John Fitzgerald Kennedy (May 29, 1917-November 22, 1963), was the thirty-fifth President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963.
After Kennedy's leadership as commander of the USS PT-109 during World War II in the South Pacific, his aspirations turned political. Kennedy represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953 as a Democrat, and in the U.S. Senate from 1953 until 1961. Kennedy defeated former Vice President and Republican candidate Richard Nixon in the 1960 U.S. presidential election, one of the closest in American history. He was the first practicing Roman Catholic to be elected President and the first to have won a Pulitzer Prize. His administration witnessed the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, the space race, the Civil Rights Movement and early events of the Vietnam War.
Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. With the murder two days later of the prime suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, the circumstances surrounding the death of Kennedy have been controversial. The event proved to be a poignant moment in U.S. history due to its impact on the nation and the ensuing political fallout.
Kennedy was not perfect. There are considerable allegations about womanizing and some controversy related to the counting of votes in Chicago for his election as President. However, many regard him as an icon of American hopes and aspirations. Kennedy continues to rank highly in public opinion ratings of former U.S. presidents.
Early life and education
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917, the second son of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and Rose Fitzgerald. Kennedy lived in Brookline for his first ten years. He attended Brookline's public Edward Devotion School from kindergarten through the beginning of third grade, then Noble and Greenough Lower School and its successor, the Dexter School, a private school for boys, through fourth grade. In September 1927, Kennedy moved with his family to a rented 20-room mansion in Riverdale, Bronx, New York City, then two years later moved to a six-acre estate in Bronxville, New York. He was a member of Scout Troop 2 at Bronxville from 1929 to 1931 and was to be the first Scout to become President.1 Kennedy spent summers with his family at their home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts and Christmas and Easter holidays with his family at their winter home in Palm Beach, Florida.
He graduated from the Choate School in June 1935. Kennedy's superlative in his yearbook was "Most likely to become President." In September 1935, he sailed on the SS Normandie on his first trip abroad with his parents and his sister Kathleen to London with the intent of studying for a year with Professor Harold Laski at the London School of Economics as his older brother Joe had done, but after a brief hospitalization with jaundice after less than a week at LSE, he sailed back to America only three weeks after he had arrived. In October 1935, Kennedy enrolled late and spent six weeks at Princeton University, but was then hospitalized for two months observation for possible leukemia in Boston in January and February 1936, recuperated at the Kennedy winter home in Palm Beach in March and April, spent May and June working as a ranch hand on a 40,000 acre (160 km²) cattle ranch outside Benson, Arizona, then July and August racing sailboats at the Kennedy summer home in Hyannisport.
In September 1936 he enrolled as a freshman at Harvard College, again following two years behind his older brother Joe. In early July 1937, Kennedy took his convertible, sailed on the SS Washington to France, and spent ten weeks driving with a friend through France, Italy, Germany, Holland and England. In late June 1938, Kennedy sailed with his father and brother Joe on the SS Normandie to spend July working with his father, recently appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the American embassy in London, and August with his family at a villa near Cannes. From February through September 1939, Kennedy toured Europe, the Soviet Union, the Balkans and the Middle East to gather background information for his Harvard senior honors thesis. He spent the last ten days of August in Czechoslovakia and Germany before returning to London on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. On September 3, 1939, Kennedy, along with his brother Joe, his sister Kathleen, and his parents were in the Strangers Gallery of the House of Commons to hear speeches in support of the United Kingdom's declaration of war on Germany. Kennedy was sent as his father's representative to help with arrangements for American survivors of the SS Athenia, before flying back to the U.S. on his first transatlantic flight at the end of September.
In 1940, Kennedy completed his thesis, "Appeasement in Munich," about British participation in the Munich Agreement. He initially intended his thesis to be private, but his father encouraged him to publish it as a book. He graduated cum laude from Harvard with a degree in international affairs in June 1940, and his thesis was published in July 1940 as a book entitled Why England Slept.2
From September to December 1940, Kennedy was enrolled and audited classes at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. In early 1941, he helped his father complete the writing of a memoir of his three years as ambassador. In May and June 1941, Kennedy traveled throughout South America.
