(1917–1963) U.S. president
John F. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in November 1963. Prior to that he had a prominent military career, served in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate from 1947 to 1960, and was the youngest person to be elected president. He is also the only Roman Catholic to be elected president.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the second son of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose (née Fitzgerald). He attended Dexter School, Riverdale Country School, Canterbury School, and later Choate School. Graduating in 1935, he went to London to study at the London School of Economics but fell ill and returned to the United States where he attended Princeton University briefly. He then went to Harvard College, spending the summer holidays in 1937, 1938, and 1939 in Europe. John Kennedy was in Germany in August 1939, returning to London by September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.
In 1940 Kennedy completed his honors thesis, “Appeasement in Munich,” which was subsequently published as Why England Slept. In May and June 1941 Kennedy went to South America. He volunteered for the U.S. Army but was rejected because of his bad back. However, using contacts in the Office of Naval Intelligence, he was accepted for the navy in September, and when war broke out with Japan in December 1941, he served in the Pacific. On August 2, 1943, the boat which Kennedy was in, the PT-109, was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri while on a night-time patrol near New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. He towed a wounded man to safety and was personally involved in rescuing two others.
Initially, John Kennedy had some thoughts about becoming a journalist. The death of his older brother, Joe, in 1944, however, propelled him into politics and in 1946 he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives as a Democrat for Massachusetts, winning with a large majority. In 1952 he defeated the incumbent Republican Henry Cabot Lodge for the U.S. Senate, and served in the Senate from 1953 to 1960. His book, Profiles in
to Courage, was published in 1956, winning the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957. Kennedy’s connections with Senator Joe McCarthy were to damage his standing in the liberal establishment, but he did support the Civil Rights Act of 1957. On September 12, 1953, John Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. They had four children: a daughter, stillborn in 1956; Caroline Bouvier Kennedy, born in 1957; John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., born in 1960; and Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, born in 1963.
In 1960 Kennedy ran for president. What was particularly noteworthy was the first television debate that Kennedy had with his Republican opponent,
Minutes before the assassination: Texas governor John Connally
and his wife (seated, front); Kennedy and the First Lady (back).
Richard Nixon. Kennedy defeated Nixon in a tightly fought race, with the Democrats gaining 303 electoral college seats against 219 for the Republicans. An independent, Harry Byrd, picked up the remaining 15 electoral college seats.
On January 20, 1961, Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president. The first controversy of his presidency concerned the government of Fidel Castro, which had come to power two years earlier. The Eisenhower administration had allowed anti-Castro Cubans to be secretly trained in the southern United States, mainly in Louisiana and Florida, and they had planned to invade Cuba. The plan had been drawn up before Kennedy came to power, and on April 17, 1961, Kennedy approved it. However, he cancelled the air support that was to have been provided by the U.S. Air Force. When the Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, they were quickly overwhelmed by the Communists.
The next major crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, took place from October 14, 1962, when American U2 spy planes photographed a Soviet Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile site under construction in Cuba. He decided that an attack on the site might result in nuclear war, but that inaction would be seen as a sign of weakness. In the end, he resolved to order a military blockade of the island and eventually came to an agreement with the Soviet Union’s premier, Nikita Khrushchev, that the Soviet Union would remove the missiles, and the United States would promise never to invade Cuba, and withdraw some missiles from bases in Turkey.
Kennedy was interested in rapprochement with the Soviet Union, but he had to be perceived as “tough,” especially in Europe. On June 26, 1963, he visited West Berlin and addressed a large public crowd with the famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. In August 1963 Kennedy was able to sign into law the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited atomic testing on the ground, in the atmosphere, and underwater, but did not prohibit testing underground.
Another foreign policy problem that Kennedy faced was the increased fighting in Laos and Vietnam. In the former, the Kennedy administration backed a neutral government, and in the latter, the United States was heavily involved in supporting the anticommunist South Vietnamese government led by President Ngo Dinh Diem. By 1963 there were 15,000 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam. Diem had ruled South Vietnam since late 1954 and was becoming increasingly authoritarian. Kennedy felt that it was Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was a major problem and wanted Diem to get rid of Nhu. Diem realized that Nhu was his most powerful supporter and refused. This led the Kennedy administration to give the go-ahead for Buddhist South Vietnamese generals to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem, who, along with Nhu, was murdered. The new regime was inherently unstable, causing the United States to commit more combat soldiers, escalating the war.
The domestic program introduced by Kennedy was known as the New Frontier. He tried to legislate to prevent the continuance of racial discrimination. He also proposed tax reforms and promised federal funding for education, more medical care for the elderly, and government intervention to boost the economy of the nation. Most of these measures were to be introduced by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. It was Johnson who, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, introduced the measures that Kennedy had supported.
John Kennedy is also well known for his commitment to the space program. With the Soviet Union managing to win all the first stages of the space race, Kennedy pushed for greater effort from the American people. The moon landing took place on July 20, 1969, during Nixon’s presidency.
As John Kennedy had only narrowly won the 1960 presidential election, he began his campaign for reelection early. This involved trying to win support from the southern states. He went to Texas in November 1963, where, on November 22, in Dallas, at 12:30 p.m., he was assassinated. A loner, Lee Harvey Oswald, was arrested about 80 minutes later and charged with murdering a Texas policeman. He was then also charged with murdering John F. Kennedy. Before Oswald could be brought to trial, two days later, on November 24, he was shot dead by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
There has been much written about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. On November 29, five days after the shooting of Oswald, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, created the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known as the Warren Commission because it was chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren. It concluded that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, a view later endorsed by the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations reporting in 1979. Most people now view the Warren Commission report with disdain for the evidence that it missed.
John F. Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. The bodies of two of his children, his first daughter, and Patrick, his youngest son who died on August 9, 1963, were brought to Arlington and buried with him.
Further Reading: Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John
F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2003; Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba,
Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; Giglio, James N. The Presidency of John F. Kennedy. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1991; Harper, Paul, and Krieg, Joann P., eds. John F. Kennedy, the Promise Revisited. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988; Hersh, Seymour M. The Dark Side of Camelot. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997.