John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) served in both houses of Congress before becoming the thirty-fifth president of the United States. His assassination shocked the world.
John F. Kennedy once summed up his time as "very dangerous, untidy." He was the child of two world wars, of the Great Depression, and of the nuclear age. "Life is unfair," he remarked. And so it was to Kennedy, heaping him with glory, burdening him with tragedy. Yet, he never lost his grace, his sense of balance, or his indomitable gaiety.
Kennedy was born in Brookline, Mass., on May 29, 1917. He was the second son of business executive and financier Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. His great-grandfather had emigrated in 1850 from Ireland to Boston, where he worked as a cooper. His paternal grandfather had served in the Massachusetts Legislature and in elective offices in Boston. Kennedy's maternal grandfather, John Francis Fitzgerald, had been a state legislator, mayor of Boston, and U.S. congressman. Kennedy's father served as ambassador to Great Britain (1937-1940), having been chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and of the U.S. Maritime Commission. Thus Kennedy was born into a wealthy family oriented toward politics and public service.
Education and Youth
Kennedy attended the Canterbury parochial school (1930-1931), completing his preparatory education at the Choate School (1931-1935). He enrolled at Princeton University in 1935, but illness soon forced him to withdraw. Upon recovery he went to Harvard University. During his junior year he traveled in Europe, observing the political tensions that were leading to World War II. He was gathering materials for his senior thesis, which, reflecting some of the isolationist views of his father, later became the bestselling book Why England Slept (1940).
After graduating from Harvard cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in 1940, Kennedy enrolled at Stanford University for graduate studies. In April 1941 he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army but was rejected for physical reasons (a back injury received while playing football). Months later, his back strengthened through a regimen of exercises, the Navy accepted him. He became an intelligence officer with the rank of lieutenant junior grade in Washington, D.C. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he requested active duty at sea; this assignment was not granted until late in 1942.
Following his training with the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron, Kennedy was shipped to the South Pacific into the war against Japan. In March 1943 he received command of a PT boat. That August, when his boat was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer, two of his crew were killed, while Kennedy and four others clung to the half of the PT boat that remained afloat. Six other men survived in the nearby water, two wounded. In a 3-hour struggle Kennedy got the wounded crewmen to the floating hulk. When it capsized, he ordered his men to swim to a small island about 3 miles away, while he towed one man to shore in a heroic 5-hour struggle. Several days later, having displayed exceptional qualities of courage, leadership, and endurance, Kennedy succeeded in having his men rescued.
Kennedy did not see further action, for he suffered an attack of malaria and aggravation of his back injury. In December he returned to the United States. After a hospital stay he became a PT instructor in Florida, until he was hospitalized again. He was retired from the service in the rank of full lieutenant in March 1945, having undergone a disk operation. Returning to civilian life, Kennedy did newspaper work for several months, covering the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, the Potsdam Conference, and the British elections of 1945.
House of Representatives
However, Kennedy desired a political career. In 1946 he became a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from the Massachusetts eleventh congressional district. Realizing that, despite his family's background in Democratic politics, he was unknown to the district's electorate, Kennedy built a large personal organization for his campaign. On whirlwind tours he met as many voters as possible, addressing them in a direct, informal style on timely topics. In this campaign, as in all the others, his brothers, sisters, and mother supported him. His brothers, Robert and Ted, acted as his managers, while his sisters and mother held social events.
Kennedy was a driven man. "The Kennedys were all puppets in the hands of the old man," Washington newspaperman Arthur Krock once observed. "I got Jack into politics," his father said, although he admitted that neither he nor his wife could picture their son as a politician. "I told him Joe [the oldest brother, who died a hero in World War II] was dead … and I told him he had to." Kennedy fell heir to the political know-how of his grandfather, the legendary "Honey Fitz," who had charmed and utilized the tough Boston Irish electorate. Meanwhile, Kennedy climbed more stairs and shook more hands and worked harder than the 10 other contenders for the candidacy combined.
