John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) was the 35th President of the United States of America. The most politically successful of the famous Kennedy family, JFK was the youngest president ever to be elected. His wife, Jacqueline Bouvier, was almost as famous as he was, and was one of the most popular First Ladies in history. He led the United States through the Cuban Missile Crisis and dealt with the Soviet Union firmly. Kennedy's life ended tragically when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.

John was born on May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts. He had the good fortune of being born into a family of some esteem. His father, Joseph, had made a fortune from humble beginnings. It is suspected, however, that a great deal of Joseph's fortune came from bootlegging during the times of Prohibition. Nevertheless, Joseph had important political connections and a good reputation in high society, even serving as ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Fraklin D. Roosevelt. John's mother, Rose, was the daughter of a mayor of the city of Boston. John had eight siblings. Among them were Joe Jr., who aspired to be President one day, and Robert, who would serve as Attorney General in John's administration. Joe Jr. was always his father's favorite son when the young Kennedys were growing up, and many of the other siblings were jealous of Joe. John, in particular, always wanted to prove that he could do just as much as Joe could.

John did not stray far from home to go to college; he went to Harvard and graduated in 1940. During his time at Harvard, he wrote the book Why England Slept, analyzing the United Kingdom's lack of readiness for World War II. Why England Slept became a bestseller, though it was originally intended only to be John's senior essay project. After college, Kennedy entered the Navy and became a skipper on a PT boat. He had a hard time entering the Armed Forces because of a bad health history: he had suffered numerous diseases including scarlet fever and bronchitis. Kennedy and his crew were placed in the Pacific Theater of the war, and a Japanese destroyer rammed the vessel, sinking it. Kennedy's coolness under fire saved the crew from disaster and they swam to safety on an island. Kennedy himself dragged one badly burned crew member through the water to safety. John was awarded the Purple Heart as well as the Navy Medal of Valor. His brother Joe was killed in action during the war, which was a major blow to his family.

After his military service, John turned his eyes to a political career after a short stint as a journalist. In 1946, he won his first seat in the House of Representatives. Six years later, he would become a United States Senator. Kennedy did not accomplish much while he served in Congress, mainly because of further health problems. Kennedy suffered from malaria, which he contracted during the war, and Addison's disease. Later he also had to have surgery on his bad back. While recovering from that surgery, Kennedy wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles In Courage. This book told the stories of unsung heroes in American history who made decisions based on morals instead of votes or popularity. Kennedy was a candidate to be Adlai Stevenson's running mate in 1956, but he lost. However, four years later he won the Democratic Party's nomination for President.

Kennedy ran a very shrewd campaign for President. He was running against a popular Richard M. Nixon and he knew that it would take a lot to beat him. Kennedy was somewhat like candidate Al Smith in 1928 in that he faced an anti-Catholic prejudice. Another soft spot for Kennedy was his age. Kennedy was very young, and many considered this a disadvantage. Kennedy's young, vibrant image had actually been an advantage in many of his earlier campaigns and he wasn't about to let it hinder his run for the presidency. He resolved to challenge his opponent to a series of televised debates. Though Nixon brought better arguments to the table, Kennedy's image during the debates greatly improved the public's opinion of him. Nixon, on the other hand, looked very weary and he lost a lot of support. Kennedy was the first politician to use the television to his advantage. It's quite ironic that Kennedy became popular because of his youthful, energetic image despite his horrific medical history.

Kennedy continued his smart politics during his presidency. In his early administration, he began laying out groundwork for the legislation he would encourage. He quickly gained a reputation as a civil rights activist. He founded the Peace Corps and set the stage for other legislation which he would implement in his second term. Of course, Kennedy would never make it to a second term, so much of this legislation was passed under the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy also made the claim that we would send a man to the moon within a decade and began laying out plans for what would become NASA. Still, his most important actions during his short term as President would be how he dealt with the Soviet Union, Cuba, and communism.

The island nation of Cuba fell under the rule of Communist leader Fidel Castro while Dwight D. Eisenhower was still President. The people of America were afraid of having a Communist presence only 90 miles from their shores. The leaders of the CIA and Eisenhower had been planning to overthrow Castro for some time. Kennedy inherited these plans from Eisenhower's administration and he agreed to an invasion. The plan was to have Cuban exiles return to Cuba and overthrow Castro's regime, with the help of American training and supplies. This invasion, which would be known as the Bay of Pigs invasion, failed horribly and embarrassed the American government.

Having failed, Kennedy needed to save face. The Soviets built the Berlin Wall in 1961. Kennedy traveled there personally and delivered the infamous line "Ich bin ein Berliner". The Soviet Union threatened to end Allied occupation of Berlin, and both sides sent troops to Berlin to show they meant business. The Soviets eventually backed down, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was impressed with the young President's confidence and assertiveness. The ball was now in Khrushchev's court once again.

The Soviet Union began assembling nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. When this news was made public, there was a lot of panicking among the American public. Kennedy knew that this situation had to be defused quickly. The American government set up a blockade preventing the entry of any Soviet boats into Cuba. Though Khrushchev was gaining respect for Kennedy, he was not expecting such a gutsy move. In meetings, Khrushchev had commented that he was old enough to be Kennedy's father, and originally refused to take him seriously. Khrushchev made a promise to America, "We will bury you", as the world escalated ever closer to nuclear war. Kennedy and his advisors saw that the Soviet Union was in no condition to have a war, and gave Khrushchev the chance to remove missiles from Cuba if America removed its missiles from Turkey. This gave Khrushchev an easy way out, even though that agreement was secret. The threat of nuclear war had been removed.

