Kennedy, John F.

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John F. Kennedy

Carl M. Brauer

TWENTY years after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a public opinion poll indicated that he was rated best overall of the nine presidents since Herbert Hoover. Among five positive attributes surveyed, Kennedy "most inspired confidence in the White House," according to 40 percent of those asked, followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt at 23 percent. Sixty percent considered Kennedy as having had the "most appealing personality," followed again by Roosevelt at 11 percent. Kennedy edged Roosevelt on "best in domestic affairs" and on having "cared most about the elderly, the poor and those most in economic trouble." Political scientists, historians, and national journalists have on the whole tended to view Kennedy less favorably than has the general public. Some "experts" hold Kennedy in high regard, but others are extremely critical of him. A significant number probably agree that his promise outstripped his performance and that he left an ambiguous legacy.

Neither popular nor expert opinion would actually be wrong about Kennedy. Indeed, they are in a sense opposite sides of the same coin, for Kennedy's inflation to mythic proportions by the public and his demythologizing by experts both derive significantly from the manner of his death. No one knows how his reputation might have been affected had he served out his first term and the second term to which he likely would have been elected. Alone among modern presidents, Kennedy's place in history revolves around unanswerable questions of what might have been had he lived. Yet this very fact suggests that in his relatively brief presidencyless than three yearsKennedy exerted a profound influence upon both popular and expert hopes and expectations, which endured long after his death. Had Kennedy not had this influence while he lived, the public would not have mythologized him, nor the experts demythologized him, after he was killed. Had he not had this influence, his successors in the White House would have been far less likely to have compared themselves to him, to have sought to emulate him, or to have tried to escape his myth.

Family Background

John F. Kennedy was born on 29 May 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, the second son of Joseph P. Kennedy, a self-made multimillionaire who headed the Securities and Exchange Commission under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. In 1937, Roosevelt made the elder Kennedy ambassador to Great Britain, which marked a significant social breakthrough for an Irish Catholic. (In their native Boston, the Kennedys had sometimes been snubbed by Brahmin society, and Kennedy had moved the family to New York partly as a result of it.) To Roosevelt's dismay, his ambassador sympathized with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policies toward Nazi Germany. Neither Roosevelt nor Kennedy had ever really liked one another, but until this point they had successfully used one another for their own purposes. But after Kennedy took Chamberlain's side, the two men fell out permanently, and Roosevelt refused even to make use of Kennedy's very considerable business and managerial skills during the war.

John Kennedy, or Jack, as he was known, grew up in a home where political issues were frequently discussed and sometimes debated. His father's strong views evidently influenced his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., more than they did him. All the Kennedy children, but particularly the four boysJoseph, John, Robert, and Edwardwere brought up with a strong sense of noblesse oblige and with little or no interest in enhancing their own very considerable financial fortunes. (Their father set up trust funds for each of them, which made them financially independent when they reached maturity.) Public service, not private gain, was the ideal instilled in all the Kennedy children. When their private fortunes or family connections could enhance their ability to perform public service, as in getting their views known or in winning elections, for example, the Kennedy boys gladly used them.

Jack Kennedy was a sickly child and adolescent. "When we were growing up together," his younger brother Robert later recalled, "we used to laugh about the great risk a mosquito took in biting Jack Kennedywith some of his blood the mosquito was almost sure to die." During his illnesses, he became an avid reader and also a fatalist. He never let his frail condition keep him from throwing himself headlong into his family's fierce athletic competitions. At Choate, a predominantly Protestant boarding school in Connecticut, he was an average student, though one who, his teachers believed, performed at less than his potential. His peers liked him for his wit and cleverness, and he proved adept at winning friends. He was admired not for his accomplishments, a teacher later observed, but for his personality. His roommate once noted that he was the only boy who read The New York Times every day from front to back. To avoid competing further with his older brother, Joseph, who had also been at Choate, he enrolled at Princeton, instead of Harvard, where his brother was already a campus star. But he became ill once again and dropped out. He enrolled at Harvard the following year.

In college, Kennedy for the most part showed a greater dedication to enjoying himself socially than he did to developing his mind. Once again he was popular and made lasting friends. Once again he suffered from impaired health, including a back injury sustained in playing football. Although he had suffered from backaches even as a child, this injury probably marked the beginning of a chronically bad back. He did have a lively interest in political issues, though he did not have the strongly fixed views of many of his contemporaries, such as his older brother, an isolationist who became a delegate to the 1940 Democratic National Convention and opposed Roosevelt's nomination for a third term.

Using the access to European leaders afforded by his father's position, and with the assistance of hired secretarial help, Kennedy wrote a senior thesis called "Appeasement at Munich." It was awarded second highest honors. Although it sought to explain how Chamberlain had no alternative to appeasement, and in that respect reflected his father's views, it showed Jack's independence by regarding Winston Churchill as an accurate prophet and by emphasizing the importance of American military preparedness. With his father's assistance and connections, the thesis was quickly transformed into a book, Why England Slept, a title inspired by Churchill's own While England Slept. It received favorable reviews in the summer of 1940, as war clouds gathered in Europe, and it became a best-seller. By the following spring, more than eighty thousand copies had been sold.

During the war, Kennedy commanded a PT boat in the South Pacific. While on patrol one night, the small boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer traveling at high speed. Two of the crewmen were killed. Kennedy demonstrated leadership, courage, and stamina in helping to save the eleven survivors. A strong swimmer, he towed a badly burned crew-man several miles to a tiny island. Two days later he towed him again to a larger island. The group was finally rescued when they found a pair of natives who took a message to an Australian coast-watcher. The rescue attracted newspaper attention not only for its own sake but because of the identity of the skipper. John Hersey, a journalist, wrote the first long account in the New Yorker, which was followed by an abridged version in Reader's Digest and eventually by other books and a movie. Kennedy's wartime heroism became a basis and then a staple of his political career. One of Kennedy's charms was that though he never prevented his political supporters from exploiting his heroism, he never personally aggrandized his role either. In a characteristic remark, he explained, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat."

After his rescue, Kennedy commanded another boat and saw some additional action, but his war career was soon cut short by illness and his bad back. After the war, he became a celebrity correspondent for Hearst newspapers at the United Nations charter conference and during the British elections of 1945. He also observed the Potsdam summit conference. But he decided he would rather shape history than report it. His brother Joe, whose political ambitions had been more certain, had died a hero's death in the war. His father later claimed to have been happily surprised by his second son's interest in running for office, and he used his money and contacts to help him get started.

Early Career

John Kennedy began to make speeches around Massachusetts in 1945 and the following spring ran in a

primary for a vacant congressional seat in Boston, where nomination was tantamount to election. Although only twenty-nine, he had an impressive war record, his father's financial assistance and personal connections, and excellent name recognition. His wealth and Harvard education were liabilities to be overcome in the working-class districts, but his Irish political pedigree helped. His surviving maternal grandfather, whose last name, Fitzgerald, was Kennedy's middle name, had once been mayor of Boston and a congressman. Kennedy was in effect the first Irish Brahmin. Youthful-looking and handsome, though gaunt and often on crutches, Kennedy proved a tireless campaigner and showed a deft touch in greeting the Irish politicians and working people whose support he needed. His campaign stressed the bread-and-butter needs of his constituents and of the returning veterans. He won the primary impressively and then the general election.

In 1952, Kennedy captured the Senate seat held by Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Kennedy received only 51.5 percent of the vote, but his win was remarkable in that it came in the face of an Eisenhower landslide in the state and against a well-respected incumbent who bore a name even more famous than his own. Kennedy owed his victory to his appealing personality and intense campaigning, to his ability both to capitalize on popular disenchantment over the economy and world affairs and to present himself as a new kind of nonpartisan leader, and to his establishment of a personal organization, independent of the Democratic party. On a similar basis, Kennedy won reelection in 1958 with 73.6 percent of the vote, defeating a relative unknown who fashioned himself the poor man's candidate against the millionaire incumbent.

Kennedy did not make a great mark as a legislator. He had served too briefly in the House to acquire much influence there, and his quick move to the Senate reflected both his ambition and his impatience with the career of a junior member of the House. The Senate, which affords more of a forum for addressing major national and international issues, even for junior members, was more to his liking. But there, too, he was always looking beyond, with the presidency as his ultimate goal. His peers respected Kennedy for his intelligence, wit, and independence, but he never became their leader, in name or in fact. He was a critic of certain aspects of Eisenhower's foreign and military policies, particularly the identification with neocolonialism abroad and the economical but supposedly ineffectual "New Look" defense policy.

On domestic issues, he consistently supported unsuccessful liberal efforts to expand federal responsibilities in areas such as civil rights, economic assistance to depressed regions, education, and health, though he spurned ideological labels including that of "liberal." He became an expert and sponsored legislation in the area of labor-law reform, the impulse for which grew out of organized labor's unhappiness with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and out of a Senate investigation of corruption and racketeering in certain unions that captured headlines and a television audience in the mid-1950s. (His brother Robert served as chief counsel to the McClellan investigating committee, of which he was a member.) The bill Kennedy sponsored was too kind to labor unions to be accepted by the fairly conservative Congress, which enacted a less sympathetic one.

In 1953, Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, a beautiful socialite twelve years his junior. After he died, books and articles eventually made the claim, never confirmed by his widow, that their marriage was not happy, that it suffered under the strains of his infidelities and her lavish spending and unease with politics. During his life, they made an extraordinarily attractive couple, with the aura of royalty about them. Rumors of marital difficulties were not widely circulated. If the public was shown less than a completely honest picture of their marriage, that was not an unusual practice in American politics. Neither was it out of the ordinary for a politician to be less than candid about health problems, which in Kennedy's case were much more serious than was publicly acknowledged. But personal adversities, whatever they might have been, failed to impede his energetic pursuit of high office.

While convalescing from back surgery in 1955, Kennedy conceived of a book about political courage. Published in early 1956, Profiles in Courage described historical instances of senators placing the national interest above parochial or self-interest. A front-page review in the New York Times Book Review hailed the book for restoring "respect for a venerable and much abused profession," politics. The book became a best-seller and won a Pulitzer Prize. More important, it established Kennedy as that American rarity, an intellectual politician, and identified him with political courage. Kennedy took pains to disprove a columnist's challenge to his authorship and even won a retraction, but in 1980, Herbert Parmet, a dispassionate Kennedy biographer, concluded that Kennedy had in fact "served principally as an overseer or more charitably as a sponsor and editor." Much of the writing and the literary craftsmanship were contributed by Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy's talented young assistant. Although there was nothing unusual about a politician using a ghostwriter, Kennedy evidently regarded it as vital to his image to claim sole authorship.

The book's success boosted Kennedy's bid for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1956 after Adlai Stevenson, the presidential nominee, surprised the convention by throwing open the choice of his running mate. Kennedy had made an excellent impression at the convention through his narration of a film and through his nominating speech for Stevenson. Kennedy's Roman Catholicism, some hoped, would help woo back Catholic Democrats who had bolted the party in 1952 because Stevenson was divorced; other Democratic activists, including some prominent Catholics, feared that his nomination would stir up intense anti-Catholic sentiment, just as had Governor Al Smith's nomination for president in 1928.

Kennedy's principal rival for the nomination was Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, a populist who had twice sought the presidential nomination and who had a substantial following in the party. Nevertheless, Kennedy came within a whisker of defeating him on the second ballot, thanks in part to support from southerners who regarded Kefauver as a turn-coat on civil rights. In a tumultuous scene that followed the second ballot, Kefauver's fellow Tennessean Albert Gore withdrew in his favor, precipitating a series of switches that gave Kefauver the nomination.

Presidential Campaign

"With only about four hours of work and a handful of supporters, I came within thirty-three and a half votes of winning the Vice Presidential nomination," Kennedy told an aide, David Powers, the following November. "If I work hard for four years, I ought to be able to pick up all the marbles." And work hard Kennedy did. He did not become a declared candidate until early 1960, but in the three and a half years before that he delivered hundreds of speeches, appeared frequently on television shows, published many articles, and was often the subject of others. He established contacts with potential Democratic delegates and nurtured them carefully. His efforts were appreciably helped by his family's wealth.

Kennedy's methodical pursuit of the nomination so far in advance of the convention was unprecedented. Some experts and some of his rivals thought he was starting too early, but he proved the experts wrong and stole a march on his rivals. He was, in fact, setting a precedent that has proved enduring. Kennedy's campaign for the nomination in 1960, as described by Theodore H. White in his popular The Making of the President, 1960, became Republican Barry Goldwater's model in 1964. All successful non-incumbent candidates for major-party nominations have followed suit, beginning years ahead of the conventions and methodically building personal followings within their parties. The days of the well-positioned favorite son, of the coy disclaimer of presidential ambition, and of the brokered convention seemed to be over.

To a greater extent than at any time since the Civil War, the leading candidates in 1960 were members of the Senate: Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Stuart Symington on the Democratic side, and the presiding officer of the Senate, Vice President Richard Nixon, a former senator, on the Republican side. In the past, governors had been more prominent in presidential races. The shift in emphasis to the Senate reflected the growing importance of the national news media, particularly television, for they focused attention on broad national and international issues, about which senators presumably had the greatest awareness and expertise.

The 1960 presidential campaign came against an ambiguous background. The country was at peace and there was general prosperity. Eisenhower remained a popular president who, even Kennedy partisans agree, could have been reelected to a third term had not the recently enacted Twenty-second Amendment prohibited it. Yet a series of events, disclosures, and reports suggested that the United States was slipping in its decade-long struggle to contain Communism. The Soviet Union, it appeared, was moving ahead of the United States in winning friends in the new, decolonized nations of the world; was making rapid strides in science and technology, as evidenced by its launching of Sputnik ; and was besting America in weapons development, presumably causing a "missile gap." At home, a popular argument went, Americans were sated with consumer goods and insufficiently committed to public needs in such areas as job development and economic growth, education, medical care, and civil rights for the nation's black minority. Eisenhower, however popular he remained, seemed to influential opinion leaders, if not to the general public, a passive observer of America's deterioration.

Kennedy ran on the slogans "Get America Moving Again" and "To Seek a New Frontier." His speechwriters in 1960 were instructed to drive home the theme that we had "to summon every segment of our society . . . to restore America's relative strength as a free nation . . . to regain our security and leadership in a fast changing world menaced by Communism." Implicitly his campaign also repudiated Eisenhower's style of leadership. Without ever mentioning Eisenhower by name, he rejected a "restricted concept of the Presidency," advocating that

the President place himself in the very thick of the fight, that he care passionately about the fate of the people he leads, that he be willing to serve them at the risk of incurring their momentary displeasure . . . [that he] be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his officeall that are specified and some that are not.

Kennedy defeated his only Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, in Wisconsin and West Virginia, which had the only contested primary elections in 1960. The latter victory was particularly important because it came in a predominantly Protestant state and eased fears that existed within the party of nominating a Catholic. Following it, Kennedy won a string of primaries, but Humphrey had withdrawn and none of Kennedy's potential opponents, Johnson, Symington, or Stevenson, had declared their candidacies. Because of their followings and because of the presence of favorite sons, Kennedy received the required majority for the nomination only as the first alphabetical roll call reached Wyoming, the last state to be called.

Kennedy chose Johnson as his running mate. Johnson had finished second in the balloting and was the overwhelming choice of the South. No Democrat had ever been elected president without carrying the South, and Eisenhower had made significant inroads in that region, so a lot of political history sustained Kennedy's selection of Johnson. Other factors also influenced Kennedy's thinking, including his respect for Johnson's abilities, on the one hand, and his desire not to have Johnson as Senate majority leader should he be elected president, on the other.

The general election pitted Kennedy against Nixon, who held a narrow lead in early public opinion polls. Both men stumped the country energetically, but television played a more important role than ever before. A series of four televised debates drew an enormous audience, especially the first debate, which an estimated 70 million adults watched. Neither man was the clear victor in the debates, but Nixon in a sense was the loser, for his campaign had stressed his advantage over Kennedy in experience and through the debates Kennedy established himself as Nixon's equal. Kennedy was relaxed, handsome, good-humored, and gracious. In a distinct Boston accent, he spoke in cool, rational tones that were well suited to the television medium. Matters of tone and personality seemed to separate the candidates in 1960 more than the issues did.

But even if Kennedy and Nixon were not far apart on substance, the differences between them were nonetheless real, as in the case of civil rights, the most politically sensitive issue they faced. In part through his selection of Johnson, Kennedy reassured white southerners that he was reasonable and moderate on civil rights and that he was not likely to rein-stitute a hated Reconstruction. Simultaneously, he promised blacks a wide range of presidential action on their behalf, demonstrated sensitivity to their concerns, and appealed to them on economic grounds. By contrast, Nixon made little effort to win black votes. Instead, he concentrated on the white South, though he did not go far enough in repudiating civil rights activism by the federal government to assure his success there. On election day, Kennedy kept the South quite solidly Democratic and captured a high percentage of black votes nationwide, which made a critical difference in several states, including two in the South.

The election was so close that any one of a variety of different groups and tactics may be said to have determined the outcome. With a popular vote of 34.2 million, Kennedy won by fewer than 120,000 votes out of nearly 70 million cast. His margin in the Electoral College, 303219, was more comfortable, yet it rested on thin majorities in a dozen states. Had fewer than 12,000 people in five states switched their votes, Nixon would have had an electoral majority. Anti-Catholic sentiment was less overt than in 1928, but postelection analyses by political scientists revealed its continued vitality in the polling booth. In fact, religion was the single most important factor in determining the closeness of the election. Kennedy's church membership won back many disaffected Catholic Democrats, but it lost him a substantially larger number of Protestant Democrats, who apparently were not reassured either by his record of independence from papal influence or by his unequivocal endorsement of the principle of church-state separation. Kennedy's adherence to that principle as presidentindeed, he was decidedly less prone to mix religion and government than were several recent Protestant presidentsappeared to quiet anti-Catholic fears. Because no Catholic has received a major-party nomination for president since Kennedy, it is impossible to know how much voting behavior has changed in this regard.

The congressional results likewise constituted less than a ringing endorsement of Kennedy's plan to get the country moving again. For the first time in the twentieth century, the party winning the presidency failed to gain seats in the Congress. The Democrats lost 2 Senate and 21 House seats. This still gave them substantial paper majorities (6535 in the Senate and 262174 in the House), but since a conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats had effectively thwarted much liberal legislation in 1959 and 1960, when the majorities were larger, the new numbers did not bode well for legislative activism.

Decisive Leadership

Kennedy publicly rejected the idea that he had failed to get a mandate. "The margin is narrow, but the responsibility is clear," he said. "There may be difficul-ties with the Congress, but a margin of only one vote would still be a mandate." Nonetheless, Kennedy conducted himself with an acute awareness of the closeness of his win and of the tenuousness of his congressional majority. In the weeks following his election, he took care to appear above partisanship, thereby to reassure the country. His first two announced appointees were incumbents whom he retained in their jobs, Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Several weeks later Kennedy chose C. Douglas Dillon, the incumbent under secretary of state, who had contributed money to the Nixon campaign, as secretary of the treasury. Kennedy made a well-publicized and unusual visit to Nixon several days after the election. In addition, he publicly thanked Eisenhower for his cooperation and assistance in the transition, which was marked by a cordiality sometimes lacking in the past, and he revealed that he had asked Eisenhower if he would be available for assignments in his administration.

Kennedy's decision to postpone promised civil rights legislation reflected his recognition of congressional realities. He did not want to alienate southern Democrats, whose support he needed in other areas. Given the makeup of Congress, it would have been a futile gesture to seek civil rights legislation in 1961 anyway.

Within the space of a few months, Kennedy transformed himself from a president-elect without a clear mandate to a highly popular incumbent who raised public expectations of the office. The most visible moment in this transformation came with his inauguration itself, where the contrast between him and Eisenhower could not have been more striking. Eisenhower was the oldest man to occupy the presidency until that time; Kennedy, at forty-three, was the youngest person ever elected president. Eisenhower was the last president born in the nineteenth century; Kennedy was the first born in the twentieth. Eisenhower had been the great World War II commander, and Kennedy, a mere junior officer. Eisenhower had grandchildren; Kennedy had a three-year-old daughter and a son who was born between election and inauguration. Eisenhower had taken care not to endanger his personal popularity by taking on divisive causes and had practiced a kind of indirect leadership, so indirect as often to be undetectable; Kennedy advocated that the president be at the center of the action.

