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date: 08 April 2020

Kennedy, John Fitzgeraldfree

(29 May 1917–22 November 1963)
  • Herbert S. Parmet

John F. Kennedy.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-117124 DLC).

Kennedy, John Fitzgerald (29 May 1917–22 November 1963), thirty-fifth president of the United States, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, the son of Joseph P. Kennedy, a millionaire businessman and public official, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, daughter of Boston mayor John F. Fitzgerald. John Kennedy’s education stressed preparation for advancement of a Catholic in an Anglo-Saxon, generally anti-Catholic society. He entered Harvard College in 1936. Kennedy, known to his friends and family as Jack, was an indifferent student at first but became more interested in his studies following a European summer vacation after his freshman year. A longer stay in Europe in 1939 led to his senior honors paper, “Appeasement in Munich,” which was published the following year as Why England Slept. Kennedy graduated from Harvard cum laude in 1940.

Kennedy enlisted in the U.S. Navy in September 1941. In 1943 a PT boat under his command in the South Pacific was sunk during a night attack by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy and ten other survivors spent three days afloat in the ocean, during which Kennedy towed a wounded sailor for miles, gripping his life jacket in his teeth while swimming.

After his brother Joseph was killed in the war, Kennedy took on the responsibility of pursuing his family’s political ambitions. In 1946 he won a hard-fought Democratic primary election in the Eleventh Congressional District of Massachusetts, a Democratic stronghold. He was easily elected in November and reelected in 1948 and 1950.

Kennedy’s congressional record was undistinguished. He suffered from an assortment of physical difficulties, the most severe of which was diagnosed in 1947 as Addison’s disease, an illness caused by an adrenal gland malfunction that weakens the body’s immune system. His illnesses were partly responsible for his inattention to legislative duties, but his belief that public awareness of his condition would damage his prospects led him to conceal them. Congressional colleagues saw Kennedy’s casual style as that of a playboy, the frivolous son of a rich man.

Kennedy’s major legislative distinction was as a staunch supporter of federally funded housing, an issue of concern to the many war veterans in his urban district. He voted against the Taft-Hartley Labor Relations Act of 1947, which was bitterly opposed by organized labor. In 1952 Kennedy ran for the Senate and, in a classic contest of Irish-Catholic against Yankee, defeated incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. The next year he married Jacqueline Bouvier (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis); they had two children Caroline and John Jr. (John F. Kennedy, Jr.)

In the following years, Kennedy’s life and career made a crucial turn for the better. The development of orally administered steroids that controlled his potentially lethal Addison’s disease and two dangerous operations to correct back problems greatly improved his health. A scathing speech in 1954 on the French role in Indochina gained him generally favorable publicity. In 1956 his book Profiles in Courage, examining politicians who had retained their principles despite difficult circumstances, won a Pulitzer Prize, although after his death it was reported that the work had been ghostwritten by Theodore Sorensen and others.

By this time Kennedy’s goal was the White House. Seeking to prove that neither his youth nor his religion was an insurmountable handicap in the pursuit of a political career, he set out to bolster his mediocre legislative record. In particular he sought to win over Democratic liberals, who were skeptical because of his father’s reputation for being conservative and unscrupulous and because of his own failure to speak out against Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose irresponsible charges that many prominent leaders were pro-Communist were popular with many Massachusetts voters. Kennedy did support the St. Lawrence Seaway project despite its unpopularity in New England. He was nonetheless reelected in 1958 by a lopsided margin.

During the years leading up to the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy spoke frequently on issues related to national defense. He made much of the so-called “missile gap,” alleging that the United States was losing its military advantage over the Soviet Union, although later he retracted the allegation. In the campaign for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, his principal rival was Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a leader of the party’s liberal wing. Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson also entered the race, but his campaign was tentative and uncharacteristically feeble. Kennedy’s primary victories over Humphrey in Wisconsin and West Virginia demonstrated to skeptics that a Roman Catholic candidate could win in a Protestant region. At the convention he secured the nomination on the first ballot and then improved his chances of carrying the crucial southern states by selecting Lyndon Johnson as his running mate.

