Elected in 1960 as the 35th president of the United States, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy became one of the youngest U.S. presidents, as well as the first Roman Catholic. He was born into one of America’s wealthiest families and parlayed an elite education and a reputation as a military hero into a successful run for Congress in 1946 and for the Senate in 1952.
As president, Kennedy confronted mounting Cold War tensions in Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere. He also led a renewed drive for public service and eventually provided federal support for the growing civil rights movement. His assassination on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, sent shockwaves around the world and turned the all-too-human Kennedy into a larger-than-life heroic figure. To this day, historians continue to rank him among the best-loved presidents in American history.
John F. Kennedy’s Early Life
Born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy (known as Jack) was the second of nine children. His parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy were members of two of Boston’s most prominent Irish Catholic political families. Despite persistent health problems throughout his childhood and teenage years (he would later be diagnosed with a rare endocrine disorder called Addison’s disease),
Jack led a privileged youth, attending private schools such as Canterbury and Choate and spending summers in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. Joe Kennedy, a hugely successful businessman and an early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934 and in 1937 was named U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. As a student at Harvard University, Jack traveled in Europe as his father’s secretary. His senior thesis about British’s unpreparedness for war was later published as an acclaimed book, “Why England Slept” (1940).
Jack joined the U.S. Navy in 1941 and two years later was sent to the South Pacific, where he was given command of a Patrol-Torpedo (PT) boat. In August 1943, a Japanese destroyer struck the craft, PT-109, in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy helped some of his marooned crew back to safety and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism. His older brother, Joe Jr., was not so fortunate: He was killed in August 1944 when his Navy airplane exploded on a secret mission against a German rocket-launching site. A grieving Joe Sr. told Jack it was his duty to fulfill the destiny once intended for Joe Jr.: to become the first Catholic president of the United States.
JFK’s Beginnings in Politics
Abandoning plans to be a journalist, Jack left the Navy by the end of 1944. Less than a year later, he was back in Boston preparing for a run for Congress in 1946. As a moderately conservative Democrat, and backed by his father’s fortune, Jack won his party’s nomination handily and carried the mostly working-class Eleventh District by nearly three to one over his Republican opponent in the general election. He entered the 80th Congress in January 1947, at the age of 29, and immediately attracted attention (as well as some criticism from older members of the Washington establishment) for his youthful appearance and relaxed, informal style.
Kennedy won reelection to the House of Representatives in 1948 and 1950, and in 1952 ran successfully for the Senate, defeating the popular Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. On September 12, 1953, Kennedy married the beautiful socialite and journalist Jacqueline (Jackie) Lee Bouvier. Two years later, he was forced to undergo a painful operation on his back. While recovering from the surgery, Jack wrote another best-selling book, Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957. (The book was later revealed to be mostly the work of Kennedy’s longtime aide, Theodore Sorenson.)
Kennedy’s Road to Presidency
After nearly earning his party’s nomination for vice president (under Adlai Stevenson) in 1956, Kennedy announced his candidacy for president on January 2, 1960. He defeated a primary challenge from the more liberal Hubert Humphrey and chose the Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, as his running mate. In the general election, Kennedy faced a difficult battle against his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, a two-term vice president under the popular Dwight D. Eisenhower.
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Offering a young, energetic alternative to Nixon and the status quo, Kennedy benefited from his performance (and telegenic appearance) in the first-ever televised debates, watched by millions of viewers. In November’s election, Kennedy won by a narrow margin–less than 120,000 out of some 70 million votes cast–becoming the youngest man and the first Roman Catholic to be elected president of the United States.
With his beautiful young wife and their two small children (Caroline, born in 1957, and John Jr., born just weeks after the election), Kennedy lent an unmistakable aura of youth and glamour to the White House. In his inaugural address, given on January 20, 1961, the new president called on his fellow Americans to work together in the pursuit of progress and the elimination of poverty, but also in the battle to win the ongoing Cold War against communism around the world. Kennedy’s famous closing words expressed the need for cooperation and sacrifice on the part of the American people: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy’s Foreign Policy Challenges
An early crisis in the foreign affairs arena occurred in April 1961, when Kennedy approved the plan to send 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles in an amphibious landing at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Intended to spur a rebellion that would overthrow the communist leader Fidel Castro, the mission ended in failure, with nearly all of the exiles captured or killed.
That June, Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna to discuss the city of Berlin, which had been divided after World War II between Allied and Soviet control. Two months later, East German troops began erecting a wall to divide the city. Kennedy sent an army convoy to reassure West Berliners of U.S. support, and would deliver one of his most famous speeches in West Berlin in June 1963.
Kennedy clashed again with Khrushchev in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. After learning that the Soviet Union was constructing a number of nuclear and long-range missile sites in Cuba that could pose a threat to the continental United States, Kennedy announced a naval blockade of Cuba.
The tense standoff lasted nearly two weeks before Khrushchev agreed to dismantle Soviet missile sites in Cuba in return for America’s promise not to invade the island and the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey and other sites close to Soviet borders. In July 1963, Kennedy won his greatest foreign affairs victory when Khrushchev agreed to join him and Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in signing a nuclear test ban treaty. In Southeast Asia, however, Kennedy’s desire to curb the spread of communism led him to escalate U.S. involvement in the conflict in Vietnam, even as privately he expressed his dismay over the situation.
Kennedy’s Leadership at Home
During his first year in office, Kennedy oversaw the launch of the Peace Corps, which would send young volunteers to underdeveloped countries all over the world. Otherwise, he was unable to achieve much of his proposed legislation during his lifetime, including two of his biggest priorities: income tax cuts and a civil rights bill. Kennedy was slow to commit himself to the civil rights cause but was eventually forced into action, sending federal troops to support the desegregation of the University of Mississippi after riots there left two dead and many others injured. The following summer, Kennedy announced his intention to propose a comprehensive civil rights bill and endorsed the massive March on Washington that took place that August.
Kennedy was an enormously popular president, both at home and abroad, and his family drew famous comparisons to King Arthur’s court at Camelot. His brother Bobby served as his attorney general, while the youngest Kennedy son, Edward (Ted), was elected to Jack’s former Senate seat in 1962. Jackie Kennedy became an international icon of style, beauty and sophistication, though stories of her husband’s numerous marital infidelities (and his personal association with members of organized crime) would later emerge to complicate the Kennedys’ idyllic image.
On November 22, 1963, the president and his wife landed in Dallas; he had spoken in San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth the day before. From the airfield, the party then traveled in a motorcade to the Dallas Trade Mart, the site of Jack’s next speaking engagement. Shortly after 12:30 p.m., as the motorcade was passing through downtown Dallas, shots rang out; Kennedy was struck twice, in the neck and head, and was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at a nearby hospital.
Twenty-four-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, known to have Communist sympathies, was arrested for the killing but was shot and fatally wounded two days later by local nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being led to jail. Almost immediately, alternative theories of Kennedy’s assassination emerged–including conspiracies run by the KGB, the Mafia and the U.S. military-industrial complex, among others. A presidential commission led by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that Oswald had acted alone, but speculation and debate over the assassination have persisted.