From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast

Episode 17 - 1961 Part I: Bear Any Burden?

February 22, 2022 Logan Rogers Season 2 Episode 7
From Boomers to Millennials: A Modern US History Podcast
Episode 17 - 1961 Part I: Bear Any Burden?
Show Notes Transcript

In January 1961, new President John F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address that the American people were ready to "bear any burden" and "pay any price" in order to fight for global freedom, which he argued was being threatened by the Communist bloc. That price soon turned out to include a new taxpayer-funded military buildup when Congress approved increased government spending upon nuclear missile production. It also included the cost of a new federal investment in diplomatic initiatives such as the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. However, an aggressive US attempt to use Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro was met with disaster in the Bay of Pigs invasion. This fiasco taught Kennedy to question the advice he was receiving from the military & the CIA. When JFK's hawkish advisors later suggested that the USA should undertake a substantial military intervention in order to prevent Communists from taking power in Laos, the president decided that another attempt at foreign intervention was a burden that he could not bear. Unfortunately, Kennedy hadn't seen the last of his foreign policy troubles related to both Cuba and Southeast Asia.

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            From Boomers to Millennials is a Modern US History podcast, providing a fresh look at the historic events that shaped current generations of Americans, from the mid-1940s to the present day. Welcome to the first of two episodes about the year 1961, a/k/a Episode 17, “Bear Any Burden?” I need to start off today’s show explaining why this episode is a little bit shorter than usual for one of our full-length episodes. Not long after New Year’s, I started a new full-time job, & my new situation has disrupted my regular schedule. Fear not, I’m now settling into my new routine, and I intend to continue releasing episodes on at least a monthly basis. However, some of these episodes might be a little shorter. I have decided to divide 1961 up into two episodes so that I could get today’s new episode out. So, this first episode on ‘61 will introduce the Kennedy Administration’s approach to foreign policy and will discuss the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The second episode will examine the rising Cold War tensions around the fate of Berlin, & it will also spotlight a new wave of violent conflict over civil rights in the American South.


            But before we begin the story of JFK’s presidency, in this show we’re going to provide you with some of features that we usually reserve as content for our supplemental episodes. It may be filler, but hopefully it’s tasty filler, like the filling of a chocolate éclair. Wow, obviously I was hungry when I wrote this script. Anyway, I would like to start off by thanking both Steve and Taras for their generous donations to our Patreon page. Your donations help us to cover our expenses for hosting, researching, & recording our shows. Your support in terms of financial contributions, 5-star reviews, supportive emails, and even downloads mean the world to us & really helps inspire us to keep the “From Boomers to Millennials” podcast going strong.


            Next, we have an update on the Top 10 states where we are getting the widest listenership. You won’t be surprised that most of our top states are on the larger side in terms of their population, but there are a few surprises. Numbers 8 through 10 are a three-way tie between Ohio, New Jersey, & Maryland. Then coming in at Number 7 is the State of Illinois, a state that was very important in electing John F. Kennedy back in our last full-length episode, of course. At Number 6 we have Florida, although they’re #3 in population nationwide, so our Floridian listeners maybe need to step it up a little more. In a tie for Number 4, we have Michigan & Massachusetts. New England is really punching above its weight here; Massachusetts is 15th in population but #4 for us, so they must really love history in the Bay State, probably because they have so much of it. There’s probably some interest in our Kennedy series up there as well. Next, we finally head west of the Mississippi to get Texas in there in Third Place. Thanks, y’all. Who’s in second? Well, the silver medal goes to New York State. We thank our listeners in all 5 boroughs & those upstate as well. Finally, first place unsurprisingly goes to the State of California. I have several California ties, which may help our numbers there, & then there’s also the fact that the Golden State has 10% of the country’s population, which I’m sure helps out as well. If you’re disappointed that your state didn’t make it onto this list, tell your friends about the podcast & maybe you can help push your state’s download numbers into the Top 10.


