John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the 36th President of the United States of America. He was the youngest person to become President through elections and was widely loved by the American people. He was one of the only few Presidents that became so popular that he is remembered just as much for his policies as he was for his astounding good looks and charisma. He was a Senator, Harvard Alum, a Navy Officer commemorated as a War Hero, a journalist, and a famous Socialite who looked just as comfortable rubbing shoulders with Hollywood’s elites as he did with Government officers and the general American public.
Kennedy’s Presidency coincided with the cold war, so a lot of his policies focused on the Soviet’s growing threat in world politics. Famous events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the Strategic Hamlet Program all happened during his tenure. Along with this, the civil rights movement that John F. Kennedy publicly backed was also in full swing by the time he was assassinated. One of his lasting legacies was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Revenue Act of 1964 both were proposed by Kennedy but passed after his death. Even though the Presidency of John F. Kennedy lasted less than 3 years, he regularly ranks high in polls of U.S. Presidents among historians, academics, and the U.S. public alike.
The Early Life of John F. Kennedy
On May 29, 1917, John F. Kennedy was born near Brookline, Massachusetts to Joseph Kennedy, a businessman, and a politician. His mother Rose Kennedy was a philanthropist and socialite. His family is of Irish descent and both his paternal and maternal grandfather were involved in politics. His paternal grandfather P.J. Kennedy served on the Massachusetts State Legislature and his maternal grandfather John F. Fitzgerald was elected as a U.S. Congressman and was also elected to two terms as Mayor of Boston.
Kennedy grew up in Brookline where his earliest memories include walks around Boston’s historic sites with his grandfather Fitzgerald and dinner table discussions on politics with his family, sparking an interest in public life and history that Kennedy retained. Kennedy’s childhood was also marred with several illnesses, it started with an appendectomy in 1931 before he enrolled in Choate Rosemary Hall, an extremely prestigious boarding school in Connecticut. It was at Choate where Kennedy met one of his closest friends Kirk Lemoyne Billings. He was ill throughout most of his time in high school and even ended up hospitalized in 1934 when doctors suspected leukemia. By 1934, he was diagnosed with colitis. John F. Kennedy graduated the next year and he was voted “most likely to succeed” in his school yearbook.
In September 1936, John F. Kennedy enrolled at Harvard College after being unable to attend the London School of Economics and Princeton University due to health concerns. At Harvard, Kennedy earned a spot on the university’s varsity team. While at Harvard, Kennedy polished his skills as a future diplomat by developing an interest in political philosophy. In 1940, Kennedy completed his thesis “Appeasement in Munich”, addressing Britain’s negotiations with Germany in the Munich Agreement. The thesis would eventually become a bestseller named “Why England Slept”. Kennedy’s increasing pressure on the American government to become involved in the Second World War caused President Roosevelt to dismiss Kennedy’s father as ambassador to the United Kingdom. By 1940, Kennedy graduated cum laude from Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts in government.
John F. Kennedy in the US Naval Reserve
John F. Kennedy, with the help of the director of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), Alan Kirk, joined the United States Naval Reserve as a member of staff of the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington D.C. His first command was of the PT-101 boat between 1942 and 1943 where he was essentially an instructor on a Patrol Torpedo (PT) boat. By April 1943, John F. Kennedy was assigned command of the PT-109 at Tulagi Island in the Solomon Islands. This is around the same time that the United States of America was locked in an intense naval battle with the Empire of Japan. On the night of August 1-2, 1942, Kennedy and his crew were ordered to block Japanese destroyers and floatplanes that were carrying food, supplies, and soldiers to help the Japanese strengthen their control of Kolombangara Island. While engaging with the Japanese on the open sea, Kennedy’s PT boat was rammed by a Japanese Destroyer Amagiri killing 2 of his crew members instantly.
JFK and 10 other crewmen that survived swam more than 5 km with Kennedy towing a badly burned crew member through the water to an island close by. This also reaggravated his old back injury but he pressed on. On the same night, he swam for approximately another 4 km to find food for his crewmates. Two days later, on August 4, Kennedy and another officer, Ensign Lenny Thom, assisted their injured and hungry crew on another 6 km swim to Olasana Island from Plum Pudding Island. They swam against the current and even on Olasana there was no fresh water for the crew forcing Kennedy and Ensign George Ross to swim on August 5 again to find water for the crew. It was not until August 8 that the crew, along with Kennedy, were rescued by Lieutenant Liebenow, a friend of John F. Kennedy.
After the events of commanding the PT-109, in October 1943 after recovering from his injuries, John F. Kennedy was promoted to a full lieutenant. He continued as the commander of the PT-59 where he was involved mostly in rescue missions but would soon be hospitalized again and relieved from active duty because of his ailing back. He was presented with the Purple Heart Medal for sustaining injuries while commanding the PT-109. His service was also rewarded with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. Both of Kennedy’s medals are on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Kennedy’s Congressional Career and President of the United States
John F. Kennedy, at the urging of his father, began his political career in Boston in 1946. He won the Democratic primaries in Massachusetts by gaining 42.41% of the total votes and then he went on to win the Congressional District Election by a landslide accumulating 71.87 % of the total votes. He was only 29 when he joined Congress. As a Congressman, JFK advocated for more public housing, worker rights (better working conditions, higher wages, and the right to protest), cheaper rents, Veteran rights, and greater social security for the aged. In terms of foreign policy, he was a supporter of many Cold War policies including the Truman Doctrine, a potentially controversial policy proposed by President Truman. He was also a supporter of the Marshall Plan to help redevelop European economies.