The Republican presidential candidate was Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard M. Nixon, who shared the ticket with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. The campaign featured the first televised debates between presidential candidates. In the first debate, Kennedy won decisively. Although the results of the other three debates were more even, Kennedy clearly benefited from the exchanges by overcoming apprehensions about his youth and inexperience and by strengthening his appeal to liberals.

Kennedy wooed the black vote effectively by speaking out in behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr., after the black leader was arrested and imprisoned in Georgia. He also continued to attack the Eisenhower administration’s defense policies.

On Election Day, the Democratic ticket did particularly well in economically depressed areas, and Johnson demonstrated his value to the ticket by gaining votes in Texas and other southern states. Still, Kennedy’s winning margin was paper thin. Although he carried the Electoral College handily, 303 to 219, his popular plurality was barely 100,000 out of some 69 million votes cast.

Members of Kennedy’s staff and cabinet, largely youthful and energetic, projected an image of liberalism, activism, and sophistication that was in sharp contrast to that of Eisenhower’s administration, which was made up of mostly conservative older men with business backgrounds. The young, articulate new president seemed to be an encouraging change from the fatherly but seemingly unimaginative Eisenhower. Kennedy was popular from the start. In his stirring inaugural address he sought to demonstrate his qualifications as a leader. The speech combined rhetorical appeals for patriotic dedication with stiff determination to resist Soviet expansionism. He stressed the need to assist the developing nations of what was becoming known as the Third World.

The narrowness of Kennedy’s victory, however, combined with the lack of a liberal majority in Congress, called for presidential caution rather than boldness. Kennedy’s expectations far exceeded his administration’s ability to establish the New Frontier, the name of his domestic program. Kennedy hoped to increase federal aid to education, provide medical care for the elderly, and set up a cabinet-level office of urban affairs to oversee efforts to revitalize the nation’s run-down inner-city slums. Later, he called upon Congress to reduce taxes in order to stimulate the lagging economy. However, substantial budget deficits prevented most of these proposals from getting anywhere.

Kennedy did persuade Congress to raise the national minimum wage from $1.00 to $1.25 an hour and to pass the Housing Act of 1961, which increased the construction of low-cost housing, and the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which gave the president additional power to adjust tariff levels. However, his successes in domestic matters were few in number and mostly of minor significance.

Kennedy’s record in dealing with civil rights issues also was mixed. His cautious approach disappointed civil rights activists. He argued that the situation in Congress made passage of new legislation unlikely and instead issued an executive order creating the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and outlawing racial discrimination in federal agencies. However, he did not sign the executive order banning discrimination in housing built with federal funds, a measure he had promised during the campaign, until November 1962. He also resisted pressure from Freedom Riders and other reformers that he take action to put an end to racial segregation in the southern states and to guarantee to southern blacks the right to vote.

However, events gradually forced Kennedy to take stronger action. On 30 September 1962, after Governor Ross Barnett denied the admission of black student James Meredith to the University of Mississippi, Kennedy dispatched federal marshals to insure Meredith’s admission. When riots broke out, Kennedy sent troops to preserve order. The following spring, Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a march protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The local police unleashed dogs on the marchers, many of them women and children, and sprayed them with fire hoses. In June 1963, roused by these and similar events, Kennedy made a dramatic speech declaring his outrage at the denial of rights to black Americans in the South. The next month he called on Congress to enact sweeping civil rights reforms.

In foreign policy, the challenges posed by Communist Russia were Kennedy’s major concerns as president. One particularly troubling issue was the ultimate fate of the divided city of Berlin, which Kennedy considered the most likely flash point for a third world war. Kennedy also became involved in the continuing American effort to strengthen the anti-Communist regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam.

