John Fitzgerald Kennedy 35th president of the Unit
ed States, the youngest person ever to be elected president. He was also the first Roman Catholic president and the first president to be born in the 20th century. Kennedy was assassinated before he completed his third year as president. Therefore his achievements were limited. Nevertheless, his influence was worldwide, and his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis may have prevented war. Young people especially liked him. No other president was so popular. He brought to the presidency an awareness of the cultural and historical traditions of the United States. Because Kennedy expressed the values of 20th-century America, his presidency was important beyond its political achievements. John Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was the second of nine children.
Kennedy announced his candidacy early in 1960. By the time the Democratic National Convention opened in July, he had won seven primary victories. His most important had been in West Virginia, where he proved that a Roman Catholic could win in a predominantly Protestant state. When the convention opened, it appeared that Kennedy’s only serious challenge for the nomination would come from the Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. However, Johnson was strong only among Southern delegates. Kennedy won the nomination on the first ballot and then persuaded Johnson to become his running mate. Two weeks later the Republicans nominated Vice President Richard Nixon for president and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who was ambassador to the United Nations and whom Kennedy had defeated for the Senate in 1952, for vice president. In the fast-paced campaign that followed, Kennedy made stops in 46 states and 273 cities and towns, while Nixon visited every state and 170 urban areas. Another important element of the campaign was the support Kennedy received from blacks in important Northern states, especially Illinois and Pennsylvania. They supported him in part because he and Robert Kennedy had tried to get the release of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. King, who had been jailed for taking part in a civil rights demonstration in Georgia, was released soon afterward.
The election drew a record 69 million voters to the polls, but Kennedy won by only 113,000 votes. Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961. In his inaugural address he emphasized America’s revolutionary heritage. 2″The same … beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe,” Kennedy said. 3″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.” Kennedy challenged Americans to assume the burden of “defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” The words of his address were, “Ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy sought with considerable success to attract brilliant young people to government service.
His hope was to bring new ideas and new methods into the executive branch. As a result many of his advisers were teachers and scholars. Among them were McGeorge Bundy and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., both graduates of Harvard. Kennedy’s most influential adviser was Theodore C. Sorenson, a member of Kennedy’s staff since his days in the Senate. Sorenson wrote many of Kennedy’s speeches and exerted a strong influence on Kennedy’s development as a political liberal, 5 a person who believes that the government should directly help people to overcome poverty or social discrimination. The president and Mrs. Kennedy attempted to make the White House the cultural center of the nation. Writers, artists, poets, scientists, and musicians were frequent dinner guests. On one occasion the Kennedy’s held a reception for all the American winners of the Nobel Prize, people who made outstanding contributions to their field during the past year. At the party the president suggested that more talent and genius was at the White House that night than there had been since Thomas Jefferson had last dined there alone. At a meeting with the leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy asked the name of a medal Khrushchev was wearing. When the premier identified it as the Lenin Peace Medal, Kennedy remarked, 6″I hope you keep it.” On another occasion he told a group of Republican business leaders, 7″It would be premature to ask for your support in the next election and inaccurate to thank you for it in the past.” Even in great crises, Kennedy retained his sense of humor. Kennedy’s first year in office brought him considerable success in enacting new legislation. Congress passed a major housing bill, a law increasing the minimum wage, and a bill granting federal aid to economically depressed areas of the United States. The most original piece of legislation Kennedy put through Congress was the bill creating the Peace Corps, an agency that trained American volunteers to perform social and humanitarian service overseas. The program’s goal was to promote world peace and friendship with developing nations. The idea of American volunteers helping people in foreign lands touched the idealism of many citizens. Within two years, Peace Corps volunteers were working in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, living with the people and working on education, public health, and agricultural projects. However, after his initial success with Congress, Kennedy found it increasingly difficult to get his programs enacted into law. Although the Democrats held a majority in both houses, Southern Democrats joined with conservative Republicans to stop legislation they disliked. The Medicare bill, a bill to make medical care for the aged a national benefit, was defeated. A civil rights bill and a bill to cut taxes were debated, and compromises were