John Fitzgerald Kennedy ,
( 1917 – 1963 )
May 29, 1917, Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S.—died November
22, 1963, Dallas, Texas) 35th president of the United States (1961–63),
who faced a number of foreign crises, especially in Cuba and Berlin,
but managed to secure such achievements as the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty
and the Alliance for Progress. He was assassinated while riding in
a motorcade in Dallas.
The second of nine children, Kennedy was reared in a family that
demanded intense physical and intellectual competition among the
siblings—the family's touch football games at their Hyannis
Port retreat later became legendary—and was schooled in the
religious teachings of the Roman Catholic church and the political
precepts of the Democratic Party. His father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy,
had acquired a multimillion-dollar fortune in banking, bootlegging,
shipbuilding, and the film industry, and as a skilled player of
the stock market. His mother, Rose, was the daughter of John F.
(“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald, onetime mayor of Boston.
They established trust funds for their children that guaranteed
lifelong financial independence. After serving as the head of the
Securities and Exchange Commission, Joseph Kennedy became the U.S.
ambassador to Great Britain, and for six months in 1938 John served
as his secretary, drawing on that experience to write his senior
thesis at Harvard University (B.S., 1940) on Great Britain's military
unpreparedness. He then expanded that thesis into a best-selling
book, Why England Slept (1940).
In the fall of 1941 Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy and two years later
was sent to the South Pacific. By the time he was discharged in 1945,
his older brother, Joe, who their father had expected would be the
first Kennedy to run for office, had been killed in the war, and
the family's political standard passed to John, who had planned to
pursue an academic or journalistic career.
Kennedy himself had barely escaped death in battle. Commanding
torpedo (PT) boat, he was gravely injured when a Japanese
destroyer sank it in the Solomon Islands. Marooned far behind enemy
lines, he led his men back to safety and was awarded the U.S. Navy
and Marine Corps Medal for heroism. He also returned to active command
at his own request. (These events were later depicted in a Hollywood
film, PT 109 , that contributed to the Kennedy mystique.) However,
the further injury to his back, which had bothered him since his
teens, never really healed. Despite operations in 1944, 1954, and
1955, he was in pain for much of the rest of his life. He also suffered
from Addison's disease, though this affliction was publicly concealed. “At
least one-half of the days he spent on this earth,” wrote his
brother Robert, “were days of intense physical pain.” (After
he became president, Kennedy combated the pain with injections of
amphetamines—then thought to be harmless and used by more than
a few celebrities for their energizing effect. According to some
reports, both Kennedy and the first lady became heavily dependent
on these injections through weekly use.) None of this prevented Kennedy
from undertaking a strenuous life in politics. His family expected
him to run for public office and to win.
Congressman and senator
Kennedy did not disappoint his family; in fact, he never lost an
election. His first opportunity came in 1946, when he ran for Congress.
Although still physically weak from his war injuries, he campaigned
aggressively, bypassing the Democratic organization in the Massachusetts
11th congressional district and depending instead upon his family,
college friends, and fellow navy officers. In the Democratic primary
he received nearly double the vote of his nearest opponent; in
the November election he overwhelmed the Republican candidate.
He was only 29.
served three terms in the House of Representatives (1947–53)
as a bread-and-butter liberal. He advocated better working conditions,
more public housing, higher wages, lower prices, cheaper rents, and
more Social Security for the aged. In foreign policy he was an early
supporter of Cold War policies. He backed the Truman Doctrine and
the Marshall Plan but was sharply critical of the Truman administration's
record in Asia. He accused the State Department of trying to force
Chiang Kai-shek into a coalition with Mao Zedong. “What our
young men had saved,” he told the House on January 25, 1949, “our
diplomats and our President have frittered away.”
congressional district in Boston was a safe seat, but Kennedy was
too ambitious to remain long in the House of Representatives.
In 1952 he ran for the U.S. Senate against the popular incumbent,
Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. His mother and sisters Eunice, Patricia, and
Jean held “Kennedy teas” across the state. Thousands
of volunteers flocked to help, including his 27-year-old brother
Robert, who managed the campaign. That fall the Republican presidential
candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, carried Massachusetts by
208,000 votes; but Kennedy defeated Lodge by 70,000 votes. Less than
a year later, on September 12, 1953, Kennedy enhanced his electoral
appeal by marrying Jacqueline Lee Bouvier ( Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis).
Twelve years younger than Kennedy and from a socially prominent family,
the beautiful “Jackie” was the perfect complement to
the handsome politician; they made a glamorous couple.