Though he was a very successful president, Kennedy did not even finish one full term. On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas, while riding in an open convertible in a motorcade. Kennedy was dying in front of hundreds, and in the arms of his wife. What actually happened remains a mystery to this day. A man by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested as a suspect. Oswald suspiciously met his end as well when he was being transferred from a temporary holding cell. Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby, the owner of a nightclub in Dallas. The American government placed Earl Warren and the Warren Commission in charge of the official investigation of Kennedy's death and they determined that Oswald acted alone. Many people do not accept the Warren Commission's report because the facts about the assassination are unclear. Regardless of who actually killed the President, the whole nation mourned the loss of a great man that day. Every American alive that day remembered where they were when they found out that Kennedy had been killed. This is a testament to Kennedy's popularity and the legacy he has left on the history of the United States.

Jack Kennedy - War Hero?

Jack Kennedy is generally viewed as a war hero for his actions as commander of PT-109 in the Solomon Islands. Indeed, he was awarded the purple heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for acts of heroism following the loss of PT-109. However, his detractors at the time, and later on as he tried to use his war record to counter charges that he was too young and too weak to stand up to the cold-war Soviets during a run for the US presidency, charge that his loss of PT-109 was nothing short of criminal negligence.

Lt. Kennedy took command of PT-109 on April 24, 1943. Although he was new and untested, the boat and several members of her crew had seen combat in the waters near Guadalcanal and other parts of the Solomon Islands. PT boats operated in divisions of up to four boats, often lying in wait for Japanese supply convoys known as the Tokyo Express. These convoys, made up of troop and supply ships guarded by destroyers and sometimes aircraft, needed to pass through the narrow straits between the reefs and islands of the archipelago. The maneuverability and small size of the PT boats let them effectively harass the Japanese shipping with torpedoes.

Details of the combat

On the night of August 1, 1943, PT-109 with Lt. Kennedy at the helm took part in an operation in the Iron Bottom Sound, so named because of the volume of shipping that was sunk there. The boat was in one of four PT-boat divisions that were ordered to intercept the so-called Tokyo Express which was expected to pass through the area. Each PT boat division included a boat that was equipped with radar, which the Imperial Navy didn't aquire until the following year. In fact, at one point PT-109 was equipped with an unauthorized radar set, although it was probably not working that night and one of the other boats was using its rader. After picking up shipping on radar, one division would set off to attack while the others would race off to various locations where they would 'lay up' in wait for the passing convoy.

That night, a Japanese convoy comprised of five destroyers was passing through the area as it returned from a supply mission. The division of which Lt. Kennedy was a part detected the convoy, which it misidentified as landing craft, and set off to ambush it. Two boats attacked while Lt. Kennedy and another craft raced to 'lay up' in front of the convoy. After the convoy was alerted to the presence of the attackers by a misfired torpedo, they brought all their considerable firepower to bear on the PT boats, which fled unscathed. Lt. Kennedy's and two other boats, still believing that they had encountered landing craft, decided that the sheer volume of fire meant that artillery from a shore battery had spotted them, and they fled from the scene. After requesting additional orders from base, three PT boats led by Lt. Kennedy who knew how to reach the destination, went to another location to lay up in wait for the convoy.

When they reached the designated area they patrolled at low speed. It's probable that the radar-equipped boat was the one that was no longer part of the group. Lt. Kennedy, using only one of his boat's three engines, was in the lead running the boat at an idle. This tactic may have been designed to minimize the boat's wake which could be visible from the air even on the darkest nights, due to phosphorescent plankton in the water which glow when disturbed.

The other two boats in the group caught sight of a Japanese Fubuki-class destroyer approximately 700 yards from PT-109 and bearing down on it at a high rate of speed. It sliced clean through Lt. Kennedy's boat, splitting it almost in half lengthwise and killing two crewmen instantly while dumping others into the sea, which was spotted with burning fuel. Just before the ramming, one boat attempted to fire its torpedos at the destroyer, but they wouldn't fire. It gave chase after the ramming and fired its other two torpedos, but was forced to flee after the destroyer turned towards it and lit it up with a spotlight then bracketed it with its guns. After being detected, the second boat fled, zigzagging and laying a smoke-screen until it encountered another Japanese destroyer. It was able to hit the destroyer with a torpedo, but returned to base since it had no more torpedos and the destroyers were alerted to its presence. A third boat caught sight of this destroyer, which was limping home at 5 knots, but missed with two torpedos.

Before the ramming, the night appeared calm on board the PT-109. Then, 200-300 yards off the starboard bow, the bow lookout spotted a dark shape. He alerted Lt. Kennedy, and they initially mistook the shape for another PT boat. It may have been difficult for the crew to correctly identify a blacked-out Japanese destroyer bearing down on them head-on in the dark, especially when they were expecting to encounter slower landing craft, which would have taken longer to arrive at the ambush point. Some say that the crew's, and ultimately Jack Kennedy's negligence were to blame for the catastrophy. In less than ten seconds it closed the distance and sliced them apart. Lt. Kennedy tried to maneuver his boat, but the single engine turning at slow speed wasn't up to the task. PT-109 became the only PT boat ever rammed by an enemy ship.