Kennedy won the primary, the fall election, and reelection to the House in 1948 and in 1950. He kept his campaign pledges to work for broader social welfare programs, particularly in the area of low-cost public housing. Kennedy was a staunch friend of labor. In 1949 he became a member of the Joint Committee on Labor-Management Relations. He battled unsuccessfully against the Taft-Hartley Bill and later supported bills that sought to modify its restrictive provisions. Although Kennedy supported President Harry Truman's social welfare programs, progressive taxation, and regulation of business, he did not follow administration policies in foreign relations. He opposed the fighting in Korea "or any other place in Asia where we cannot hold our defenses."
In 1951 Kennedy spent 6 weeks traveling in Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, and West Germany. On his return he advised the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that he believed defending Western Europe was strategically important to the United States but that he felt Western Europeans should do more on their own behalf and not rely so strongly on the United States. That autumn he traveled around the world. His visits to the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Indochina, Malaya, and Korea caused him to reverse a previous position and support Point Four aid for the Middle East. He also urged that France get out of Algeria.
In April 1952 Kennedy announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, running against the strongly entrenched Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a Republican liberal. Kennedy won by over 70,000 votes. Lodge reeled under the impact: "those damned tea-parties," he said. He had not run against a man, but a family—the Kennedy women having acted as hostesses to at least 70,000 Massachusetts housewives. In 1958 Kennedy was reelected.
On Sept. 12, 1953, Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, daughter of a New York City financier, at Newport, R. I. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., noted of Mrs. Kennedy that "under a veil of lovely inconsequence" she possessed "an all-seeing eye and ruthless judgment." Four children were born, of whom two survived infancy: Caroline Bouvier and John Fitzgerald.
Taking his seat in the Senate in January 1953, Kennedy served on the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, the Government Operations Committee, the Select Committee on Labor-Management Relations, the Foreign Relations Committee, and the Joint Economic Committee. He secured passage of several bills to aid the Massachusetts fishing and textile industries and fought to ameliorate New England's economic problems. In 1954 he voted to extend the president's powers under the reciprocal trade program.
A recurrence of his old back injuries forced Kennedy to use crutches during 1954. An operation in October was followed by another in February 1955. He spent his months of illness and recuperation writing biographical profiles of Americans who had exercised moral courage at crisis points in their lives. Profiles in Courage (1956), a best seller, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957.
Kennedy's back operations were not completely successful, and he was never again entirely free from pain. He resumed his senatorial duties in May 1955. During the next years he opposed reform in the electoral college, favored American aid to help India stabilize its economy, and became a strong advocate of civil rights legislation. Social welfare legislation was of primary concern. The Kennedy-Douglas-Ives Bill (1957) required full disclosure and accounting of all employee pension and welfare funds. The Kennedy-Byrd-Payne Bill was a budgeting and accounting bill that placed the financial structure of the government on an annual accrued expenditure basis. Kennedy also sponsored bills for providing Federal financial aid to education and for relaxing United States immigration laws.
Campaign for the Presidency
Kennedy's record in Congress, together with his thoughtful books and articles, had attracted national attention. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1956, when presidential nominee Adlai E. Stevenson left the choice of his running mate open, Kennedy was narrowly defeated by Estes Kefauver. From then on, however, Kennedy was running for the presidency. He began building a personal national organization. Formally announcing his candidacy in January 1960, Kennedy made whirlwind tours and won the Democratic primaries in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, Maryland, and Nebraska, plus an upset victory over Hubert Humphrey in West Virginia. On July 13, 1960, Kennedy was nominated on the first ballot, with Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate.
"Jack In Walk" shouted the Boston Globe after Kennedy gained the nomination. But it would be no walk to the White House against the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Kennedy's candidacy was controversial because he was a Roman Catholic; religious prejudice probably cost him a million votes in Illinois alone. But his "Houston speech" on Sept. 11, 1960, met the religious issue head on. He believed in the absolute separation of church and state, he said, in which no priest could tell a president what to do and in which no Protestant clergyman could tell his parishioners how to vote.
A series of televised debates with Nixon was crucial. Kennedy "clobbered" the Republican leader with his "style." Skeptical and laconic, careless and purposeful, Kennedy displayed wit, love of language, and a sense of the past. On November 9 Kennedy became the youngest man in American history to win the presidency and the only Roman Catholic to do so. The election was one of the closest in the nation's history; his popular margin was only 119,450 votes. On December 19 the electoral college cast 303 votes for Kennedy and 219 for Nixon.
