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.