In early 1961 the area of greatest concern was Cuba, where revolutionary leader Fidel Castro had declared himself a Marxist and was rapidly becoming an ally of the Soviet Union. The Eisenhower administration had supported the training of anti-Castro exiles who planned to invade Cuba and overthrow the new regime. Kennedy, after some hesitation, backed this scheme but he hoped to avoid actual American participation in the attack and to conceal American sponsorship of the invasion. The result was a disaster. The invaders landed in southern Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and within three days were all either killed or captured. This humiliation only intensified the president’s determination to overthrow Castro and spurred the creation of a covert plan, Operation Mongoose, designed to overthrow the Cuban leader by sabotage and paramilitary means, including assassination.

Against this background, Kennedy met with Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. The shrewd, earthy Russian dominated the meeting, predicting that communism was destined to “bury” the capitalist system. He also threatened to enforce the “sovereign rights of the German Democratic Republic,” meaning that he planned to drive the western nations out of Berlin.

After Kennedy returned to the United States, Khrushchev ordered the construction of a wall separating Communist East Berlin from the rest of the city in order to halt the flood of East Germans leaving their country in search of a better life in the West. Khrushchev also announced that the Soviet Union would resume the testing of nuclear weapons, and a number of huge hydrogen bombs were detonated in the atmosphere. Kennedy likewise ordered the resumption of such testing and an increase in American missile production, further escalating the Cold War arms race.

Khrushchev’s threats also encouraged Kennedy to act more forcefully in Southeast Asia, where any sign of American weakness, Kennedy believed, would encourage the Russians to take over West Berlin. He agreed to neutralize Laos but sent Vice President Johnson to Vietnam to underscore his support of the Diem regime. On Johnson’s recommendation he dispatched a mission headed by General Maxwell Taylor and Walt W. Rostow to assess the military situation. Taylor and Rostow persuaded him to send 8,000 combat troops to Vietnam; by November 1963 Kennedy had increased this force to nearly 17,000.

In the competition to win influence among the developing nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Kennedy had more success, although it was still limited. In general, Kennedy sought to maintain a balance between supporting anticolonialism and keeping Third World countries out of the Communist bloc. His most significant innovation was the creation of the Peace Corps, an organization sponsoring American volunteers who worked as teachers and provided technical assistance at the grass-roots level, often in remote areas. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, which had meager results, offered aid to Latin American nations in exchange for land reform and the establishment of more democratic policies. He also vigorously supported the United Nations’ efforts to repress the rebellion of the province of Katanga from the Congo.

By far the most significant incident of the Kennedy administration involving foreign policy occurred in late 1962 in Cuba. That fall, U-2 aerial surveillance photos taken over Cuba showed that bases for missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads were being built on the island by Soviet forces. After days of deliberation, on 22 October Kennedy appeared before a television audience to explain the situation to the American people and to demand that the launching sites be disbanded and the missiles withdrawn. He also imposed a “quarantine” on further shipments of offensive military equipment to Cuba and announced that the navy would prevent any vessel from carrying such material to the island. Never during the Cold War did the danger of nuclear war appear more imminent. Fortunately, Khrushchev backed down, and Soviet ships heading toward Cuba turned back. After delicate diplomatic maneuvering, Khrushchev agreed to remove the Russian missiles. The United States, in turn, implicitly agreed not to invade Cuba and to dismantle its Jupiter missile bases in Turkey.

The Cuban missile crisis was a major turning point in the Cold War. Speaking at American University in Washington, D.C., on 10 June 1963, Kennedy foreshadowed the future course of U.S.-Soviet relations by declaring that the United States did not want “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war” and reminded the Soviet Union that “we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air.” His initiative was followed by a limited Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union, together with Great Britain, in August 1963.