In the spring of 1941, Kennedy volunteered for the U.S. Army, but was rejected, mainly because of his troublesome back. Nevertheless, in September of that year, the U.S. Navy accepted him, due to the influence of the director of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), a former naval attaché to the Ambassador, his father. As an ensign, Kennedy served in the office which supplied bulletins and briefing information for the Secretary of the Navy. It was during this assignment that the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. He attended the Naval Reserve Officers Training School and Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center before being assigned for duty in Panama and eventually the Pacific theater. He participated in various commands in the Pacific theater and earned the rank of lieutenant, commanding a patrol torpedo (PT) boat.3Lt. Kennedy on his United States Navy patrol boat, PT-109 in 1943
On August 2, 1943, Kennedy's boat, the PT-109, was taking part in a nighttime patrol near New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. in the course of action, it was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri.4 Kennedy was thrown across the deck, injuring his already-troubled back. Nonetheless, he swam, towing a wounded man, to an island and later to a second island where his crew was subsequently rescued. For these actions, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal under the following citation:“For extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Theater on August 1-2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. ”
Kennedy's other decorations in World War II included the Purple Heart, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. He was honorably discharged in early 1945, just a few months before Japan surrendered. The incident was popularized when he became president and would be the subject of several magazine articles, books, comic books, TV specials and a feature length movie, making the PT-109 one of the most famous U.S. Navy ships of the war. The coconut which was used to scrawl a rescue message given to Solomon Islander scouts who found him was kept on his presidential desk and is still at the John F. Kennedy Library.
During his presidency, Kennedy privately admitted to friends that he didn't feel that he deserved the medals he had received, because the PT-109 incident had been the result of a botched military operation that had cost the lives of two members of his crew. When asked by a reporter how he became a war hero, Kennedy joked: "It was involuntary. They sank my boat."
Early political career
After World War II, John Fitzgerald Kennedy considered becoming a journalist before deciding to run for political office. Prior to the war, he had not really considered becoming a politician because the family had already pinned its political hopes on his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Joseph, however, was killed in World War II, making John the eldest brother. When in 1946 U.S. Representative James Michael Curley vacated his seat in an overwhelmingly Democratic district to become mayor of Boston, Kennedy ran for the seat, beating his Republican opponent by a large margin. He was a congressman for six years but had a mixed voting record, often diverging from President Harry S. Truman and the rest of the Democratic Party. In 1952, he defeated incumbent Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. for the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier on September 12, 1953. He underwent several spinal operations over the following two years, nearly dying (in all he received the Catholic Church's "last rites" four times during his life), and was often absent from the Senate. During his convalescence, he wrote Profiles in Courage, a book describing eight instances in which U.S. Senators risked their careers by standing by their personal beliefs. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957.5
In 1956, presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson left the choice of a vice presidential nominee to the Democratic convention, and Kennedy finished second in that balloting to Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Despite this defeat, Kennedy received national exposure from that episode that would prove valuable in subsequent years. His father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., pointed out that it was just as well that John did not get that nomination, as some people sought to blame anything they could on Catholics, even though it was privately known that any Democrat would have trouble running against Eisenhower in 1956.
John F. Kennedy voted for final passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 after having earlier voted for the "Jury Trial Amendment," which effectively rendered the Act toothless because convictions for violations could not be obtained. Staunch segregationists such as senators James Eastland and John McClellan and Mississippi Governor James Coleman were early supporters of Kennedy's presidential campaign.6 In 1958, Kennedy was re-elected to a second term in the United States Senate, defeating his Republican opponent, Boston lawyer Vincent J. Celeste, by a wide margin.
Years later it was revealed that in September 1947 when he was 30 years old and during his first term as a congressman, Kennedy had been diagnosed with Addison's disease, a rare endocrine disorder. The nature of this and other medical problems were kept secret from the press and public throughout Kennedy's lifetime.7
Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy was a friend of the Kennedy family: Joe Kennedy was a leading McCarthy supporter; Robert F. Kennedy worked for McCarthy's subcommittee, and McCarthy dated Patricia Kennedy. In 1954, when the Senate was poised to condemn McCarthy, John Kennedy drafted a speech calling for McCarthy's censure, but never delivered it. When on December 2, 1954, the Senate rendered its highly publicized decision to censure McCarthy, Senator Kennedy was in the hospital. Though absent, Kennedy could have "paired" his vote against that of another senator, but chose not to; neither did he ever indicate then nor later how he would have voted. The episode seriously damaged Kennedy's support in the liberal community, especially with Eleanor Roosevelt, as late as the 1960 election.8
1960 presidential electionJohn and Jackie Kennedy campaigning in Appleton, Wisconsin, March 1960
On January 2, 1960, Kennedy declared his intention to run for President of the United States. In the Democratic primary elections, he faced challenges from Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. Kennedy defeated Humphrey in Wisconsin and West Virginia and Morse in Maryland and Oregon, although Morse's candidacy is often forgotten by historians. He also defeated token opposition (often write-in candidates) in New Hampshire, Indiana and Nebraska. In West Virginia, Kennedy visited a coal mine and talked to mine workers to win their support; most people in that conservative, mostly Protestant state were deeply suspicious of Kennedy's Catholicism. His victory in West Virginia cemented his credentials as a candidate with broad popular appeal.