            Finally, it’s been a while since we’ve done a history podcast spotlight. This month’s featured podcast is very famous & probably one most of you are already familiar with, but I’ve been enjoying it so much lately that I just have to give it a shout-out. Mike Duncan’s “Revolutions” podcast was one of the main inspirations for us to start our own humble little indie history podcast Duncan is a compelling storyteller & an absolute master of the history podcast form. His recent episodes on the Russian Revolution have taken us from the hopeful days of February 1917, when the masses of St. Petersburg were able to overthrow the autocratic tsar, to the turbulent Bolshevik Communist takeover in October 1917, which an American journalist famously called the “ten days that shook the world.” Duncan is now discussing the Russian Civil War, which involves the young Soviet government’s gradual slide into paranoid authoritarianism, & also the pitched battles between the White forces & the Red Army that involved major atrocities on both sides. It's all fascinating stuff, and Mike’s insights on the early development of the USSR may provide a useful preface to our own recent episodes about the Cold War. Speaking of which, it’s definitely time for us to return to the 1960s.



At his inaugural address in January 1961, the new American president, John F. Kennedy, cast the USA’s Cold War struggle as a moral crusade. He declared, (quote) “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival & success of liberty” (close quote). The speech demonstrated Kennedy’s commitment to do whatever it took to stop the worldwide advance of Communism, which was the foe that Americans tended to fear the most during this era. He called upon the American people to be prepared to sacrifice in order to defend the so-called “free world” from Commie totalitarianism. In his inaugural speech, he famously admonished the American public to (quote) “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Despite America’s postwar prosperity, the Cold Warriors in both political parties seemed to be warning the American people that years of hard struggle were ahead of them. History Professor George C. Herring notes that the top figures in the Kennedy Administration (quote) “shared a Wilsonian view that destiny had singled out their nation . . . to defend the democratic ideal” (close quote). In the early 20th Century, President Woodrow Wilson had dubbed American participation in World War I as a moral struggle to (quote) “make the world safe for democracy,” & generations of subsequent “Wilsonian” US foreign policy thinkers had carried on in that tradition, believing that fate had presented America with the duty to be the global guardian of freedom. The Kennedy brain trust had great confidence in American capabilities to accomplish this & other challenges – JFK even promised in a May 1961 speech to Congress that the USA would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Amazingly, the Americans would actually make good on that promise. However, other burdens assumed during John F. Kennedy’s presidency would prove much harder to carry.


According to historian George C. Herring, for JFK, (quote) “like many of his generation, he was certain that foreign policy was the most exciting & urgent challenge a president faced. ‘I mean, who gives a [damn] if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25,’ he confided to kindred spirit ([well,] at least on that issue) Richard Nixon” (close quote). In Episode 16, we discussed how Kennedy picked Secretary of Defense McNamara & Secretary of State Rusk after consulting with the veteran Cold Warriors in the Democratic Party establishment. Herring notes that he appointed other such leaders (quote) “from the top echelons of academia & business,” including McGeorge Bundy, who JFK selected as his chief National Security Advisor. McGeorge Bundy came from a prosperous New England family of WASP Republicans, & he had been a star student at Yale. After graduating college, Bundy worked as a speechwriter for FDR’s former Defense Secretary Henry Stimson. He then entered academia & became a Professor of Government at Harvard. Bundy was appointed a Harvard Dean at age 34, & he still holds the record as the youngest person ever appointed to that prestigious academic office. Despite his elite upbringing, Bundy was among the administrators who attempted to transform the Ivy League away from being a finishing school for rich preppies & toward being a merit-based enclave of stellar scholarship & intellectualism. He became friendly with John F. Kennedy when they served together on the Harvard Board of Overseers. JFK picked Bundy for the NSA position (despite his Republican affiliation) because he was not considered a right-wing crank, but rather was a fellow believer in the Cold War liberal consensus. But Jack’s most trusted confidant was someone you’re much more likely to have heard of.  Herring reports that (quote) “The president’s young brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, became his alter-ego & closest adviser, even on foreign policy” matters (close quote). Bobby Kennedy was a force of nature, a gifted politician in his own right, albeit one with a more confrontational interpersonal style than that of his more suave older brother. We will more fully introduce RFK in the next episode of our podcast’s miniseries about the Kennedy political dynasty.