As a senator, Kennedy quickly won a reputation for responsiveness
to requests from constituents, except on certain occasions when the
national interest was at stake. In 1954 he was the only New England
senator to approve an extension of President Eisenhower's reciprocal-trade
powers, and he vigorously backed the opening of the St. Lawrence
Seaway, despite the fact that over a period of 20 years no Massachusetts
senator or congressman had ever voted for it.
the disappointment of liberal Democrats, Kennedy soft-pedaled the
excesses of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy
who in the early 1950s conducted witch-hunting campaigns against
government workers accused of being communists. Kennedy's father
liked McCarthy, contributed to his campaign, and even entertained
him in the family's compound at Hyannis Port on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
Kennedy himself disapproved of McCarthy, but, as he once observed, “Half
my people in Massachusetts look on McCarthy as a hero.” Yet,
on the Senate vote over condemnation of McCarthy's conduct (1954),
Kennedy expected to vote against him. He prepared a speech explaining
why, but he was absent on the day of the vote. Later, at a National
Press Club Gridiron dinner, costumed reporters sang, “Where
were you, John, where were you, John, when the Senate censured Joe?” Actually,
John had been in a hospital, in critical condition after back surgery.
For six months afterward he lay strapped to a board in his father's
house in Palm Beach, Florida. It was during this period that he worked
on Profiles in Courage (1956), an account of eight great American
political leaders who had defied popular opinion in matters of conscience,
which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. Although Kennedy was
credited as the book's author, it was later revealed that his assistant
Theodore Sorensen had done much of the research and writing.
Back in the Senate, Kennedy led a fight against a proposal to abolish
the electoral college, crusaded for labour reform, and became increasingly
committed to civil rights legislation. As a member of the Senate
Committee on Foreign Relations in the late 1950s, he advocated extensive
foreign aid to the emerging nations in Africa and Asia, and he surprised
his colleagues by calling upon France to grant Algerian independence.
During these years his political outlook was moving leftward. Possibly
because of their father's dynamic personality, the sons of Joseph
Kennedy matured slowly. Gradually John's stature among Democrats
grew, until he had inherited the legions that had once followed Governor
Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, the two-time presidential candidate
who by appealing to idealism had transformed the Democratic Party
and made Kennedy's rise possible.
Presidential candidate and president
Kennedy had nearly become Stevenson's vice presidential running mate
in 1956. The charismatic young New Englander's near victory and
his televised speech of concession (Estes Kefauver won the vice
presidential nomination) brought him into some 40 million American
homes. Overnight he had become one of the best-known political
figures in the country. Already his campaign for the 1960 nomination
had begun. One newspaperman called him a “young man in a
hurry.” Kennedy felt that he had to redouble his efforts
because of the widespread conviction that no Roman Catholic candidate
could be elected president. He made his 1958 race for reelection
to the Senate a test of his popularity in Massachusetts. His margin
of victory was 874,608 votes—the largest ever in Massachusetts
politics and the greatest of any senatorial candidate that year.
steady stream of speeches and periodical profiles followed, with
of him and his wife appearing on many a magazine cover.
Kennedy's carefully calculated pursuit of the presidency years before
the first primary established a practice that became the norm for
candidates seeking the nation's highest office. To transport him
and his staff around the country, his father bought a 40-passenger
Convair aircraft. His brothers Robert (“Bobby,” or “Bob”)
and Edward (“Teddy,” or “Ted”) pitched in.
After having graduated from Harvard University (1948) and from the
University of Virginia Law School (1951), Bobby had embarked on a
career as a Justice Department attorney and counsellor for congressional
committees. Ted likewise had graduated from Harvard (1956) and from
Virginia Law School (1959). Both men were astute campaigners.
January 1960 John F. Kennedy formally announced his presidential
His chief rivals were the senators Hubert H. Humphrey
of Minnesota and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Kennedy knocked Humphrey
out of the campaign and dealt the religious taboo against Roman Catholics
a blow by winning the primary in Protestant West Virginia. He tackled
the Catholic issue again, by avowing his belief in the separation
of church and state in a televised speech before a group of Protestant
ministers in Houston, Texas. Nominated on the first ballot, he balanced
the Democratic ticket by choosing Johnson as his running mate. In
his acceptance speech Kennedy declared, “We stand on the edge
of a New Frontier.” Thereafter the phrase “New Frontier” was
associated with his presidential programs.