Kennedy's inaugural address vividly underscored the changing of the guard, while promising to uphold America's commitments:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

It was one of the shortest inaugural addresses of this century and the most effective and memorable since Franklin D. Roosevelt's in 1933. Delivered on a cold, clear day following a heavy snowstorm, it would always be remembered by those in attendance and the many millions more who watched it on television or heard it on radio. Young people were particularly stirred by its idealism and inspired by the young man who delivered it so crisply and self-confidently. In the speech's famous climax, Kennedy declared:

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. 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 the 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 your country.

My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Kennedy embraced a universalistic conception of the country's international responsibilities that his successor and the Vietnam War's critics alike cited as a major reason for America's involvement in the war. "Let every nation know," he asserted, "whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Yet even in this tough-sounding speech, Kennedy declared an interest in opening a dialogue with the Soviet Union to relax tensions and reduce the chance of war. "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate," he said in one of his most famous contrapuntal sentences. He also promised to help the world's poor help themselves "not because the Communists may be doing it . . . but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." To Latin Americans, he offered a special pledge, "a new alliance for progress, to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty."

Just as the inauguration and the inaugural address were studies in contrast, so too was the mood Kennedy set in his first months in office. Kennedy painted a sober, even grim picture of the world as he found it. Things were worse, he said, than he had expected, America's defenses were weaker, its position in certain international situations in greater jeopardy. Yet that sobriety was countered by his youth, vigor, self-confidence, and wit. He flooded Congress with requests, held frequent and impressive press conferences, and proposed bold new national goals, the most important of which was metto place a man on the moon before the decade was out. "Above all, Kennedy held out such promise of hope," Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the historian who served as his assistant, wrote. "Intelligence at last was being applied to public affairs. Euphoria reigned; we thought for a moment that the world was plastic and the future unlimited."

Kennedy made an important innovation upon becoming president when he allowed press conferences to be televised live. He used these conferences to communicate directly with the public, which was immediately impressed with his personality, poise, and knowledge of government. As of May 1961, three out of four adults surveyed had seen at least one of his press conferences, and 91 percent had formed a favorable impression of Kennedy from them. The live press conference became Kennedy's communications forte. None of his successors has felt it possible to abandon the practice, though none has done as well by it. Here was a leading example of Kennedy's permanent effect on the presidency and public expectations of it.

Another demanding legacy Kennedy bequeathed his successors lay in press relations. Kennedy, who had been a reporter briefly himself, followed the press closely, had friends among journalists, and sometimes sought the advice of certain columnists and reporters. Kennedy's immediate successors, Johnson and Nixon, each believed that the press had been infatuated with Kennedy and had treated him with kid gloves, in contrast to the rough treatment they received. In fact, Kennedy received a normal amount of criticism in print and collided with the press on news management (which Kennedy practiced), press self-censorship (which he advocated), and other matters. Like all presidents, he was pleased when he received praise in the press and unhappy when he received criticism. But the fact that his successors forgot the clashes and criticism suggests that Kennedy was at least highly successful in creating merely the impression of good press relations, which may be almost as good as the reality.

Kennedy paid attention to the nation's culture. He honored leading writers, artists, poets, and musicians, and invited them to the White House. The recognition of artistic excellence fit Kennedy's expansive view of the president as the promoter of excellence in virtually all areas of the nation's life. Sympathetic to contemporary intellectual criticisms of mass culture, he appointed as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Newton Minow, who promptly told the nation's broadcasters that if they ever watched television from morning to night, "I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland." At Kennedy's behest, the federal government began to provide aid for educational television. Kennedy also sought to raise aesthetic standards in the design of federal buildings and promoted historic preservation. Not surprisingly, the nation's cultural elite tended to return Kennedy's flattery and then some. Lewis Mumford, for example, in 1964 called Kennedy "the first American President to give art, literature and music a place of dignity in the national life." This was an exaggeration, but Kennedy did set an influential precedent for his immediate successors.

Kennedy likewise encouraged social criticism, and he generated interest in politics and public service. During his presidency, the numbers and impact of published critiques of social conditions and injustices increased appreciably. The Peace Corps, which he created by executive order on 1 March 1961, tapped the idealism of thousands of Americans, many of them young, who volunteered to go to poor countries as teachers, health-care providers, and technicians, and to fulfill other scarce needs. Under Kennedy's direct inspiration, many young people

embarked on careers in government and politics, which Kennedy gave a respectability and appeal they had usually lacked. Partly as a result of his influence, television news and public affairs broadcasting expanded dramatically.

The social questioning that Kennedy sanctioned and encouraged led some people to ideological conclusions that Kennedy rejected. His presidency saw a rise in both radical and conservative movements, but Kennedy was comfortable with neither extreme. He was not even comfortable with liberalism, though he counted many liberals as his allies and though he espoused many liberal programs. Kennedy described himself as an "idealist without illusions." He was a pragmatist and problem solver who perceived the limitations, as well as the possibilities, of presidential power. As a politician, he worried about his reelection and about how Congress and the public received his suggestions. He believed that many problems called out for new and essentially technical solutions. The central issues of our time, Kennedy said in a speech at Yale in 1962, "relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals." Kennedy declared, "What we need is not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical issues involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead."

Liberals sometimes faulted Kennedy for being too rational and cool. They wanted a more passionate and feeling leadership than he usually projected. They hoped he would mount the "bully pulpit," as Theodore Roosevelt described it, to preach to the public and rally it behind just causes. Kennedy certainly liked to think of himself as a leader, but as a practical politician he was disinclined to lead futile crusades. The most compelling moral cause of Kennedy's years as president was civil rights, and it is therefore worth looking at his handling of it in some detail.

Civil Rights

In his campaign for president, Kennedy promised executive, moral, and legislative leadership to combat racial discrimination. After being elected and looking at the congressional situation, he decided to forgo legislative leadership, at least for the time being. But he did exercise executive and some moral leadership in his first year as president. He appointed an unprecedented number of blacks to office, including Thurgood Marshall, who became a federal judge. Marshall was the nation's preeminent civil rights lawyer and had directed the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had successfully argued the historic Brown case, among others, before the Supreme Court. Kennedy also took significant measures against racial discrimination in federal employment and among federal contractors. He was more accessible to civil rights leaders than his predecessors had been and, in contrast to Eisenhower, actually endorsed the Brown decision.

Under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, his brother, the Justice Department stepped up enforcement of existing voting rights laws, and the administration encouraged the establishment of the Voter Education Project, which in time registered hundreds of thousands of blacks to vote in the South. Robert Kennedy himself went into the heart of the South to endorse school desegregation. Behind the scenes, the Justice Department endeavored to bring about voluntary and peaceful compliance with court-ordered desegregation.

The administration's symbolic and substantive expressions of support for progress in race relations encouraged the expansion of a preexisting civil rights movement. For the first time, many blacks felt they had real allies in the White House and the Justice Department. Yet participants in the movement, particularly those on the front lines in the South, were sometimes disappointed at certain restraints in the administration's assistance, such as its inability or lack of interest in providing them with federal protection from violence at the hands of local officials and vigilantes.

The Kennedys, for their part, were several times frustrated in their efforts to get state and local officials to carry out their legal responsibilities to obey court orders mandating desegregation of colleges or bus terminals. In May 1961 the administration sent federal marshals to Montgomery, Alabama, to protect Martin Luther King, Jr., the charismatic civil rights leader, from white mob violence during the "freedom rides," which were aimed at desegregating interstate bus transportation.

In September 1962 a long behind-the-scenes negotiation failed to secure Governor Ross Barnett's cooperation in ensuring the safety of James Meredith when he became the first black person to matriculate at the University of Mississippi. Kennedy hoped to avoid sending federal troops, which would stir hated memories of Reconstruction and cause a political backlash among white southerners. Again, federal marshals were sent instead. They performed bravely and with restraint in the face of an angry white mob but, in the end, had to be reinforced by federal troops. Afterward, President Kennedy privately regretted trusting Barnett and was sorry he had not sent in troops earlier, which might have prevented the two deaths that occurred. According to Sorensen, Kennedy also "wondered whether all that he had been taught and all that he had believed about the evils of Reconstruction were true."

In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr., led massive demonstrations in the spring of 1963 against that city's segregated public accommodations and against employment discrimination. For a while, the demonstrators were decorously arrested and jailed, a tactic that had broken the back of a comparable campaign in Albany, Georgia, the previous year. But when children began to march in Birmingham, T. Eugene ("Bull") Connor, the police commissioner, changed his tactic to physical repulsion of the demonstrators. Dramatic news photographs and films of defenseless demonstrators being attacked by southern policemen, using vicious dogs, clubs, and fire hoses, appeared around the world. Kennedy sent representatives to the city to mediate the dispute, and he and members of his administration persuaded business executives whose companies had subsidiaries in Birmingham to bring pressure on their local executives to help achieve settlement. These efforts bore some fruit, but were repeatedly endangered by Ku Klux Klan activities, including the terrorist bombings of black homes and businesses, which in turn led to rioting by enraged blacks.

Meanwhile, another crisis brewed in the state, this one over the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama. Governor George Wallace, who had won election as an adamant segregationist, threatened to cause a repetition of the University of Mississippi crisis. Behind the scenes, the Kennedys tried to reason with Wallace and organized business pressure against his causing a violent confrontation. Wallace had sworn to stand in the schoolhouse door to prevent desegregation, and as the day of decision neared, it was not completely clear what would happen if he did. Consequently, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. The confrontation came on 11 June 1963. With cameras recording the moment, Wallace stood in the doorway but then stepped aside and let two black students enter the building to register. Wallace kept his defiance symbolic and fulfilled his responsibility to prevent violence as state and local police maintained security; the federal presence was quickly removed.

The events of 11 June gave President Kennedy an excellent moment to address the nation on civil rights. In a period of uncertainty, it seemed a rare instance of unambiguous federal success. The campaign to moderate Wallace's behavior had clearly worked. Although Kennedy had been speaking about civil rights in the previous weeks, he had not made a speech to the nation as a whole. He had already decided to seek broad new civil rights legislation, and, though its details were not complete, Kennedy decided to seize the moment and go on television that evening to address the nation. Sorensen did not even have time to complete writing the speech before Kennedy went on the air, and Kennedy had to extemporize the conclusion.

This time Kennedy unambiguously mounted the bully pulpit and talked about race relations more bluntly and movingly than any president before him. He said:

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

Kennedy gave the threat of violence as a principal reason for taking immediate steps to secure black people their rights. Events in Birmingham and elsewhere had increased cries for equality and could not be prudently ignored. National legislation must be enacted, he said, "if we are to move this problem from the streets to the courts." In a sense, Kennedy's argument could be construed as conservative, for it sought to preserve the social fabric through the provision of a legal outlet. But many conservatives at the time preferred to leave the racial problem in the hands of local officials, even if that meant, as it often did, repression and resistance. Kennedy, on the other hand, believed that America faced a "moral crisis," which could not be "met by repressive police action." He wanted Congress, state and local governments, as well as private citizens, to resolve the crisis by removing its causes. Kennedy manifested a liberal's faith that government had the duty and the ability to correct social injustices.

As he had in the past, Kennedy marshaled economic justifications for eliminating racial discrimination, and he emphasized that the problem was national, not sectional, in scope (which was not only true but politically wise). Kennedy had long emphasized how racial injustices made this country look bad in the eyes of the world. But he argued that the intrinsic moral issue was more important than what the world thought of America:

We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?

For Kennedy, this speech marked a turning point. Most of his advisers had cautioned against it, largely on political grounds. It would cost him the South and the 1964 election, some warned, or it would deadlock Congress. But Robert Kennedy, his most trusted adviser, had argued strongly in favor of a change. Until Birmingham, the administration had managed to stay abreast of, or slightly ahead of, the evolving pressures for the protection of civil rights. But with Birmingham, street demonstrations became a popular, dramatic, and successful tactic, and there were bound to be many more of them. An atmosphere was developing in which Kennedy could only weakly respond to events rather than shape and direct them. Kennedy did not want to find himself in a weak and defensive position when his personality and view of the presidency called for decisive leadership and a measure of control over events. "The situation was rapidly reaching a boil," Sorensen recalled, "which the President felt the federal government should not permit if it was to lead and not be swamped."

The speech also marked a turning point for the country, the beginning of the drive for passage of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most far-reaching legal instrumentality in the nation's Second Reconstruction. In the ensuing months, the White House became the focal point of efforts to pass this legislation, which in effect meant that Kennedy did succeed in gaining leadership on civil rights. Kennedy held an important and unprecedented series of meetings with groups of lawyers, religious leaders, businessmen, and labor leaders to enlist them as lobbyists for the legislation and to seek voluntary progress against discrimination. Kennedy never expected Congress to fall in line immediately and it did not.

A vital part of Kennedy's legislative strategy was to incorporate suggestions from Republicans so as to win their support for the legislation as a whole. By the time of Kennedy's death in November, this strategy had paid off in the House, resulting in a stronger bill than Kennedy originally submitted and excellent chances of passage. In the Senate, where a filibuster loomed, final passage was more remote, but Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader, had privately promised that the legislation would be brought to a vote. In other words, the filibuster would not be allowed to kill the legislation.

What might have happened to the bill if Kennedy had not been assassinated is one of those things it is impossible to know. Some key participants in the legislative struggle later reflected that essentially the same goal would have been reached. It is possible that Kennedy's death improved the legislation's chances and strengthened it besides. Lyndon Johnson, his successor, immediately made the bill's enactment a memorial to Kennedy. His commitment to the legislation vividly demonstrated that Johnson, a Texan, had a national, not southern, perspective. The civil rights movement had come so far under Kennedy that it would have been politically dangerous for Johnson to have given up the fight, even if he had wanted to. The legislation as finally enacted covered public accommodations, employment, education, voting rights, and the administration of justice.

Other Domestic Policies

In other, less morally compelling areas of domestic life, such as tax reform, social welfare programs, and economic development, Kennedy was less inclined to mount the bully pulpit and more apt to live with the possible. Specifically, this translated into a legislative record that was never as bad as certain critics asserted or as good as administration spokesmen claimed. Legislative initiatives were achieved in manpower training, welfare reform, area redevelopment, and urban renewal and housing. Kennedy also broke some new ground by establishing certain pilot programs through executive authority. Some initiatives were either dramatically watered down by Congress or, in the case of federal aid to education and medical insurance for the aged, blocked by it. With Congress frustrating him, Kennedy looked forward to the 1964 election, when, he hoped, he would receive a stronger popular and legislative mandate. In the off-year elections of 1962, the Democrats had gained four Senate seats and lost two House seats, which was a better record than usual for an incumbent president but not good enough to make much difference legislatively.

In the area of fiscal policy, Kennedy presided over a significant change. At the start of his administration, there was an internal dispute over the budget. Treasury Secretary Dillon and certain other advisers resisted deficits because they were worried about inflation and the weakness of the dollar. On the other side were leading academic economists, such as Paul Samuelson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Council of Economic Advisers, chaired by Walter Heller, all of whom had been influenced by John Maynard Keynes, the great English economist. They focused on achieving economic growth through the use of fiscal stimulants and were unafraid of deficits. In 1961, Kennedy came down on the side of the budget balancers, for he accepted conventional thinking, recognized the power of fiscal conservatives in Congress, and could not reconcile tax cuts, proposed by the economists, with his public theme of sacrifice.

In his first year as president, a cyclical recovery from recession encouraged Kennedy in the hope that he could adhere to fiscal orthodoxy and enjoy economic expansion too. But there were some worrisome limitations to the recovery. Business confidence in the administration was shaken in the spring of 1962 when Kennedy became embroiled in a bitter controversy with the head of the United States Steel Corporation. The company had unexpectedly and in-cautiously increased prices just after the administration's success in getting the steel-workers to restrain their wage demands. By the summer of 1962, the Council of Economic Advisers had convinced both Dillon and Kennedy that a tax cut was needed to bolster the economy. After the fall elections, Kennedy gave a speech to a business group in New York in which he called for making the kind of tax cuts that would stimulate private investments and "reduce the burden on private incomes and the deterrents to private initiative which are imposed by our present tax system." John Kenneth Galbraith, a liberal Kennedy adviser who dissented from the advice his fellow economists usually offered Kennedy, called it the "most Republican speech since McKinley."

Kennedy's shift on taxes reflected the growing influence of the professional economists who manned the Council of Economic Advisers. It also reflected Kennedy's pragmatism, political interests, and dedication to economic growth. All of these factors were again at play in the spring and summer of 1963 when Kennedy abandoned most of his proposed tax reforms and settled for a program of $11.1 billion in tax cuts for both individuals and corporations. Although certain influential business interests, not surprisingly, got behind the cuts, the projected federal deficit of nearly $12 billion still encountered resistance in Congress, though not enough to prevent enactment early in 1964, an election year.

The tax cut's evident success in bolstering the economic expansion that had begun under Kennedy redounded to the credit of professional economists and neo-Keynesian economics in the United States. The rest of the 1960s saw the economics profession at a high watermark of its influence. Even so, economists proved less persuasive when they recommended tax hikes during the early Vietnam buildup under Johnson than they had when they had proposed tax cuts, which suggests that it was not just the intellectual merits of their case that was compelling but the politics of it. Retrospectively, the Kennedy-initiated tax cuts have been viewed variously as triumphs of modern economic analysis and rational, technically based public policy or as the beginning of the end of fiscal responsibility and the start of an inflationary spiral.

Foreign Affairs

Kennedy's record in foreign affairs has also been subjected to conflicting interpretations. His aides, several of whom are highly skilled writers, have defended him for piloting the United States safely through international crises not of his own making and for beginning the process of détente with the Soviet Union. They have praised him for having a less rigidly ideological view of the world than his immediate predecessor and for accepting a world of diversity, improving America's standing in the Third World. Kennedy's critics, many of whom are on the political left, have charged him with being as much of a cold warrior as Eisenhower and, if anything, less prudent about the application of American power and more provocative and adventuristic. The universalistic language of his inaugural address was applied, they insist, and the world was a more dangerous place as a result.

In the absence of full access to diplomatic records in this country and abroad, it is not yet possible to resolve this debate on Kennedy fully, but certain studies by dispassionate analysts, such as Graham Allison's study of the Cuban missile crisis, lend support to the more friendly view of Kennedy. The president certainly made mistakes in foreign policy, and he raised more hopes than he fulfilled. But he demonstrated a relatively cosmopolitan and sophisticated view of the world, grew in office, and had a feel for diplomacy, which has sometimes been lacking in American presidents.

In contrast to several presidents, Kennedy came to office with a preference for foreign affairs. Issues of war and peace had interested him since his youth, and the awesome responsibility of being president in the nuclear age only reinforced that interest. "Domestic policy," Kennedy often said, "can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us." He believed, with considerable historical justification, that miscalculation had been the route to war several times in the twentieth century. In Kennedy's view, it was essential to prevent such miscalculation in the future, for there could be no winners in a nuclear war. His military strategy, called flexible response and managed by his highly reputed secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, was designed to reduce the chances of war by miscalculation. By building up conventional forces and tightening up command and control procedures, Kennedy and McNamara hoped to provide time for diplomacy in the event of miscalculated Soviet military aggression.

Like several other modern presidents, Kennedy tried to be his own secretary of state, though it is not clear that he originally intended to be. Rather, he hoped to avoid being overly dependent on one person for foreign policy advice; he perceived Truman to have been dependent on Dean Acheson and Eisenhower on John Foster Dulles. Dean Rusk, who became Kennedy's secretary of state through a process of elimination, was hardworking, articulate, and loyal but apparently not highly influential with Kennedy, who, according to his brother Robert, came to depend more on the national security assistant, Mc-George Bundy, and his small staff than he did on Rusk and the State Department.

Kennedy became president at a time when Communism seemed to be gaining ground. The Soviet Union had taken the lead in space exploration, had developed missiles that made the United States vulnerable to nuclear attack, and was using more belligerent rhetoric. Communism and revolution were also on the rise in the world's former colonies, including Cuba, which lay ninety miles from American shores. Just prior to Kennedy's inauguration, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a speech promising to support wars of national liberation, and such wars were under way in Southeast Asia. As a candidate for president, Kennedy had stressed the growing Communist menace abroad, and as president, he aimed at thwarting it and meeting new challenges that arose during his time in office. This meant that much of his foreign policy was reactive, though in his last year he showed some initiative in trying to reduce Cold War tensions and improve American-Soviet relations.