The Amagiri was a destroyer captained at the time by Lieutenant Commander Kohei Hanami - then 32 years of age and the youngest destroyer captain in the Imperial Navy. While he was steaming towards home after a skirmish with American PT boats, his lookouts noticed another PT boat nearly dead in the water, 3000 yards away. Commander Hanami turned his warship towards the PT boat and decided to close the distance, given the PT boats' reputation for being hard to hit with gunfire and the speed with which they could deploy their torpedos. With, presumably, the gunners' fingers on their triggers, the Amagiri rushed towards PT-109 at close to 40 knots, which didn't notice her until it was too late to get out of the way.

A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do

The events that took place over the next seven days are what earned Jack Kennedy his reputation for heroism. After his boat was split in twain, Lt. Kennedy ordered all hands off what was left of the deck, since it was on fire. Luckily, the destroyer's wake had dispersed most of the flaming fuel and the fire soon burned itself out. Lt. Kennedy and some of the crew returned to the wreck and they discovered that five crewmen were still in the water some ways from the wreck. Most were wearing flotation gear, but some were injured and burned. Lt. Kennedy swam towards a group of three, two of whom had been burned, while two other uninjured crewmen swam out to assist the other two who were overcome by smoke. Lt. Kennedy towed one burned man back to the wreck by holding a rope in his teeth as he swam. This arduous swim took more than an hour. He then swam back for the other two, one of whom was burned, and he and the uninjured man towed the burned man back to the wreck after Lt. Kennedy gave up his life-belt to the uninjured man. The other two men were also rescued successfully, and the entire crew, save the two who were killed in the ramming, survived.

The crew had flare guns, but didn't use them for fear of alerting any Japanese that might still be in the area. They floated on the wreckage until dawn with no sign of rescue, when it became apparent that despite the PT boat's watertight compartments, the wreckage was about to sink. Lt. Kennedy made the decision to abandon the wreckage and try to reach a small, uninhabited island that appeared to be about 4 miles away. Time was of the essence since the wreckage was drifting towards the island of Gizo (sometimes spelled Ghizo) which they knew to be occupied by the enemy. Two crewmembers could not swim, and one was badly burned and incapable of reaching the island. The non-swimmers floated on a long 2x8 while the remaining crewmembers pushed and towed them towards land. Lt. Kennedy took it upon himself to tow the badly burned man to land, the same one he had initially towed to the wreckage. They all arrived safe ashore with nothing more than the clothes on their backs (Lt. Kennedy wore only underwear), seven handguns, three knives, and a flashlight.

In the evening, over the span of two hours Lt. Kennedy alternately waded along reefs and swam until he reached a stretch of water known to be frequented by PT boats. There were none in the vicinity, and signs of fighting in the far distance indicated that they were elsewhere, too far to reach. During the return journey, he was caught in a powerful current and ended up far out of his way. He was not able to make it back to the others until dawn. He started to suffer the effects of malaria, and several days went by with no sign of rescue. Another crewmember, also an officer and the strongest swimmer besides Lt. Kennedy, duplicated Lt. Kennedy's attempt to attract the notice of a passing PT boat, but wasn't able to find anybody. Heeding Lt. Kennedy's warnings about the current, he was able to avoid being washed in the wrong direction and returned unharmed.

Food on the islet, which was nothing more than coconut meat and the occasional seabird, ran out and the group decided to swim to another island. Lt. Kennedy again towed the badly injured man, pressing ahead through a powerful current, and the entire crew reached their destination safely. A New Zealand warplane fired upon a nearby island, which indicated that it might be occupied by the enemy. Nevertheless, setting out in search of food, Lt. Kennedy and the other officer swam to that island and found a box containing some Japanese food rations including crackers and candy. They also discovered and commandeered a canoe belonging to some islanders. The next night, Lt. Kennedy used the canoe to search for American PT boats, with no success.

When he returned, he found the crew conversing with two islanders. The islanders were extremely helpful, and even showed them where another canoe was cached. They agreed to take a message written on a coconut-husk via canoe to the American coastwatcher sentries. While waiting for them to return, Lt. Kennedy and the other officer set out in the canoe in hopes of finding a PT boat. The canoe sunk and they were washed up on a reef, receiving minor injuries. Eventually, the natives returned with a message from the Americans detailing how to proceed with the rescue (which was dangerous in enemy waters). Seven days after PT-109 was rammed by an enemy destroyer and two of her crew were killed, the remaining crewmembers were rescued.

Ultimately - a hero

Jack Kennedy, son of a wealthy and controversial political appointee, was both lionized in the so-called elite New York press (mostly at the behest of his powerful father) and grumbled about (probably by those with political leanings different from the Kennedy family) in the officer's clubs in the South Pacific. It got to the point that even Douglas MacArthur (no shrinking violet, and about as far from Joe Kennedy politically as it's possible to get) called for his court martial. In any event, the Navy saw fit to put an end to speculation and award Lt. Kennedy a medal for heroism.