As soon as 1949, John F. Kennedy was preparing for a seat in the Senate and by 1952 he ran for the Senator seat from Massachusetts and defeated Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. by 70,000 votes. In 1953, he married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier a famous socialite who helped boost his electoral appeal. Jacqueline or “Jackie” was the perfect match for the handsome politician and the two were looked at as a glamorous couple.
As Senator, JFK gained a reputation for being extremely responsive to his constituents, always bringing their interests to the front except when it came to matters of National Interest. This was demonstrated by the fact that he was elected twice as his people’s representative. While still in Senate, Kennedy was once again in critical condition in 1954 for his back injury. While injured he co-authored Profiles in Courage with his assistant Theodore Sorensen, a book on eight American Politicians that defied popular ideas in matters of conscience. This book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. On matters of conscience, Kennedy became increasingly committed to civil rights legislation and pushed for increased labor reforms. He also pushed the Senate and the French government to grant Algeria independence.
By 1960, John F. Kennedy’s popularity had grown so much that when he announced his candidacy on January 2, 1960, as a Democratic Presidential nominee. Despite his relatively young age and inexperience, Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by barely two-tenths of one percent (49.7% for Kennedy to 49.5 % for Nixon). He became the youngest president ever to be elected to the presidency. During his inaugural address, Kennedy famously said:
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Once elected as President, John F. Kennedy’s policies were dominated by confrontations with the Soviet Union. Starting with his pledge to support West Germany and warning the Soviets of any interference to the U.S. access rights in West Berlin would be looked at as a direct declaration of war. Then followed the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961, where 1500 trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles were sent to Cuba to instigate an uprising among the Cuban people. No U.S. air support was provided, and the Cuban government captured and killed the invading exiles forcing JFK to negotiate the release of the captured exiles in exchange for 53 million dollars.
Barely a year after the failed invasion came the Cuban Missile crisis. This was where the Soviet Union and the United States of America came dangerously close to a nuclear war, the closest the world has ever come to a nuclear war. It all started when CIA spy planes managed to capture photographs of immediate-range ballistic missile sites in Cuba. This meant that the Soviets could directly launch a potential attack on the United States. Negotiations followed and eventually, the Soviets agreed to dismantle their weapons in Cuba, while the US agreed to remove their Jupiter missiles from Italy and Turkey.
John F. Kennedy’s other foreign relations were similarly dominated by the Cold War in the background. Recognizing the growing threat of communism in Latin America, he established the Alliance for Progress which sent aid to multiple countries and sought greater human rights standards in Latin American countries. He also continued policies that provided economic, political, and military support to the governments of South Korea and South Vietnam. Kennedy was also credited with the creation of the U.S.-Israel military alliance.
Domestically, John F. Kennedy kept interest rates low to encourage growth in the economy and keep inflation in check. He was also a strong proponent of the civil rights movement and sought to remove barriers present in American Society that restricted access to equal opportunities for African Americans. The Space Program at NASA also saw a lot of progress under Kennedy.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
The Assassination of John F. Kennedy and his Legacy
On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, John F. Kennedy was assassinated while traveling in a presidential motorcade live on television. Lee Harvey Oswald, a worker at the Texas School Book Depository (from where the shots were fired) was arrested as the murderer. Before he could go on trial, on November 24, Oswald was shot dead by Jack Ruby while still in Police custody. Jack Ruby successfully appealed his conviction and death sentence for killing Oswald but then mysteriously died of cancer on January 3, 1967. The cancer was not the mysterious part, but the circumstances were strange because Oswald denied shooting the President and was shot dead before he could stand for trial. A Gallup poll conducted in 2013 showed that more than 60% of Americans believed in some form of conspiracy around Kennedy’s death. A Fox News poll in 2004 showed that more than 70% of respondents believed that there was some form of a cover-up around the President’s death. John F. Kennedy died at the age of 46.
Kennedy’s death started what many consider the News revolution. Strangely, his assassination and the subsequent news coverage which lasted for a total of 70 hours made it the longest uninterrupted news event on American television until the events of September 11 in 2001. After the death of the President, he received a Green Beret that was placed on his grave by the United States Special Forces acknowledging the special bond the president had with them. His civil rights proposals led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Gallup polls since 1930, Kennedy ranks as the 3rd most popular President behind Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln. Despite barely being President for over 1000 days and not many legislative changes passing during his term, he is still remembered as one of the most charismatic Presidents ever.
Want to learn more about JFK? Check out 10 Interesting Facts About John F. Kennedy!