Kennedy was sometimes trapped in anti-Communist logic partly of his own making, as in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that occurred soon after he became president. This was a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba by thirteen hundred Cubans who had become disaffected with the revolution led by Fidel Castro. Kennedy had reservations about proceeding with the plan; he was worried about its chances of success and about how it might affect his image and the country's to be involved in a foreign, antirevolutionary invasion. For the latter reasons, he refused to authorize overt American involvement in the fighting. But he failed to cancel the operation because it would have been politically embarrassing to call off an anti-Castro effort that had been hatched in the Eisenhower administration, especially when Allen Dulles heartily endorsed it. Kennedy foolishly allowed himself to believe that the United States would be able plausibly to deny involvement in such a large-scale and well-publicized operation. He also allowed himself to be swept along by sheer bureaucratic momentum, and he failed to demand an adequate military review of the invasion plans.

When the invasion came on 17 April 1961, Murphy's Law prevailed: If anything can go wrong, it will. Most of the invaders were captured, later to be ransomed to the United States; over a hundred were killed; and some were rescued at sea by the United States Navy. Kennedy was stunned and wondered how he could have been so stupid. The invasion plan had turned out to have been based on false, unrealistic assumptions. Some of the invaders and their supporters later grumbled that Kennedy had fatally undermined the plan by denying United States air cover, but retrospectively it appears far more likely that air cover would only have prolonged the inevitable. Castro's military forces were too strong and his regime too popular for a counterrevolution to prevail. The American denial, far from being plausible, became instantly and totally implausible. Kennedy had worried about appearances, but he now appeared naive, weak, or aggressive, depending on where one stood.

About the best that can be said for Kennedy in this instance is that he did a good job of picking up the pieces. He publicly accepted total responsibility for the failure, and he consulted with both Eisenhower and Nixon. These steps helped minimize political fallout. He took care to avoid recriminations within the government, appointing a panel of inquiry that included Allen Dulles and the chief of naval operations, who were in effect investigating themselves; Kennedy thus signaled the military and the CIA that he was not looking for scapegoats. After an appropriate interval, Kennedy did make high-level personnel changes in both the CIA and the military, and he strengthened oversight and coordinating functions. In time, he came to regard the Bay of Pigs as an object lesson in the need for a president to have firm operational control during international crises and not to place too much faith in the experts. This lesson served him well during the Cuban missile crisis.

On the other hand, the Bay of Pigs did not teach Kennedy to stay out of the internal affairs of foreign countries, only to keep down the "noise level." Prodded by Robert Kennedy and Maxwell Taylor, the president's military adviser, the CIA continued to seek Castro's removal, which the CIA interpreted to mean assassination. Although the assassination efforts failed, their discovery by Castro, it has sometimes been speculated, triggered retaliation in the form of President Kennedy's assassination. Although the Bay of Pigs taught Kennedy the need to control the CIA, later investigations made it clear that he was much less than completely successful in achieving it.

The Bay of Pigs also reinforced Kennedy's belief in the need for a better nonconventional or counterinsurgency capability in order to prevent future Castros from obtaining power in the first place. Thus, American advisers taught Latin American governments, including ones far to the right, techniques for crushing leftist opposition. To South Vietnam, where the United States already had a substantial commitment to the anti-Communist government of Ngo Dinh Diem when Kennedy took office, he increased American aid and eventually sent sixteen thousand military advisers, some of whom saw combat, to train Diem's troops in counterinsurgency warfare against the threatening guerrilla forces that had begun to operate there. When Diem, a Catholic, repressed Buddhist monks, who were part of the country's religious majority, he became an embarrassment to the United States. Kennedy's subordinates, if not Kennedy himself, gave a green light to a coup by South Vietnamese generals in the fall of 1963, which resulted in Diem's assassination. Kennedy was shocked and disturbed by Diem's death, though not by the coup, which in effect only further tied American prestige to the success of anti-Communist forces in South Vietnam. That was Kennedy's legacy to Lyndon Johnson, and there is, of course, no way of knowing whether Kennedy would have handled Vietnam any differently than his successor did.

Although he supported counterinsurgency warfare, Kennedy recognized in Vietnam and elsewhere the supremacy of politics over force, and he was skeptical of solutions that required direct American military involvement. Laos, which probably took more of Kennedy's time than any other issue in his first several months in office, had the potential to become another Bay of Pigs. It was in utter crisis in 1961, an obscure and murky battleground of political factions, personalities, feudalism, tribal culture, and social revolution set against the background of the Cold War. Eisenhower had backed a conservative group, but Kennedy, according to Schlesinger, believed that "the effort to transform it into a pro-Western redoubt had been ridiculous and that neutralization was the correct policy." Kennedy nevertheless came close to sending American troops there, and he gave the impression that he would send them; but in the end he managed to arrange a cease-fire and eased the way toward neutralization.

Kennedy often tried to pressure allies endangered by revolution to institute reforms in order to enhance their domestic popularity and the viability of their governments. Yet because these endangered governments often had a lot to lose from the reforms themselves and because they knew that stopping Communism was the higher American priority, they could ignore Kennedy's pressure with impunity. Thus, the Alliance for Progress, the highly touted aid program for Latin America that Kennedy proposed in March 1961, achieved far less social and economic reform than the president had hoped, but the ideals that surrounded the Alliance gave him an unusual degree of personal popularity in Latin America. Similarly, his expressed ideals, youth, and opposition to colonialism enhanced his personal prestige and America's image in the new nations of Africa.

Toward the Soviet Union itself, Kennedy's policies differed little at the start of his administration from those of Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy held a summit conference with Khrushchev, though in contrast to the hopeful spirit that accompanied Eisenhower's summits but evaporated soon afterward, a grim mood emerged from Kennedy's meeting with the Soviet premier in June 1961. The meeting was intended to allow the two men simply to get to know each other, but when Khrushchev challenged him verbally, Kennedy had little choice but to respond in kind.

Repeatedly, during Kennedy's first two years as president, the Soviets made threatening noises about West Berlin and, in August 1961, even built a wall around it to keep East Germans from emigrating. Kennedy responded through words and deeds, including at one point calling up American military reserves. He upheld America's longstanding commitment to defend that city and its access to the West. Finally, in 1963, Soviet pressure receded. When Kennedy traveled to West Berlin on 26 June 1963, he received the most overwhelming public reception of his life. A sea of faces chanted his name and a vast audience roared its approval when he said, "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner.' "

Given Soviet provocations over Berlin in particular, it is not surprising that Kennedy called for a significant buildup in America's conventional forces and that he accelerated an expansion of America's missile program that had begun under Eisenhower. Retrospectively, some of Kennedy's own national security advisers regarded the missile buildup as a mistake, an example of the ratcheting effect in the arms race, whereby America built up its forces on the basis of Soviet capabilities, which America interpreted as intentions, and the Soviets then matched the American buildup. It does seem clear that Kennedy accelerated missile deployments more on the momentum of his election campaign charges of a missile gap than he did on the basis of hard intelligence. Information gathered from satellite reconnaissance and from a Soviet spy showed irrefutably that there had been an intelligence gap rather than a missile gap. Kennedy had McNamara acknowledge the missile gap's demise off the record, but Kennedy neither reversed the American buildup nor educated the public on the true nature of the gap.

It has sometimes been argued that the Soviets decided to install missiles in Cuba in 1962 because they were worried about the American buildup. It has also variously been argued that they were seeking a quick and inexpensive strategic advantage, that it was a tactical move which they thought they could get away with because Kennedy was weak, that they were merely trying to protect their client in Cuba from American invasion or subterfuge, or that they did it for some combination of these and other reasons. There can be little question that it was a provocative act and that any American who might have been president when it occurred was bound to respond to it.

Ever since Castro's Communist sympathies had become clear, Cuba had been a sore point in American politics, for Americans were uncomfortable with a Communist government so close at hand. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion had made Kennedy and his party vulnerable to charges from the political right. When Soviet military personnel and equipment began to arrive in Cuba in the summer of 1962, the Republican campaign committee announced that Cuba would be "the dominant issue of the 1962 campaign." Several Republicans specifically charged that missile sites were being constructed, and Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution initiated by the Republican leadership expressing American determination "by whatever means may be necessary, including the use of arms, . . . to prevent in Cuba the creation or use of an externally supported military capability endangering the security of the United States." Kennedy reassured the public that offensive weapons would not be permitted in Cuba and that Soviet representatives had repeatedly assured him that they were not installing such weapons in Cuba.

When, in mid-October, Kennedy received incontrovertible photographic evidence that the Soviets were building launching sites for intermediate-range missiles, he simply had to stop them. Some people, both at the time and since, have discounted the strategic significance of the missiles on the grounds that it did not matter whether a missile was launched from the Soviet Union or from Cuba. Others emphasized the increased accuracy that the Soviets would have gained from having missiles in Cuba and the possibility that they were seeking a first-strike capability.

More important to Kennedy than technical military considerations were political ones, both international and domestic. Kennedy had to worry about how the Soviets might interpret a capitulation by him on this issue. If they had miscalculated this badly on missiles in Cuba, would they next miscalculate on Berlin, for example, where he would not back down, with the result a nuclear war? If Kennedy did nothing about the missiles, moreover, his political position in the United States would be compromised or destroyed. He would be impeached, Robert Kennedy said. At the very least, the Republicans would mercilessly exploit his weakness in the upcoming congressional elections.

Kennedy wondered about not whether to seek the missiles' removal, but how to achieve that end. For two weeks, an ad hoc group of high government officials deliberated in secrecy about that question. They were divided between those who favored a quick air strike to achieve a fait accompli and those who favored a naval blockade to pressure the Soviets into removing the missiles themselves. Kennedy rejected the air strike because it placed the United States in the position of launching a sneak attack when the onus of world opinion deserved to be on the Soviets and because it might trigger military retaliation. Neither some of the top military commanders nor Democratic congressional leaders were pleased with Kennedy's choice, but on 21 October he proceeded to announce the imposition of a naval blockade, which he called a quarantine, in a crisp and carefully worded television speech.

The crisis was joined, and the world held its breath to see what the Soviets would do. During the tense days that followed, Kennedy personally kept a close watch on the blockade. He decided to let certain tankers and a passenger ship through, but he ordered a Soviet-chartered ship boarded and inspected as a sign of his determination. At the United Nations, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson publicly grilled his Soviet counterpart. Meanwhile, Kennedy and Khrushchev communicated privately by cable and through emissaries. In these communications, Kennedy demonstrated considerable skill and forbearance, ignoring a tough message from Khrushchev and responding to a more conciliatory one. Kennedy carefully avoided humiliating Khrushchev. He gave written assurances against an invasion of Cuba, and his brother Robert told the Soviet ambassador that within a short time after the crisis was over, the United States would remove from Turkey certain missiles that the Soviets wanted removed and that had no bearing on American security. On 28 October, Khrushchev relented and began removal of the missiles. The crisis passed.

In later years, some people downgraded the severity of the crisis by saying that the outcome was a foregone conclusion because the United States enjoyed a huge military advantage over the Soviet Union in the Caribbean. That is, of course, easy to say in hindsight. The United States and the Soviet Union had never gone "eyeball to eyeball" like this before, so everyone was justified in feeling tense waiting for Khrushchev to blink. Everything was at stake, and the world breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviets backed down.

The crisis impelled Kennedy to take new initiatives in seeking an end to the Cold War. At American University on 10 June 1963, he gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency; it marked the beginning of a spirit of détente. Kennedy called for a reexamination of American attitudes toward the Soviet Union and said that both sides in the Cold War had "a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race." He declared:

In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.. . . We must deal with the world as it is, and not as it might have been had the history of the last eighteen years been different.

He proposed complete disarmament, to be achieved through stages, the first of which would be a ban on atmospheric nuclear tests. As a demonstration of good faith, he promised that the United States would not conduct any further atmospheric tests as long as other countries refrained from doing so.

Khrushchev told Averell Harriman, Kennedy's representative at the test ban talks, that he thought Kennedy had made the "greatest speech by any American President since Roosevelt." The negotiations proved successful, at least in banning atmospheric, though not underground, tests. In August, Kennedy sent the treaty to the Senate; it was the first arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow. The Joint Chiefs of Staff gave it only grudging approval, and certain military spokesmen vociferously opposed ratification. The public, though, was solidly behind it, and the treaty was ratified on 24 September by a comfortable margin above the required two-thirds. It was only a small step toward disarmament and an end to the Cold War, but Kennedy liked to say that great journeys began with small steps. No other accomplishment gave him greater satisfaction.

The Assassination

On 22 November 1963 the world was stunned to learn that Kennedy had been shot to death as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Within hours of Kennedy's shooting, the Dallas police arrested his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, a mysterious, twenty-four-year-old ex-Marine who had lived in the Soviet Union, brought home a Russian wife, and sympathized with Castro. He was unfortunately never brought to trial because two days after his arrest, in full view of a national television audience, he was shot and killed in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner who reportedly was grief-stricken over Kennedy's assassination. Less than a year later, a presidential commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that Oswald had acted alone in killing Kennedy, that Oswald had not been part of a conspiracy. But from the time of the assassination itself, a significant part of the public was incredulous at the thought of a lone assassin, and the Warren Commission's findings and methods were subjected to endless second-guessing. In 1979 a special congressional investigation concluded that it was probable that more than one person was involved in Kennedy's assassination, though it was unable to identify anyone besides Oswald or to determine the nature and extent of the conspiracy. Articles and books about the crime number in the thousands and range from careful and thoughtful investigation and analysis to unsupported speculation and maudlin fantasy. On one level, the fascination with the assassination may indicate a psychological denial of Kennedy's death, a mass wish somehow to make it explicable or, in a sense, to undo it.

The depth of the public reaction to Kennedy's assassination can be explained in several ways. Although there had been attempts on the lives of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry Truman, no American president had been assassinated since William McKinley in 1901. Television brought the Kennedy tragedy into people's lives with an intimacy that had never been known before. Many thousands had stood by the tracks as Lincoln's funeral train passed by, but now the entire country mourned at a presidential funeral. But it is probably safe to say that even if Kennedy had died suddenly of natural causes or through an accident, the public grief would have been great. Kennedy had become identified with many of mankind's hopes and aspirationspeace, racial justice, economic development, public service, social reform, a striving for excellence, and a seeking after New Frontiers on earth and in space. Toward these goals, he brought vitality, grace, and reason. Then, unexpectedly, irrationally, at the age of forty-six, he was dead, and the world was left wondering what might have been. His death at an early age called up the unfairness and tragedy of life.


Kennedy's aides and friends evocatively and sympathetically portray him in several works, including Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York, 1965); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston, 1965); Paul B. Fay, Jr., The Pleasure of His Company (New York, 1966); Pierre Salinger, With Kennedy (Garden City, N.Y., 1966); Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (Garden City, N.Y., 1967); Kenneth P. O'Donnell and David F. Powers, with Joe McCarthy, "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye": Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Boston, 1972); and Benjamin C. Bradlee, Conversations with Kennedy (New York, 1975).

Herbert S. Parmet has written the biographies Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (New York, 1980) and JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (New York, 1983). Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (New York, 1993), is a well-researched assessment, critical but judicious. In the 1970s and 1980s, many revisionist evaluations of Kennedy appeared. Garry Wills, for example, debunks Kennedy and his defenders in The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (Boston, 1982), while Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York, 1984), critically surveys government initiatives that began under Kennedy. Three other recent studies with varying viewpoints are Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy's New Frontier (New York, 1991), James N. Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (Lawrence, Kans., 1991), and Thomas Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (New York, 1991).

Meanwhile, there has been a growing number of monographs and specialized studies, including Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston, 1971); Carl M. Brauer, John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction (New York, 1977); Thomas G. Paterson, ed., Kennedy's Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 19611963 (New York, 1989); Montague Kern, Patricia W. Levering, and Ralph B. Levering, The Kennedy Crises: The Press, the Presidency, and Foreign Policy (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1983); William J. Rust et al., Kennedy in Vietnam: American Vietnam Policy, 19601963 (New York, 1985); Thomas Brown, JFK, History of an Image (Bloomington, Ind., 1988); Michael R. Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 19601963 (New York, 1991); John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (New York, 1992); and Edwin M. Martin, Kennedy and Latin America (Lanham, Md., 1994).

Recent works include Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (New York, 2000); Barbara Leaming, Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years (New York, 2001); Richard D. Mahoney, Sons and Brothers: The Days of Jack and Bobby Kennedy (New York, 1999); Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Cambridge, Mass., 1997); and Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (New York, 1993).

For further sources consult James N. Giglio, comp., John F. Kennedy: A Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1995).

Kennedy, John Fitzgerald

views updated May 23 2018

KENNEDY, John Fitzgerald

(b. 29 May 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts; d. 22 November 1963 in Dallas, Texas), decorated World War II veteran, congressman (1947–1953), U.S. senator (1953–1961), and thirty-fifth president of the United States (1961–1963), whose rhetoric inspired political and social activism through the end of the 1960s.

Kennedy was the second of nine children born to parents of Irish descent, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, a wealthy businessman, and Rose Fitzgerald, a devout Roman Catholic and the daughter of John Francis ("Honey Fitz") Fitzgerald, a prominent Boston politician. Known as "Jack" to family and close friends, Kennedy lived a privileged childhood, but his father's wealth could not shield him from a lifetime of ill health. Kennedy turned to books for companionship during his long periods of illness, fostering a love for reading that carried into adulthood.

Despite his reading habits and natural intelligence, Kennedy was an average student. He was rebellious, disorganized, and often sloppy in appearance. In 1931 he entered the Choate School, an elite preparatory academy in Connecticut, but was absent for long periods due to illness. After briefly attending Princeton University in 1935, Kennedy entered Harvard, the alma mater of his father and eldest brother, in 1936.

Kennedy's father, Joseph, Sr., was named ambassador to Great Britain during Kennedy's sophomore year at Harvard. Kennedy joined his father and the rest of the family in England for a long stay between his sophomore and junior years at Harvard. He returned to assist his father during the second semester of his junior year. Kennedy's experiences in Europe during the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II made a lasting impression. Upon returning to the United States in the fall of 1939, Kennedy researched and wrote his senior thesis on the subject of England's failure to respond to the threat posed by Nazi Germany. The work earned only mediocre marks from Kennedy's professors, but the journalist and family friend Arthur Krock revised the text, and the book Why England Slept became a best-seller in the summer of 1940. Kennedy graduated from Harvard cum laude with a B.S. degree in political science in June 1940.

Kennedy secured a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve in October 1941 and was later cleared for service at sea despite earlier concerns over his checkered medical history. He reported for duty commanding motor torpedo boats in the South Pacific in April 1943. While patrolling in the Solomon Islands chain on the evening of 2 August 1943, Kennedy's boat PT-109 was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. The collision sliced Kennedy's craft in two pieces, killing two crewmen. Kennedy rallied the remaining crew, which included two badly wounded men, and the group swam to a tiny, uninhabited island in the midst of Japanese-controlled waters. Allied forces rescued the skipper and his crew after several anxious days.

Word of Kennedy's heroism quickly reached the United States and became a factor when Kennedy embarked on his political career. Unlike his eldest brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., who had been preparing for a life in politics but who was killed in action during World War II, Kennedy was not a natural politician. He had made friends easily throughout his lifetime, but he was shy in public. Yet despite his skinny, often sickly, appearance, Kennedy possessed a certain charisma that many voters found endearing. He enjoyed some other tangible advantages as well. Beyond the notoriety associated with being the son of the former ambassador to Great Britain, he was well known for his book Why England Slept and for his wartime heroism.

In late 1945 Kennedy decided to run for the open seat for the U.S. Congress in the Massachusetts eleventh congressional district. He campaigned aggressively, easily defeating ten rivals in the Democratic primary in June 1946. This victory ensured his place in Congress, where he represented a heavily Democratic district that included parts of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Kennedy easily won reelection in 1948 and 1950.

Kennedy challenged and defeated Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1952. Despite his relative youth and a lackluster congressional career, Kennedy drew on his father's considerable fortune and a well-organized campaign to outpoll the complacent Lodge by 70,000 votes.

