The final piece of Kennedy's defense strategy was to strengthen American nuclear dominance.
The superpowers came perilously close to using nuclear weapons in 1962, when Khrushchev decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Projecting the appearance of toughness was paramount to Kennedy; rather than conducting quiet negotiations with the Soviets he launched a public showdown.
While Americans experienced the most fearful days of the cold war, Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated an agreement.
Finally, the Soviets removed the missiles and pledged not to introduce new offensive weapons into Cuba; the United States promised not to invade the island and secretly agreed to remove missiles from Turkey.
While the Cuban missile crisis contributed to Khrushchev's fall from power two years later, Kennedy emerged triumphant.
Kennedy worked with Khrushchev to prevent further confrontations by installing a special “hot line” to speed top-level communications, and, in 1963, by signing, along with Great Britain, a limited test ban treaty.
Although Kennedy criticized the idea of a “Pax Americana enforced in the world by American weapons of war,” he increased the flow of those weapons into South Vietnam.
Two major problems stood in the way of Kennedy's objective of holding firm in Vietnam.
First, the South Vietnamese insurgents, the Vietcong, were an indigenous force whose initiative came from within, not from the Soviet Union or China.
The second problem lay with the South Vietnamese government, a corrupt, repressive government that refused to satisfy the demands of the insurgents but could not defeat them militarily.
When North Vietnam invaded, matters escalated; Kennedy responded with measured steps.
By the spring of 1963 military aid doubled and nine thousand military advisers were in Vietnam, sometimes participating in combat, but the Diem government refused to make good on its promises of reform.
Johnson faced a dilemma in Vietnam: his predecessors had made a commitment to stopping Communism there and the public seemed willing to follow his leadership, but some advisers cautioned him against continued American involvement.
Some critics of the war advised the administration to pursue a face-saving way out of Vietnam but Johnson continued to dispatch more advisers, weapons, and economic aid.
In 1964 Johnson, believing American credibility was on the line, seized the opportunity to increase the pressure on North Vietnam.
In response to a report that North Vietnamese gunboats had fired on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson ordered air strikes on North Vietnamese targets and requested and received Congress's permission to repel further armed attacks against United States forces.
Johnson's tough stance in the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, just two months before the 1964 elections, helped counter the charges made by his opponent, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, that he was “soft on communism.”
Both the American and president’s own credibility on the line, Johnson and his advisers believed that the long-standing commitment to South Vietnam and the fear of repercussions and disengagement without victory might not achieve the Great Society.
The apparent success in the Dominican Republic no doubt encouraged the president to press on in Vietnam.
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