agreed to, but even the compromises were delayed. A bill to create a Cabinet-level Department of Urban Affairs was soundly defeated, partly because Kennedy wanted the economist Robert C. Weaver, a black man, to be the new secretary. Southern Congressmen united with representatives from mostly rural areas to defeat the bill. Kennedy did win approval of a bill to lower tariffs and thus allow more competitive American trade abroad. Congress also authorized the purchase of $100 million in United Nations bonds, and the money enabled the international organization to survive a financial crisis. Further, Congress appropriated more than $1 billion to finance sending a man to the moon by 1970 which was accomplished in 1969. The major American legal and moral conflict during Kennedy’s three years in office was in the area of civil rights. Black agitation against discrimination had become widespread and well organized. Although Kennedy was in no way responsible for the growth of the civil rights movement, he attempted to aid the black cause by enforcing existing laws. Kennedy particularly wanted to end discrimination in federally financed projects or in companies that were doing business with the government. In September 1962 Governor Ross R. Barnett of Mississippi ignored a court order and prevented James H. Meredith, a black man, from enrolling at the state university. On the night of September 29, even as the president went on national television to appeal to the people of Mississippi to obey the law, rioting began on the campus. After 15 hours of rioting and two deaths, Kennedy sent in troops to restore order. Meredith was admitted to the university, and troops and federal marshals remained on the campus to insure his safety. In June 1963, when Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama prevented two blacks from enrolling at the University of Alabama, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to enforce the law. The students were enrolled at the university. Three months later, Kennedy again used the National Guard to prevent Wallace from interfering with integration in the public schools of Birmingham, Tuskegee, and Mobile. Kennedy also asked Congress to pass a civil rights bill that would guarantee blacks the right to vote, to attend public school, to have equal access to jobs, and to have access to public accommodations. Kennedy told the American people, 8″Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promises … to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.” Public opinion polls showed that Kennedy was losing popularity because of his advocacy of civil rights. Privately, he began to assume that the South would oppose him in the next election, but he continued to speak out against segregation, the practice of separating people of different races. To a group of students in Nashville, Tennessee, he said, 9 “No one can deny the complexity of the problem involved in assuring all of our citizens their full rights as Americans. But no one can gainsay the fact that the determination to secure those rights is in the highest tradition of American freedom.” In 1959, after several attempts, a revolution led by Fidel Castro finally overthrew the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar. During the next two years, Castro was to become increasingly hostile to the United States. The new regime’s agricultural reform laws provoked U.S. companies that operated sugar plantations. Companies that were not controlled by Cuban stockholders were not allowed to operate plantations, and sugar production was de-emphasized in favor of food crops. In 1960 the Castro government nationalized, or took over ownership of, an estimated $1 billion in properties owned by U.S. companies and citizens, and the Eisenhower administration imposed a trade embargo. When Castro began to proclaim his belief in Communism, Cuba became part of the Cold War, or struggle between the United States and its allies and the nations led by the USSR that involved intense economic and diplomatic battles but not direct military conflict. Many Cubans fled to the United States. During the Eisenhower administration the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had begun to train Cuban exiles secretly for an invasion of Cuba. When Kennedy became president, he approved the invasion. In April 1961 more than 1000 Cuban exiles made an amphibious landing in Cuba at a place called the Bay of Pigs. Their plan was to move inland and join with anti-Castro forces to stage a revolt simultaneously, but instead Castro’s forces were there to meet the invaders. The revolt in the interior did not happen, and air support, promised by the CIA, never came. The exiles were defeated and the survivors were taken prisoner. On December 25, 1962, 1113 prisoners were released in exchange for food and medical supplies valued at a total of approximately $53 million. Most other Latin American countries had the same bad social, economic, and political conditions that had led to Castro’s success in Cuba. Many of these nations seemed ripe for a revolution that could easily be exploited by the Communists. Upon taking office, President Kennedy looked for a program that would accelerate change in Latin America by strengthening democratic institutions. In March 1961 he introduced the Alliance for Progress, and in August it was established by the charter of Punte del Este. The Alliance for Progress was to be a Latin American version of the Marshall Plan, the United States plan to fund a cooperative, long-term program to rebuild Europe following World War II. All Latin American nations except Cuba joined the Alliance for Progress, pledging 10″to bring our people accelerated economic progress and broader social justice within the framework of personal dignity and individual liberty.” The