The inauguration on Jan. 20, 1960, of the first president born in the 20th century had a quality of pageant, as the old poet Robert Frost, the old priest Cardinal Richard Cushing, and the old president Dwight Eisenhower watched the torch being passed to a new generation. Then the challenge of Kennedy's inaugural address rang out: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country." The new "First Family" quickly captured the public imagination: Jacqueline, with her cameo beauty and her passion for excellence; 3-year-old Caroline; and newborn John.
Although happy that he could do something about "the problems that bedeviled us," Kennedy was aware that his razor-thin victory had narrowed his options. Congress was unyielding—it had seen presidents come and go, and it distrusted Kennedy's youth and wit and gaiety. Kennedy was never able to "escape the congressional arithmetic." Unlike his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy had no past political favors to draw upon. Therefore, most of his program—tax reform, civil rights, a Medicare system, and the establishment of a department of urban affairs—bogged down in Congress. Ironically, his education bill was defeated largely through the efforts of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
The Cuban invasion burst over the Kennedy administration like a bombshell in April 1961. On April 17 it became known that 1,400 exiled Cubans had invaded Cuba's Las Villas Province and had penetrated 10 miles inland. On April 18 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sent a note to Kennedy stating that his government was prepared to come to the aid of the Cuban government to help it resist armed attack. By April 20 the invasion was clearly a failure. Who was responsible for American involvement in this shabby operation? Kennedy shouldered the responsibility for the fiasco, but his biographers have since noted that "Operation Pluto," committing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to train Cuban guerrillas, was a project of Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. Kennedy, initially overawed by the CIA and the joint chiefs of staff, in the end refused to commit the necessary American troops. He was aware that if the Cuban people did not rise up and back the invaders, the United States could not impose a regime on them. Furthermore, he was apprehensive that if America moved in Cuba the Soviet Union might move in Berlin. The Bay of Pigs fiasco proved Kennedy's ability to face disaster. When it was over, he was "effectively in control."
Kennedy rapidly learned the great limitations on a president's ability to solve problems. He wanted the United States to reexamine its attitude toward the Soviet Union, and he wanted to act upon both nations' mutual "abhorrence of war." His separate meetings with Gen. Charles De Gaulle, the president of France, and Khrushchev in the spring of 1961 were social triumphs but political defeats. Kennedy failed to dissuade De Gaulle from pulling France out of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, and he could reach no agreement with the Soviet chief on the status of Berlin. He did voice to Khrushchev, however, America's determination to stay in Berlin. Each threatened to meet force with force. In August the Berlin crisis exploded. The East Germans tightened border curbs and erected a wall of concrete blocks along most of the 25-mile border between East Berlin and West Berlin. Kennedy unequivocally stated that the United States would not abandon West Berlin.
Kennedy's civil rights bills bogged down in Congress. Civil rights was the President's foremost domestic concern. When the showdown came, "the Kennedys," as the President and his brother Robert, the attorney general, shamed southern governors. They sent 600 Federal marshals to Alabama in 1961 to protect the "Freedom Riders." In 1962 they forced Mississippi's governor, Ross Barnett, to send his troopers back to the state university, while dispatching hundreds of Federal marshals into an all-night battle to protect the right of one African American student to attend the university.
Kennedy appealed by television to the conscience of the nation. "We are confronted with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and it is as clear as the American Constitution." He called upon the American people to exhibit a sense of fairness. The political costs were high because Kennedy already had the African American vote.
On Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy addressed the nation on a grave matter. The Soviet Union, he said, had deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba, and the United States had declared a quarantine on all shipments of offensive military equipment into Cuba. The United States would not allow Cuba to become a Soviet missile base, and it would regard any missile launched from Cuba "as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response."
This direct confrontation was brinkmanship. For a week the details had been "the best kept secret in government history." Through 7 days of gripping tension and soul-searching, the administration had maintained a facade of normal social and political activities. Meanwhile, American military units throughout the world were alerted.
