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Speeches of President John F. Kennedy

Address to Joint Session of Congress May 25, 1961

In an address to a Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961 to deliver a special message on "urgent national needs," President Kennedy asked for an additional $7 billion to $9 billion over the next five years for the space program, proclaiming that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

 

President Kennedy settled upon this dramatic goal as a means of focusing and mobilizing our lagging space efforts. He did not justify the needed expenditure on the basis of science and exploration, but placed the program clearly in the camp of the competing ideologies of democracy vs. communism.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Address During the Cuban Missile Crisis

On Monday, October 22, 1962, President Kennedy appeared on television to inform Americans of the recently discovered Soviet military buildup in Cuba including the ongoing installation of offensive nuclear missiles. He informed the people of the United States of the "quarantine" placed around Cuba by the U.S. Navy.

 

The President stated that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as an attack on the United States by the Soviet Union and demanded that the Soviets remove all of their offensive weapons from Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. Recognizing the devastating possibility of a nuclear war, Khrushchev turned his ships back. The Soviets agreed to dismantle the weapon sites and, in exchange, the United States agreed not to invade Cuba.

President John F. Kennedy announces on television the strategic blockade of Cuba, and his warning to the Soviet Union about missile sanctions during the Cuban missile crisis, on Oct. 22, 1962.  

President John F. Kennedy Signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Televised Address on Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Following the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev sought to reduce tensions between their two nations. Both leaders realized they had come dangerously close to nuclear war. In a series of private letters, Khrushchev and Kennedy reopened a dialogue on banning nuclear testing.

 

Kennedy selected Averill Harriman, an experienced diplomat known and respected by Khrushchev, to resume negotiations in Moscow. On July 25, 1963, after only 12 days of negotiations, the two nations agreed to ban testing in the atmosphere, in space, and underwater. The following day, in a television address announcing the agreement, Kennedy claimed that a limited test ban “is safer by far for the United States than an unlimited nuclear arms race.”

  John F. Kennedy Signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

  The Berlin Crisis

John F. Kennedy addresses the Nation on the Berlin Crisis

Although Khrushchev and Eisenhower made some progress toward mutual understanding during talks at Camp David in the United States in 1959, relations became tense after the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane canvassing Soviet territory in 1960. In the wake of this incident, there appeared to be little hope for accommodation. At that point, talks ceased, and the Soviet premier appeared willing to wait for the U.S. presidential elections to take place so he could begin anew with the incoming administration.

However, the first negotiations between the new U.S. President and Khrushchev did not result in a resolution. In the summer of 1961, President John F. Kennedy met with Khrushchev in Vienna to address the ongoing issue of Berlin, in addition to the countries’ competing interests in Laos, and the question of disarmament. Although they agreed to further discussions on Laos, they found no solution to the Berlin problem. In the wake of the conference, Khrushchev once again gave the United States six months to withdraw from Berlin. Kennedy responded by activating 150,000 reservists and increasing defense expenditures, in preparation for a potential conflict over the future of the city. Unwilling to face a potential nuclear escalation over the city, Khrushchev prepared to take his own form of action.

On the morning of August 13, 1961, Berliners awoke to discover that on the orders of East German leader Walter Ulbricht , a barbed wire fence had gone up overnight separating West and East Berlin and preventing movement between the two sides. The barbed wire fence was soon expanded to include cement walls and guard towers.

Shortly after the wall was erected, a standoff between U.S. and Soviet troops on either side of the diplomatic checkpoint led to one of the tensest moments of the Cold War in Europe. A dispute over whether East German or Soviet guards were authorized to patrol the checkpoints and examine the travel documents of U.S. diplomats passing through led the United States to station tanks on its side of the checkpoint, pointing toward the East German troops just beyond the wall.

 

Concerns that U.S. forces would either attempt to take down the wall or force their way through the checkpoint led the Soviet Union to station its own tanks on the East German side. A wrong move during the face-off could have led to war, and any conventional skirmish between two nuclear powers always brought with it the risk of escalation. Instead, Kennedy made use of back channels to suggest that Khrushchev remove his tanks, promising that if the Soviet Union did so, the U.S. Army would reciprocate. The standoff ended peacefully.

The Berlin Wall remained in place until November 9, 1989, when the border between East and West Berlin was reopened and the wall itself was finally dismantled.