Kennedy, John Fitzgerald

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Kennedy, John Fitzgerald

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1917–63, 35th President of the United States (1961–63), b. Brookline, Mass.; son of Joseph P. Kennedy.

Early Life

While an undergraduate at Harvard (1936–40) he served briefly in London as secretary to his father, who was ambassador there. His Harvard honors thesis on the British failure to judge the threat of Nazi Germany was published as Why England Slept (1940). Enlisting in the navy in Sept., 1941, he became commander of a PT boat in the Pacific in World War II. In action off the Solomon Islands (Aug., 1943), his boat, PT 109, was sunk, and Kennedy was credited with saving the life of at least one of his crew.

Congressional Career

As a Congressman from Massachusetts (1947–53), Jack Kennedy consistently supported the domestic programs of the Truman administration but criticized its China policy. In 1952, despite the Eisenhower landslide, he defeated Henry Cabot Lodge for a seat in the U.S. Senate, where he served on the Labor and Public Welfare and Foreign Relations committees. In 1953, Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (see Onassis, Jacqueline Kennedy). While recuperating in 1955 from an operation to repair a spinal problem, one of the many serious and often extremely painful illnesses that plagued him from childhood until his death, he wrote Profiles in Courage (1956). The book dealt with American political leaders who defied public opinion to vote according to their consciences; for this work (later revealed to have been written in part by Theodore Sorensen and others) he received the Pulitzer Prize. Although Kennedy narrowly lost the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1956, his overwhelming reelection as Senator in 1958 helped him toward the goal of presidential candidacy.

Presidency

In 1960 he entered and won seven presidential primaries and captured the Democratic nomination on the first ballot. To balance the ticket, he selected Lyndon B. Johnson as his vice presidential candidate. In the campaign that followed, Kennedy engaged in a series of televised debates with his Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon. Defeating Nixon by a narrow popular margin, Kennedy became at 43 the youngest person ever, and the first Catholic, elected President.

Soon after his inaugural, Kennedy set out his domestic program, known as the New Frontier: tax reform, federal aid to education, medical care for the aged under Social Security, enlargement of civil rights through executive action, aid to depressed areas, and an accelerated space program. He was almost immediately, however, caught up in foreign affairs crises. The first (Apr., 1961) was the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles trained and aided by the Central Intelligence Agency. Although the invasion had been planned under Eisenhower, Kennedy had approved it, and was widely criticized.

In June, 1961, the President met in Vienna with Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Hopes of a thaw in the cold war were dashed by Khrushchev's threat that the USSR would conclude a peace treaty with East Germany and thus cut off Western access to West Berlin. In the period of tension that followed, the United States increased its military strength while the East Germans erected the Berlin Wall.

In Oct., 1962, U.S. reconnaissance planes discovered Soviet missile bases in Cuba. Kennedy immediately ordered a blockade to prevent more weapons from reaching Cuba and demanded the installations' removal. After an interval of extreme tension when the world appeared to be on the brink of nuclear war, the USSR complied with U.S. demands. Kennedy won much praise for his stance in the crisis, but some have criticized him for what they held to be unnecessary "brinkmanship." In Aug., 1963, tension with the USSR was eased by conclusion of a treaty that prohibited the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

In Southeast Asia the Kennedy administration perceived a growing Communist threat to the South Vietnamese government; it steadily increased the number of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam and for the first time placed U.S. troops in combat situations. As disaffection in South Vietnam grew, moreover, the United States involved itself in political maneuvering and finally connived at the overthrow (Oct., 1963) of the corrupt South Vietnamese dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem (see Vietnam War). Within the Western Hemisphere, Kennedy established (1961) the Alliance for Progress, which provided economic assistance to Latin American countries. He also initiated the Peace Corps program, which sent U.S. volunteers to work in developing countries.

Many of Kennedy's domestic reform proposals were either killed or not acted on by Congress. In the area of civil rights and integration the administration assigned federal marshals to protect Freedom Ride demonstrations and used federal troops in Mississippi (1962) and a federalized National Guard in Alabama (1963) to quell disturbances resulting from enforced school desegregation. In June, 1963, Kennedy proposed civil-rights legislation, but this, like his tax reform program, languished until after his death.

Assassination

On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Tex. The Warren Commission, appointed by his successor Lyndon Johnson to investigate the murder, eventually concluded that it was the work of a single assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Kennedy's death shocked the nation. Many felt that he would have gone on to achieve greatness as a President. Subsequent revelations, especially concerning his sexual activity, have somewhat dimmed his luster, but the sense that his administration was a youthful, idealistic "Camelot" remains powerful. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Bibliography

See C. Kennedy and T. Widmer, Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy (2013); Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, interviews with A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., 1964 (2011); M. W. Sandler, ed., The Letters of John F. Kennedy (2013); biographies by V. Lasky (1963), R. Caro (1982), T. Sorenson (1988), G. Perret (2001), R. Dallek (2003), and A. Brinkley (2012); T. H. White, The Making of the President, 1960 (1961); A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (1965); H. S. Parmet, JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1983); N. Hamilton, JFK: Reckless Youth (1992); R. Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993); S. Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (1997); E. R. May, The Kennedy Tapes (1997); B. Leaming, Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman (2007); C. Matthews, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero (2011); T. Clarke, JFK's Last Hundred Days (2013); R. Dallek, Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House (2013); W. Manchester, The Death of a President (1967, repr. 2013); L. J. Sabato, The Kennedy Half-Century (2013); I. Stoll, JFK, Conservative (2013).

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