A contrarian view of the life of John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States of America

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on the 29th May 1917, the second son of Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. His father was a former bootlegger with extensive contacts with organised crime who had used his money to buy his way into Franklin Roosevelt's administration, ultimately becoming the US ambassador to the United Kingdom where he became known for his pro-Nazi sympathies.

Commonly known as Jack and later often simply as JFK, he attended the Choate School in Connecticut before spending a year studying under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics. Although he had a place at Princeton University, illness prevented him from attending the beginning of term in 1935. Initially denied late admission until his father fixed the problem, he only attended the university for a month before illness again forced him to give up his studies. Recuperating in Arizona, he changed his mind and decided to try Harvard instead.

At Harvard he was very much in the shadow of his older brother Joe, the varsity football star who was swanning around the Harvard campus telling people that "When I become President, I will take you to the White House with me". Meanwhile his younger brother Jack was failing to make the swim team and boasted an unimpressive academic record, largely relying on additional tutoring services or attendance at 'cram school' to get him through his exams. The one thing that he did excel at was charming women; "I can now get my tail as often and as free as I want" he once bragged to his friend Lem Billings.

He eventually managed to graduate, with his thesis, despite being described as "badly written" being apparently sufficient (at least for an ambassador's son) for him to do so magnum cum laude. JFK though about attending Yale Law School, but illness once again put paid to that so he went to Sanford University in California, but was there for only there a term before illness again forced him back to the east coast to see his doctors.

Kennedy at war

In the autumn of 1940 JFK was drafted into the US Army but since he was enrolled at Stanford University this didn't take effect until 1941. His health was however poor and he failed the physical exams for both the Army and the Navy officer candidate schools. John was however determined to participate in the war and so Papa Joe arranged for some friendly doctors to give him the necessary clean bill of health and he joined the Office of Naval Intelligence as an ensign in October 1941. Despite being declared unfit for duty in April 1942, the US Navy agreed in June 1942 to his request for transfer to sea duty and after attending midshipman school, when his father again intervened to ensure that his son won a posting to his desired motor torpedo boat command (the glamorous naval equivalent of being a fighter pilot.)

However the navy seemed reluctant to assign him to active command and JFK was not particularly happy when he was posted to Rhode Island as an instructor. A quiet word with his grandfather Honey Fitz who just happened to know the chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, one David Walsh, ensured that he was eventually transferred to the South Pacific where he was to spend seventeen months on active service.

JFK was eventually placed in command of PT 109 and sent out on a mission to intercept a Japanese convoy and on the 2nd August 1943 was run over by a Japanese destroyer. This left JFK and his surviving crew adrift in the sea, but they managed to swim to dry land where they spent seven days avoiding detection by the enemy before being rescued. Being Joe Kennedy's son his experiences attracted considerable press coverage and won for JFK the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart. It is however worth nothing that this was the only occasion in the entire war when a PT boat managed to get itself rammed by an enemy vessel. (Generally speaking PT boats were fast enough to get out of the way.) "He wasn't a particularly good boat commander" was how his commanding officer explained the incident, whilst General Douglas MacArthur wanted him court-martialled for incompetence.

Nevertheless JFK managed to escape censure and later made the rank of lieutenant becoming a PT instructor in Florida. After a further operation on his back he was honourably discharged in March 1945.

Politics is like war. It takes three things to win.
The first is money and the second is money and the third is money.
Joe Kane

The pivotal moment in JFK's life was when his older brother Joe got blown up in 1941. This meant that JFK was now the focus of his father's ambition, who told him that it was now his responsibility to run for Congress. "It was like being drafted" was how JFK himself described the experience. The subsequent rapid progress of his political career is an object lesson in the importance of money in the American political system.

When it was decided that JFK would contest the 11th Congressional District in Massachusetts, papa Joe spent something between $250,000 and $300,000 simply to get his son nominated as the Democratic party candidate. This was a phenomenal amount of money at the time and as Joe himself admitted "With that sort of money I could elect my chauffeur". As with all of JFK's election campaigns no one is quite sure where all the money went, as a lot of it was simply passed around in brown paper envelopes as out-right electoral bribes. It was a similar story when JFK ran for the senate against the Republican Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952; "Cabot was simply overwhelmed by money" as Dwight Eisenhower put it. This time around papa Joe pumped several million dollars into the campaign, his principal contribution being the $500,000 he 'lent' to John J. Fox, the owner of the near-bankrupt Boston Post in order to obtain that newspaper's endorsement. As JFK himself was to later admit "You know, we had to buy that paper or I'd have been licked."

Kennedy the Congressman

Despite the impression later given by the Kennedy machine, JFK was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a 'liberal'. Indeed, he was described by Tip O'Neill as "only nominally a Democrat" and JFK himself admitted that "I am not a liberal at all, I'm a realist". In fact his principal political platform was anti-communism and he was on good terms with Joe McCarthy whom he once described as "a great American patriot". When the Senate finally voted to condemn McCarthy, JFK couldn't bring himself to vote against his old friend and simply abstained (he claimed he was to ill to vote), becoming the only Democrat in the Senate who failed to vote against McCarthy. Indeed his politics were largely indistinguishable from those of his future presidential opponent Richard Nixon; Hubert Humphrey (who was very much a liberal) went so far as to call JFK the 'Democratic Nixon', whilst JFK himself openly congratulated Richard Nixon when he beat the left-wing Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in a contest for the Senate in 1950, and had even personally contributed $1,000 in cash (courtesy of papa Joe) to Nixon's campaign funds.