More senior senators doubted Kennedy's seriousness of purpose, however, and the young senator embarked on a concerted campaign to improve his image. The handsome Kennedy had a reputation as a playboy, and this reputation was not dispelled by his well-publicized marriage to Jacqueline Lee Bouvier on 12 September 1953. Meanwhile, serious medical problems forced Kennedy to miss many important votes. In addition to his ongoing battle with Addison's disease, an adrenal condition that weakened his body's immunity to infection, Kennedy underwent surgery in 1954 to repair his ailing back. The operation nearly killed him and also failed to relieve him of his back pain.

Undaunted, doctors operated on Kennedy's back again in 1955. During his lengthy convalescence, Kennedy conceived of another book that would help him to further his political ambitions while also communicating his attitudes towards public service. The result was Profiles in Courage (1956), a book celebrating the efforts of politicians who bucked the popular will to make principled decisions. The book reflected Kennedy's deeply felt belief that political leaders must motivate citizens to make sacrifices for the greater good of the society. Although Kennedy's trusted assistant Theodore ("Ted") Sorensen admitted years later that he had prepared the materials for the book, Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in 1957.

Kennedy gained still more national notoriety from his surprise bid to win the Democratic nomination for vice president at the party convention in 1956; he was edged out by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. After easily winning reelection to the Senate in 1958, Kennedy immediately began preparations to run for the presidency. During this period, Kennedy seized upon the issue of the missile gap—a presumed strategic disparity between the United States and the Soviet Union believed to have been created by Soviet technological advances in missiles and rockets—to criticize President Dwight D. Eisenhower's military policies and economic philosophy. Eisenhower had sought to restrain defense spending out of concern that an overly burdensome military budget would threaten the foundations of American democracy, but Kennedy thought otherwise. Accusing Eisenhower of complacency in the face of the Soviet threat, Kennedy argued that the nation could afford to take the measures necessary to close the missile gap.

Kennedy declared his candidacy for the presidency on 2 January 1960. He chose to run in the primaries to prove to his detractors that a Roman Catholic could win popular support. His strategy worked. Primary victories over Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin and West Virginia gave Kennedy momentum as he moved on to the Democratic convention. He secured his party's nomination on the first ballot by convincing the delegates that the nation was ready to elect a Catholic president. Later, during the general election campaign, Kennedy confronted concerns over his Catholicism head-on during a televised speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on 12 September 1960. Although anti-Catholic bigotry continued to be a factor during the campaign, many voters respected Kennedy's eloquent and reasoned defense of his right to hold the office.

Kennedy's first major decision as his party's nominee—selecting Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas as his vice presidential running mate—was crucial to Kennedy's eventual victory in November. The choice angered liberals, including his brother and putative campaign manager Robert Kennedy, but made sense for political reasons because Johnson solidified the ticket's credentials in the South.

In his speech accepting his party's nomination on 15 July 1960, Kennedy framed his discussion of domestic problems within the context of the global challenge of the cold war. The threat of Communism called for bold action. "We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier," Kennedy declared, "the frontier of the 1960s—a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils—a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats." This New Frontier could be conquered only by collective action; therefore, Kennedy stressed that his campaign would offer "not a set of promises, but … rather a set of challenges."

Kennedy established his viability as a leader by besting Republican nominee Vice President Richard M. Nixon in a series of televised debates. Looking poised and mature, Kennedy combined his handsome appearance with a well-crafted message that Nixon could not match. Ultimately, the vice president did not differentiate his positions from those of his challenger, and he completely failed to counter Kennedy's image. Many observers point to Kennedy's decisive advantage over Nixon—particularly during the first of the four debates—as the turning point of the campaign.

The presidential contest between Nixon and Kennedy was decided by one of the smallest popular vote margins in U.S. history. Scholars later determined that Kennedy's religion helped him in the big electoral vote states that he most needed to win, contributing to his substantial margin of victory in the electoral college, but that his religion hurt him in the popular vote by dragging down his margin of victory in otherwise "safe" states for the Democratic Party. Whatever the reason for the narrowness of Kennedy's victory, his uncertain political mandate heavily influenced his conduct as president as he struggled to strike a balance between liberals and conservatives of both political parties.

These political pressures, in part, encouraged Kennedy to increase defense spending in the spring and summer of 1961. Much of this new spending was used to implement a "flexible response" military strategy that included both conventional forces and nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Kennedy also opted to expand the nuclear deterrent force inherited from his predecessor by calling for the building of 1,000 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). This buildup proved unnecessary, given that Kennedy was told in early February 1961 that the United States possessed a clear advantage over the Soviet Union and was, in fact, on the favorable end of the missile gap.

Leaders within the Soviet Union interpreted these spending increases as evidence of Kennedy's intention to carry through on his campaign rhetoric, rhetoric that Kennedy repeated during his inaugural address. The youngest man ever elected to the presidency, Kennedy declared that "the torch" of leadership had been "passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace." He pledged to "pay any price" and "bear any burden" to "assure the survival and the success of liberty." And as he had during his address to the Democratic National Convention in July 1960, Kennedy placed the burden of this contest on the citizens of the United States. "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger." It was time for action. "And so, my fellow Americans," he continued, "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."

Several of the most urgent foreign policy crises of the cold war quickly tested Kennedy's resolve and the resolve of his generation. In April 1961 Cuban exiles trained in U.S.-run camps in Guatemala landed at Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the Cuban coastline with the intention of overthrowing the government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Alerted to the possibility of an invasion from news stories within the United States and from his own intelligence, Castro swiftly mobilized his armed forces, rounded up political dissidents, and crushed the nascent revolt. Among the Cuban exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs, nearly 1,200 were taken prisoner and another 200 were killed in three days of fighting.

Critics on both sides of the political spectrum assailed Kennedy. Those who approved of the use of force to remove Castro from power criticized the president for providing only halfhearted support for the invasion. On the other hand, although Kennedy had explicitly criticized the Eisenhower administration during the presidential campaign for failing to take action against Castro, liberals were dismayed by Kennedy's willingness to employ military force to attempt to change the regime.

The disaster at the Bay of Pigs reflected an administrative weakness within the Kennedy White House characteristic of a new administration, but exacerbated by Kennedy's penchant for ad hoc decision making. Kennedy had ridiculed the Eisenhower administration for being too hierarchical and bureaucratic. In place of formal bodies such as the Cabinet and the National Security Council, Kennedy consulted with dozens of advisers prior to his decision to go ahead with the operation, but he excluded or ignored those who might have counseled against the invasion. Kennedy took responsibility for the debacle, but privately felt betrayed by senior military leaders and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which had planned the invasion. Relations between the president and the military worsened during the remainder of Kennedy's presidency, as he asserted his authority to direct military strategy.

Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in early June 1961 in Vienna, Austria, less than two months after the failed Cuban invasion. The Soviet leader bullied Kennedy, whom Khrushchev had once dismissed as no more than a boy, and the experience shook Kennedy's confidence still further. When he appeared on national television on 6 June 1961 on his return from Vienna, Kennedy called on Americans to make sacrifices to meet the challenges posed by the Soviets. In the ensuing weeks, he asked for still further increases in military spending. He placed U.S. military forces on a heightened state of alert, and he increased the size of the standing army, resulting in an increase in draft calls. He also advocated renewed civil defense measures to protect Americans in the event of a nuclear attack.

But such actions did not dissuade the Soviets from addressing their greatest foreign policy priority. Determined to halt the crippling emigration of the most talented and ambitious individuals from their country, East German military police began building a wall between East and West Berlin on 13 August 1961. The Berlin Wall became a symbol of the tension and hostility between the two superpowers during the remainder of the cold war. Although Kennedy delivered one of the most memorable speeches of his presidency while standing before the wall in June 1963, condemning the Communists for stifling freedom in Eastern Europe, the building of the wall in the late summer of 1961 served to ease tensions between the two superpowers.

The tensions did not abate, however. In October 1962 U.S. aerial surveillance discovered Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev may have opted for this dramatic action in an effort to obtain nuclear parity with the United States, or he might have believed that the weapons would deter the U.S. from trying to topple Cuban leader Fidel Castro's government. These efforts had been ongoing following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and included covert operations conducted under the codename Operation Mongoose, as well as plans for more overt forms of military force, such as a U.S. invasion of the island.

Whatever the reasons for Khrushchev's actions, the Soviet missiles posed a direct threat to many of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere, including Washington, D.C. After being shown the aerial photographs on the morning of 16 October 1962, Kennedy assembled a team of advisers to recommend a course of action to counter the Soviet gambit. This Executive Committee, or ExComm as it came to be known, was chaired by Kennedy's brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and included most of the president's senior foreign policy and military advisers.

After several contentious days of deliberations, Ex-Comm recommended a blockade of Cuba. Kennedy hoped that the blockade would buy him additional time to negotiate with the Soviets for the removal of the existing weapons. He also hoped that the blockade would prevent the existing weapons already on the island from becoming operational.

The administration had kept the crisis concealed while ExComm deliberated, adding further drama to Kennedy's announcement in an address to the nation on the evening of 22 October 1962. In his televised eighteen-minute speech, Kennedy revealed that the Soviets were installing offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba. He announced that he would halt further shipments of these weapons to Cuba, and that he had instructed the U.S. military to "prepare for any eventualities" should the building continue. In announcing the blockade (the administration called it a quarantine), Kennedy also made clear to the Soviets—and to the world—that the stakes were very high. "[A]ny nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere," Kennedy explained, would be interpreted "as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." Kennedy knew that such a response might result in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. For the next seven days, he and the rest of the world waited anxiously to see how the Soviets would respond.

Contemporary accounts of Kennedy's handling of the missile crisis boosted the president's popularity, helping the Democratic Party in the midterm elections of 1962. According to these early accounts, the crisis eased when several Soviet vessels halted at the blockade line on Wednesday, 24 October. But historians later learned that Khrushchev did not simply back down in the face of the naval blockade. The crisis continued over the next five days, as several ships continued toward Cuba, and as Soviet technicians accelerated their construction activities. On Saturday, 27 October, a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile (SAM) shot down a U-2 reconnaissance plane over Cuba, killing the pilot instantly. On that same day Soviet fighter planes scrambled to intercept another U-2 that had inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace.

Fearing further incidents, President Kennedy offered a compromise to Khrushchev. In a letter sent on the evening of 27 October, Kennedy promised to end the blockade, and he also pledged not to invade Cuba, in exchange for Khrushchev's promise to remove the missiles from Cuba. That same evening, Robert Kennedy told Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that President Kennedy would also agree to remove U.S. intermediate-range missiles based in Turkey at a later date. The attorney general insisted, however, that the trade be kept secret. President Kennedy and his top advisers had ridiculed others for proposing such a trade in the early days of the crisis, but his public deception protected Kennedy politically against those who would accuse him of selling out to the Soviets. Most importantly, the compromise helped to defuse a crisis that had threatened to spiral into World War III.

Kennedy's overblown rhetoric, which emphasized the need to confront and defeat Communism, got the young president in trouble in the first two years of his presidency. However, his inherent pragmatism and his acute political instincts brought him back from the brink of conflict with the Soviet Union. In addition to the peaceful resolution of the Cuban crisis, Kennedy also negotiated a limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets in 1963. Although tensions remained, communications between the two countries improved during Kennedy's last year in office.

Not all the foreign policy crises during Kennedy's presidency involved the threat of nuclear annihilation. For example, he presided over a substantial increase in military assistance to South Vietnam. This conventional military buildup would serve as the precursor to full-fledged U.S. involvement during the latter half of the 1960s under Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson. But while this limited war did not directly threaten Soviet interests and therefore did not threaten to escalate into nuclear war (Kennedy's greatest fear), the war in Vietnam ultimately resulted in the loss of over 58,000 American lives, caused untold suffering for the people of Southeast Asia, and imposed an economic and political burden on Kennedy's successors.

Kennedy contended with other crises in Latin America and in the Third World in Laos and Congo. Sympathetic to nationalist impulses as a senator, Kennedy often operated within the cold war paradigm as president. In general, he sought to balance the aspirations of the native populations against the wishes of former imperialist powers who were allies in the fight against Communism. Kennedy was also willing to provide nonmilitary economic aid to poorer nations, as was envisioned by the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and he invoked the message of self-sacrifice in the service of improved international relations by calling on young Americans to volunteer for the Peace Corps.

Although foreign-policy crises dominated Kennedy's attention during his presidency, he also had to contend with a number of domestic challenges, including a brief but contentious battle with major steelmakers in April 1962. When industry leaders announced price increases not in keeping with the voluntary wage and price guideposts that had been put in place to control inflation, Kennedy mobilized all of the resources of government to force the steelmakers to reverse themselves. The public rallied to the president's cause, but Kennedy's tactics troubled many within the business community.

Less than two months later, the stock market suffered its worst one-day drop since 1929, erasing over $20 billion worth of paper assets. The business community grew restless, and the Kennedy administration engaged in a concerted public relations campaign to resurrect the president's image with industry leaders. The most effective means for cementing business support proved to be tax reform.

Kennedy's support for a major tax cut reflected the influence of both conservative and liberal voices in his administration. Although Kennedy had campaigned on a Democratic Party platform that pledged government action to help the economy achieve 5 percent growth, he was privately skeptical of such claims. With the notable exception of military spending, which Kennedy deemed essential in the face of the Soviet threat, he was inclined toward balanced budgets and limited federal government spending. More conservative advisers, such as Secretary of the Treasury C. Douglas Dillon, reinforced Kennedy's inclination towards fiscal conservatism, frustrating the president's more liberal advisers such as Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Paul Samuelson, a prominent economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Kennedy turned aside early calls for a tax cut, fearful of the backlash from Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats. The president was also skeptical of the mixed message such a tax cut would send to the men and women on whom he had called to sacrifice for the good of the country. Kennedy's attitudes towards deficit spending softened over time, however, as he became progressively convinced of the economic benefits of a tax cut. Accordingly, Kennedy proposed a dramatic reduction in income tax rates in early 1963. Overcoming stiff opposition in Congress, these tax cuts were enacted into law in early 1964 after Kennedy's death.

The question of civil rights for African Americans represented one of Kennedy's greatest domestic challenges. His lukewarm support for the civil rights movement reflected his desire to strike a balance between what was politically safe and what was morally right. As a senator, Kennedy had not always supported the cause of racial justice, at times siding with southern Democrats who blocked civil rights legislation. Kennedy did, however, telephone the wife of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in October 1960, consoling Coretta Scott King after her husband's arrest and pledging his support for King's cause. This largely symbolic act solidified Kennedy's support among African Americans, a majority of whom voted for Kennedy in the November election.

As president, Kennedy feared that civil rights activism would undermine the shaky political coalition that made up the Democratic Party, divided as it was between liberal northerners who favored civil rights legislation, and reactionary southerners who bitterly opposed all forms of racial integration. But while the president hoped to postpone the issue of racial equality, events largely overtook the new administration. An early test for Kennedy came in May 1961, when Freedom Riders attempting to end segregation in bus terminals were attacked in South Carolina and Alabama. In September 1962 violence again erupted, as mobs of angry whites attempted to block James Meredith from becoming the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Supporters praised Kennedy for calling on the National Guard to restore order, but many southerners harbored resentment towards the president's use of power.

By 1963 Kennedy was more willing to advance the cause of civil rights. This shift coincided with a change in popular opinion, as many northerners were outraged by graphic footage of peaceful black activists being attacked by police dogs and fire hoses in Montgomery, Alabama. When Alabama governor George Wallace threatened to prevent African Americans from attending the University of Alabama in June 1963, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, signaling his willingness to use the military to enforce the law. Wallace retreated. Following this confrontation, Kennedy issued one of his most eloquent and heart-felt defenses of the morality of the civil rights crusade when he announced his support for comprehensive civil rights legislation in a televised address to the nation on 11 June. This legislation moved slowly through Congress in the late summer of 1963, but was enacted after Kennedy's death in 1964.

The Moon landing, one of the most memorable events of the 1960s, was the most tangible expression of Kennedy's campaign promise to embark on a crusade to conquer the New Frontier. As with so many Kennedy initiatives, the race to the moon was a function of the cold war contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, and it reflected Kennedy's desire to regain the technological and cultural initiative from the Soviets. On the positive side, the space race represented all of the promise of the New Frontier, and it inspired a generation of Americans to pursue dreams that had once seemed unattainable. However, critics questioned whether the intangible benefits of an increase in American pride and prestige were worth the more than $30 billion that was spent on the space program during the 1960s.

Kennedy's political success was at least partially attributable to a carefully projected image. Jacqueline Kennedy gave this image a name when she likened the Kennedy White House to the mythical kingdom of Camelot. Scholars later learned, however, that the Kennedy image was largely a myth.

For example, Kennedy appeared to enjoy a happy family life. Photographers captured many memorable pictures of him with his young children, daughter Caroline, born in 1957, and son John, Jr., born in 1960. And as with any family, there was also grief and sadness: Jacqueline became pregnant with a third child in 1963, but the infant Patrick Bouvier was born prematurely on 7 August 1963 and died less than two days later on 9 August.

Kennedy's love for Caroline and John, Jr., was genuine, and his grief over the loss of Patrick was deep; his marriage, however, was more show than substance. Kennedy was known to have had a number of extramarital affairs throughout his lifetime. He was rumored to have had sex with several high-profile beauties, including Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson. He also had illicit romances with less-well-known women, including Judith Campbell, a young woman who was also romantically involved with Sam Giancana, the reputed leader of the Chicago mafia. It was also alleged that Kennedy was involved with Ellen Rometsch, a high-priced call girl under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a suspected Communist spy. These affairs posed a threat to Kennedy's presidency because they subjected him to the possibility of blackmail and intimidation by individuals who might threaten to make them public.

Another distortion inherent in Kennedy's public image was his supposed good health; in fact, Kennedy suffered from numerous health problems. Although medical treatments brought his Addison's disease under control, these treatments could have troubling side effects. Further, Kennedy was persistently bothered by his weak back. As president, Kennedy often wore a back brace, he occasionally was forced to walk with crutches, and he frequently sat in a rocking chair in the Oval Office for hours at a time. Kennedy sought relief for his pain through a number of questionable medications, including amphetamines and other addictive drugs.

Kennedy's assassination on 22 November 1963 was a defining event of the 1960s. It was also one of the most emotionally jarring. That fateful day is seared in the memory of an entire generation of Americans, as well as millions of overseas admirers.

Although many doubt the official version of events surrounding Kennedy's death, the general timeline is clear. In Texas to heal a rift within the Democratic Party, Kennedy traveled to Dallas on the morning of 22 November 1963. Shortly after 12:30 p.m., as his motorcade proceeded through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, gunshots rang out. One bullet struck the president in the neck; a second bullet struck him in the head. Texas governor John Connolly, who was riding in Kennedy's automobile, was also wounded. Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where doctors pronounced him dead at 1:00 p.m. CST. The body of the slain president was transported to Washington, D.C., that day. He was buried on 25 November 1963 in Arlington National Cemetery, beneath an eternal flame lighted by his widow, Jacqueline.

Lyndon Johnson, who immediately succeeded to the presidency after Kennedy's death, appointed a commission to investigate the murder. The commission, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, determined that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin. The Warren Commission reported that the shots that killed John Kennedy were fired from Oswald's rifle from a window overlooking Dealey Plaza in the Texas School Book Depository building where Oswald worked. Oswald had professed his innocence, but Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby murdered him before investigators could question Oswald about his role in Kennedy's killing. Since that time a number of theorists have contended that other shots were fired at the presidential motorcade from other locations within Dealey Plaza, fueling a spirited historical controversy.

Much of the interest associated with Kennedy's assassination is related to speculation about what Kennedy might have accomplished had he lived. Kennedy left an ambiguous legacy on the United States for the balance of the 1960s and beyond. By advocating an increase in military spending combined with a partial relaxation of the economic conservatism of the Eisenhower years, Kennedy provided political and philosophical cover for his successors who aimed to buy both "guns and butter" with America's growing economic wealth. Kennedy especially criticized his predecessor for refusing to spend more money on conventional military forces. However, by the end of the 1960s the harmful economic effects of heavy spending for a conventional army waging a "limited" war in Southeast Asia fueled rapid inflation, impinged upon domestic spending, and forced higher taxes. Meanwhile, beyond these economic considerations, U.S. military adventures in the Third World that were facilitated by Kennedy's embrace of a military strategy of "flexible response" ultimately harmed U.S. prestige, as indigenous peoples equated U.S. intervention with the worst forms of imperialism.