With Humphrey and Morse out of the race, Kennedy's main opponent at the convention in Los Angeles was Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956, was not officially running but had broad grassroots support inside and outside the convention hall. Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri was also a candidate, as were several favorite sons. On July 13, 1960, the Democratic convention nominated Kennedy as its candidate for President. Kennedy asked Johnson to be his Vice Presidential running mate, despite opposition from many liberal delegates and Kennedy's own staff, including Robert Kennedy. He needed Johnson's strength in the South to win what was considered likely to be the closest election since 1916. Major issues included how to get the economy moving again, Kennedy's Catholicism, Cuba, and whether the Soviet space and missile programs had surpassed those of the U.S. To address fears that his Catholicism would impact his decision-making, he famously told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters-and the Church does not speak for me."9 Kennedy also brought up the point of whether one-quarter of Americans were relegated to second-class citizenship just because they were Catholic.
In September and October, Kennedy debated Republican candidate and Vice President Richard Nixon in the first televised U.S. presidential debates in U.S. history. During these programs, Nixon, nursing an injured leg and sporting "five o'clock shadow," looked tense and uncomfortable, while Kennedy appeared relaxed, leading the huge television audience to deem Kennedy the winner. Radio listeners, however, either thought Nixon had won or that the debates were a draw.10 Nixon did not wear make-up during the initial debate, unlike Kennedy. The debates are now considered a milestone in American political history-the point at which the medium of television began to play a dominant role in national politics.11 After the first debate Kennedy's campaign gained momentum and he pulled slightly ahead of Nixon in most polls. On November 8, Kennedy defeated Nixon in one of the closest presidential elections of the twentieth century. In the national popular vote Kennedy led Nixon by just two-tenths of one percent (49.7 percent to 49.5 percent), while in the Electoral College he won 303 votes to Nixon's 219 (269 were needed to win). Another 14 electors from Mississippi and Alabama refused to support Kennedy because of his support for the civil rights movement; they voted for Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. of Virginia.
Allegations about use of mobster contacts in Chicago to fix the election result, and also about the use of his father's money during the campaign surrounded the election. However, the result was unchallenged by the Republican Party.12
Presidency (1961-1963)Official Presidential portraitDid you know?John Fitzgerald Kennedy, often referred to by his initials JFK, was the 35th President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963
John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President on January 20, 1961. In his famous inaugural address he spoke of the need for all Americans to be active citizens, saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." He also asked the nations of the world to join together to fight what he called the "common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself." In closing, he expanded on his desire for greater internationalism: "Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you."13
Cuba and the Bay of Pigs InvasionMeeting Nikita Khrushchev in 1961
Prior to Kennedy's election to the presidency, the Eisenhower Administration created a plan to overthrow the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba. Central to such a plan, which was structured and detailed by the CIA with minimal input from the U.S. State Department, was the arming of a counter-revolutionary insurgency composed of anti-Castro Cubans.14 U.S.-trained Cuban insurgents were to invade Cuba and instigate an uprising among the Cuban people in hopes of removing Castro from power. On April 17, 1961, Kennedy ordered the previously planned invasion of Cuba to proceed. With support from the CIA, in what is known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1500 U.S.-trained Cuban exiles, called "Brigade 2506," returned to the island in the hope of deposing Castro. However, Kennedy ordered the invasion to take place without U.S. air support. By April 19, 1961, the Cuban government had captured or killed the invading exiles, and Kennedy was forced to negotiate for the release of the 1,189 survivors. The failure of the plan originated in a lack of dialog among the military leadership, a result of which was the complete lack of naval support in the face of artillery troops on the island who easily incapacitated the exile force as it landed on the beach.15 After 20 months, Cuba released the captured exiles in exchange for $53 million worth of food and medicine. The incident was a major embarrassment for Kennedy, but he took full personal responsibility for the debacle. Furthermore, the incident made Castro wary of the U.S. and led him to believe that another invasion would occur.