Upon taking power, John F. Kennedy changed the way that Cabinet members & other high-ranking advisers interacted with the president. Herring reports that he (quote) “quickly scrapped Eisenhower’s formal, highly bureaucratized National Security Council structure in favor of a more freewheeling” approach that some Washington veterans criticized as being too disorderly & chaotic. This loose administrative style added to the challenges Jack Kennedy faced in dealing with the military, whose top brass had less respect for JFK than they did for his predecessor, the experienced ex-general Dwight D. Eisenhower. Herring observes that (quote) “Military leaders such as the cigar-chomping Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay scarcely concealed their contempt for the inexperienced civilians in the White House” (close quote). The public opinion of an increasingly belligerent American right wing also put pressure on Kennedy to adopt a tough foreign policy; Herring contends that Jack (quote) “kept a wary eye on his domestic flank, ever-sensitive to opposition charges of [weakness &] appeasement” (close quote).


            James T. Patterson, who tends to be more critical of the Kennedy Administration than many other historians, alleges that (quote) “Kennedy’s personal approach to foreign affairs – [when] combined with forces mostly beyond his control” contributed to an escalation in tensions with the Soviet Union during his first 2 years in office. “These represented the most frightening years of the Cold War” (close quote). I would add that the rocky conclusion of the Eisenhower Administration’s foreign policy efforts (see Episode 15) had also put the young president in a difficult position from the very start of his term. The U-2 incident increased tensions with the USSR in 1960, and the Eisenhower Administration had been plotting aggressive secret efforts to overthrow the Communist regime in Cuba. Patterson also identified 3 outside factors that created problems for JFK during his first year in office: first, the so-called “military-industrial complex,” which Ike had an easier time pushing back against than did Kennedy; second, increasingly inflamed (quote) “anti-Communist public opinion in the US”; and third, provocative & aggressive behavior by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In January ’61, Khrushchev gave a belligerent speech in which he promised that the Soviets would support (quote-unquote) “wars of national liberation” around the world. According to Herring, the USSR backed up these words by stepping up its efforts to aid Communist forces in Cuba, the Congo, & Laos. Historian George Herring criticizes Kennedy’s team for ignoring the growing divisions & tensions between the Kremlin leaders in Moscow, Mao Zedong’s Red regime in Beijing, & various other Communist groups around the globe. Instead of exploiting the internal tensions within the Communist bloc, the Kennedy Administration (quote) “still viewed Communism as a monolithic & mortal threat to the United States” (close quote).


            JFK had successfully campaigned for the White House during 1960 by wielding an accusation that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed a “missile gap” to open up between the USA & the USSR. However, upon becoming president & gaining access to classified information, he learned that the opposite was true; the Soviets actually trailed the Americans in production of nuclear missiles. Herring reports that in spite of this fact, perhaps both to fulfill his campaign promises & to appear tough, (quote) “JFK ordered a . . . massive buildup of nuclear weapons, missile-firing submarines, & long-range missiles to establish [even greater] superiority over the USSR.” Patterson suggests that Kennedy’s economic advisers believed that increased defense spending would also amount to a “military Keynesianism,” which would help to stimulate the nation’s economy in addition to improving national defense capabilities. JFK also (quote) “expanded & modernized the nation’s conventional forces to permit a ‘flexible response’ to various kinds of threats” (close quote). This flexibility included the ability to use counterinsurgency forces that could do battle against guerilla fighters in Third World nations. Kennedy helped establish many of these special forces units, including the Green Berets. 