On the other hand, Kennedy admirers celebrate the energy and vitality of his presidency. Drawing on his popular appeal, an appeal that grew during his presidency, Kennedy convinced his fellow Americans to make personal sacrifices to serve common ends. As the youngest man ever elected president, at the age of forty-three Kennedy was particularly effective at inspiring a generation of young Americans to serve their country. Thousands heeded Kennedy's call to service by volunteering for the Peace Corps. Millions more who were too young to participate directly in Kennedy's initiatives during his brief presidency were inspired to social and political activism in the late 1960s.

Kennedy's professional and personal papers are in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. For accounts of Kennedy's early life, see Joan Blair and Clay Blair, Jr., The Search for JFK (1976); Herbert S. Parmet, Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980); and Nigel Hamilton, JFK: Reckless Youth (1992). The sections of John Hellman's The Kennedy Obsession: The American Myth of JFK (1997) that explore Kennedy's life before the presidency are thought-provoking. There are also a number of highly critical works, including Victor Lasky, J.F.K.: The Man and the Myth (1963); Thomas C. Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991); and Seymour M. Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (1997).The best works on Kennedy's presidency are Herbert S. Parmet, JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1983); James N. Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1991); and Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993). Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties (1980), and Richard N. Goodwin, Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (1988), both cast a reflective glance on Kennedy's legacy in the context of the 1960s. See also Garry Wills, The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (1982); Montague Kern, Patricia W. Levering, and Ralph B. Levering, The Kennedy Crises: The Press, the Presidency, and Foreign Policy (1983); and Thomas G. Paterson, ed., Kennedy's Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963 (1989). Publishedcollections of primary sources include The Kennedy Presidential Press Conferences (1978), with an Introduction by David Halberstam; and Theodore Sorenson, ed., "Let The Word Go Forth": The Speeches, Statements, and Writings of John F. Kennedy (1988). The first comprehensive account of the presidential campaign of 1960, Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1960 (1961), is masterful but dated. See also Sidney Kraus, ed., The Great Debates: Background, Perspective, Effects (1962), which includes the full transcript of all four televised debates, and the relevant chapters in Robert A. Divine, Foreign Policy and U.S. Presidential Elections, 1952–1960 (1974). An extensive oral history collection is in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library. Gerald S. and Deborah H. Strober, Let Us Begin Anew: An Oral History of the Kennedy Presidency (1993), is a published collection of oral history interviews conducted from 1989 to 1992 that provide perspective on Kennedy's influence during the 1960s.

Christopher A. Preble

Kennedy, John F.

views updated May 17 2018

Kennedy, John F. 1917-1963


John Fitzgerald Jack Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was born May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, and was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Jack was the son of Joseph Patrick Kennedy (18881969) and Rose Fitzgerald (18901995); both grandfathers, Patrick Joseph Kennedy (18581929) and John F. Honey Fitz Fitzgerald (18631950), had been politically prominent in Boston. Jacks father was determined to see his first born, Joseph Patrick Jr., elected president, but Navy pilot Joe Jr.s death in 1944 caused Joe to transfer his political dreams to Jack.

Jack was an indifferent student at day schools, then in a Catholic boarding school, and finally at Choate, a preparatory school in Connecticut that Joe Jr. was attending. Fellow seniors named Jack most likely to succeed, and he graduated in the middle of his class. Joe Jr.s shadow led Jack to attend Princeton University rather than Harvard, but poor health, which plagued his entire life, soon forced him to withdraw. He entered Harvard in 1936 and continued to perform modestly as a student, but public affairs then captured Jacks attention. He registered for a heavy academic load in the fall of 1937 so that he might travel to Europe in early 1938 to research an honors thesis on contemporary politics. That paper reviewed Great Britains prewar policies toward Germany and was published in 1940 as Why England Slept ; it proved unexpectedly popular in an America unnerved by world events.

War approached, and Kennedy attempted to enter officer candidate schools, but failed the physical examinations. Joe Kennedy Sr., the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain in the late 1930s, arranged through his former naval attaché for Jack to enter the U.S. Navy in late 1941. Kennedy was trained to operate patrol-torpedo boats and was sent to the Pacific, where his boat (PT-109 ) was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in August 1943. Jack led survivors to a nearby island, directed successful efforts to attract a rescue, and later returned to duty, but physical maladies caused his return to the states and his eventual retirement from the Navy.

Joe Kennedy enthusiastically supported Jacks race for the eleventh Massachusetts congressional district seat in 1946, and after three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives Jack successfully challenged incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (19021985) for a U.S. Senate seat. Kennedys bid for the 1956 Democratic vice-presidential nomination fell just short, and immediately following Dwight D. Eisenhowers (18901969) reelection he mounted a campaign for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedys Catholicism was inevitably an issue, but he defused it by asserting the principle of church-state separation. He won the nomination, then defeated the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon (19131994), by 120,000 popular votes; the electoral vote was not so close (303219).

Jack, his wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (19291994), and their young children presented active, sophisticated, optimistic faces to the country. In accepting his partys nomination, Kennedy had described a New Frontier of possibilities for the nation, and his inaugural speech built on that vision. The White House became Camelot after the romantic stage version of King Arthurs reign; the Kennedys were admired as royalty, and it was sometimes suggested that a Kennedy dynasty had begun wherein Jack would be succeeded first by his brother Robert (19251968) and then by their younger brother Edward (b. 1932).

Cold War issues hounded the Kennedy presidency, however. A 1961 invasion of Cuba, a Soviet client, at the Bay of Pigs by CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles failed, and it was soon followed by East Germanys provocative construction of a wall isolating western sectors of Berlin. In 1962 U.S. intelligence efforts revealed that the Soviet Union was basing offensive missiles and long-range bombers in Cuba. Kennedy mobilized the military, authorized complaints in the United Nations Security Council, and ordered the Navy to quarantine Cuba to prevent receipt of more weapons. Diplomacy and U.S. willingness to resort to military action caused removal of the arsenal. This incident provided the most dangerous moment of the Cold War.

The space race gave Kennedy another means of challenging the Soviets, one that was also infused with domestic policy. Soviet satellites and manned orbital flights embarrassed the United States. Initial American efforts were spectacular failures, but science advisors concluded that a manned moon landing was feasible. Convinced that gaining the upper hand in space would enhance U.S. prestige abroad, restore American confidence, and open doors to technological and economic advances, Kennedy committed the United States to a safe manned flight to the moon and back by the close of the 1960s. His vision was fulfilled in July 1969.

The civil rights movement posed different domestic policy problems. Kennedy had telephoned the wife of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968) when King was imprisoned during the election campaign; this encouraged many to expect Kennedy to champion civil rights. His administration proved less than they hoped, although it made some efforts to extend voting rights and to reduce employment discrimination. But activists known as freedom riders, who were testing Kennedys promise to end public-transportation segregation, were violently attacked in Alabama, and the University of Mississippi was awkwardly integrated, causing a deadly riot. Kennedy proposed a sweeping civil rights bill during the summer of 1963, but Congress acted only when Kennedys successor, Lyndon Johnson (19081973), promoted the bill as a memorial to the slain president.

In November 1963 Kennedy traveled to Texas to end bickering among Democrats there. As his limousine approached downtown Dallas, gunshots fatally wounded him. A government commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren (18911974) later blamed Lee Harvey Oswald (19391963) for the act as a solitary assassin, but conspiracy theories abounded. Robert Kennedy and President Johnson were suspicious of the CIA, American mobsters, and Cuban operatives, and Johnson himself was suspected of involvement by some. Oswalds murder as he was being transferred between jails only two days after Kennedys shooting further fueled misgivings that persisted for decades. Gerald Posners 1993 book Case Closed best refuted conspiracy advocates.

Kennedy was survived by Jacqueline, who later remarried, was again widowed, and died in 1994 of cancer; daughter Caroline, who became a writer, attorney, wife, and mother of three Kennedy grandchildren; and son John Jr., who perished in a 1999 private-plane crash. Another son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, had been born prematurely and died within days in August 1963.

Had Kennedy not been murdered, health problems may have prematurely ended his presidency; some suggest that scandals resulting from his dealings with gangsters and a succession of female acquaintances would have brought down his administration. The Vietnam War may have ended sooner under Kennedys leadership, but that may have delayed the eventual Soviet collapse and slowed establishment of Chinese-American relations. Civil rights legislation may have been slower and more limited, and Americas baby boomers may have become more constructively active and less cynical and distrustful. The more positive vision suggests that a normal Kennedy presidency could have forestalled many of the political traumas that later plagued the United States, along with the personal, combative political style that they engendered.

SEE ALSO Bay of Pigs; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Cuban Missile Crisis; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Presidency, The


Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. 1999. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. New York: Longman.

Branch, Taylor. 1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 195463. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dallek, Robert. 2003. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 19171963. Boston: Little, Brown.

Kennedy, Robert F. 1969. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Norton.

ODonnell, Kenneth P., and David F. Powers. 1972. Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Boston: Little, Brown.

Posner, Gerald. 1993. Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. New York: Random House.

Presidents Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (Warren Commission). 1964. Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 19611963. 19621964. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

James F. Sheffield Jr.

Kennedy, John F.

views updated May 29 2018

John F. Kennedy

Born May 29, 1917
Brookline, Massachusetts
Died November 22, 1963
Dallas, Texas

U.S. president, senator

I n 1960, John F. Kennedy became the youngest person elected to the presidency of the United States. He was forty-three years old. He assumed the office in the midst of the Cold War, an intense political and economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 to 1991. Kennedy successfully led the country through two of the most alarming Cold War crises: the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall. The Kennedy administration also crafted sweeping civil rights legislation that was signed into law in 1964. Kennedy's presidency came to a shocking end on November 22, 1963, when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Young Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the second of nine children born to Joseph Patrick Kennedy (1888–1969) and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890–1995); he was born at the family home, 83 Beals Street in Brookline, Massachusetts. The Kennedys were a politically prominent Irish Catholic family. John's grandfather on his father's side was a state senator and active in Boston political circles. His grandfather on his mother's side had served as mayor of Boston, state senator, and U.S. congressman. John's father was a tough, successful businessman.

Kennedy attended elementary schools in Brookline and then in Riverdale, New York, where his prosperous family had moved. He attended high school at the private Choate Academy in Wallingford, Connecticut. Kennedy was not an outstanding student, but he had many friends and in his senior year was voted the student "most likely to succeed" in the future.

Kennedy entered Harvard University in 1936 and graduated with honors in 1940. In the spring and summer of 1939, between his junior and senior years, his father sent him on a tour of Europe and put him in touch with various government officials. The young Kennedy carefully studied the conflicts that were building in Europe as Germany's Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and his Nazi Party (known primarily for its brutal policies of racism) grew more and more threatening. In young Kennedy's view, England was not well prepared for war; when he returned to Harvard, he wrote his senior thesis on this subject. The thesis later became a best-selling book titled Why England Slept (1940).

Kennedy, who loved the sea and sailing, joined the U.S. Navy as a seaman in 1941. When Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base in Hawaii, was bombed on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II (1939–45). In the war, Kennedy commanded a boat known as PT-109. Kennedy and his crew were patrolling near the Solomon Islands on August 2, 1943, when a Japanese destroyer sliced right through PT-109. Two of the crew were killed, but Kennedy managed to rescue the others—some injured—and get them to a nearby island. He then swam to other nearby islands for help. He and his crew were rescued on August 7. Kennedy received the Purple Heart because his back had been injured in the incident; he also received navy and marine honors for his heroics. Returning to the United States in December, he recuperated, but he would suffer from his back injury the rest of his life.

Congressman and U.S. senator

When Kennedy's older brother, Joseph Jr., whom his father had groomed to enter politics, was killed in the war, Joseph Sr. turned to John, his second son, to fulfill the family's political ambition. A determined and articulate young man, John Kennedy was also very handsome and readily liked by those with whom he came in contact. He had all the makings of a politician. In 1946, he made a successful run for the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the eleventh congressional district of Massachusetts. Kennedy entered the House in January 1947 as a twenty-nine-year-old congressman. Easily reelected in 1948 and 1950, Kennedy supported the social programs of President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry). In 1952, Kennedy successfully ran for the U.S. Senate.

On September 12, 1952, Senator Kennedy married a Vassar College graduate, Jacqueline "Jackie" Lee Bouvier (1929–1994), who was the daughter of a wealthy New York City financier. They would have four children, but only two survived infancy, a daughter and a son—Caroline and John Jr.

Young Senator Kennedy served on the Senate Labor Committee investigating charges of corruption. Fighting for the average union worker and local unions, he fought alleged corruption of national labor union leaders, such as racketeering between labor and management, in which top leaders obtained money illegally from management in exchange for agreeing not to strike. Kennedy also served on the Government Operations Committee, which was headed by U.S. senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908–1957; see entry) of Wisconsin. McCarthy had also led a witch-hunt for communists he thought were lurking within the U.S. government and among the general public. By making unfounded accusations against various government workers and questioning the loyalty of certain private citizens, McCarthy had destroyed the careers of many innocent Americans. By 1954, McCarthy's lack of evidence was exposed and the Senate voted to censure him (publicly and officially disapprove of his behavior). Kennedy had never outwardly opposed or confronted McCarthy, and he missed the actual roll call vote on censure because he was ill that day. But Kennedy agreed with the censure vote.

Kennedy easily won reelection to the Senate in 1958, but since the mid-1950s he had had his sights set on the U.S. presidency. His main drawbacks were being Roman Catholic (a Catholic had never been elected president) and being young. Nevertheless, at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Kennedy won the party's nomination on the first ballot. He chose U.S. senator Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; see entry) of Texas, who also had run for president that year, as his vice presidential running mate. The Republican candidate was Vice President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; see entry), whose running mate was Henry Cabot Lodge (1902–1985), a U.S. representative to the United Nations. (Kennedy had defeated Lodge in the U.S. Senate race of 1952.) As in previous elections, Kennedy's very large and influential family campaigned tirelessly. After a series of televised debates between the presidential candidates—the first such debates ever shown on television—Kennedy eked out a narrow victory over Nixon.

The thirty-fifth president

The Kennedys brought youth, vitality, and style to the White House. John Jr. and Caroline often played in the Oval Office as their father worked. Jackie Kennedy, only in her early thirties, set the standards for fashions of the day. She brought many performing artists to the White House. Mrs. Kennedy also redecorated the White House, placing furnishings and articles long in storage from past presidents back into the many different rooms.

One of President Kennedy's earliest actions was establishing the Peace Corps by executive order on March 1,1961. The goal of the Peace Corps was to promote world peace and friendship by aiding people in countries around the world through improved education, health care, and public facilities. A program that remained successful into the twenty-first century, the Peace Corps sent five hundred volunteers to eight developing countries in its first year. By 1966, over fifteen thousand volunteers were working in fifty-two countries.

The dominant domestic issue for President Kennedy was civil rights—making the civil and economic rights of black Americans equal to the rights white Americans already possessed. Large racial demonstrations—both for and against civil rights—occurred across the South and throughout the nation. Courts ordered an end to segregation in public schools. (Segregation means separating people by their race so that they cannot use the same public facilities.) President Kennedy had to call out the National Guard to maintain order and enforce desegregation at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and at the University of Alabama in 1963. In August 1963, over two hundred thousand people marched to Washington, D.C., to demand equal rights for black Americans; this event was known as the Freedom March. Kennedy had been planning sweeping civil rights legislation, but he was assassinated before it was passed into law. When Kennedy died in November, Lyndon B. Johnson took office; Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act a year later.

The Bay of Pigs

When President Kennedy took office on January 20, 1961, he inherited the "Cuban problem." Fidel Castro (1926–; see entry) had taken power in Cuba in early 1959. His relationship with the United States had quickly gone downhill; Castro, with his communist leanings, naturally looked to the communist Soviet Union for trade agreements. To the dismay of U.S. government leaders, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry) gloated that communism had gained a toehold in the Americas. Communism is a system of government in which a single political party, the Communist Party, controls almost all aspects of people's lives. In a communist economy, private ownership of property and businesses is prohibited so that goods produced and wealth accumulated can be shared equally by all.

As communism infiltrated the Castro-led Cuba, many middle-class and wealthy Cubans left their country for America. However, some hoped to return; they hoped that another leader or group might overthrow Castro and restore the old Cuban economy. President Kennedy's predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61; see entry), had allowed the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to train fifteen hundred Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro. Although skeptical of the plan, Kennedy allowed the invasion to proceed. The army of CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed on the south coast of Cuba at an area known as the Bay of Pigs; they were promptly defeated by Castro's forces, who were armed with Soviet tanks. After this embarrassment, Kennedy vowed that in the future he would consider more carefully the advice he received and the way he acted on that advice.

Vienna summit

In June 1961, two months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy met with Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, for summit talks. Kennedy was still smarting from the embarrassment of the incident; Khrushchev was gloating over the United States' failure. Before the summit meeting, Khrushchev had decided to test the young American president's strength and statesmanship. Kennedy had been warned that Khrushchev could talk very tough, but he was not ready for the blustery, explosive behavior that Khrushchev would display.

Khrushchev's topic of choice was Berlin, long a sore spot with the Soviet Union. After Germany's defeat in World War II, Germany was divided among the victorious Allies into four sectors—American, French, British, and Soviet. The Soviet sector was known as East Germany; the other three occupying powers soon agreed to rule their sectors jointly and called the combined territory West Germany. Berlin, Germany's capital city, was similarly divided: East Berlin was under Soviet control; French, British, and American forces occupied West Berlin. Since the division of Germany, no peace treaty had ever been signed between the powers to determine Germany's and Berlin's future. The entire city of Berlin was located well within Soviet-controlled East Germany. Therefore, West Berlin—operating under a democratic, capitalist government—sat in the middle of communist-controlled territory.

The awkward Berlin situation spurred Khrushchev to demand that all Western powers leave West Berlin by the year's end and that East Germany be recognized as a sovereign country. Khrushchev fiercely warned Kennedy that any violation of East German territory (that is, crossing through or over East Germany to get to Berlin without East German permission) would be considered an act of aggression, a precursor to war—nuclear war. Taken aback, Kennedy refused Khrushchev's demands. The two never met again. On his way home, a shaken Kennedy stopped in Britain. He confided to British prime minister Harold Macmillan (1894–1986; see entry) that perhaps it was possible the Soviet Union could win the Cold War. When the young president returned home, he ordered a thorough probing of the Berlin issue to find strategies the United States could pursue. Kennedy also announced a buildup of conventional, nonnuclear weapons and the armed services.


Kennedy could not have realized that Khrushchev had no intention of actually starting a war. Khrushchev had decided to make an issue of the capital city because thousands of East Germans, many of them highly skilled and well educated, were leaving East Germany for economic opportunities and political freedom in West Germany. They all made their exodus through Berlin, where anyone could travel freely among the four sectors. East Germans could go to Berlin, enter one of the Western sectors, and from there slip into West Germany, escaping communist rule. East Germany could not afford to lose its best people to the West; the East German economy was already struggling. Walter Ulbricht (1893–1973), East Germany's leader, had been demanding for some time that Khrushchev do something to stop the exodus.

In the early-morning hours of Sunday, August 13, 1961, East German crews began erecting a barbed wire fence along the boundary of the Soviet East Berlin sector. U.S. intelligence informed President Kennedy about the construction of the fence by midmorning Sunday as he set out for a family picnic near Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The development had caught top U.S. officials completely off guard. Khrushchev was testing the Western powers, trying to see if they would challenge him. Because Khrushchev had not touched West Berlin and had left access routes from East Germany to West Germany open and unchanged, Kennedy decided it was best not to risk war. The fence—better known as the Berlin Wall—was an ugly statement, but even so, in Kennedy's view, a wall was better than a war. The wall accomplished Khrushchev's goal: It stopped the flow of East Germans moving to the West. However, the wall was also a defeat for communism. Its existence seemed to prove that people would stay in a communist country only if they were physically prevented from leaving.

In June 1963, President Kennedy went on a European tour. When he arrived in West Berlin, he looked at the wall from a viewing stand. Back at West Berlin city hall, he addressed 250,000 Berliners. Throwing out a speech that had been prepared for him, he instead spoke from the heart. Kennedy said that if there were people who did not understand the issues between the free world and a communist one, they should come to Berlin; with the crowd cheering wildly, Kennedy thundered again and again, "Let them come to Berlin." He ended the speech with a now-famous line that expressed the unity of the Western world: "Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)."