Cuban Missile CrisisKennedy's Cabinet meets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 29, 1962
The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 14, 1962, when American U-2 spy planes took photographs of a Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missile site under construction in Cuba. The photos were shown to Kennedy on October 16, 1962. America would soon be posed with a serious nuclear threat. Kennedy faced a dilemma: if the U.S. attacked the sites, it might lead to nuclear war with the U.S.S.R., but if the U.S. did nothing, it would endure the threat of nuclear weapons being launched from close range. Because the weapons were in such proximity, the U.S. might have been unable to retaliate if they were launched preemptively. Another consideration was that the U.S. would appear to the world as weak in its own hemisphere.
Many military officials and cabinet members pressed for an air assault on the missile sites, but Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine in which the U.S. Navy inspected all ships arriving in Cuba. He began negotiations with the Soviets and ordered the Soviets to remove all defensive material being built in Cuba. Without doing so, the Soviet and Cuban peoples would face naval quarantine. A week later, he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reached an agreement. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles subject to U.N. inspections if the U.S. publicly promised never to invade Cuba and quietly remove US missiles stationed in Turkey. Following this crisis, which likely brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any point before or since, Kennedy was more cautious in confronting the Soviet Union.
Latin America and communism
Arguing that "those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable," Kennedy sought to contain communism in Latin America by establishing the Alliance for Progress, which sent foreign aid to troubled countries in the region and sought greater human rights standards in the region. He worked closely with Puerto Rico Governor Luis Muñoz Marín for the development of the Alliance of Progress, as well as in the autonomy of the island itself.
As one of his first presidential acts, Kennedy created the Peace Corps. Through this program, Americans volunteered to help underdeveloped nations in areas such as education, farming, health care and construction.
In Southeast Asia, Kennedy followed Eisenhower's lead by using limited military action to fight the North Vietnamese communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh. Proclaiming a fight against the spread of communism, Kennedy enacted policies providing political, economic, and military support for the unstable French-installed South Vietnamese government, which included sending 16,000 military advisers and U.S. Special Forces to the area. Kennedy also agreed to the use of free-fire zones, napalm, defoliants and jet planes. U.S. involvement in the area continually escalated until regular U.S. forces were directly fighting in the Vietnam War by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The Kennedy Administration increased military support, but the South Vietnamese military was unable to make headway against the pro-independence Viet-Minh and Viet Cong forces. By July 1963, Kennedy faced a crisis in Vietnam. The Administration's response was to assist in the coup d'état of the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem.16 In 1963, South Vietnamese generals overthrew the Diem government, arresting Diem and later killing him17 Kennedy sanctioned Diem's overthrow. One reason for the support was a fear that Diem might negotiate a neutralist coalition government which included communists, as had occurred in Laos in 1962. Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, remarked "This kind of neutralism… is tantamount to surrender."
It remains a point of speculation and controversy among historians whether or not Vietnam would have escalated to the point it did had Kennedy served out his full term and been re-elected in 1964.18 Fueling this speculation are statements made by Kennedy's and Johnson's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that Kennedy was strongly considering pulling out of Vietnam after the 1964 election. In the documentary film The Fog of War, not only does McNamara say this, but a tape recording of Lyndon Johnson confirms that Kennedy was planning to withdraw from Vietnam, a position Johnson states he disapproved.19 Additional evidence is Kennedy's National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) #263 on October 11, 1963 that gave the order for withdrawal of 1,000 military personnel by the end of 1963. Nevertheless, given the stated reason for the overthrow of the Diem government, such action would have been a dramatic policy reversal, but Kennedy was generally moving in a less hawkish direction in the Cold War since his acclaimed speech about world peace at American University the previous June 10, 1963.20
After Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson immediately reversed Kennedy's order to withdraw 1,000 military personnel with his own NSAM #273 on November 26, 1963.
West Berlin speechKennedy meeting with West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt, March 1961
At the end of World War II in 1945, Germany was divided into four zones administered by each of the allies. The Soviet built Berlin Wall divided West and East Berlin, the latter being under the control of the Soviet Union. On June 26, 1963, Kennedy visited West Berlin and gave a public speech criticizing communism. Kennedy used the construction of the Berlin Wall as an example of the failures of communism:
"Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in." The speech is known for its famous phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner").