JFK made these major investments in Cold War military preparation in large part because he did not want to make the same mistake his father had made during his tenure as US ambassador to the UK in thinking that dictators could be successfully appeased (see Episode 16A). Patterson writes that Jack Kennedy had internalized the lesson learned by a generation of US foreign policy hands that (quote) “to show indecisiveness, as Western countries had done with Hitler in the 1930s, was to encourage aggressive behavior. Only firm & unflinching direction could preserve the all-important ‘credibility’ of the United States, defender of the ‘Free World’” (close quote). Historian K.A. Cuordlione argues that a macho obsession with not appearing “soft” on the Commies became endemic within both major political parties during this era. She argues that (quote) “The Kennedy administration’s much-commented-upon cult of toughness didn’t arise in a vacuum, but amid a political culture that turned [traditional displays of] masculinity into a prerequisite for [successful Cold War] Democrats” (close quote).


            The young president believed he had a need & an opportunity to show his toughness against Communism by making a move against Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. US officials thought that the left-wing government in Havana was vulnerable; after all, it had been in power for only 2 years, & the waves of exiles fleeing to Miami indicated that Castro’s rule was unpopular with at least some portions of the island’s population. As we discussed in Episode 14, US leaders had been deeply shaken by the Cuban Revolution, finding it completely unacceptable that a nest of Commies had infiltrated the Caribbean, which the US had long regarded as a neighboring sea of relative tranquility. President Eisenhower, the military, & the intelligence community had all signed off on a plan to train anti-Communist Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro’s dictatorship. These dissident forces had spent several months training in Central America, & in early ‘61 the CIA informed the new president that the agency was ready to implement its plan to unleash the exiles against the regime in Cuba. Historian James T. Patterson notes that some liberal advisers within the Kennedy Administration warned against making this aggressive move upon Castro, but they lost the internal debate. Herring reports that (quote) Kennedy “approved the [CIA’s] plan in hopes of gaining a major victory in his first months [in office] & because not to do so would leave him vulnerable to Republican attacks” (close quote). However, the president knew that there was significant risk involved. If the Soviet Union perceived that the US was directly attacking one of its Communist allies, it could potentially provoke World War III, so JFK thought it vital that the US military & diplomatic corps conceal the fact that the Americans were behind the exiles’ plot to overthrow Castro.


            According to Patterson, the basic idea was that an invasion force of anti-Communist exiles would land on Cuban shores, creating panic & confusion within the island nation, (quote) “whereupon anti-Castro rebels in Cuba – presumed to be chomping at the bit – would rear up & drive the dictator from office” (close quote). The operation began with an air strike against Cuba on April 15th, which was conducted by American planes based in Nicaragua, that had been painted to look as if they were Cuban aircraft stolen by the exiles. You know, because airplanes are apparently easy things to steal with nobody noticing that they’re missing, I guess. Anyway, the air strike took out a couple of Cuban planes, but it really only succeeded in making it obvious to the Cuban government that an attack was coming. Meanwhile, American destroyers escorted a fleet of ships carrying the small army of anti-Castro exiles back to their homeland. On April 17th, the armed anti-Communist Cubans proceeded into the Bahia de Cochinos (or Bay of Pigs). They reached the shoreline & stormed the beaches. Unfortunately for them, Fidel Castro’s government had been tipped off by its spies about the entire operation, & the Cuban military was more than prepared for this incursion. George C. Herring writes that (quote) “the rag-tag exile forces were sitting ducks . . . After 3 days of fighting, 140 [invaders] were killed, [and] 1,189 [were] captured” (close quote). US rescue teams only recovered 26 survivors, meaning that the overwhelming majority of the rebel forces either died during the failed siege or got apprehended & imprisoned.