The "Cuban problem" had not reared its head again since the Bay of Pigs incident in early 1961. However, President Kennedy had ordered a top-secret operation—Operation Mongoose—to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro. U.S. intelligence had considered various plots, from lacing Castro's water with drugs to assassinating Castro. Despite careful planning, Operation Mongoose never materialized.

Behind the scenes, the Soviet Union had been helping Cuba build up its armaments, or military equipment. By the end of 1961, Soviet military advisors had arrived in Cuba. The Soviet investment in the tiny island was considerable. Khrushchev's plan was to place both medium- and long-range missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba. He had long fumed over U.S. nuclear missiles openly located in Turkey, Italy, and the United Kingdom—within easy striking distance of the Soviet Union. The Soviets had warheads targeting Western Europe, but none of them was located outside the Soviet Union. Khrushchev wanted to even the score by placing Soviet nuclear weapons close to the United States.

By October 1962, the nuclear missile sites in Cuba were almost complete. On October 14, 1962, a high-flying U.S. intelligence aircraft on a mission over Cuba returned with photographs of the missile sites. The photographs were processed, analyzed, and presented to President Kennedy on the morning of October 16. It was clear from the photos that most parts of the United States would be easy prey for the Cuban missiles.

President Kennedy spoke to the American people by way of television on Monday evening, October 22. He informed them of the crisis and told them that the U.S. military was on full alert and ready for any possibility. He also announced that he would institute a naval blockade, or "quarantine," to prevent Soviet ships from bringing any more missiles to Cuba. The blockade would go into effect on Wednesday, October 24. Kennedy demanded that Khrushchev dismantle and remove all the missiles already in Cuba. The Soviet ships carrying missiles stopped and turned around, but as of October 27 the missiles already in Cuba remained.

Many top U.S. officials believed a nuclear war would start at any moment. But fortunately President Kennedy's brother, U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), came up with a compromise that satisfied both sides: The United States would halt the blockade and promise not to invade Cuba if the Soviets would agree to remove the missiles from the island. U.S. leaders also secretly promised Khrushchev that they would remove the U.S. missiles in Turkey after the crisis ended. Kennedy insisted on secrecy so that the United States would not appear to withdraw protection for Western Europe for its own purposes. (Soviet leaders did not realize that the United States considered the missiles in Turkey outdated and had intended to remove them soon anyway.) Khrushchev agreed to the U.S. plan, and the crisis came to an end on Sunday morning, October 28. Kennedy won widespread praise for his handling of the crisis and for averting a military engagement.

Having taken the world to the brink of nuclear war, a sobered Kennedy and Khrushchev soon began talks on nuclear weapons control. Although they could not agree on a

broad test-ban treaty, they did agree to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, and beneath the ocean. The Limited Test-Ban Treaty went into effect on October 11, 1963, and provided an important foundation for future arms control.


Just before Thanksgiving, on November 22, 1963, President and Mrs. Kennedy, along with Vice President and Mrs. Johnson, visited San Antonio and Houston, Texas, and then continued on to Dallas. The purpose of Kennedy's visit was to repair a rift in the Texas Democratic Party before the 1964 presidential election. Advisors had actually warned Kennedy about visiting Dallas at that time. Texas was a strongly Democratic state, but Dallas was the center and hotbed for radically conservative Republicans. Nevertheless, Kennedy went ahead with the Dallas visit. In the presidential motorcade, Kennedy sat next to his wife, Jackie; Texas governor John B. Connally (1917–1993) rode in the seat in front of them. Near the end of the downtown procession, shots rang out from the Texas School Book Depository Building, hitting both Connally and Kennedy. Connally was hit in the back but recovered; the president was hit in the head and neck and had no chance of survival. Vice President Johnson, whose home state was Texas, succeeded Kennedy as U.S. president.

The accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (1939–1963), was murdered two days later by local nightclub owner Jack Ruby (1911–1967). Oswald was an avowed Marxist and once attempted to become a Soviet citizen. (Marxism promoted a system in which workers would own industry and other means of production and share equally in the wealth.) Oswald had a Soviet wife, and he was a supporter of Cuba's Fidel Castro. The official government investigation—called the Warren Commission (named after the commission chairman, U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren (1891–1974)—concluded that Oswald probably acted alone, but for years others have speculated on possible conspiracy theories (in which two or more persons agree to commit a crime). In 1977, a congressional panel concluded that there was probably a conspiracy and recommended further investigation.

President Kennedy's body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda as hundreds of thousands paid their respects. In a long solemn procession, his body was carried to Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried.

For More Information


FitzSimons, Louise. The Kennedy Doctrine. New York: Random House, 1972.

Gelb, Norman. The Berlin Wall: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and a Showdown in the Heart of Europe. New York: Times Books, 1986.

Higgins, Trumbull. The Perfect Failure: Kennedy, Eisenhower, and the CIA and the Bay of Pigs. New York: Norton, 1987.

Paterson, Thomas G., ed. Kennedy's Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963. New York: Random House, 1995.

Web Site

John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. (accessed on September 6, 2003).

Famous Words from John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address

On January 20, 1961, the thirty-fifth U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, gave his first and only inaugural address to the nation. The address contained a number of highly memorable segments that served to rally Americans to actively support the American way of life and oppose the potential spread of communism in the world. A few of those historic passages follow:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans … unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Kennedy, John F.

views updated May 18 2018

John F. Kennedy

Born: May 29, 1917
Brookline, Massachusetts
Died: November 22, 1963
Dallas, Texas

American president

John F. Kennedy was the thirty-fifth president of the United States. He was the first president to reach for the moon, through the nation's space programs. He also was the first president since Theodore Roosevelt (18581919) with whom youth could identify. He made the nation see itself with new eyes. His assassination shocked the world.

Early life and family

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917. He was the second son of nine children born to the multimillionaire business executive and financier Joseph P. Kennedy (18881969) and his wife, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (18901995). Joseph's father had served in the Massachusetts Legislature and in elective offices in Boston, Massachusetts. Rose's father, John Francis Fitzgerald (18631950), had been a state legislator, the mayor of Boston, and a U.S. congressman. Joseph himself had served as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission, and ambassador to Great Britain (193740). Thus, the Kennedys were a wealthy family with a history of political and public service.

Education and the military

Kennedy attended the Canterbury parochial school (193031) and the Choate School (193135). One of his teachers later said that people in school liked him more for his personality than for his accomplishments. He was often ill during his childhood and spent much of this time reading. Kennedy enrolled at Princeton University in 1935 but illness soon forced him to withdraw. Upon recovery he went to Harvard University, where he majored in government and international relations. During his junior year at Harvard, he traveled in Europe and observed the events that were leading to World War II (193945; a war in which the AlliesFrance, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and from 1941 the United Statesfought against the Axis powersGermany, Italy, and Japan). He used his observations for his senior paper, which later became the bestselling book Why England Slept (1940).

After graduating from Harvard with honors in 1940, Kennedy went to 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, after his back strengthened through a regimen of exercises, the U.S. Navy accepted him. He then became an intelligence officer in Washington, D.C. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a U.S. Navy base in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. Kennedy requested active duty at sea and was given this assignment in late 1942.

War hero

Following Kennedy's training with the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron, he was shipped to the South Pacific to fight in the war against Japan. In March 1943 he was given command of a patrol torpedo (PT) boat, a small, fast boat armed with weapons, including torpedoes. In August his boat was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer and two of his crew were killed. 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 three-hour struggle Kennedy got the wounded crewmen to the floating wreck. When it capsized, he ordered his men to swim to a small island about three miles away. He towed one man to shore in a heroic five-hour struggle. Several days later, having displayed great courage, leadership, and endurance, Kennedy succeeded in having his men rescued.

House of Representatives

Returning to civilian life, Kennedy did newspaper work for several months, covering a United Nations conference, the Potsdam Conference, and the British elections of 1945. However, coming from a family devoted to public service, Kennedy desired a career in politics. In 1946 he became a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from the Massachusetts eleventh congressional district. Kennedy built a large personal organization for his campaign. On whirlwind tours he met as many voters as possible. He talked to the people in a direct, informal style about the topics that they were concerned with. In this campaign and in all the others, his brothers, sisters, and mother supported him. His brothers, Robert (19251968) and Edward (also called Ted; 1932), acted as his managers, while his sisters and mother held social events to raise money for his campaigns.

Kennedy won the primary, the fall election, and reelection to the House in 1948 and again in 1950. He worked for better social welfare programs, particularly in the area of low-cost public housing (or affordable places for people to live). In 1949 he became a member of the Joint Committee on Labor-Management Relations. In this capacity, Kennedy was a strong supporter of labor, working for higher wages and better working conditions.

Kennedy supported the domestic programs of President Harry Truman (18841972), including social welfare programs, progressive taxation, and regulation of business. However, he did not follow Truman's policies in foreign relations. For example, he was against the fighting in Korea "or any other place in Asia where [the United States] cannot hold our defenses."

The Senate

In April 1952 Kennedy ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate against Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (19021985), a Republican liberal. Kennedy won by over seventy thousand votes. Lodge reeled under the impact. He had not run against a man, but a whole family. The Kennedy women alone had acted as hostesses to at least seventy thousand Massachusetts housewives. In 1958 Kennedy was reelected to the Senate.

Kennedy's political success was soon followed by high points in his personal life. On September 12, 1953, Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (19291994), daughter of a New York City financier, at Newport, Rhode Island. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917) noted that "under a veil of lovely inconsequence" Mrs. Kennedy possessed "an all-seeing eye and ruthless judgement." John and Jacqueline Kennedy had three children: Caroline Bouvier (1957), John Fitzgerald (19601999), Patrick Bouvier (who lived only a few days after his birth in 1963); another child was stillborn in 1956.

Taking his Senate seat in January 1953, Kennedy continued to support key labor, economic, and foreign relations issues. He 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 also worked to pass several bills to aid the Massachusetts fishing and textile industries and to improve New England's economy.

A recurrence of his old back injuries forced Kennedy to use crutches during 1954. An operation in October 1954 was followed by another in February 1955. He spent his months of illness and recovery writing biographies of Americans who had shown moral courage at difficult points in their lives. These biographies became the best-selling book Profiles in Courage (1956), which 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. After recovering from his operations, he returned to his Senate seat in May 1955. He became a strong supporter of civil rights and social welfare legislation. The Kennedy-Douglas-Ives Bill (1957) required an accounting of all employee pension and welfare funds. Kennedy also sponsored bills for providing federal financial aid to education and for relaxing U.S. immigration laws.

Kennedy becomes president

Kennedy's record in elected office and the books and articles that he had written attracted national attention. After he lost the vice presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1956, he decided to run for president. Formally announcing his candidacy in January 1960, Kennedy made whirlwind tours and won the Democratic primaries in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, Maryland, Nebraska, and West Virginia. On July 13, 1960, Kennedy was nominated for president, with Lyndon B. Johnson (19081973) as his running mate.

"Jack in Walk" shouted the Boston Globe after Kennedy's nomination. But it would be no easy walk to win the White House against the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard Nixon (19131994). At that time, Kennedy was a controversial candidate because he was a Roman Catholic. Religious prejudice, or dislike of a person based solely upon his or her religion, probably cost him over a million votes in Illinois alone. Kennedy responded to the issue of religion in his "Houston speech" on September 11, 1960. He believed in the absolute separation of church and state (the belief that one bodychurch or governmentwould have no influence over the other). To him, this meant that no priest could tell a president what to do and no Protestant clergyman could tell his parishioners how to vote. In other words, Kennedy's religion would not affect the decisions he made as president.

A series of televised debates with Nixon was crucial to Kennedy's campaign. Many viewers believed Kennedy defeated Nixon with his style. Kennedy showed the American people that he had a sense of humor, a love of language, and a sense of the past. On November 9, 1960, John F. Kennedy became the youngest man and the first Roman Catholic in American history to win the presidency. The 1960 presidential election was one of the closest in the nation's history. Kennedy won the popular vote by only 119,450 votes. On December 19, 1960, the electoral college cast 303 votes for Kennedy and 219 for Nixon.

At the inauguration on January 20, 1960, the first U.S. president born in the twentieth century was sworn into office. Kennedy's inaugural address included the challenge: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Bay of Pigs

In his short time in office, Kennedy faced many crises. The first of which involved Cuba, a country about ninety miles south of Florida. On April 17, 1961, fourteen hundred Cuban exiles, supported by the United States, invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. On April 18 the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (18941971) sent a note to Kennedy stating that his government would help the Cuban government resist an attack. By April 20 the invasion had failed. Although the plan for training Cuban exiles had actually begun during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower (18901969), Kennedy took responsibility for it. He had first supported the plan but later 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 force them to accept a new system of government. Although the Bay of Pigs invasion was a failure, it did prove Kennedy's ability to face a disaster.

Protecting civil rights

Kennedy continued to show skill and passion for issues at home, particularly civil rights. In 1961 the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights group, organized people to protest segregation, or the practice of separating people based solely on their race, on buses and trains. When the showdown came, "the Kennedys," as the president and his brother Robert, the attorney general, were known, sent six hundred Federal marshals to Alabama to protect these "Freedom Riders." In 1962 they sent hundreds of Federal marshals to protect the rights of the first African American student to attend the University of Mississippi.

Cuban missile crisis

On October 22, 1962, Kennedy announced to the nation that the Soviet Union had sent nuclear missiles to Cuba. In response the United States had blocked all shipments of 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 [military] response."

For a week the details of the situation had been "the best kept secret in government history." Throughout the seven days, the Kennedy administration had maintained an outward appearance of normal social and political activity. Meanwhile, American military units throughout the world were alerted.

Messages were sent back and forth between Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Pope John XXIII (18811963), who was volunteering as a peacemaker. During this time Soviet ships were moving toward the area of the blockade in the Atlantic Ocean. They slowed, then stopped. On October 28, 1962, the Soviet Union said it would remove its missiles from Cuba.

One result of the crisis was the nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union, which Kennedy called "the first step down the path of peace." The treaty was signed on July 25, 1963. A "hot line" for emergency messages was also set up between Washington, D.C., and Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union.


Vietnam, a country in Southeast Asia, took up more of Kennedy's time than any other problem. The Vietnam War (19551975) was a civil war in which anti-Communist forces in South Vietnam, supported by the United States, were fighting against a takeover by Communist forces in North Vietnam. In 1954 President Eisenhower had offered military aid to South Vietnam and funding, and advisors were sent to the country throughout the 1950s. Although Kennedy believed that a "full-scale war in Vietnam was unthinkable," he tripled American forces in the country. Senator William Fulbright (19051995) suggested that Kennedy put troops in Vietnam to prove to Khrushchev that "he couldn't be intimidated."

The President's last day

Kennedy was well aware of the dangers of the presidency. "Who can tell who will be president a year from now?" he would ask. On the day of his arrival in Dallas, Texas, he said that if anyone wanted to kill a president he needed only a high building and a rifle with a telescopic lens.

That dayNovember 22, 1963the president was assassinated. It is generally believed that Lee Harvey Oswald (19391963), using a rifle equipped with a telescopic lens, was the person who fired on the president's car. Others, however, believe more than one person was responsible. All of the United Statesindeed, the worldwas in mourning. In Indonesia, flags were lowered to half-mast. In New Delhi, India, crowds wept in the streets.

Kennedy's legacy

Kennedy once summed up his time as "very dangerous, untidy." He lived through two world wars, the Great Depression (a period from 1929 to 1939 during which nearly half the industrial workers in the country lost their jobs), and the nuclear age. "Life is unfair," he remarked. And so it was to Kennedy, heaping him with both glory and tragedy. Yet, he never lost his grace, his sense of balance, or his optimism.

What Kennedy accomplished was not as important as what he stood for. 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 [left] us unprepared and in darkness."

For More Information

Burner, David. John F. Kennedy and a New Generation. Boston: Little Brown, 1988.

Cole, Michael D. John F. Kennedy: President of the New Frontier. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.

Frisbee, Lucy Post. John F. Kennedy: America's Youngest President. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1984.

Manchester, William. Death of a President: November 20November 25, 1963. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Reprint, New York: Arbor House, 1985.

O'Donnell, Kenneth P., David F. Powers, and Joe McCarthy. "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye": Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Randall, Marta. John F. Kennedy. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Reprint, New York: Greenwich House, 1983.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

views updated May 17 2018

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

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.

War Hero

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.

The Senate

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 Presidency

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.

Nuclear Confrontation

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.

Vietnam Commitments

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."

His Legacy

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

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). □

Kennedy, John F.

views updated May 29 2018

John F. Kennedy

"A Force That Has Changed the Political Scene"

   Originally published in TV Guide, November 14, 1959

   Excerpted from TV Guide: 50 Years of Television. New York: Crown, 2002

America's political leaders recognized the power of television as soon as the new medium was introduced in the 1940s. When it came time to nominate candidates for the 1948 presidential election, for instance, both the Democratic and Republican political parties decided to hold their nominating conventions in Philadelphia, because the city's TV broadcasts could be seen on fourteen stations along the East Coast.

As early as 1952, it became clear that television could make or break political candidates. The Democratic candidate for president that year, Adlai Stevenson (1900–1965), bought half an hour of network air time to broadcast a campaign speech. Unfortunately for Stevenson, his speech upset many viewers because it replaced the most popular prime-time program of the era, I Love Lucy. In the meantime, Republican candidate Dwight D Eisenhower (1890–1969) aired a series of thirty-second campaign commercials that helped turn the election in his favor.

"Whether TV improves or worsens our political system, whether it serves the purpose of political education or deception, whether it gives us better or poorer candidates, more intelligent or more prejudiced campaigns—the answers to all these questions are up to you, the viewing public."

John F. Kennedy was one of the first political figures to take full advantage of the potential of television to create an image that appealed to voters. Kennedy was born into a prominent political family on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1940 with a degree in international relations. After completing his college education, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II (1939–45). Kennedy soon gained the rank of lieutenant and became commander of a patrol-torpedo (PT) boat operating in the Pacific Ocean. In 1943, his boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer near the Solomon Islands. Although injured, Kennedy led fellow survivors to safety and later received medals for heroism.

Once the war ended, Kennedy entered politics. In 1946, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from a Boston district. He won reelection twice, then in 1952 he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. The following year Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier. They eventually had two children, Caroline and John Jr. In 1955, while recovering from back surgery, Kennedy wrote a nonfiction book called Profiles in Courage, which earned the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in history. The young senator came to national attention in 1956, when he nearly gained the Democratic Party's nomination for vice president of the United States.

In 1959, Kennedy wrote an article called "A Force That Has Changed the Political Scene" for TV Guide. In this article, which is reprinted below, the increasingly popular politician talks about the impact of television on campaigns, candidates, elections, and government in America. He acknowledges that "TV offers new opportunities, new challenges, and new problems." In general, Kennedy is optimistic about the impact of television on the political process. He expresses hope that television coverage will make politicians more accountable to voters and more honest in their dealings. He also predicts that the need to create a TV "image" will lead to the rise of "a new breed of candidates" who are young, intelligent, and compassionate.

Things to remember while reading "A Force That Has Changed the Political Scene":

  • Around the time this article was published, Kennedy announced his intention to seek the Democratic Party's nomination for president of the United States in 1960. During his successful campaign, Kennedy provided a prime example of the "new breed" of candidate who crafted an appealing image for the TV Age.
  • In his article, Kennedy mentions that President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) undertook an "intensive cross-country tour to plead the cause of the League of Nations." This took place in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I (1914–18). The League of Nations was an international organization, similar to the United Nations, that included representatives from many countries around the world. It was intended to serve as a place for nations to settle their differences peacefully and thus avoid future wars. Wilson viewed U.S leadership in the League of Nations as a key part of his plan to secure peace and create a new world order. But the U.S. Congress did not support the idea. In order to generate public support for U.S. participation in the League, Wilson spent three weeks traveling around the country and making speeches. Before the end of the tour, however, Wilson collapsed from exhaustion and suffered a stroke. He spent the last year of his presidency in bed, relying upon his wife to conduct official business on his behalf. The United States never did join the League of Nations, and the organization was too weak to prevent World War II from erupting twenty years later.
  • Kennedy also refers to the quiz show scandal that rocked the television industry during the late 1950s. Game and quiz shows were extremely popular forms of TV entertainment at that time. Many of the shows were produced by sponsors—large companies that used television programs to advertise their products. Some of the sponsors used their high level of control over the programs to "fix," or arrange, the results of the quiz shows. They provided some of the most popular contestants with answers in advance, for example, so that they would continue winning and attract the largest possible audiences for the sponsor's commercials. The quiz show scandal came to light through a highly publicized investigation by the U.S. Congress. After the corruption was revealed, most of the quiz shows were cancelled, and the television networks took greater control over the production of programs.