It is undisputable that JFK's record in Congress was largely undistinguished; he turned up and voted and that was about it. The reason for this was quite simple; he never accomplished much in the House of Representatives because he spent all his time there building his campaign for the Senate, and he never achieved anything as a Senator because he was too busy running for president.

Having tried and failed to win nomination as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in 1956, JFK decided to make a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination for 1960. This was complicated by the fact that Adlai Stevenson (for reasons of his own) declined to formally run, but indicated that he was willing to accept the nomination if asked. Therefore the Kennedy machine put a great deal of effort into winning the nomination on the first ballot, knowing that if they failed to do so, that Stevenson would likely emerge as the compromise candidate. Once again papa Joe's money was needed to grease the political wheels, as winning nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency wasn't that easy for JFK as much of the party would have preferred to nominate an actual liberal.

Kennedy the womaniser

The White House has been the home of many a serial adulterer but probably none so prolific as John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His most famous 'conquests' include Marilyn Monroe (shared with brother Bobby) and Judith Campbell Exener (shared with Mafia boss Sam Giancana), but it would be a sheer impossibility to enumerate the long succession of secretaries, campaign workers, waitresses, stewardesses, actresses etc etc that JFK bedded during his life. Nor was he averse to hiring call girls should the need arise and he famously prepared for his televised debates with Nixon by having a prostitute sent to his room.

This of course, represented some inner compulsion and JFK once claimed to Harold Macmillan that he needed to bed a new girl once every three days otherwise he would get a headache. But like many womanisers it doesn't appear as if he was a very capable lover as Za Za Gabor, although she would later deny it, once described her experience with JFK as the "most uneventful two minutes of my life".

His womanising was more than simply a personal quirk, it was potentially damaging to both his political career and the national interest. His naval career was somewhat marred by the affair he had an affair with one Inga Arvad who was suspected of being a Nazi agent, and whilst he was president his many 'affairs' included a former New York prostitute named Suzy Chang, who later became part of the same 'stable' of girls as Christine Keeler, and Ellen Rometsch, a suspected East German spy. The Kennedys went great lengths to keep all this quiet, since it goes without saying that his political career would have ended had any of these numerous liaisons become public knowledge.

Of course JFK was actually married for much of this time, although his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier on 12th September 1953 appears to have been his father's idea, who believed that she would bring a much needed touch of sophistication to the Kennedy family. In this regard papa Joe was quite right as Jacky soon became a significant asset to her husband's political career. She was however, never happy with her husband's philandering and used to retaliate by going out on mammoth shopping sprees. This was much to JFK's annoyance and frustration, particularly since he couldn't do anything about it for fear that she might of course spill the beans to the press.

Kennedy the intellectual

According to Thomas Reeves "No national figure has ever so consistently and unashamedly used others to manufacture a personal reputation as a great thinker and scholar." To put it simply, JFK's reputation as an intellectual and author was simply an invention of the Kennedy machine.

Although credited as the author of Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage, JFK did not actually write either of these books. Why England Slept was described as "a very sloppy job, mostly magazine and newspaper clippings stuck together" before it was rewritten and knocked into shape by Arthur Krock of the New York Times amongst others. It didn't sell all that well either, it only became a 'best seller' because old Joe arranged for the purchase of some 30,000 to 40,000 copies which were then stored at the family mansion at Hyannis Port. It was a similar case with Profiles in Courage, described as a "disorganised, somewhat incoherent melange from secondary sources" that was then rewritten by Theodore Sorenson and a team of academics into something readable. Even then the fact that the book later won the Pulitzer Prize is more of a testament to the power of papa Joe's lobbying then any inherent quality of the book itself.

The stream of articles that also appeared under JFK's name in periodicals ranging from Life to the Georgetown Law Review were all ghosted by a variety of academics. This was all part of a campaign to portray him as an intellectual and has been described as one of "the biggest frauds in American political history".

Kennedy the patient

It is difficult to overemphasise how ill JFK was for most of his life. He spent much of his life in and out of hospital seeking cures for a wide variety of ailments and on more than one occasion had the last rites read to him. In addition to the Addison's disease, JFK also suffered from colitis, abdominal pain, diarrhea, prostatis, repeated urinary tract infections, nausea, dehydration, athritis and acute back pain. He was thus prescribed with cortisone for the Addison's, heavy doses of antibiotics, given procaine injections to control the back pain, antispasmodics such as lomotil and trasentine for his colitis, testosterone to counter his weight loss, various steroids, ritalin etc etc.

By the time he became President his back problem was so severe that he only functioned as president through the help of one Max Jacobson, otherwise known as 'Doctor Feelgood', who despite the loss of his medical licence, was trusted to administer regular injections of amphetamine and other goodies, on which of course JFK became increasingly dependent, thus making him perhaps America's one and only junkie president. All of this was hidden from the American public, since it directly contradicted JFK's image as a vibrant, youthful and dynamic politician, and the Kennedys lived in mortal fear that the truth would somehow leak out.