            Although no US ground forces were used in the attack, the mighty American military had trained, armed, & transported the forces that got crushed at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion had been done to further American geopolitical interests, but it achieved nothing positive; it only caused American global credibility to take a hit. Patterson argues that (quote) “the invasion was one of the most disastrous military ventures in modern American history” (close quote). He wrote that in the late 1990s; there may have been some other nominees since then, but his point still stands. How did it all go so wrong? Herring contends that (quote) “the exiles were poorly trained, disorganized, & divided among themselves” (close quote). The choice of the specific geographic location for the invasion also demonstrated American ignorance of the situation in Cuba. Patterson points out that the Bahia de Cochinos proved to be (quote) an exposed “swampy region from which soldiers, once trapped, could not melt away or find refuge.” Furthermore, (quote) “Cubans in the Bay of Pigs area, where Castro had built schools & hospitals, were especially loyal to him” (close quote). Indeed, while many in the nation’s wealthier classes had been fleeing Castro’s heavy-handed expropriations, the impoverished majority of Cubans felt that the revolutionary regime had done more to help them than the previous dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista ever had. The proud Cuban population was also fed up with Yankee meddling in the internal affairs of their island. So, very few people there were in any mood to greet the Bay of Pigs invaders as liberators. Patterson observers that (quote) “[This] was neither the first nor the last time that US leaders in the postwar era overestimated the potential for American military strength or underestimated the power of nationalism & patriotic fervor overseas” (close quote).


            Of course, had the USA chosen to use its own vast military arsenal to overthrow the regime in Cuba, the result could have been very different. The American military certainly had the resources needed to topple the Cuban government & to invade the island. Whether the occupation would have been successful in the long term is another question, but certainly they could have invaded. Of course, the problem with such a blatant & belligerent approach was that it could spark a nuclear war with Fidel Castro’s Communist patrons in the USSR (and that would be bad). This is why JFK had tried (however clumsily) to make the Bay of Pigs attack look like an independent movement of anti-Communist Cuban rebels. However, because of the attack’s dismal failure, Kennedy received a considerable amount of criticism from hawkish forces in the US defense establishment. They attacked the president for not using the US Air Force to provide cover for the invading exiles by bombing the Cuban tanks & by shooting down the Cuban warplanes that were crushing the ragtag rebel force. The most prominent of these critics was none other than former President Dwight Eisenhower. According to historian David Farber, Ike privately chided JFK, stating (quote) “Either go in with what it takes to win, or don’t go in at all” (close quote). Patterson argues that (quote) “failure to provide air support doomed whatever chance the invaders may have had to establish themselves at the site . . . but it is clear that the invasion suffered from many deeper flaws of overall strategy & conception” that limited its chances of success under any circumstances (close quote). Spoiler alert – the upcoming missile crisis during 1962 would demonstrate that military confrontation with the Cuban Communist regime & its Soviet backers carried tremendous dangers; for this reason, many historians conclude that the American scheme to unleash an invasion of anti-Castro exiles upon the island would have best never been attempted at all.


            During spring 1961, the American news media widely covered the rebels’ doomed attack on the Cuban coastline, & it reported that these failed insurgents had American government backing. John F. Kennedy found himself with a lot of egg on his face, just months into his presidency. Patterson notes that his (quote) attempts at “covertness fooled no one: Castro, Khrushchev, & other world leaders recognized from the start that the US had planned & supported the operation” (close quote). According to George C. Herring, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took it personally that the attack had coincidentally taken place on his own birthday, wrongly viewing it as an intentional insult. Back in the USA, President Kennedy gave a public address where he stated that (quote) “victory has a hundred fathers, & defeat is an orphan” (close quote). In that speech, he put on a brave face & took full responsibility for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. However, Herring writes that JFK was privately (quote) “shattered by the debacle & furious at the military and CIA for misleading him” about its odds of success (close quote). The following year, Kennedy would remove Allen Dulles as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, finally ending the crusading conservative Dulles Brothers’ long-running influence on US foreign policy.