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What happened next …

In the summer of 1960, the Democratic Party selected John F. Kennedy as its candidate for president of the United States. His opponent in the general election was Republican Richard M. Nixon (1913–94), who had served two terms as vice president under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In September, the two candidates faced off in the first-ever televised presidential debates. At this point, Nixon was ahead in the polls and favored to win the election. Nixon's supporters emphasized that he had more experience, particularly in the area of foreign affairs, than his lesser-known opponent.

On the day of the first debate, Nixon was not feeling well and appeared pale and tired. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked suntanned and healthy Nixon wore a rumpled gray suit that blended into the background, while Kennedy stood out in a crisp, dark suit. As the two candidates answered questions on stage, Kennedy seemed calm and confident. He also looked into the television cameras as he spoke, which gave viewers the impression that he was speaking directly to them. Nixon, on the other hand, sweated visibly and appeared uncomfortable as he answered questions. He addressed his responses to the journalists who had posed the questions, rather than looking at the television cameras.

An estimated 77 million viewers—or more than 60 percent of the adult population of the United States at that time—tuned in to watch the first Kennedy-Nixon debate. The substance of the two candidates' answers was evenly matched, and most people who listened to the debate on the radio felt that Nixon had won. But the TV audience was influenced by the dramatic visual differences between the two candidates, and people who watched on TV thought Kennedy performed better by a wide margin. The debates helped Kennedy convince the American people that he had the experience and maturity to be president, and he ended up winning the election a few months later. In polls conducted after the election, more than half of all voters said that the debates had influenced their opinions, and 6 percent said they based their vote on the debates alone.

The Kennedy-Nixon debates are considered a landmark in the history of television and American politics. From that time on, the ability to create an appealing TV image was an important consideration for all national political candidates. "The Kennedy-Nixon debates stand out as a remarkable moment in the nation's political history, not only because they propelled an unlikely candidate to victory, but also because they ushered in an era in which television dominated the electoral process," Liette Gidlow wrote in the online journal History Now. Some critics argue that television's dominance of politics has resulted in a triumph of image over issues, and personality over positions.

A presidency for the TV Age

Kennedy took office as the thirty-fifth president of the United States on January 20, 1961. At the age of forty-three, he was the youngest person ever to be elected president. As president, Kennedy continued to take advantage of the broad reach of television to lead and inspire the American people. In his televised inaugural address (a speech upon taking office), for instance, Kennedy called all American citizens to public service with the stirring words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy also described an optimistic vision for the future of the United States he called the New Frontier, which focused on eliminating problems such as war, poverty, and prejudice.

Shortly after taking office, President Kennedy appointed a young lawyer named Newton N. Minow (1926–) as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency charged with regulating television. In 1961, Minow made a famous speech before the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). (See Chapter 7, Newton Minow.) Minow criticized the content of TV programming as a "vast wasteland" and encouraged the networks to make a greater effort to serve the public interest. With Minow applying pressure through the FCC, the broadcast networks placed an increased emphasis on news and information programming.

As president, Kennedy supported the civil rights movement. During this time, millions of African Americans participated in marches and protests with the goal of ending segregation (the forced separation of people by race) and gaining equal rights and opportunities in American society. Kennedy sent federal troops into the South to enforce U.S. Supreme Court orders to end the segregation of public schools. He also called upon the U.S. Congress to pass new civil rights legislation. Furthermore, Kennedy is known for launching an ambitious space program, with the goal of sending an American astronaut to the Moon before the end of the decade. He also created the Peace Corps, an organization that sends American volunteers to developing countries to provide education and other forms of aid.

In terms of foreign policy, many of Kennedy's decisions were driven by the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a period of intense military and political rivalry known as the Cold War (1945–91). Each of these world superpowers developed nuclear weapons capable of destroying the other. They also became involved in a series of smaller conflicts around the world in hopes of spreading their own political philosophies and systems of government to new regions, while preventing the other side from doing the same. Shortly after taking office, for instance, Kennedy supported an invasion of Cuba (an island nation located ninety miles from the southern coast of Florida) by a group of rebels hoping to overthrow the government of Communist dictator Fidel Castro (1926–). The poorly executed Bay of Pigs invasion failed to unseat Castro and resulted in an embarrassment for the Kennedy administration.

In 1962, the U.S. government discovered that the Soviet Union was trying to install nuclear weapons in Cuba. During a tense confrontation between the superpowers, Kennedy ordered the U.S. Navy to prevent Soviet ships from reaching Cuban ports. His strong stand forced the Soviet Union to back down and remove its weapons from Cuba. In 1963, Kennedy began working toward international arms control agreements designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Kennedy assassination

On November 22, 1963—shortly after he had completed his first thousand days in office—President Kennedy was shot and killed as he rode through Dallas, Texas, in the back seat of an open car. The untimely and violent death of a popular president had a traumatic impact on the entire United States. All of the television networks suspended regular programming to provide viewers with nonstop coverage of the events that took place over the next four days. Television drew people together in their shock and grief, and an amazing 90 percent of American citizens tuned in to the TV news over the course of that weekend.

The aftermath of the Kennedy assassination marked the first time that the presence of television cameras changed the course of history. Lee Harvey Oswald (1939–63) was quickly captured and charged with murdering the president. Recognizing the high level of media interest in the case, law enforcement officials arranged to move the prisoner to the county jail at a convenient time for news coverage. As police officers escorted Oswald through a hallway jammed with reporters, a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby (1911–67) stepped out of the crowd and shot and killed the suspect. The murder of Oswald was the first dramatic news event to be shown live on TV. Afterward, many people blamed the decision to allow television cameras at Oswald's transfer for making the murder possible.

The extensive coverage of the events surrounding Kennedy's assassination and funeral helped turn TV into a dominant source of news and information. Over the course of a single weekend, millions of Americans made the switch from radio and newspapers to TV as their main link to current events. Kennedy's strong leadership qualities, combined with his mastery of television and his tragic death, helped make him one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history. While historians generally grade his performance above average, polls of average Americans consistently rank him among the greatest U.S. presidents.

Did you know …

  • John F. Kennedy took full advantage of his youth, good looks, charm, strong speaking skills, and attractive family to create an appealing television image throughout his campaign and presidency. While Kennedy undoubtedly possessed strong leadership qualities, in some ways his TV image did not reflect reality. Kennedy took great care to appear vigorous and athletic on TV, for instance, when he really had serious health problems. He suffered from Addison's disease (a condition in which the adrenal glands—located near the kidneys—fail to produce enough hormones), which caused weakness and digestive problems. He also suffered from severe back pain that required several surgeries and constant pain medication. On the surface, Kennedy and his glamorous wife, Jacqueline, seemed to have a perfect life. Their personal popularity exceeded that of any other president and first lady, and they were often treated like celebrities—posing for photo spreads in leading magazines and setting new fashion trends. But others point out that, behind the scenes, Kennedy had a series of extramarital affairs. Some historians argue that Kennedy succeeded in maintaining his positive image because television news operations were more respectful toward politicians at that time, and less likely to air details of their personal lives.
  • In his TV Guide article, Kennedy provides figures for television spending by the two major political parties during the 1956 presidential campaign: $3 million by the Republicans; and $2.8 million by the Democrats. He describes the high cost of TV exposure as a "great problem" in the political process, because it forces candidates to accept money from businesses and political interest groups that expect favors in return. Yet these figures seem tiny in comparison to the 2004 presidential campaign, when Democratic senator John Kerry (1943–) and Republican president George W. Bush (1946–) spent a combined $600 million on television and radio advertising. Counting the money spent by the political parties and various advocacy groups to support the candidates, the total advertising spending during the presidential race topped $1 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Clearly, the high cost of television advertising remains a major issue in American politics.

Consider the following …

  • Choose a prominent political figure and describe his or her "image." What does the person do or say to reinforce that image? To what extent do you think the image reflects reality?
  • In his article, Kennedy claims that television coverage of politics will allow voters to hold politicians more accountable for their actions. He argues that TV viewers are "able to detect … deception" and "willing to respect political honesty." Do you think that modern TV coverage has made politicians more or less honest? Cite examples to support your answer.
  • Kennedy became president partly because he adapted quickly to the new medium of television and used it to his advantage. Some experts suggest that, in the near future, the Internet may challenge television as the main source of contact and information between political candidates and voters. How do you think this will affect who succeeds in politics?

For More Information


Bliss, Edward J., Jr. Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.

Garner, Joe. Stay Tuned: Television's Unforgettable Moments. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2002.

Hilliard, Robert L., and Michael C. Keith. The Broadcast Century: A Biography of American Broadcasting. Boston: Focal Press, 1992.

Lasswell, Mark. TV Guide: 50 Years of Television. New York: Crown, 2002.

McChesney, Robert W. Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

O'Brien, Michael. John F. Kennedy: A Biography. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005.

Stark, Steven D. Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today. New York: The Free Press, 1997.


Allen, Erika Tyner. "Kennedy-Nixon Debates." Museum of Broadcast Communications. (accessed on July 26, 2006).

Gidlow, Liette. "The Great Debate: Kennedy, Nixon, and Television in the 1960 Race for the Presidency." History Now, September 2004. (accessed on July 26, 2006).

"John F. Kennedy Biography." The White House. (accessed on July 26, 2006).

Kierstead, Phillip. "Network News." Museum of Broadcast Communications. (accessed on July 26, 2006).

Kennedy, John F.

views updated Jun 27 2018

John F. Kennedy

Born May 29, 1917
Brookline, Massachusetts
Died November 22, 1963
Dallas, Texas

Thirty-fifth president of
the United States, 1961–1963

During his term as president of the United States in the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy became very concerned about South Vietnam's ability to withstand Communist forces and establish a stable democratic government. As a result, he approved a significant increase in American assistance to South Vietnam. He sent both financial aid and thousands of U.S. military advisors to the troubled nation. But when the administration of President Ngo Dinh Diem (see entry) refused to institute reforms to increase its popularity with the South Vietnamese people, Kennedy decided that the country needed new leadership. A few months later, a group of South Vietnamese military leaders overthrew Diem and took control of the government with the blessing of the Kennedy administration. But Kennedy's plans to work with these new leaders ended abruptly on November 22, 1963, when he was assassinated in Texas.

A childhood marked by privilege and illness

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, known as "Jack" to friends and family, was born May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was the second of four sons born to Joseph P. Kennedy, a wealthy businessman and diplomat, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, daughter of Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald. As they grew older, all the Kennedy boys were taught that their financial security and social status obligated them to seek careers in which they could help guide America's future and serve its citizens.

Jack Kennedy grew up in Massachusetts and New York, where he studied at several exclusive schools. He posted average grades during his early years, but he was a natural leader who was very popular with his classmates. He was also a fine athlete, even though he suffered from a wide range of physical ailments—including scarlet fever, jaundice, whooping cough, bronchitis, asthma, appendicitis, and recurring back pain—during much of his childhood and young adulthood. Many biographers believe that Kennedy's early struggles with illness gave him a lifelong appreciation for people who displayed courage and determination in difficult circumstances.

In 1936 Kennedy enrolled at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He graduated four years later with a bachelor's degree in political science. During his time at Harvard, Kennedy began to take his studies more seriously. In fact, he wrote a thesis paper (a detailed research paper that must be completed in order to graduate) during his senior year that received considerable critical praise. In that paper Kennedy examined Great Britain's failure to anticipate the threat of Adolf Hitler and Germany in the years leading up to World War II (1939–45). Kennedy's thesis was so impressive that it was published later in 1940 under the title Why England Slept.

World War II heroism

After leaving Harvard, Kennedy volunteered for the U.S. Army. The army rejected him because of his chronic back problems, but he refused to give up on his goal of serving in the military. After completing an intense five-month training program that he devised for himself, Kennedy managed to gain acceptance into the U.S. Navy in September 1941. A few months later, in December 1941, the United States formally entered World War II after Japan bombed America's Pearl Harbor military base in Hawaii.

In early 1943 Kennedy was given command of the PT–109, a Navy patrol boat. He skippered the boat through the waters of the South Pacific Ocean for the next several months. On August 2, 1943, the PT–109 was rammed and sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer while on patrol off the Solomon Islands. The attack killed two members of the boat's twelve-man crew. Kennedy and the other survivors bobbed in the wreckage for the next several hours. When rescue vessels failed to show up, Kennedy ordered everyone to swim to a small island that was about three miles away. During this difficult swim, Kennedy towed a wounded sailor by gripping a strap of the injured man's life jacket between his teeth.

After the PT–109 crew was safely ashore, Kennedy spent the next few days swimming along a water route that was sometimes used by American ships. His efforts to gain help for his men finally paid off when he encountered friendly islanders who passed along his message to military authorities. Kennedy and his men were subsequently rescued. Kennedy received the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism for his bravery and leadership during the ordeal.

Widespread press coverage of this episode made Kennedy a hero back in America. But the physical toll of the experience worsened his back problems. Troubled by terrible back pain and a bout with a tropical disease called malaria, Kennedy was transferred back to the United States in December 1943. After a lengthy hospitalization he was released, but he never returned to active combat duty. He was honorably discharged in 1945, when World War II ended.

Begins political career

After World War II, Kennedy concentrated on building a political career for himself in his native Massachusetts. A Democrat, he decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in a working-class district of Boston that had a large Irish Roman Catholic population. Kennedy's war hero reputation, Irish Catholic background, and friendly manner all combined to make him a formidable contender. He won the Democratic Party's nomination for the seat, and in late 1946 he cruised to victory over his Republican challenger in the general election.

Kennedy served in the House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953. During this period, he became known as a skilled and intelligent lawmaker with moderate political views. In 1952 Kennedy decided to make a bid for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (see entry). Using a focused and energetic campaign that relied heavily on his World War II record and his appealing personality, Kennedy achieved a narrow victory over Lodge.

Kennedy served Massachusetts as a senator for the next eight years. During that time he started a family with Jacqueline L. Bouvier, whom he married on September 12, 1953. He also wrote Profiles in Courage (1956), a book that told the life stories of American politicians who risked their careers by taking courageous but unpopular positions in various eras of U.S. history. In 1957 Profiles in Courage received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize literary award.

As his Senate career progressed, Kennedy became known to his colleagues as a bright and independent lawmaker. He regularly supported legislation that he thought would benefit the people of Massachusetts. But he also showed a willingness to support bills that might be unpopular with Massachusetts voters when he believed that the legislation was good for the nation. For example, he was the only legislator from Massachusetts who voted for President Dwight Eisenhower's proposal to build the St. Lawrence Seaway, a canal connecting the East Coast to the Great Lakes. Boston-area businesses believed that the project would hurt them because the Seaway would enable foreign ships to bypass Boston and trade far up the passageway with cities located all along the Great Lakes. But Kennedy supported the measure because he believed it would provide an economic boost to the United States as a whole.

On foreign policy issues, Kennedy held moderate views. He advocated increased aid to poor countries and became known as a tough critic of European colonialism in Asia and Africa. (Colonialism is a practice in which one country assumes political, economic, and military control over another country; many European countries established colonial governments in various regions of the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.) Like most other politicians, he also viewed the Soviet Union and other Communist nations as potentially serious threats to the United States. With this in mind, he called for increased defense spending and urged the Eisenhower administration to work actively against communism around the world.

In 1956 Kennedy made a strong bid for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, but he was edged out by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. In 1958 Kennedy was reelected to his seat in the U.S. Senate with an amazing 74 percent of the vote. This triumph convinced the Massachusetts lawmaker to run for the presidency in the upcoming 1960 elections.

Wins the presidency

Kennedy won the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, defeating Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (see entry) of Texas. He then selected Johnson to be his vice-presidential running mate. In the general election, Kennedy faced Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon (see entry), who had been President Eisenhower's vice president.

As the fall presidential campaign progressed, Kennedy knew that he had to talk to the American people about his Roman Catholic background. The United States had never had a Catholic president before, and many political observers believed that prejudice against Catholicism might cripple his candidacy. But Kennedy reassured Protestant voters that his presidency would be based on careful analysis of the issues confronting the nation. He urged Americans to cast their votes based on the issues rather than prejudice. "If this election is decided on the basis that forty million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people," he declared during one campaign speech. Kennedy's blunt discussion of his religious background reassured most American voters and contributed to his eventual victory.

As the election drew near, Kennedy's confident manner and likable personality strengthened his candidacy. In addition, his calls for increased defense spending, new medical programs, environmental protection, and expansion of the U.S. space program appealed to many voters. And on September 26, 1960, Kennedy scored a dramatic victory over Nixon in America's first-ever nationally televised presidential debate. As the debate progressed, Kennedy showed that he was knowledgeable about the issues that concerned American voters. Even more importantly, he looked relaxed and confident on the television screen. Nixon, on the other hand, looked pale and grumpy. Many historians believe that the contrast in appearance between the two candidates ultimately convinced many voters to support Kennedy.

Kennedy and the "Cold War"

On November 8, 1960, Kennedy barely defeated Nixon in the national election to become the thirty-fifth president of the United States. His victory made him the youngest person ever elected president.

As Kennedy prepared to take office, he convinced many of the country's brightest young executives and scholars to join his administration. He also made it clear that the United States would continue to play a vital role in world affairs during his administration. "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success of liberty," he stated in his January 20, 1961, inauguration speech. "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility. I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. 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."

During the first two years of Kennedy's presidency, the "Cold War"—an intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, the world's leading Communist power—dominated the young president's attention. During this time, the Kennedy administration engaged in a number of tense confrontations with the Soviets. The most serious crisis occurred in October 1962, when the United States learned that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, a country located ninety miles off the coast of Florida. This move greatly alarmed the United States because the missile bases would give the Soviets the ability to strike targets all across America.

Kennedy responded to the crisis by ordering a naval blockade of Cuba and initiating secret negotiations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. During these talks, Kennedy combined diplomacy and patience with a stern message that he was willing to use military force to defend U.S. interests. After thirteen tense days, the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. In exchange, the United States promised not to take up arms against Cuba's Communist government and agreed to remove some missiles from Turkey.

Kennedy and Vietnam

Episodes such as the "Cuban Missile Crisis" further convinced Kennedy and most other American lawmakers and officials that communism posed a serious threat to the United States. As a result, America became even more determined to keep the young Southeast Asian nation of South Vietnam out of Communist hands.

South Vietnam had been created in 1954 by the Geneva Peace Accords, which had ended French colonial rule in Vietnam. Under this treaty, Vietnam was temporarily divided into Communist-led North Vietnam and U.S.-supported South Vietnam. The treaty included an agreement that these two sections of Vietnam would be united under one government by national elections to be held in 1956. But South Vietnam and the United States refused to honor this part of the agreement because they feared that the Communists—who had led the fight to end French rule—would win the elections. As a result, North Vietnam and South Vietnamese guerrillas known as the Viet Cong joined together to overthrow South Vietnam and reunite the country under one Communist government.

From 1961 to 1963, the Kennedy administration poured financial aid and governmental advisors into South Vietnam in an effort to help the new nation establish a strong economy and a democratic government. Kennedy also increased the number of U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam from 700 to 15,000 in hopes that they could help stamp out the Communist threat.

Despite massive U.S. assistance, however, the situation in South Vietnam continued to deteriorate. President Ngo Dinh Diem led a government that was terribly corrupt and unpopular, but he refused to make reforms that might increase support for his regime. In fact, Diem approved brutal crack-downs against Buddhists and other citizens who protested against his government's unfair policies and corrupt practices. In addition, Diem and his military leaders were unable or unwilling to mount any effective measures to stop the Viet Cong guerrillas that roamed South Vietnam's countryside. By mid-1963 the ineffectiveness of the South's military and the unpopularity of the Diem regime had enabled the Viet Cong to gain control over large regions of the country.