Meanwhile, fateful decisions were being made about American policy in Vietnam. President Diem’s repression of Vietnamese Buddhists further undermined his popularity in the country, but he resisted American efforts to encourage him to reform his government. After months of hesitation, Kennedy finally decided to remove the American forces guarding Diem. On 1 November 1963, Vietnamese Buddhist generals stormed the presidential palace and captured Diem, killing him the following day. The coup, however, only intensified political instability in Vietnam.

Barely three weeks after the assassination of Diem, Kennedy made a routine political trip, hoping to raise money from Democratic “fat cats” for his upcoming campaign for reelection and to heal a factional dispute that was weakening the Democratic party in the state. He never completed the trip. While Kennedy’s motorcade was passing through Dealey Plaza in Dallas shortly after noon on 22 November, he was struck in the head and throat by bullets fired from a window on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository overlooking the plaza. Governor John Connally, who was accompanying him, also was wounded. The president was rushed to nearby Parkland Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Shortly after the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, who reportedly had been seen at the Texas Book Depository, was arrested at a movie theater and accused of the crime. Two days later Oswald was shot and killed at a police station by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator.

The bizarre circumstances of the assassination caused conspiracy theories to proliferate. A commission headed by U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, concluded that Oswald was solely responsible for the assassination. Although many continue to suspect that the murder was a conspiracy planned by others, the weight of the evidence supports the original finding of the Warren Commission.

Kennedy’s 1,037 days as president served as a bridge between the conservative consolidation of the Eisenhower administration and Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to fulfill the promises of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, largely through initiatives begun by the New Frontier. It was a period of almost frenetic activity, highlighted by dramatic international confrontations and tense civil rights struggles at home. Kennedy’s murder made him a martyr, and many Americans found it hard to cope with the sudden loss of this youthful, dynamic president whose eloquent expression of ideals had inspired great expectations.

The romantic image of Kennedy promoted by Jacqueline Kennedy and others after his death has not withstood the scrutiny of researchers and other critics. Close analysis of the Kennedy record and character has included revelations of extraordinary womanizing. As early as 1942, while serving with the Office of Naval Intelligence, Kennedy placed himself in a potentially compromising situation by being involved with Inga Avard, a Danish woman who was (wrongfully as it turned out) suspected of being a Nazi spy. Such exploits continued long after his marriage and during his presidency. Especially hazardous were affairs with Judith Campbell, known to be a friend of mobsters, and with Mary Pinchot Meyer, with whom he had a long-term relationship within the White House itself. Nevertheless, Kennedy became a model who attracted countless young people to government service, and many Americans continued to revere him long after his death.


John F. Kennedy’s papers are housed in the Kennedy Memorial Library at Columbia Point in Boston. The extensive collection, including staff and agency files from the presidential years, is bolstered by a vast number of oral history transcripts, which is fortunate given the relative paucity of personal material in the Kennedy papers. The Library of Congress houses the papers of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

Two outstanding insider histories of the Kennedy presidency are Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965), and Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (1965). The standard biography is Herbert S. Parmet’s two-volume work, Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980) and JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1983). Written during Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency but still useful is James MacGregor Burns, John F. Kennedy: A Political Profile (1961). For a highly laudatory account of Kennedy’s political legacy, see Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier (1991). David Burner, John F. Kennedy and a New Generation (1988), is a graceful, brief biography. Carl M. Brauer, John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction (1977), is essential for an understanding of the New Frontier’s contention with the civil rights movement. For Kennedy’s diplomacy, especially his relations with Nikita Khrushchev, see Michael Beschloss’s well-documented and detailed The Crisis Years (1991). On foreign policy, see the essays in Thomas G. Paterson, Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963 (1989), as well as the scholarly analyses in James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (1988). In A Question of Character (1991), Thomas C. Reeves discusses Kennedy’s numerous personal indiscretions. Garry Wills, The Kennedy Imprisonment (1982), remains a provocative study of Kennedy’s drive. Rich accounts of the remarkable Kennedy clan are in Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Kennedys: An American Drama (1984), and Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987).