As messages went back and forth between Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Pope John, who volunteered his aid as peacemaker, Soviet ships were moving toward Kennedy's invisible line in the Atlantic. Would they stop? They slowed, then stopped, and on October 28 the news came that the Soviet Union would remove its missiles from Cuba. For a time Kennedy seemed at least 10 feet tall, but his own wry comment on the crisis was, "Nobody wants to go through what we went through in Cuba very often."
Out of this confrontation came the greatest single triumph of the Kennedy administration: the nuclear testban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy called this treaty "the first step down the path of peace." Before negotiations for the treaty were completed, Khrushchev had defiantly reopened the nuclear race. Kennedy, however, held firm, and the treaty was signed on July 25, 1963. "Yesterday a shaft of light cut into the darkness," Kennedy said. A "hot line" for emergency messages was also established between Washington, D.C., and Moscow.
According to Kennedy's biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Vietnam "was his great failure." Certainly it consumed more of his time than any other problem. Kennedy had inherited the commitment, but he stepped up the conflict, despite his assertion that "full-scale war in Vietnam … was unthinkable." Kennedy had opposed the French military operations in Algeria and was aware of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's and Eisenhower's warnings against a land war in Asia. Yet he tripled American forces in Vietnam at a time when South Vietnamese troops greatly outnumbered the enemy. Why? Senator William Fulbright has suggested that Kennedy put troops in Vietnam to prove to Khrushchev that "he couldn't be intimidated."
Kennedy was well aware of the dangers of the presidency. One of his favorite poems was "I Have a Rendezvous with Death," and he had always been haunted by the poignancy of those who die young. "Who can tell who will be president a year from now?" he would ask. On the fatal day of his arrival in Dallas, Tex., he remarked that if anyone wanted to kill a president he needed only a high building and a rifle with a telescopic lens.
That day—Nov. 22, 1963—Kennedy was assassinated by a lone sharpshooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, who fired on Kennedy's motorcade with a rifle equipped with a telescopic lens. Within hours, that "live, electric" figure was dead. Gone was all that brilliance and wit and purpose. In Indonesia, flags were lowered to half-mast; in New Delhi, India, crowds wept in the streets; in Washington, D.C., "grief was an agony."
Kennedy was the first president to face a nuclear confrontation; the first to literally reach for the moon, through the nation's space programs; the first in half a century to call a White House conference on conservation; the first to give the arts a prominent place in American national councils; the first since Theodore Roosevelt with whom youth could identify. He made the nation see itself with new eyes.
Yet his most cherished dreams foundered without the influence of his inspiration and guiding hand. The Alliance for Progress, his program to revitalize life throughout the poor nations of South America, disintegrated—Latin American leaders were simply not committed to democratic change. The youthful idealism of the Peace Corps eroded under the impact of disillusionment and reality. The romantic "Green Berets" degenerated into a cloak-and-dagger outfit.
What Kennedy accomplished was not as important as what he symbolized. He enjoyed unique appeal for the emerging Third World. As the African magazine Transition expressed it, murdered with Kennedy was "the first real chance for an intelligent and new leadership in the world. His death leaves us unprepared and in darkness."
Further Reading on John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Perhaps the most objective, scholarly biographical account of Kennedy is Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy (1965), combining the insights of the "insider" with the detachment of the historian. Intimate but more romanticized is Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (1965), winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Useful books by intimates of Kennedy include Evelyn Lincoln, My Twelve Years with John F. Kennedy (1965), and Pierre Salinger, With Kennedy (1966). The most critical, but well-annotated, study is Victor Lasky, J. F. K.: The Man and the Myth (1963). Valuable insights are in the anthology by Donald S. Harrington, As We Remember Him (1965), and in Tom Wicker, JFK and LBI: The Influence of Personality upon Politics (1968). Kennedy's election to the presidency is detailed in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days (1969), illumines the tensions of the Cuban missile crisis. William Manchester, The Death of a President (1967), is the definitive work on the assassination. See also Hugh Sidey, John F. Kennedy, President (1963), and Alex Goldman, John Fitzgerald Kennedy: The World Remembers (1968).