Kennedy and the 1960 Presidential election

JFK's victory in the 1960 election is often portrayed as an against the odds victory achieved thanks to a clever campaign which surmounted the disadvantages of his Roman Catholic faith, youth and inexperience. The truth is that the Kennedys expected it to be an easy win. There was a recession and JFK was plugging away at the issue of the 'missile gap', the belief that the Soviet Union had a superiority over the US in nuclear weapons. (When McNamara later inadvertently leaked the truth that the US enjoyed an overwhelming superiority over their rival superpower, JFK simply shrugged away the issue with the words "who ever believed in the missile gap?")

Kennedy's youth is a myth, he was forty-three, and Nixon was forty-seven, a difference that hardly signifies and it is debatable what effect his Catholicism had on the election since Richard Nixon refused to make Kennedy's religion an election issue (He later went on record stating that JFK's victory was "good for the country" because it laid the question of religion to rest.) Whilst it was true that there was plenty of anti-Catholic sentiment around, the Kennedy campaign managed to suppress a great deal of this by handing out bribes to suitable Protestant ministers to keep their mouths shut. It has also been argued that his religion was what won him the election; Catholic voters traditionally supported the Republican Party and whilst Eisenhower got 60% of the Catholic vote, Nixon only received 22%, the lowest ever recorded for a Republican presidential candidate in the twentieth century.

The televised debates with Nixon are now regarded as a landmark event in American politics, signalling the point at which television and the importance of image became paramount in politics. It is instructive to note in this regard that whilst the polls showed that TV viewers preferred Kennedy, those who heard the radio broadcast thought that Nixon had won the debate. The difference between listener and viewer can be explained by the fact that the Kennedy campaign persuaded the TV studio to insist that both candidates stood during the debate (Nixon had a bad knee) and to turn up the heat in the studio (Nixon had a tendency to sweat), thus ensuring that JFK looked better on screen even though Nixon had the better of the argument.

As noted earlier, the Kennedy campaign expected to win easily with 53% or more of the votes cast, and they were shocked that the actual result, 34,227,496 to 34,107,646 was so close. The margin in the electoral college was slightly more convincing at 303 to 219, but only because Kennedy 'won' both Illinois and Texas. The reason why the Kennedys were so shocked at the result was that they had put so much effort into making sure the electorate would make the right choice in the first place.

In Illinois Nixon won 92 out of 102 counties but still lost the state due to a massive pro-Kennedy plurality in Chicago, courtesy of the Richard Daley machine and Mafia boss Sam Giancana (Sam Giancana to Judith Campbell Exner "Listen honey, if it wasn't for me you boyfriend wouldn't even be in the White House".) Texas was delivered by that old crook Lyndon B. Johnson; one ward in Texas returned over 6,000 votes for Kennedy despite having less than 5,000 registered voters in total. All of this was known at the time. Eisenhower told Nixon that he should contest the result, but Nixon decided not to, fearing that the presidency itself would be degraded if the matter was dragged through the courts, and even persuaded the New York Herald Tribune to stop publishing a series of articles exposing the frauds.

All of this is still news to some people, but there appears to be no dispute over the fact that the Kennedy campaign did practice electoral fraud on a significant scale, the only argument appears to be over whether it actually effected the result. JFK apologists appear to take the position of admitting that, whilst Nixon should have won Illinois, the scale of fraud in Texas wasn't large enough to change the result.

Kennedy the President: "How could I have been so stupid."

The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once described the Kennedy presidency as "like watching the Borgia brothers take over a respectable North Italian City", which signified the stark fact that the whole Kennedy political machine was something quite separate from the Democratic party itself. Sworn in as President on 20th January 1961 JFK now found himself faced with a novel dilemma; having spent his entire political career to date simply running for office, there was no longer any higher office to run for and he was now required to actually do something. His tenure in office was to be largely dominated by foreign affairs, firstly by the Berlin crisis which began in August 1961, when the East German government began building the Berlin Wall but principally by the question of Cuba.

Cuba was then (and still is at the moment) a Communist nation located just a few miles south of the coast of Florida. This was a matter of concern to many, particularly such an avowed anti-communist as JFK. The CIA had for some time been training Cuban exiles with the intention of launching some kind of counter-revolution, and it was perhaps therefore inevitable that JFK would succumb to the temptation to authorise an attempt to overthrow the Cuban regime. Unfortunately for the president the landing of the Cuban exile forces at the Bay of Pigs turned out to be a complete and utter disaster. (It should be noted that this plan had nothing to do with Dwight Eisenhower as such, who never authorised any such plan and was later to lampoon Kennedy's actions as a "Profile in Timidity and Indecision". The responsibility for the Bay of Pigs debacle was entirely JFK's as he himself, to his credit, accepted.)

The whole Bay of Pigs debacle had a more serious consequence, since JFK's 'indecision and timidity' convinced the Soviet Union that they had found a president who could be pushed around. His Soviet counterpart Nikita Krushchev became convinced that JFK was "a weak man". He was, as it happens, quite wrong, as JFK's stand over the Cuban missile crisis was to demonstrate, but it does explain why Krushchev thought he could get away with putting nuclear missiles into Cuba in the first place.

As we now know, JFK succeeded in persuading the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba and thus defused the crisis, although his settlement of the crisis seems less impressive these days now that we know that he secretly agreed to remove US Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Greece. The benefit of hindsight also allows us to note that JFK permitted the Soviets to maintain a considerable military presence in Cuba thereafter, which allowed Cuba to later stage its own military interventions in South America and even Africa, much to the detriment of US interests.