            The disappointment of the Bay of Pigs fiasco did not cause the young president to give up on trying to intervene in Cuba, however. Herring contends that (quote) “Fiercely competitive, the Kennedy brothers found defeat intolerable, especially at the hands of someone [like Castro, who] they viewed as a tinhorn dictator” (close quote). JFK gave the green light to Operation Mongoose, a covert program that unleashed various attempts to sabotage the Cuban Communist regime, with its most ambitious aim being to assassinate Fidel Castro. Of course, all of the CIA assassination attempts failed, & Castro would actually outlive the entire Cold War. Their details border upon being comical; attempts ranged from trying to smuggle in Mafia hit men to providing Castro with exploding cigars & poisoned fountain pens. Operation Mongoose also attempted methods that fell short of outright assassination but that might humiliate the proud Communist strongman, such as exposing him to chemicals that may cause hair loss, potentially depriving Fidel of his legendary beard. However, none of these anti-Castro plots ended up succeeding. Despite the massive resources of the postwar United States, the capitalist superpower seemed to be mostly impotent when it came to challenging the political status quo in Havana.


            On a different note, JFK hoped that soft power might be a more subtly effective tool than blunt military force or covert action when it came to stopping the spread of Communism within other Third World nations. He kept his campaign promise to create the Peace Corps, which sent idealistic young Americans to do humanitarian work in developing nations. Historian David Farber argues that while the Peace Corps succeeded in getting the Americans some positive international press & in giving its participants a more cosmopolitan outlook on the world, the program’s impact on actually improving conditions in impoverished countries was rather limited. President Kennedy also funded foreign aid programs like the Alliance for Progress in Latin America and the Agency for International Development (a/k/a US AID) elsewhere in the world. However, Patterson notes that even this money often ended up being used to provide military assistance to stabilize anti-Communist governments, instead of being used to improve social conditions for these nations’ populations. For this reason, US foreign aid efforts often failed to win over the hearts & minds of people in the Global South.


            Historian George Herring observes that in late April 1961, when JFK was still stinging from the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation, the US intelligence community reported that the Southeast Asian nation of Laos was now in danger of falling to the Communists. (Quote) “The joint chiefs proposed sending 60,000 troops plus air cover . . . Fearful of a replay of [the Korean War] in Laos & wary of military advice after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy rejected intervention” (close quote). Instead, JFK favored a diplomatic approach to keep Communist elements from gaining more power within the Laotian government, & this more peaceful approach eventually succeeded in neutralizing the threat of a Red takeover there. JFK confided to his chief speechwriter Ted Sorensen that (quote) “thank God the Bay of Pigs happened when it did. Otherwise, we’d [have troops] in Laos right now, & that’d be 100 times worse” (close quote). Kennedy was wisely learning to be more skeptical of the American foreign policy establishment; unfortunately, he would soon prove unable to resist the lure of a military intervention elsewhere in Southeast Asia, as we will learn in our second episode about the dramatic events of the year 1961.



            The “From Boomers to Millennials” podcast is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Logo design by Camie Schaefer & Erin Rogers. Our show is written & narrated by Logan Rogers. For social media updates on our show, you can follow us on Twitter at boomer_to and on Instagram at boomerstomillennials. Before we go, there’s one more important event from ’61 that I’m going to mention. During that year, a couple of comic book companies merged into a new imprint called Marvel Comics. During that year, the first Fantastic Four comic was published, which became a major hit series. Influential Marvel creators like Stan Lee & Jack Kirby would go on to crate countless other characters that have gone on to make a huge impact on global popular culture. I had a major appreciation for the Marvel comics universe as a teenage X-Men fan back in the 1990s. I enjoyed going with my friends to the first X-Men movie way back in the year 2000. I had no idea back then that over the next 2 decades, this comic book company with a relatively marginal fan base of teenagers & nerds would mutate into a pop-cultural juggernaut that would end up taking over the entire American movie industry & end up pretty much destroying any semblance of creativity, originality, or realism within Hollywood blockbusters.  Please send your hate mail to: Actually, you can e-mail us if you want, but bear in mind that my trolling here is mostly joking. Well, mostly. Please forgive my blasphemy against the MCU & please continue listening. Thank you all, as always, for listening.