Biography of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the U.S.

His term was cut short by his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas

John F Kennedy, 1962
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John F. Kennedy (May 29, 1917–Nov. 22, 1963), the first U.S. president born in the 20th century, was born to a wealthy, politically connected family. Elected as the 35th president in 1960, he took office on Jan. 20, 1961, but his life and legacy were cut short when he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. Though he served as president for less than three years, his brief term coincided with the height of the Cold War, and his tenure was marked by some of the biggest crises and challenges of the 20th century.

Fast Facts: John F. Kennedy

  • Known For: First U.S. president born in the 20th century, known for the fiasco of The Bay of Pigs early in his term, his highly praised response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
  • Also Known As: JFK
  • Born: May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Rose Fitzgerald
  • Died: Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas
  • Education: Harvard University (BA, 1940), Stanford University Graduate School of Business (1940–1941)
  • Published Works: Profiles in Courage
  • Awards and Honors: Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Purple Heart, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Pulitzer Prize for Biography (1957)
  • Spouse: Jacqueline L. Bouvier (m. Sept. 12, 1953–Nov. 22, 1963)
  • Children: Caroline, John F. Kennedy, Jr.
  • Notable Quote: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable."

Early Life

Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was sickly as a child and continued to have health problems for the rest of his life. He attended private schools including Choate and Harvard (1936–1940), where he majored in political science. An active and accomplished undergraduate, Kennedy graduated cum laude.

Kennedy's father was the indomitable Joseph Kennedy. Among other ventures, he was the head of the SEC and the ambassador to Great Britain. His mother was a Boston socialite named Rose Fitzgerald. He had nine siblings including Robert Kennedy, who he appointed as the U.S. attorney general. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. In addition, his brother Edward Kennedy was a senator from Massachusetts who served from 1962 until his death in 2009.

Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, a wealthy socialite and photographer, on Sept. 12, 1953. Together they had two children: Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr. Another son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, died on Aug. 9, 1963, two days after his birth.

Military Career

Kennedy was originally turned down by both the Army and Navy because of his back pain and other medical problems. He didn’t give up, and with the help of his father’s political contacts, he was accepted into the Navy in 1941. He made it through the Navy Officer Candidate School but then failed another physical. Determined not to spend his military career sitting behind a desk, he again called upon his father's contacts. With their help, he managed to get into a new PT boat training program.

After completing the program, Kennedy served in the Navy during World War II and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He was given command of PT-109. When the boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, he and his crew were thrown into the water. He was able to swim four hours to save himself and a fellow crewman, but he aggravated his back in the process. He received the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his military service and was hailed for his heroism.

House of Representatives

Kennedy worked for a time as a journalist before running for the House of Representatives. Now considered a Navy war hero, Kennedy was elected to the House in November 1946. This class also included another former Navy man whose career arc would eventually intersect with Kennedy’s—Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy served three terms in the House—he was reelected in 1948 and 1950—where he gained a reputation as a somewhat conservative Democrat.

He did show himself to be an independent thinker, not always following the party line, such as in his opposition to the Taft-Hartley Act, an anti-union bill that passed both the House and Senate overwhelmingly during the 1947-1948 session. As a freshman member of the minority party in the House and not a member of any of the committees of jurisdiction, there was little else Kennedy could do other than speak against the bill, which he did.

U.S. Senate

Kennedy was later elected to the U.S. Senate—defeating Henry Cabot Lodge II, who would later become the Republican U.S. vice presidential candidate on the 1960 ticket alongside Nixon—where he served from 1953 to 1961. Again, he did not always vote with the Democratic majority.

Kennedy had more impact in the Senate than in the House. For example, in late spring 1953, he gave three speeches on the Senate floor outlining his New England economic plan, which he said would be good for New England and the nation as a whole. In the speeches, Kennedy called for a diversified economic base for New England and the U.S., with job training and technical assistance for the workers and relief from harmful tax provisions for the firms.

In other areas, Kennedy:

  • Distinguished himself as a national figure in the debate and vote on building the St. Lawrence Seaway;
  • Used his position on the Senate Labor Committee to push for an increase in the minimum wage and to protect union rights in an environment where Congress was trying to strip unions of any power to bargain effectively;
  • Joined the Foreign Relations Committee in 1957, where he supported Algerian independence from France and sponsored an amendment that would provide aid to Russian satellite nations;
  • Introduced an amendment to the National Defense Education Act to eliminate the requirement that aid recipients sign a loyalty oath.