Although publicly victorious over Cuba, privately JFK was frustrated at his failure to unseat Fidel Castro and became obsessed with Cuba and the idea of getting rid of their president. He was responsible for a number of attempts to assassinate the Cuban president, some of which were quite bizarre in conception and all of which failed. He also approved the CIA plan to ferment a military coup against Ngo Dinh Diem President of South Vietnam. Although it is said that he was shocked when he heard that this resulted in the murder of both Diem and his wife, this might well be simply regarded as further evidence of his political naivety.

Kennedy and Civil rights

The one domestic issue which the Kennedy presidency was forced to address was that of civil rights. Here it must be said that JFK's reputation as a civil rights activist is largely ill deserved, as even his supporters now admit that his interest in civil rights was "largely motivated by self serving political considerations". This is illustrated by the manner in which whilst still a Senator he voted in favour of a Civil Rights Act, but also supported an amendment that rendered its provisions virtually unenforceable. Indeed his whole position on civil rights was dominated by his desire to appear as both a supporter of civil rights and of the white segregationists in order to win both sets of votes.

Whilst JFK argued for a new Civil Rights Act during his 1960 presidential election campaign (and thus 70 per cent of the Black vote went to Kennedy) as soon as he was elected he simply temporised for the next two years. Indeed the main focus of his administration was to try and persuade civil rights activists such as the Freedom Riders to end their activities, since JFK believed that he needed those southern white votes to get reelected and didn't want anyone else rocking the boat. It is clear that Kennedy didn't really understand civil rights; he was looking for some kind of compromise deal between the civil rights movement and the segregationists that would keep the peace in the south. Thus he was viewed with deep suspicion by the civil rights movement.

It was not until May 1963 that JFK finally understood that civil rights was a moral question rather than a political one, unfortunately he lacked the political skills necessary to get any Civil Rights Act through Congress, and thus any progress was of neccessity delayed.

"I wanna die just like JFK, I wanna die in the USA"
The Jesus and Mary Chain

On Friday, 22nd November 1963 JFK was travelling in a motorcade through Dalley Plaza in Dallas, Texas when he was shot three times by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was himself shot dead two days later in the basement of the Dallas police station by one Jack Ruby. It is perhaps poetic justice that a man who was prepared to sanction assassination as a tool of foreign policy was himself to die by an assassin's bullet.

His successor Lyndon B. Johnson set up the Warren Commission to investigate JFK's death which concluded that Oswald acted alone. Sometime later the House Select Committee on Assassinations came to the slightly different conclusion that Oswald was likely part of a conspiracy to kill the president, although the committee did not uncover sufficient evidence identify precisely who the conspirators were, although the most likely candidates include the Cubans (either variety), the Mafia, or as is often suggested, that most nebulous of concepts the 'military-industrial complex'.

The reality of John F. Kennedy

As if to prove Lincoln's assertion "that you can fool some of the people all of the time" the myth of Camelot has taken a long time to die, but his carefully crafted public image has gradually cracked with a steady stream of revelations regarding his health, his womanising, his contacts with organised crime, the plots to kill Fidel Castro etc etc

It is hard to think of another American political figure of the twentieth century whose image is so much at variance with the truth and it remains a wonder to many as to how a rich conservative of very limited abilities has somehow been transformed into a hero of the American left. It remains a truism that were in not for his father's money it is unlikely that he would have ever been elected to any political office. But such is the nature of American politics; he was not the first, and unlikely to be the last of whom this could be said.

His substantive achievements were limited. All of his domestic policy initiatives in respect of health care, tax reductions and civil rights failed to get anywhere since JFK simply lacked the political skills necessary to get any serious reforms through Congress. Indeed of these policies it was the proposed tax reductions that JFK really cared about at the time, because he thought such cuts would get him re-elected. (It's worth noting that the scale of these proposed tax reductions were pretty substantial, sufficient to cause any modern American liberal to have a fit.) Although some have him given the credit for the Civil Rights Act 1964, this was actually drafted by his brother and passed by LBJ, who did indeed possess the political skills to get the necessary legislation through Congress.

We should however give him credit for not blowing up the world in 1962 (although he did get himself into that particular mess in the first place) and for negotiating the Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the first step in the process that was later to lead to SALT and the ending of the Cold War. To what extent he was responsible for the country's later entanglement in Vietnam is much debated; a great deal depends on whether you accept the assessment of Robert McNamara that JFK would have pulled out of Vietnam rather than become involved in a fruitless ground war.

He had a team of very able speech writers, most notably Theodore Sorenson, and orated a number of particularly memorable addresses which many people found genuinely inspiring. (Although presumably they had an off day when they had JFK refer to himself as a 'jam doughnut' in West Berlin.) No one of course, knows to what extent JFK actually believed what he was saying; certainly as a presidential candidate and later as president he began espousing views that were far more liberal than those which he appeared to have held whilst a Congressman. Some have suggested that his experience of campaigning in the West Virginia primary, when he discovered (much to his surprise) that there was such a thing as poverty in the United States, explained his conversion. Others suggest that he simply said what was necessary to bring home the votes of the Democratic faithful.