Another phrase—“the Kennedy style”—encapsulated
the candidate's emerging identity. It was glamorous and elitist,
an amalgam of his father's wealth, John Kennedy's charisma and easy
wit, Jacqueline Kennedy's beauty and fashion sense (the suits and
pillbox hats she wore became widely popular), the charm of their
children and relatives, and the erudition of the Harvard advisers
who surrounded him (called the “best and brightest” by
author David Halberstam).
won the general election, narrowly defeating the Republican candidate,
Vice President Richard M. Nixon, by a margin of less than
120,000 out of some 70,000,000 votes cast. Many observers, then and
since, believed vote fraud contributed to Kennedy's victory, especially
in the critical state of Illinois, where Joe Kennedy enlisted the
help of the ever-powerful Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago. Nixon
had defended the Eisenhower record; Kennedy, whose slogan had been “Let's
get this country moving again,” had deplored unemployment,
the sluggish economy, the so-called missile gap (a presumed Soviet
superiority over the United States in the number of nuclear-armed
missiles), and the new communist government in Havana. A major factor
in the campaign was a unique series of four televised debates between
the two men; an estimated 85–120 million Americans watched
one or more of the debates. Both men showed a firm grasp of the issues,
but Kennedy's poise in front of the camera, his tony Harvard accent,
and his good looks (in contrast to Nixon's “five o'clock shadow”)
convinced many viewers that he had won the debate. As president,
Kennedy continued to exploit the new medium, sparkling in precedent-setting
televised weekly press conferences.
was the youngest man and the first Roman Catholic ever elected
of the United States. His administration lasted
1,037 days. From the onset he was concerned with foreign affairs.
In his memorable inaugural address ( original text), he called upon
Americans “to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…against
the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” (
primary source document: A Long Twilight Struggle.) He declared:
the long history of the world, only a few generations have been
of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.
I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it.…The
energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will
light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that
fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask
not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for
administration's first brush with foreign affairs was a disaster.
In the last year
of the Eisenhower presidency, the Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) had equipped and trained a brigade of anticommunist
Cuban exiles for an invasion of their homeland. The Joint Chiefs
of Staff unanimously advised the new president that this force, once
ashore, would spark a general uprising against the Cuban leader,
Fidel Castro. But the Bay of Pigs invasion was a fiasco; every man
on the beachhead was either killed or captured. Kennedy assumed “sole
responsibility” for the setback. Privately he told his father
that he would never again accept a Joint Chiefs recommendation without
first challenging it.
Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, thought he had taken the young
when the two leaders met in Vienna in June
1961. Khrushchev ordered a wall built between East and West Berlin
and threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany.
The president activated National Guard and reserve units, and Khrushchev
backed down on his separate peace threat. Kennedy then made a dramatic
visit to West Berlin, where he told a cheering crowd, “Today,
in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein
[I am a] Berliner.' ” In October 1962 a buildup of Soviet short-
and intermediate-range nuclear missiles was discovered in Cuba. Kennedy
demanded that the missiles be dismantled; he ordered a “quarantine” of
Cuba ( original text)—in effect, a blockade that would stop
Soviet ships from reaching that island. For 13 days nuclear war seemed
near; then the Soviet premier announced that the offensive weapons
would be withdrawn. ( Cuban missile crisis.) Ten months later Kennedy
scored his greatest foreign triumph when Khrushchev and Prime Minister
Harold Macmillan of Great Britain joined him in signing the Nuclear
Test-Ban Treaty. Yet Kennedy's commitment to combat the spread of
communism led him to escalate American involvement in the conflict
in Vietnam, where he sent not just supplies and financial assistance,
as President Eisenhower had, but 15,000 military advisers as well.
Because of his slender victory in 1960, Kennedy approached Congress
warily, and with good reason; Congress was largely indifferent to
his legislative program. It approved his Alliance for Progress (Alianza)
in Latin America and his Peace Corps, which won the enthusiastic
endorsement of thousands of college students. But his two most cherished
projects, massive income tax cuts and a sweeping civil rights measure,
were not passed until after his death. ( primary source document:
The American Promise to African Americans.) In May 1961 Kennedy committed
the United States to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade,
and, while he would not live to see this achievement either, his
advocacy of the space program contributed to the successful launch
of the first American manned spaceflights.
He was an immensely popular president, at home and abroad. At times
he seemed to be everywhere at once, encouraging better physical fitness,
improving the morale of government workers, bringing brilliant advisers
to the White House, and beautifying Washington, D.C. His wife joined
him as an advocate for American culture. Their two young children,
Caroline Bouvier and John F., Jr., were familiar throughout the country.
