine nationalism with anticommunism and economic success.”16 But by 1960s, Diem’s regime became steadily more unpopular due to his abuse of power. Kennedy had to choose between supporting Diem and his poor regime or admitting his failure to bring a good leader to Vietnam unlike Soviet’s Ho Chi Minh.

In his book, Freedman depicts Kennedy as a person who wishes to avoid catastrophe, trying to “consolidate peaceful coexistence” and not working on “winning the cold war.”17 Through recently available articles and analysis, he interprets Kennedy’s administration through a different point of view. He states that Kennedy is remembered for crises rather than hot wars, and that “he left the cold war in a far less dangerous state than he found it.”18 Freedman gives much credit to Kennedy’s involvement in these crises, praising him for the peaceful relation United States had with the Soviets. Freedman is a sympathetic historian who resists “temptation to highlight missed opportunities, recklessness, misperceptions and miscalculations.”19 Covering both sides of the events during the crises, he discusses the steps that led to the resolution of the Cold War.

Freedman successfully portrays the tension and background during these four crises. He lists many alternatives for ways to deal with the issues; however, this acts as a disadvantage because readers can misinterpret Kennedy’s choice. In Cuban crisis, Freedman brings out every option from declaring nuclear war to the assassination attempt, and in the end, it confuses the readers. The book shows a side of Kennedy that isn’t included in history textbooks; instead of portraying him as a young and inexperienced fellow who became the president by luck, Freedman depicts him as a skillful pacifist. The theme of this book is Kennedy’s resistance to further escalation. He developed the concept of escalation in the mid 1980s. He believes that this word had an interesting transformation during the 1960s when limited warfare begun as an alternative against Soviet Union. The author comments on Kennedy’s clear sense of where limit should be in the Cold War crises. Instead of criticizing Kennedy, Freedman points out the reasons behind his actions during this explosive era.

Freedman not only praises Kennedy’s administration, but also indirectly gives credit to Khrushchev’s cooperation with America in preventing a nuclear catastrophe. He assumes that Kennedy was lucky that he presided during the turning point of the Cold War when Soviet challenges “ran out of steam.”20 Soviet Union’s bluffs in nuclear arms were detected by America, which led to the demise of threat that Soviet used to bring to the world. Kennedy, under the pressure of risking an escalation in the Cold War and conscious of his vulnerability to nuclear confrontation, explored diplomatic options that could balance the two powers equally. Freedman believes the pressure from Kennedy’s advisors, who took radical stands of each issue during 1960’s regarding foreign affairs, and influenced his decisions, explains Kennedy’s actions during this period.

In his review about this book, Philip Knightley compliments Kennedy’s fight during the Cold War on a “day-to-day basis” defending “the free world” with all his might “to avoid a nuclear war that would end civilization.”21 Knightley also points out Freedman’s description of Kennedy’s respect for the Soviet Union and belief in peaceful coexistence. Knightley enjoys the “put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes” thesis that Freedman focuses on regarding Kennedy.22 Understanding Khrushchev’s situation and desiring to prevent nuclear warfare, Kennedy accepted his demands exchange for peace and “helped an old foe to save face.”23 In another review, Marc Trachtenberg agrees with Freedman’s analysis of Kennedy as well. Trachtenberg believes that Kennedy “did want to stabilize the status quo in Europe and wanted to avoid a full-scale military involvement in Southeast Asia.”24 He analyzes Freedman’s broad range of resources such as the volume of Foreign Relations of the United States that was available for the author to reveal a new look at Kennedy.

Reflecting the Sixties and early Seventies, the author describes this period in his book as a critical point in America’s foreign political watershed. It was a time when Soviet and American relations worsened to the point that both of the superpowers pointed missiles at each other. Kennedy’s switch of foreign policy from using aggressive nuclear weapons to “flexible response” and “counterinsurgency” changed the two powers dramatically.25 Opposite of massive retaliation, flexible response refers to the many options Kennedy sought besides the nuclear option. America did not push Russia hard but gradually defended them and prevented nuclear warfare.

This era was a turning point both culturally and politically. Foreign exchange from the United States soldiers passed through Europe and Asia, improving America’s cultural diversity. While the “missile gap crisis” was in hand during this period, technology was enforced to its maximum, bringing a wide range of cultural improvements.26 Technological advances in electronics, telecommunications and transportation changed the American lifestyle. Politically, similar to Freedman’s interpretation, this period marked a peak due to its extreme tensions with foreign countries. Soviet-United States relations improved during this period, saving the world from destruction by nuclear advancements.

The Sixties is interpreted as an influential period due to the change in America’s relation with the Soviet Union. From Berlin Crisis to the revolts in Vietnam, America held to its ground to maintain peace and possible friendship with the Soviets. JFK enforced this idea constantly throughout his presidential term. Catastrophes like “full-scale military commitment” or also known as unlimited warfare were avoided and coexistence of these two countries was still maintained throughout Kennedy’s administration.27 However, containment continued to occur in Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. Kennedy, defending the free world, looked constantly towards a less aggressive option. His flexible response permitted him to seek a closer to the solution of the Cold War. Due to these suppressive actions, the destruction of the world by nuclear weapons was stopped, allowing today’s world to exist.

This book reflects many of the crises as the starting point of the intensifying Cold War; it also resolves each situation by describing Kennedy’s move toward negotiation every time a problem gets out of hand. JFK only had three years of administration in the United States government; he managed to pull America away from nuclear warfare and aggressions with other nations.

review by Kathryn Lin

  1. Knightley, Phillip. “Kennedy’s Wars book review.” Phillip .
  2. Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy’s Wars Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: 2000, 34.
  3. Freedman, Lawrence 65.
  4. Freedman, Lawrence 76.
  5. Freedman, Lawrence 93
  6. Freedman, Lawrence 94.
  7. Freedman, Lawrence 120.
  8. Freedman, Lawrence 135.
  9. Knightley, Phillip 2.
  10. Freedman, Lawrence 150.
  11. Freedman, Lawrence 151.
  12. Freedman, Lawrence 218.
  13. Freedman, Lawrence 293.
  14. Freedman, Lawrence 305.
  15. Freedman, Lawrence 305.
  16. Freedman, Lawrence 306.
  17. Freedman, Lawrence 419.
  18. Freedman, Lawrence 419.
  19. Knightley, Phillip 1.
  20. Knightley, Phillip 1.
  21. Knightley, Phillip 1.
  22. Knightley, Phillip 2.
  23. Knightley, Phillip 2.
  24. Trachtenberg, Marc “Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (review).” Journal of Cold War Studies 2 (2002). . 1.
  25. Freedman, Lawrence 287.
  26. Freedman, Lawrence 82.
  27. Trachtenberg, Marc 1.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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