During his time in the Senate, Kennedy also authored "Profiles in Courage," which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957, although there was some question about its true authorship.

Election of 1960

In 1960, Kennedy was nominated to run for the presidency against Nixon, who was by then Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president. During Kennedy's nominating speech, he set forward his ideas of a "New Frontier." Nixon made the mistake of meeting Kennedy in debates—the first televised presidential debates in U.S. history—during which Kennedy came off as young and vital.

During the campaign, both candidates worked to win support from the growing suburban population. Kennedy sought to pull together key elements of Franklin D. Roosevelt's coalition of the 1930s—urban minorities, ethnic voting blocs, and organized labor—win back conservative Catholics who had deserted the Democrats to vote for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, and hold his own in the south. Nixon emphasized the record of the Eisenhower years and promised to keep the federal government from dominating the free market economy and the lives of Americans.

At the time, some sectors expressed concern that a Catholic president, which Kennedy would be, would be beholden to the Pope in Rome. Kennedy confronted the issue in a speech before the Greater-Houston Ministerial Association, in which he said: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."

The anti-catholic feeling remained strong among some sectors of the populace, but Kennedy won by the smallest margin of popular votes since 1888, 118,574 votes. However, he received 303 electoral votes.

Events and Accomplishments

Domestic policy: Kennedy had a tough time getting many of his domestic programs through Congress. However, he did get an increased minimum wage, better Social Security benefits, and an urban renewal package passed. He created the Peace Corps, and his goal to get to the moon by the end of the 1960s found overwhelming support.

On the Civil Rights front, Kennedy initially did not challenge Southern Democrats. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that only by breaking unjust laws and accepting the consequences could African-Americans show the true nature of their treatment. The press reported daily on the atrocities occurring due to nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. Kennedy used executive orders and personal appeals to aid the movement. His legislative programs, however, would not pass until after his death.

Foreign affairs: Kennedy's foreign policy began in failure with the Bay of Pigs debacle of 1961. A small force of Cuban exiles was to lead a revolt in Cuba but was captured instead. America's reputation was seriously harmed. Kennedy's confrontation with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961 led to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Further, Khrushchev began building nuclear missile bases in Cuba. Kennedy ordered a "quarantine" of Cuba in response. He warned that any attack from Cuba would be seen as an act of war by the USSR. This standoff led to the dismantling of the missile silos in exchange for promises that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. Kennedy also agreed to a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 with Great Britain and the USSR.

Two other important events during his term were the Alliance for Progress (the U.S. provided aid to Latin America) and the problems in Southeast Asia. North Vietnam was sending troops through Laos to fight in South Vietnam. The South's leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, was ineffective. America increased its military advisers from 2,000 to 16,000 during this time. Diem was overthrown but new leadership was no better. When Kennedy was killed, Vietnam was approaching a boiling point.

Assassination

Kennedy's three years in office were somewhat turbulent, but by 1963 he was still popular and thinking about running for a second term. Kennedy and his advisers felt that Texas was a state that could provide crucial electoral votes, and they made plans for Kennedy and Jackie to visit the state, with stops planned for San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin. On Nov. 22, 1963, after addressing the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, Kennedy and the first lady boarded a plane for a brief flight to Dallas, arriving just before noon accompanied by about 30 members of the Secret Service.

They were met by a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible limousine that would take them on a 10-mile parade route within the city of Dallas, ending at the Trade Mart, where Kennedy was scheduled to deliver a luncheon address. He never made it. Thousands lined the streets, but just before 12:30 p.m., the presidential motorcade turned right from Main Street onto Houston Street and entered Dealey Plaza.

After passing the Texas School Book Depository, at the corner of Houston and Elm, shots suddenly rang out. One shot hit Kennedy’s throat, and as he reached up with both hands toward the injury, another shot struck his head, mortally wounding him.

Kennedy's apparent assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed by Jack Ruby before standing trial. The Warren Commission was called to investigate Kennedy's death and found that Oswald had acted alone to kill Kennedy. Many argued, however, that there was more than one gunman, a theory upheld by a 1979 House Committee investigation. The FBI and a 1982 study disagreed. Speculation continues to this day.

Legacy

Kennedy was important more for his iconic reputation than his legislative actions. His many inspiring speeches are often quoted. His youthful vigor and fashionable first lady was hailed as American royalty; his time in office was termed "Camelot." His assassination has taken on a mythic quality, leading many to posit about possible conspiracies involving everyone from Lyndon Johnson to the Mafia. His moral leadership of Civil Rights was an important part of the movement's eventual success.

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