This Day In History: December 31

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On December 31, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued a statement extending his “sincere wishes” and those of the American people to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the people of the Soviet Union for a peaceful and prosperous New Year. It was the height of the Cold War and the United States and Soviet Union were locked in a nuclear arms race.

Citing 1961 as a “troubled one” between the two superpowers, Kennedy said that it was his “earnest hope” that 1962 would see improved relations between the two countries. Kennedy then told Khrushchev he believed the responsibility to achieve world peace rested on the two men’s shoulders.

Kennedy’s message came in response to a December 29 message from Khrushchev that carried his hope that 1962 would be a “threshold” year for taking “efficient steps in the cause of liquidation of centers of military danger.” Khrushchev was likely referring to tensions over the ongoing division of the city of Berlin into democratic and communist sectors. In August 1961, it was Khrushchev’s government that approved East Germany’s decision to construct a physical barrier, the Berlin Wall, between the two sectors to stop communist-ruled East Germans from defecting to the West.

Although Kennedy and Khrushchev both pledged cooperation as 1961 came to a close, the two went on to play a dangerous game of chicken over Soviet missile sites in Cuba in October 1962, leading the world to the very brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.