United States promised $20 billion for the first ten years. The Alliance for Progress and President Kennedy’s particular concern for democratic institutions brought the United States renewed popularity in Latin America. On June 3, 1961, in Vienna, Austria, Kennedy and Khrushchev met and reviewed relationships between the United States and the USSR, as well as other questions of interest to the two states. Two incidents contributed to hostility at the meeting. The first was the shooting down of a U.S. spy plane in Soviet air space, and the second was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in early 1961. The results of the conference made it clear that Khrushchev had construed Kennedy’s failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion as a sign of weakness. No agreements were reached on any important issues. In fact, the Soviet premier made it clear that the Soviet Union intended to pursue an even more aggressive policy toward the United States. Kennedy’s last words to Khrushchev in Vienna were, 11″It’s going to be a cold winter.” He reported to the American people that the Soviet premier was a “tough-minded” leader who did not understand the intentions of the United States. The leaders had spent a “very sober two days.” In August 1961, to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West, the Communists ordered a wall built on the border between East and West Berlin. West Berlin had been under the control of the United States, France, and Britain since the end of World War II, although the city lay deep inside East Germany, a state that was an ally of the USSR. Kennedy and other Western leaders protested, but the wall was built. Kennedy had already asked for more military spending and had called up reserve troops for duty in Europe. When East German soldiers began blocking the Allied route through East Germany into Berlin, Kennedy sent a force of 1500 soldiers marching along the route into West Berlin. The troops went uncontested. Communist interference stopped, allowing Allied forces travel to and from Berlin . Amongst other problems President Kennedy faced, none was more serious than this one. The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the world’s closest approach to nuclear war. In 1960 Soviet Premier Khrushchev decided to supply Cuba with nuclear missiles that would put the eastern United States within range of nuclear missile attack. Khrushchev, when asked, denied that any missiles were being supplied to Cuba, but in the summer of 1962 U.S. spy planes flying over Cuba photographed Soviet-managed construction work and spotted the first missile on October 14. For seven days President Kennedy consulted secretly with advisers, discussing the possible responses while in public his administration carried on as though nothing was wrong. Finally, on October 22, Kennedy told the nation about the discovery of the missiles, demanded that the Soviet Union remove the weapons, and declared the waters around Cuba a quarantine zone. Kennedy called upon Khrushchev 12″to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations” and warned that an attack from Cuba on any nation in the western hemisphere would be considered an attack by the USSR on the United States itself. At the same time, United States troops were sent to Florida to prepare for invading Cuba, and air units were alerted. American vessels blockaded Cuba with orders to search all suspicious-looking Soviet ships and to turn back any that carried offensive weapons. For several tense days Soviet vessels en route to Cuba avoided the quarantine zone, while Khrushchev and Kennedy discussed the issue through diplomatic channels. Khrushchev, realizing his weak military position, sent a message on October 26 in which he agreed to Kennedy’s demands to remove all missiles. The following day, before the United States had responded to the first note, Khrushchev sent another, trying to negotiate other terms. Kennedy decided to respond to the first message, and on October 28, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle and remove the weapons from Cuba and offered the United States on-site inspection. In return Kennedy secretly promised not to invade Cuba and to remove older missiles from Turkey. Kennedy called off the blockade but Cuba, angry at Soviet submission, refused to permit the promised inspection. However, U.S. spy planes revealed that the missile bases were being dismantled. Nuclear war had been avoided. This was perhaps Kennedy’s greatest moment as president. Many felt that both World War I and World War II had begun because of weak responses to acts of aggression, and Kennedy may have prevented World War III by displaying courage and strength. On November 22, 1963, President and Mrs. Kennedy were in Dallas, Texas, trying to win support in a state that Kennedy had barely carried in 1960. As the motorcade approached an underpass, two shots were fired in rapid succession. One bullet passed through the president’s neck and struck Governor Connally in the back. The other bullet struck the president in the head. Kennedy fell forward, and his car sped to Parkland Hospital. At 1:00 PM, he was pronounced dead. He had never regained consciousness. Less than two hours after the shooting, aboard the presidential plane at the Dallas airport, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States. That afternoon, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was employed in the warehouse, was arrested in a Dallas movie theater and charged with the murder. On November 24 the body of President Kennedy was carried on a horse-drawn carriage from the White House to the Rotunda of the Capitol. Hundreds of thousands of people filed past the coffin of the slain president. The grave was marked by an eternal flame lighted by his wife and brothers.