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The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crisis

Within weeks of his inauguration, Kennedy was embarrassed by the failed Bay of Pigs (1961) invasion of Cuba, which the Eisenhower administration had planned.

Ever since Communist Fidel Castro had taken over Cuba two years before, the American CIA and right-wing Cuban exiles had wanted to kick him out. Some exiles stormed ashore, but their invasion was stopped on the beach. It was an international black eye for the U.S., and Kennedy took full responsibility.

A year and a half later, the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) took place. The Soviets had taken advantage of their alliance with Communist Cuba to install nuclear missiles on the island. These missiles could hit the United States (only 90 miles away) in the blink of an eye.

When Kennedy found out about the missiles, he ordered the U.S. Navy to blockade all shipments to Cuba. After a tense standoff on the high seas, the Soviet ships turned around. Kennedy reached an agreement with the Soviets that they would remove the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. publicly promised never to invade Cuba and quietly packed up U.S. rockets stationed in Turkey.

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than it had been at any time before or since — one false move on either side could have touched off the bombs. After the crisis, both sides in the Cold War were more cautious about stirring up surprise threats.

The Peace Corps

Kennedy had a small Democratic majority in Congress, but given that the Southern Democrats were about as loyal as the South had been during the Civil War, he couldn't get much legislation passed. Kennedy-proposed programs for civil rights, health care, and tax reform stalled but would later pass after his death.

The story that Kennedy's words unintentionally meant that he was a Berliner jelly donut is an urban legend — funny, but untrue. Nobody misunderstood President Kennedy during his dramatic speech face-to-face with Communist repression in 1963; he was speaking in German, which he didn't understand, but he said the words correctly.

A too-fancy false reading by a non-German-speaking New York Times reporter in the 1980s led to the jelly donut story being later repeated by the BBC, The Guardian, MSNBC, CNN, and Time magazine. It will remain false, as any German-speaker knows, no matter how many times it gets repeated by journalists who don't bother to check their sources.

The same is true for legends that the U.S. somehow faked the moon landings. Few people believe that now, but a new urban legend pops up whenever any unexpected event occurs. Usually, these rumors involve the secret plans and agendas of some mysterious, unnamed group simply referred to as "they." People love conspiracy theories which purport to explain what they can't understand. As with urban legends about 9/11 and alien landings, it's worth doing real research with credible sources before passing along a rumor.

Kennedy did manage to start the Peace Corps (1961), which began within months of his inauguration, to send American volunteers overseas to help developing nations. The Peace Corps still has about 10,000 volunteers (making it about 1 percent the size of the U.S. military, which numbers more than a million people), and it continues its humanitarian work in countries around the world.

The Space Race

Continuing the U.S. response to earlier Soviet space launches, Kennedy declared that America would land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. With focused scientific research and billions of dollars, the U.S. sent the first astronauts to the moon in 1969, faster than anybody thought possible before Kennedy became president.

Kennedy in Berlin

The Soviets wanted the Western allies out of the democratic outpost of West Berlin because people kept defecting from Communist East Germany through Berlin, and it made the Communists look as bad as they really were. The Berlin Airlift had foiled the Soviets' plan to starve the West out of the city (see Chapter 18), so the Communists built the Berlin Wall (1961), a jagged fence through the middle of the city.

Kennedy flew to Berlin in 1963 and declared that he stood so firmly behind the freedom of West Berlin that "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner"). Kennedy's speech electrified the surrounded Berliners; almost the whole population was in the streets to cheer him.

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