Admittedly he'd shag anything in a skirt, he treated his wife appalingly, and he was nowhere near as smart as brother Bobby, but he does appear as a very likeable character, possessing considerable quantities of personal charm which was of great value in the business of winning votes, and in bringing the media onside. And despite his earlier posturing he did eventually come to the conclusion that constitutional rights should be applied to all regardless of the colour of their skin, which in the context of American politics in the early 1960s was a fairly revolutionary position to adopt. Although a very long way from being a 'great president', his career was tragically cut short by his assassination and it could be argued that he was simply denied the opportunity to truly make his mark.


SOURCES

  • Robert Dallek, John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life (2003)
  • Paul Johnson, History of the American People Weidenfeld and Nicholson (2000)
  • John F. Kennedy at www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAkennedyJ.htm
  • The official biography at http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/jk35.html

John F. Kennedy was a fascinating figure, although no more fascinating than most of the other people that held the highest office in the United States. As a historian, what I find most interesting about him is the way he represents a lost consensus in American foreign policy, an era when the left wing and the right wing agreed on fundamental questions. Perhaps the questions became more complex, or perhaps one of the wings lost their way. That's not for me to say, at least not here. But consider what this liberal hero did - he started the American war in Vietnam, he sent the CIA to overthrow a foreign leader, and he faced down "the enemy" with a steel that we on the right sometimes wish his successors might have shared.

Kennedy was president at a time when the United States was transfixed by the Cold War, when the threat that the Soviet Union posed to the western world seemed obvious, and when the American left was particularly keen to demonstrate to voters that it understood this. These three conditions converged to produce Kennedy's foreign policy, and the consequences of his foreign policy eventually led to the reversal of them all. They all died in the jungles of Vietnam.

I think I write a generally accepted truth when I say that in our collective memory the 1950s were a decade of restraint and the 1960s were a decade of liberation. The '60s call to mind the pill, civil rights, and student rebellion. Kennedy, his life tragically cut short, became a symbol of this decade of liberation - but what isn't often appreciated is how he liberated American security and foreign policy from its contraints, with consequences that many Kennedy fans would be less than willing to praise.

Kennedy came after Dwight Eisenhower, a crusty old conservative whose belief in avoiding budget deficits was so great that he took the rare step in American history of attempting to limit the goals he set for the country because he was aware of its limited means. His approach to the Cold War was simple - tell the Commies that if they didn't watch themselves, they were gonna get nuked. Unfortunately, what he possessed in simplicity he lacked in credibility; it was difficult for anyone to believe that the United States would resort to nuclear war to solve every little dispute, but Eisenhower was unwilling to fund every facet of military power to allow for less dramatic means of response. He left office warning of the danger of allowing a military-industrial complex to emerge. Kennedy, it would transpire, was more willing to spend money on the military and avoid the cheap but suspect tactic of relying on mutually assured destruction.

This was an argument over how best to wage the Cold War and face down the Soviets, not the importance of doing so. And when Kennedy got into power, his fascination with ingenious ways of taking on Communism was legendary - no less so than in his love of counterinsurgency, an American tradition which lives on in Afghanistan today. Thus emerged the paradox of a president who believed equally in both the Green Berets and the Peace Corps.

Kennedy didn't realize it at first, but his main foreign policy problem was in Vietnam. Luckily, he already had an idea for dealing with it - counterinsurgency. It couldn't be more different from a nuclear war - American soldiers on the ground, among the native people, working against Viet Cong insurgents to fight them on their level and to deliver the benefits of American democracy and social progress. Kennedy wasn't above being taken in by the James Bond mystique, either - a demonstration for him of the prowess of the Green Berets at Fort Bragg, Carolina involved one plucky soldier taking off on a jet pack. Whether the equipment was ever used in combat is unclear - what is clear is Kennedy's belief in the ability of American technology and power.

The application of Kennedy's confidence to Vietnam would have been his undoing, had he lived long enough - and as it was, it proved the undoing of his successors. Kennedy tried to put the United States in the guerrilla warfare business so that it could win the Cold War in Asia, and he had his reasons - a belief that China and the Soviet Union were trying to expand their influence there, and a mortal fear that the loss of Vietnam to Communism would wound him domestically. Democrats were haunted in those years by the loss of China to Communism in 1949, and the charge that Harry Truman could have prevented it - Kennedy didn't want to have to answer for the loss of Vietnam. But he also sincerely believed in the importance of defending it.

But Vietnam spiralled down into violence and desperation, and Kennedy was dead before he could address it. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was intellectually overawed by Kennedy and kept the latter's advisors always at his side - as the situation in Vietnam got worse, they kept committing more American troops to try to reverse the tide. They never abandoned Kennedy's belief that the United States could profoundly affect the course of a foreign war, even one which had such obvious social and political roots.

But gradually the country changed around them. As tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese died, the American public began to question whether they could ever win, and whether it would be worth the cost if they did. The enormous sacrifices made by the GIs and the suffering of the Vietnamese were a very real demonstration of what a belief in America's role in policing the world meant. A decade of opportunity for the United States to change the world became a decade of disappointment, and those on the left rebelled against the Kennedy model. They would rarely trust American power to do good again. Sometimes, they would even forget what their hero taught - and what he did.

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