Born 29 May 1917, Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S. Assassinated 22 November 1963, Dallas, Texas. JFK was the 35th president of the United States (1961–63), who faced a number of foreign crises, especially in Cuba and Berlin, but managed to secure such achievements as the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the Alliance for Progress. He was assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.
The second of nine children, Kennedy was reared in a family that demanded intense physical and intellectual competition among the siblings. The family's touch football games at their Hyannis Port retreat later became legendary and was schooled in the religious teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the political precepts of the Democratic Party.
His father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, had acquired a multimillion-dollar fortune in banking, bootlegging, shipbuilding, and the film industry, and as a skilled player of the stock market. His mother, Rose, was the daughter of John F. (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, onetime mayor of Boston. They established trust funds for their children that guaranteed lifelong financial independence. After serving as the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Joseph Kennedy became the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, and for six months in 1938 John served as his secretary, drawing on that experience to write his senior thesis at Harvard University (B.S., 1940) on Great Britain's military unpreparedness. He then expanded that thesis into a best-selling book, Why England Slept (1940).
In the fall of 1941 Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy and two years later was sent to the South Pacific. By the time he was discharged in 1945, his older brother, Joe, who their father had expected would be the first Kennedy to run for office, had been killed in the war, and the family's political standard passed to John, who had planned to pursue an academic or journalistic career.
John Kennedy himself had barely escaped death in battle. Commanding a patrol torpedo boat, he was gravely injured when a Japanese destroyer sank it in the Solomon Islands. Marooned far behind enemy lines, he led his men back to safety and was awarded the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism.
Congressman and senator
Kennedy did not disappoint his family; in fact, he never lost an election. His first opportunity came in 1946, when he ran for Congress. Although still physically weak from his war injuries, he campaigned aggressively, bypassing the Democratic organization in the Massachusetts 11th congressional district and depending instead upon his family, college friends, and fellow navy officers. In the Democratic primary he received nearly double the vote of his nearest opponent; in the November election he overwhelmed the Republican candidate. He was only 29.
His congressional district in Boston was a safe seat, but Kennedy was too ambitious to remain long in the House of Representatives. In 1952 he ran for the U.S. Senate against the popular incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge. Thousands of volunteers flocked to help, including his 27-year-old brother Robert, who managed the campaign. Less than a year later, on September 12, 1953, Kennedy enhanced his electoral appeal by marrying Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis). Twelve years younger than Kennedy and from a socially prominent family, the beautiful “Jackie” was the perfect complement to the handsome politician; they made a glamorous couple.
Back in the Senate, Kennedy led a fight against a proposal to abolish the electoral college, crusaded for labour reform, and became increasingly committed to civil rights legislation. As a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in the late 1950s, he advocated extensive foreign aid to the emerging nations in Africa and Asia, and he surprised his colleagues by calling upon France to grant Algerian independence.
Presidential candidate and president
Kennedy had nearly become Stevenson's vice presidential running mate in 1956. The charismatic young New Englander's near victory and his televised speech of concession (Estes Kefauver won the vice presidential nomination) brought him into some 40 million American homes. Overnight he had become one of the best-known political figures in the country. Already his campaign for the 1960 nomination had begun. One newspaperman called him a “young man in a hurry.” Kennedy felt that he had to redouble his efforts because of the widespread conviction that no Roman Catholic candidate could be elected president. He made his 1958 race for re-election to the Senate a test of his popularity in Massachusetts. His margin of victory was 874,608 votes—the largest ever in Massachusetts politics and the greatest of any senatorial candidate that year.
In January 1960 John F. Kennedy formally announced his presidential candidacy. His chief rivals were the senators Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Kennedy knocked Humphrey out of the campaign and dealt the religious taboo against Roman Catholics a blow by winning the primary in Protestant West Virginia.
He tackled the Catholic issue again, by avowing his belief in the separation of church and state in a televised speech before a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas. Nominated on the first ballot, he balanced the Democratic ticket by choosing Johnson as his running mate. In his acceptance speech Kennedy declared, “We stand on the edge of a New Frontier.” Thereafter the phrase “New Frontier” was associated with his presidential programs.
Kennedy won the election, narrowly defeating the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, by a margin of less than 120,000 out of some 70,000,000 votes cast.
He was the youngest man and the first Roman Catholic ever elected to the presidency of the United States famously declaring,
“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.…The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that 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.”
The administration's first brush with foreign affairs was a disaster. In the last year of the Eisenhower presidency, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had equipped and trained a brigade of anticommunist Cuban exiles for an invasion of their homeland. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously advised the new president that this force, once ashore, would spark a general uprising against the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. But the Bay of Pigs invasion was a fiasco; every man on the beachhead was either killed or captured. Kennedy assumed “sole responsibility” for the setback. Privately he told his father that he would never again accept a Joint Chiefs recommendation without first challenging it.
The Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, thought he had taken the young president's measure when the two leaders met in Vienna in June 1961. Khrushchev ordered a wall built between East and West Berlin and threatened to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany. The president activated National Guard and reserve units, and Khrushchev backed down on his separate peace threat. Kennedy then made a dramatic visit to West Berlin, where he told a cheering crowd,
“Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein [I am a] Berliner.”
In October 1962 a build up of Soviet short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles was discovered in Cuba. Kennedy demanded that the missiles be dismantled; he ordered a “quarantine” of Cuba. For 13 days nuclear war seemed near; then the Soviet premier announced that the offensive weapons would be withdrawn this was known as the Cuban missile crisis. Ten months later Kennedy scored his greatest foreign triumph when Khrushchev and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain joined him in signing the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.
On Friday, November 22, 1963, he and Jacqueline Kennedy were in an open limousine riding slowly in a motorcade through downtown Dallas. At 12:30 the president was struck by two rifle bullets, one at the base of his neck and one in the head. He was pronounced dead shortly after arrival at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Governor Connally, though also gravely wounded, recovered. Vice President Johnson took the oath as president, Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old Dallas citizen, was accused of the slaying. Two days later Oswald was shot to death by Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner with connections to the criminal underworld, in the basement of a Dallas police station.
John Kennedy was dead, but the Kennedy mystique was still alive. Both Robert and Ted ran for president (in 1968 and 1980, respectively). Yet tragedy would become nearly synonymous with the Kennedys when Bobby, too, was assassinated on the campaign trail in 1968.
Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children moved from the White House to a home in the Georgetown section of Washington. Continuing crowds of the worshipful and curious made peace there impossible, however, and in the summer of 1964 she moved to New York City. Pursuit continued until October 20, 1968, when she married Aristotle Onassis, a wealthy Greek shipping magnate. The Associated Press said that the marriage “broke the spell of almost complete adulation of a woman who had become virtually a legend in her own time.”
Widowed by Onassis, the former first lady returned to the public eye in the mid-1970s as a high-profile book editor, and she remained among the most admired women in the United States until her death in 1994. As an adult, daughter Caroline was jealous of her own privacy, but John Jr.—a lawyer like his sister and debonair and handsome like his father—was much more of a public figure.
Long remembered as “John-John,” the three-year-old who stoically saluted his father's casket during live television coverage of the funeral procession, John Jr. became the founder and editor-in-chief of the political magazine George in the mid-1990s. In 1999, when John Jr., his wife, and his sister-in-law died in the crash of the private plane he was piloting, the event was the focus of an international media watch that further proved the immortality of the Kennedy mystique. It was yet another chapter in the family's “curse” of tragedy.