The charm and optimism of the Kennedy family seemed contagious, sparking
the idealism of a generation for whom the Kennedy White House became,
in journalist Theodore White's famous analogy, Camelot—the
magical court of Arthurian legend, which was celebrated in a popular
Broadway musical of the early 1960s.
Joseph Kennedy, meanwhile, had been incapacitated in Hyannis Port
by a stroke, but the other Kennedys were in and out of Washington.
Robert Kennedy, as John's attorney general, was the second most powerful
man in the country. He advised the president on all matters of foreign
and domestic policy, national security, and political affairs.
In 1962 Ted Kennedy was elected to the president's former Senate
seat in Massachusetts. Their sister Eunice's husband, Sargent Shriver,
became director of the Peace Corps. Their sister Jean's husband,
Stephen Smith, was preparing to manage the Democratic Party's 1964
presidential campaign. Another sister, Patricia, had married Peter
Lawford, an English-born actor who served the family as an unofficial
envoy to the entertainment world. All Americans knew who Rose, Jackie,
Bobby, and Teddy were, and most could identify Bobby's wife as Ethel
and Teddy's wife as Joan. But if the first family had become American
royalty, its image of perfection would be tainted years later by
allegations of marital infidelity by the president (most notably,
an affair with motion-picture icon Marilyn Monroe) and of his association
with members of organized crime.
President Kennedy believed that his Republican opponent in 1964 would
be Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. He was convinced that he
could bury Goldwater under an avalanche of votes, thus receiving
a mandate for major legislative reforms. One obstacle to his plan
was a feud in Vice President Johnson's home state of Texas between
Governor John B. Connally, Jr., and Senator Ralph Yarborough, both
Democrats. To present a show of unity, the president decided to
tour the state with both men. On Friday, November 22, 1963, he
and Jacqueline Kennedy were in an open limousine riding slowly
in a motorcade through downtown Dallas. At 12:30 the president
was struck by two rifle bullets, one at the base of his neck and
one in the head. He was pronounced dead shortly after arrival at
Parkland Memorial Hospital. Governor Connally, though also gravely
wounded, recovered. Vice President Johnson took the oath as president
at 2:38 . Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old Dallas citizen, was
accused of the slaying. Two days later Oswald was shot to death
by Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner with connections to the criminal
underworld, in the basement of a Dallas police station. A presidential
commission headed by the chief justice of the United States, Earl
Warren, later found that neither the sniper nor his killer “was
part of any conspiracy, domestic or foreign, to assassinate President
Kennedy,” but that Oswald had acted alone. The Warren Commission,
however, was not able to convincingly explain all the particular
circumstances of Kennedy's murder. In 1979 a special committee
of the U.S. House of Representatives declared that although the
president had undoubtedly been slain by Oswald, acoustic analysis
suggested the presence of a second gunman who had missed. But this
declaration did little to squelch the theories that Oswald was
part of a conspiracy involving either CIA agents angered over Kennedy's
handling of the Bay of Pigs fiasco or members of organized crime
seeking revenge for Attorney General Bobby Kennedy's relentless
criminal investigations. Kennedy's assassination, the most notorious
political murder of the 20th century, remains a source of bafflement,
controversy, and speculation.
John Kennedy was dead, but the Kennedy mystique was still alive.
Both Robert and Ted ran for president (in 1968 and 1980, respectively).
Yet tragedy would become nearly synonymous with the Kennedys when
Bobby, too, was assassinated on the campaign trail in 1968.
Kennedy and her two children moved from the White House to a home
Georgetown section of Washington. Continuing crowds
of the worshipful and curious made peace there impossible, however,
and in the summer of 1964 she moved to New York City. Pursuit continued
until October 20, 1968, when she married Aristotle Onassis, a wealthy
Greek shipping magnate. The Associated Press said that the marriage “broke
the spell of almost complete adulation of a woman who had become
virtually a legend in her own time.” Widowed by Onassis, the
former first lady returned to the public eye in the mid-1970s as
a high-profile book editor, and she remained among the most admired
women in the United States until her death in 1994. As an adult,
daughter Caroline was jealous of her own privacy, but John Jr.—a
lawyer like his sister and debonair and handsome like his father—was
much more of a public figure. Long remembered as “John-John,” the
three-year-old who stoically saluted his father's casket during live
television coverage of the funeral procession, John Jr. became the
founder and editor-in-chief of the political magazine George in the
mid-1990s. In 1999, when John Jr., his wife, and his sister-in-law
died in the crash of the private plane he was piloting, the event
was the focus of an international media watch that further proved
the immortality of the Kennedy mystique. It was yet another chapter
in the family's “curse” of tragedy.
- William Manchester