At the beginning of John F. Kennedy's presidency, the Soviets indicated that they were prepared to improve relations with the United States. Khrushchev warmly congratulated the new president on his inauguration day and released two U.S. Air Force officers whose RB-47 reconnaissance plan had been shot down over Soviet territory the preceding July. Kennedy responded to these gestures by removing restrictions on the importation of Soviet crabmeat and by proposing a mutual increase in the number of consulates and scientific and cultural exchanges.
While Kennedy was inclined to improve Soviet-American relations, his ability to do so was restricted by his determination to appear tough toward communism. While campaigning for the presidency, he said: "The enemy is the communist system itself, implacable, insatiable, uneasy in its drive for world domination." 1 While it may be true, as Kennedy intimates have argued, that statements like these were nothing more than campaign rhetoric, they nevertheless precluded the possibility of cultivating public support for a Cold War thaw early in his administration.
Khrushchev's public rhetoric also made Soviet-American reconciliation difficult, if not impossible, early in Kennedy's presidency. On January 6, 1961, the Soviet leader declared his country would support "wars of national liberation" in the underdeveloped world. Khrushchev's declaration, wrote the president's confidante and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "alarmed Kennedy more than Moscow's amiable signals assuaged him." 2 Although Kennedy was willing to negotiate an end to the Cold War, the Third World challenge which Khrushchev threw at him would have to be dealt with first.