John F. Kennedy, 43, becomes the youngest man ever to be elected president of the United States, narrowly beating Republican Vice President Richard Nixon. He was also the first Catholic to become president.
The campaign was hard fought and bitter. For the first time, presidential candidates engaged in televised debates. Many observers believed that Kennedy’s poised and charming performance during the four debates made the difference in the final vote. Issues, however, also played a role in the election, and the nation’s foreign policy was a major bone of contention between Kennedy and Nixon. Nixon took every opportunity to characterize Kennedy as too young and inexperienced to handle the awesome responsibilities of America’s Cold War diplomacy. (Nixon was, in fact, only a few years older than Kennedy.)
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He defended the past eight years of Republican rule, arguing that Soviet power had been contained and America’s strength increased. Kennedy responded by portraying foreign policy during the Eisenhower years as stagnant and reactionary. In particular, he charged the Republicans with losing Cuba and allowing a dangerous “missile gap” to develop, in which the Soviets had overtaken the United States in the building of missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. Kennedy promised to reinvigorate America’s foreign policy, relying on a flexible response to changing situations and exploring options ignored by the staid and conservative Eisenhower administration.
Kennedy claimed during the campaign that he looked forward to meeting the challenges facing the strongest nation in the Free World. He did not have long to wait before those challenges were upon him. During the first few months of the Kennedy presidency, Nixon’s criticisms seemed to have some validity. Kennedy appeared overwhelmed, first by the catastrophic failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, then by a blustering Nikita Khrushchev during a summit meeting in Europe, and finally by the construction of the Berlin Wall. And there was also the deteriorating situation in Southeast Asia to consider.