Nearly five-sixths of the population was on the street when Kennedy said the famous phrase. He remarked to aides afterwards: "We'll never have another day like this one."21
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
Troubled by the long-term dangers of radioactive contamination and nuclear weapons proliferation, Kennedy pushed for the adoption of a Limited or Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited atomic testing on the ground, in the atmosphere, or underwater, but did not prohibit testing underground. The United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union were the initial signatories to the treaty; Kennedy signed the treaty into law in August 1963.
IrelandPresident Kennedy in motorcade in Ireland on June 27, 1963
On the occasion of his visit to Ireland in 1963, President Kennedy and Irish President Éamon de Valera agreed to form the American Irish Foundation. The mission of this organization was to foster connections between Americans of Irish descent and the country of their ancestry. Kennedy furthered these connections of cultural solidarity by accepting a grant of armorial bearings from the Chief Herald of Ireland. Kennedy had near-legendary status in Ireland, as the first person of Irish heritage to have a position of world power. Irish citizens who were alive in 1963 often have very strong memories of Kennedy's momentous visit.22 He also visited the original cottage where previous Kennedys had lived before emigrating to America, and said: "This is where it all began… "
In 1963, the Kennedy administration backed a coup against the government of Iraq headed by General Abdel Karim Kassem, who five years earlier had deposed the Western-allied Iraqi monarchy. The C.I.A. helped the new Baath Party government in ridding the country of suspected leftists and communists. In a Baathist bloodbath, the government used lists of suspected communists and other leftists provided by the C.I.A., to systematically murder untold numbers of Iraq's educated elite-killings in which Saddam Hussein, later Iraq's dictator, is said to have participated. The victims included hundreds of doctors, teachers, technicians, lawyers and other professionals as well as military and political figures.2324 25
Kennedy called his domestic program the "New Frontier." It ambitiously promised federal funding for education, medical care for the elderly, and government intervention to halt the recession. Kennedy also promised an end to racial discrimination. In 1963, he proposed a tax reform which included income tax cuts, but this was not passed by Congress until 1964, after his death. Few of Kennedy's major programs passed Congress during his lifetime, although, under his successor, President Johnson, Congress did vote them through in 1964-65.
Civil rightsKennedy delivers the 1963 State of the Union Address, January 14
The turbulent end of state-sanctioned racial discrimination was one of the most pressing domestic issues of Kennedy's era. The United States Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. However, many schools, especially in southern states, did not obey the Supreme Court's judgment. Segregation on buses, in restaurants, movie theaters, public toilets, and other public places remained. Kennedy supported racial integration and civil rights, and during the 1960 campaign he telephoned Coretta Scott King, wife of the jailed Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., which perhaps drew some additional black support to his candidacy. John and U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy's intervention secured the early release of King from jail.26
In 1962, James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi, but he was prevented from doing so by white students. Kennedy responded by sending some 400 federal marshals and 3,000 troops to ensure that Meredith could enroll in his first class. Kennedy also assigned federal marshals to protect Freedom Riders.
As President, Kennedy initially believed the grassroots movement for civil rights would only anger many Southern whites and make it even more difficult to pass civil rights laws through Congress, which was dominated by Southern Democrats, and he distanced himself from it. As a result, many civil rights leaders viewed Kennedy as non-supportive of their efforts.
On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy intervened when Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway to the University of Alabama to stop two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from enrolling. George Wallace moved aside after being confronted by federal marshals, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and the Alabama National Guard. That evening Kennedy gave his famous civil rights address on national television and radio.27 Kennedy proposed what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.28
John F. Kennedy initially proposed an overhaul of American immigration policy that later was to become the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, sponsored by Kennedy's youngest brother, Senator Edward Kennedy. It dramatically shifted the source of immigration from Northern and Western European countries towards immigration from Latin America and Asia and shifted the emphasis of selection of immigrants towards facilitating family reunification.29 Kennedy wanted to dismantle the selection of immigrants based on country of origin and saw this as an extension of his civil rights policies.30
Space programPresident Kennedy looks at the spacecraft Friendship 7, which made three earth orbits piloted by astronaut John Glenn at Kennedy's right, February 23, 1962, Cape Canaveral, Florida
Kennedy was eager for the United States to lead the