In May 1963 South Vietnamese forces opened fire on unarmed Buddhist demonstrators in the city of Hue. This murderous police action convinced Kennedy that Diem was more interested in maintaining his political power than in rallying the South Vietnamese people against the Communist threat. As a result, the Kennedy administration secretly told several South Vietnamese generals that it would prefer to see new leadership in South Vietnam. Assured that the United States would not interfere in a coup attempt, the generals seized control of the government from Diem in November 1963. Kennedy reacted favorably to the coup, although he was reportedly shocked to learn that Diem and his brother were executed after their capture.

Kennedy is assassinated

On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was shot and killed while riding in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas. A man named Lee Harvey Oswald was quickly arrested for the murder, but he was himself killed on November 24 by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner who was reportedly outraged over Kennedy's death. A government investigation led by Chief Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren later determined that Oswald acted alone, but many Americans remain suspicious that other people were involved in the assassination.

Kennedy's sudden and violent death shocked America and the world. It triggered a period of intense national mourning and helped create an enduring image of Kennedy as a romantic figure who was unfairly taken from his country just as he was about to guide America into a new era of prosperity. After Kennedy's death, vice president Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the new president of the United States. As president from 1963 to 1969, Johnson supervised a dramatic escalation in U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Many Americans have wondered how the conflict in Vietnam would have unfolded had Kennedy remained alive. Some historians believe that he would not have approved the commitment of U.S. ground troops into Vietnam (more than 58,000 American soldiers eventually died in the war). They note that Kennedy refused to approve direct U.S. military action against the Viet Cong or North Vietnam during his presidency. They also point out that less than two months before his death, Kennedy stated that "in the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send them our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam against the Communists." Finally, some former aides have claimed that Kennedy planned to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam if he had been reelected in 1964.

But other scholars believe that American involvement in Vietnam probably would have increased under Kennedy. They argue that Kennedy remained staunchly anti-Communist at the time of his death. In addition, they note that Kennedy's closest advisors were the same men who counseled President Johnson to expand U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the mid-1960s.


Halberstam, David. The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era. Rev. ed. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Hammer, Ellen J. A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Manchester, William. Portrait of a President: JFK in Profile. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.

Newman, John M. JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power. New York: Warner Books, 1992

Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

Sorenson, Theodore. The Kennedy Legacy. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Kennedy, John F.

views updated Jun 08 2018

John F. Kennedy

Excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba, October 22, 1962"

Originally published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962, published in 1963

"It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

P resident John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) addressed the American people on the evening of Monday, October 22, 1962, to inform them about the crisis in Cuba. He explained the United States had undeniable evidence that Soviet missiles were in place in Cuba to provide "nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere," consisting of North, Central, and South America. Kennedy announced that a naval "quarantine" of Cuba would begin on Wednesday morning, October 24. That meant that all ships approaching Cuba would be stopped, searched, and could only proceed if no military equipment was onboard. This was essentially the same thing as a blockade, but because blockades were illegal under international law and considered an act of war, the term "quarantine" was used instead.

Kennedy also announced that the U.S. military was on full-alert status; that any nuclear missile launched by the Soviets would be met with a "full retaliatory response" aimed at the Soviet Union; called for an immediate meeting of international peacekeeping organizations; and called on Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) "to halt and eliminate

this clandestine [secret], reckless, and provocative [challenging] threat to world peace."

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba, October 22, 1962":

  • President Kennedy believed the blockade most likely would not trigger an immediate nuclear war. It gave Khrushchev time and a way to withdraw from the situation.
  • Grim-faced leaders in Moscow gathered to await Kennedy's words, not knowing what his plan of action would be.
  • U.S. leaders had decided they would never back down from their demand that the missiles be removed.

Excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba, October 22, 1962"

Good evening, my fellow citizens:

This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.

Upon receiving the first preliminary hard information of this nature last Tuesday morning at 9a.m., I directed that our surveillance be stepped up. And having now confirmed and completed our evaluation of the evidence and our decision on a course of action, this Government feels obliged to report this new crisis to you in fullest detail.

The characteristics of these new missile sites indicate two distinct types of installations. Several of them include medium-range ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1,000 nautical miles. Each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area.

Additional sites not yet completed appear to be designed for intermediate range ballistic missiles—capable of traveling more than twice as far—and thus capable of striking most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere, ranging as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far south as Lima, Peru. In addition, jet bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, are now being uncrated and assembled in Cuba, while the necessary air bases are being prepared.

This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base—by the presence of these large, long-range, and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction—constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas.…

This action also contradicts the repeated assurances of Soviet spokesmen, both publicly and privately delivered, that the armsbuildup in Cuba would retain its original defensive character, and that the Soviet Union had no need or desire to station strategic missiles on the territory of any other nation.…

Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.

For many years, both the Soviet Union and the United States, recognizing this fact, have deployed strategic nuclear weapons with great care, never upsetting the precarious status quo which insured that these weapons would not be used in the absence of some vital challenge. Our own strategic missiles have never been transferred to the territory of any other nation under a cloak of secrecy and deception; and our history—unlike that of the Soviets since the end of World War II—demonstrates that we have no desire to dominate or conquer any other nation or impose our system upon its people. Nevertheless, American citizens have become adjusted to living daily on the bull's-eye of Soviet missiles located inside the U.S.S.R. or in submarines.

In that sense, missiles in Cuba add to an already clear and present danger—although it should be noted the nations of Latin America have never previously been subjected to a potential nuclear threat.…

We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth —but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.

Acting, therefore, in the defense of our own security and of the entire Western Hemisphere, and under the authority entrusted to me by the Constitution as endorsed by the resolution of the Congress, I have directed that the following initial steps be taken immediately:

First: To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.

Second: I have directed the continued and increased close surveillance of Cuba and its military buildup.… Should these offensivemilitary preparations continue, thus increasing the threat to the hemisphere, further action will be justified. I have directed the Armed Forces to prepare for any eventualities .…

Third: It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

Fourth: As a necessary military precaution, I have reinforced our base at Guantanamo, evacuated today the dependents of our personnel there, and ordered additional military units to be on a standby alert basis.

Fifth: We are calling tonight for an immediate meeting of the Organ of Consultation under the Organization of American States, to consider this threat to hemispheric security.…

Sixth: Under the Charter of the United Nations, we are asking tonight that an emergency meeting of the Security Council be convoked without delay to take action against this latest Soviet threat to world peace. Our resolution will call for the prompt dismantling and withdrawal of all offensive weapons in Cuba, under the super-vision of U.N. observers, before the quarantine can be lifted.

Seventh and finally: I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction—by returning to his government's own words that it had no need to station missiles out-side its own territory, and withdrawing these weapons from Cuba—by refraining from any action which will widen or deepen the present crisis—and then by participating in a search for peaceful and permanent solutions.…

We have no wish to war with the Soviet Union—for we are a peaceful people who desire to live in peace with all other peoples.

But it is difficult to settle or even discuss these problems in an atmosphere of intimidation. That is why this latest Soviet threat—or any other threat which is made either independently or in response to our actions this week—must and will be met with determination. Any hostile move anywhere in the world against thesafety and freedom of peoples to whom we are committed—including in particular the brave people of West Berlin—will be met by whatever action is needed.…

My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.…

The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are—but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high—but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.

Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right—not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

Thank you and good night.

What happened next …

On Tuesday, October 23, Khrushchev vowed Soviet vessels would continue on course to Cuba. If stopped by American naval ships, Soviet submarines, stationed around Cuba and armed with nuclear warheads, would fire. It was apparent to all sides that the world was at the brink of nuclear war. U Thant (1909–1974), the secretary general of the United Nations, pleaded with the superpowers to refrain from plunging the world into a nuclear holocaust.

Twenty-four hours later, on Wednesday morning, October 24, the United States began the quarantine as Kennedy's speech had promised. The world held its collective breath. Many historians believe that morning provided the Cold War's most intense and terrifying moments. Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy calling the quarantine "an act of aggression."

Given Khrushchev's statement to Kennedy, the next events seemed almost miraculous. The U.S. communications intelligence service (SIGINT) reported to President Kennedy that interception of radio messages from Soviet vessels approaching Cuba indicated the Soviets were stopping short of the quarantine circle. In fact, when SIGINT plotted the location of the Soviet vessels they were stopped dead in the water outside the ring of U.S. ships. They were avoiding confrontation. As noted in Dino A. Brugioni 's Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. secretary of state Dean Rusk (1909–1994) commented, "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked." Sergei Khrushchev (1935–), son of Nikita Khrushchev, reported in his 2000 book Nikita Khrushchev: and the Creation of a Superpower that his father believed, "the one who decides to blink first doesn't have weaker nerves but possesses greater wisdom."

Did you know …

  • Anatoly Dobrynin (1919–), the Soviet ambassador to the United States, had no knowledge of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. A text of Kennedy's speech was given to him before Kennedy went on television. Dobrynin was dumb-founded and had to gather himself together before he could relay the speech to Moscow.
  • Although the United States had been targeted for some time by nuclear missiles located in the Soviet Union, Central and South America had never before been within reach of nuclear weapons.
  • The missiles in Cuba were the first Soviet missiles located outside the Soviet Union. The United States had missiles with nuclear warheads placed in Turkey, Italy, and Great Britain, all within easy range of the Soviet Union.

Consider the following …

  • Stand in the shoes of President Kennedy or Soviet Premier Khrushchev. What would you have done the morning of October 24? Remember you carry the responsibility of the world's safety on your shoulders.
  • Kennedy suggested it was impossible to discuss peace between the superpowers when the Soviets intimidated the United States with the Cuban missiles. What do you think the Soviets thought about having U.S. missiles relatively close in Turkey, Italy, and Great Britain and pointed at their country?
  • Explain Kennedy's statement that even victory would be "ashes in our mouth."

For More Information


Brubaker, Paul E. The Cuban Missile Crisis in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2001.

Brugioni, Dino A. Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Random House, 1991.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro & Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

Khrushchev, Sergei. Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Paterson, Thomas G., ed. Kennedy's Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963. New York: Random House, 1995.

Web Site

"The World on the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis." John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library. (accessed on September 20, 2003).

Kennedy, John F.

views updated May 21 2018

John F. Kennedy

Excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis, July 25, 1961"

Published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961

"It would be a mistake for others to look upon Berlin, because of its location, as a tempting target. The United States is there; the United Kingdom and France are there; the pledge of NATO is there—and the people of Berlin are there. It is as secure, in that sense, as the rest of us—for we cannot separate its safety from our own."

O n November 27, 1958, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), irritated that a German peace treaty had yet to be agreed on, threw Berlin into another crisis when he sent a letter to Western powers. The letter gave them six months to make substantial progress on a German peace treaty. If the Western powers did not accomplish this, Khrushchev would make a separate treaty with East Germany on May 27, 1959. In this treaty, all transportation routes into West Berlin would be turned over to East German control. The East Germans would then presumably do all they could to force out the Western powers and make West Berlin a part of East Germany. Khrushchev also demanded withdrawal of Western troops from Berlin.

The Soviets and East German leader Walter Ulbricht (1893–1973) were pleased with Khrushchev's tough stand. The peace treaty they sought would permanently divide Germany and recognize both East and West Germany as independent nations. East Germany would provide the communist buffer between the West and the Soviet Union. The United States instead wanted Germany reunited into one country.

U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) and the Western allies rejected Khrushchev's demands and collectively held their breath. The Western allies would not pull out of Berlin, nor could they come to terms on a peace treaty to the liking of the Soviets. They believed Khrushchev would not actually go to war—which could risk turning into a nuclear war—over Berlin. They guessed right. Khrushchev backed down from his six-month ultimatum. May 27, 1959, passed without incident.

John F. Kennedy (1919–1963; served 1961–63) was elected U.S. president in November 1960 and took office on January 20, 1961. During the previous year-and-a-half, tough negotiations over Berlin had continued. The increasingly bold Ulbricht demanded economic assistance from the Soviets as thousands of East German workers and professionals continued to leave for West Germany. His excessive demands strained the Soviet Union's economy. He also relentlessly implored Khrushchev to halt the population drain by taking over West Berlin. In this atmosphere, the new U.S. president met with Khrushchev in June 1961 in Vienna, Austria.

In Vienna, both Khrushchev and Kennedy held a tight line—neither budged on their stands on Germany and Berlin. The young Kennedy was clearly taken aback by Khrushchev's behavior. The Soviet leader talked too loudly, spoke rudely, and generally created quite an uproar. Kennedy had been warned but never expected the level of intimidation coming from Khrushchev. Unwavering but shaken, Kennedy returned to the United States. He addressed the American people over radio and television on July 25, 1961, concerning his talks about Berlin with Khrushchev.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis, July 25, 1961":

  • West Berlin had become a symbol or "outpost" of the free world within a communist-dominated area. Western powers had drawn the line to stop the spread of communism at Berlin in 1948 with the Berlin airlift. They would not leave West Berlin.
  • Both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Should a dispute ever push the powers to war, the Soviets could destroy West Germany, England, and France in a matter of minutes. Soviet missiles could reach the United States just as U.S. missiles were reaching the Soviet Union.
  • Khrushchev was under intense pressure from Soviet leaders at home and East German leader Ulbricht to rid Berlin of Westerners and to halt the exodus of East Germans through Berlin to the West.

Excerpt from "Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Berlin Crisis, July 25, 1961"

Good evening:

Seven weeks ago tonight I returned from Europe to report on my meeting with Premier [Nikita] Khrushchev and the others. His grim warnings about the future of the world … [and] Berlin, his subsequent speeches and threats which he and his agents have launched, and the increase in the Soviet military budget that he has announced, have all prompted a series of decisions by the Administration and a series of consultations with the members of the NATO organization.…

The immediate threat to free men is in West Berlin. But that isolated outpost is not an isolated problem. The threat is worldwide. Our effort must be equally wide and strong.… We face a challenge in Berlin, but there is also a challenge in southeast Asia, where the borders are less guarded, the enemy harder to find, and the dangers of communism less apparent to those who have so little. We face a challenge … indeed wherever else the freedom of human beings is at stake.

Let me remind you that the fortunes of war and diplomacy left the free people of West Berlin, in 1945, 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain.…

Thus, our presence in West Berlin, and our access thereto, cannot be ended by any act of the Soviet government. The NATO shield was long ago extended to cover West Berlin—and we have given our word that an attack upon that city will be regarded as an attack upon us all.

For West Berlin—lying exposed 110 miles inside East Germany, surrounded by Soviet troops and close to Soviet supply lines, has many roles. It is more than a showcase of liberty, a symbol, an island of freedom in a Communist sea. It is even more than a link with the Free World, a beacon of hope behind the Iron Curtain, an escape hatch for refugees.

West Berlin is all of that. But above all it has now become—as never before—the great testing place where our solemn commitments stretching back over the years since 1945, and Soviet ambitions now meet in basic confrontation.

It would be a mistake for others to look upon Berlin, because of its location, as a tempting target. The United States is there; the United Kingdom and France are there; the pledge of NATO is there—and the people of Berlin are there. It is as secure, in that sense, as the rest of us—for we cannot separate its safety from our own.…

We do not want to fight—but we have fought before.…

So long as the Communists insist that they are preparing to end by themselves unilaterally our rights in West Berlin and our commitments to its people, we must be prepared to defend those rights and those commitments.…

The new preparations that we shall make to defend the peace are part of the long-term build-up in our strength which has been underway since January.…

We have another sober responsibility. To recognize the possibilities of nuclear war in the missile age, without our citizens knowing what they should do and where they should go if bombs begin to fall, would be a failure of responsibility. In May, I pledged a new start on Civil Defense. Last week, I assigned, on the recommendation of the Civil Defense Director [Frank Ellis], basic responsibility for this program to the Secretary of Defense [Robert S. McNamara], to make certain it is administered and coordinated … at the highest civilian level. Tomorrow, I am requesting of the Congress new funds for the following immediate objectives: to identify and mark space in existing structures—public and private—that could be used forfall-out shelters in case of attack; to stock those shelters with food, water, first-aid kits and other minimum essentials for survival; to increase their capacity; to improve our air-raid warning and fall-out detection systems, including a new household warning system which is now under development; and to take other measures that will be effective at an early date to save millions of lives if needed.

In the event of an attack, the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved—if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families—and to our country. In contrast to our friends in Europe, the need for this kind of protection is new to our shores. But the time to start is now. In the coming months, I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.…

We recognize the Soviet Union's historical concern about their security in Central and Eastern Europe, after a series of ravaging invasions, and we believe arrangements can be worked out which will help to meet those concerns, and make it possible for both security and freedom to exist in this troubled area.…

The world is not deceived by the Communist attempt to label Berlin as a hot-bed of war. There is peace in Berlin today. The source of world trouble and tension is Moscow, not Berlin. And if war begins, it will have begun in Moscow and not Berlin.…

And the challenge is not to us alone. It is a challenge to every nation which asserts its sovereignty under a system of liberty. It is a challenge to all those who want a world of free choice. It is a special challenge to the Atlantic Community —the heartland of human freedom.…

The solemn voice each of us gave to West Berlin in time of peace will not be broken in time of danger. If we do not meet our commitments to Berlin, where will we later stand? If we are not true to our word there, all that we have achieved in collective security, which relies on these words, will mean nothing. And if there is one path above all others to war, it is the path of weakness and disunity.

Today, the endangered frontier of freedom runs through divided Berlin. We want it to remain a frontier of peace. This is the hope of every citizen of the Atlantic Community; every citizen of Eastern Europe; and, I am confident, every citizen of the Soviet Union. For I cannot believe that the Russian people—who bravely suffered enormous losses in the Second World War—would now wish to see thepeace upset once more in Germany. The Soviet government alone can convert Berlin's frontier of peace into a pretext for war.…

I would like to close with a personal word.…

Now, in the thermonuclear age, any mis-judgment on either side about the intentions of the other could rain more devastation in several hours than has been wrought in all the wars of human history.…

I know that sometimes we get impatient, we wish for some immediate action that would end our perils. But I must tell you that there is no quick and easy solution. The Communists control over a billion people, and they recognize that if we should falter, their success would be imminent.

Thank you and good night.

We must look to long days ahead, which if we are courageous and persevering can bring us what we all desire.

What happened next …

Khrushchev, who was vacationing at a Black Sea resort called Pitsunda, was outraged at Kennedy's speech. He called Kennedy's disarmament advisor, John Jay McCloy (1895–1989), who was in Moscow for talks, to come immediately to Pitsunda. Khrushchev growled that Kennedy's speech was practically a declaration of war. He threateningly added that if war was what Kennedy wanted, it is what he would get, even though it would most likely be a nuclear war. On August 4, 1961, Khrushchev met with communist leaders and expressed his opinions on Kennedy's words (see next excerpt).

Did you know …

  • By the mid- to late 1950s, Khrushchev had decided the Soviet Union could not keep pace with the U.S. military buildup. Instead, he focused on key military areas for strengthening. He then used an approach called "bluster and intimidation" to frighten the United States into thinking the Soviets were militarily much more powerful than they were. This approach explained much of his behavior during his meeting with the young American president. The U.S. officials did not know this was a calculated approach. Instead, they thought he was merely showing his determination and assertive personality to meet the United States head on in war.
  • Khrushchev had no intention of starting a war over Berlin. In fact, Ulbricht made him very nervous with his aggressive suggestions.
  • Soon after Kennedy's speech, which emphasized civil defense, yellow and black nuclear shelter signs appeared in cities throughout the United States. Individual U.S. citizens with the desire and monetary means built bomb shelters in their backyards in preparation for nuclear war.
  • The stream of refugees from East Germany to the West continued until construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961.

Consider the following …

  • What did President Kennedy say West Berlin was a symbol of? Why did he say this?
  • Since West Berlin geographically seemed to be easy prey for a communist takeover, why do you think this did not happen?
  • At your local public library, check your town's old newspapers for July 26 through August 1961 for local reaction to Kennedy's speech and civil defense plans.

For More Information


Gelb, Norman. The Berlin Wall: Kennedy, Khrushchev and a Showdown in the Heart of Europe. New York: Times Books, 1986.

Grant, R. G. The Berlin Wall. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.

Parrish, Thomas. Berlin in the Balance, 1945–1949: The Blockade, the Airlift, the First Major Battle of the Cold War. Reading, MA: Perseus Publishing, 1998.

Paterson, Thomas G., ed. Kennedy's Quest For Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963. New York: Random House, 1995.

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1961. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961.

Web Site

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library. (accessed on September 17, 2003).

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