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Summary Article: JOHN F. KENNEDY from The Presidents, First Ladies, and Vice Presidents: White House Biographies, 1789-2009
  • BORN: May 29, 1917; Brookline, Massachusetts
  • PARTY: Democratic
  • TERM: January 20, 1961 -November 22, 1963
  • VICE PRESIDENT: Lyndon B. Johnson
  • DIED: November 22, 1963; Dallas, Texas
  • BURIED: Arlington, Virginia

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the second of the nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. John's mother was the daughter of a former mayor of Boston. His father was a millionaire who had made his fortune in banking, real estate, and other financial ventures. In 1937 Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Joseph Kennedy ambassador to Great Britain, a position he resigned in December 1940 when he became pessimistic about Britain's chances for survival during World War II. He returned to the United States, where his advocacy of isolationism caused a falling out with Roosevelt, who did not appoint him to another post.

John graduated in the middle of his class from Choate, a preparatory school in Wallingford, Connecticut. After attending the London School of Economics during the summer of 1935, he enrolled at Princeton University, but an illness forced him to withdraw after two months. In 1936 he entered Harvard University, where he studied economics and political science. Kennedy was an average student, but his grades improved dramatically at the end of his college career, and he graduated with honors in 1940. Why England Slept, his senior thesis published in book form, was an examination of British appeasement of fascism before World War II.

In 1941 Kennedy tried to enter the army, but he was rejected because of a bad back caused by a football injury. He strengthened his back through exercise and passed the navy's physical later that year. He received a commission as an ensign in October 1941. After attending PT (patrol torpedo) boat training, he was given command of a PT boat in the South Pacific in April 1943. On August 2, 1943, his boat, PT109, was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Eleven of his thirteen crew members survived, and he led them on a four-hour swim to a nearby island. During the swim he towed an injured crew member by a life preserver strap. Kennedy and his crew were rescued after friendly natives took a message carved on a coconut to nearby Allied personnel. After the ordeal Kennedy was sent back to the United States, where he was hospitalized for malaria. In 1944 he underwent a disc operation and was discharged the following year.

Kennedy worked briefly as a reporter for the International News Service, then decided to run for Congress from his Massachusetts district. He was elected in 1946 and served three terms before being elected to the Senate in 1952. In 1954 and 1955, he underwent two more operations for his chronic back condition. While convalescing, Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, a book about senators who had demonstrated courage during their careers. The book became a best seller and earned Kennedy the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography.

In 1956 Kennedy tried to secure the Democratic vice-presidential nomination on the ticket with Adlai Stevenson. After leading on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Kennedy lost the nomination to Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Despite this defeat Kennedy's political reputation continued to grow. In 1957 he was assigned to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he gained foreign policy experience. In 1958 he won reelection to the Senate by a record margin in Massachusetts.

By 1960 Kennedy was the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. His rivals for the nomination were Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, and former Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Kennedy prevailed on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in July 1960 and convinced Lyndon Johnson, who had finished second, to be his running mate.

Kennedy's opponent was Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy and Nixon engaged in a series of four televised debates, the first in presidential election history. Out of almost 69 million votes cast, Kennedy received only 120,000 more than Nixon. Kennedy won in the electoral college 303–219.

Kennedy was the youngest person ever to be elected president, although Theodore Roosevelt was younger than Kennedy when he succeeded to the presidency after the death of William McKinley. Kennedy's youth, idealism, and attractive family would make him one of the most popular presidents of the twentieth century. His administration came to be known as “Camelot” because of its romantic image.

Soon after entering office Kennedy endorsed a CIA plan developed during the Eisenhower presidency to arm, train, and land 1,400 Cuban exiles in Cuba in an attempt to overthrow the communist regime of Fidel Castro. The April 17, 1961, operation, which came to be known as the Bay of Pigs invasion, was a complete failure as twelve hundred of the Cuban exiles were captured. The president accepted full responsibility for the blunder.

Cuba had been the site of Kennedy's greatest foreign policy failure, but it was also the place of his most memorable foreign policy success. In October 1962 Kennedy was informed that aerial reconnaissance photography proved conclusively that the Soviets were building offensive missile bases in Cuba. Kennedy believed Soviet missiles in Cuba would seriously diminish U.S. national security and increase the chances that the Soviets would try to blackmail the United States into concessions in other parts of the world. The president demanded that the bases be dismantled, but he rejected the option of an air strike against the sites in favor of a naval blockade of the island. The confrontation brought the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, but the Soviets ultimately backed down and agreed to remove the missiles.

Tensions decreased following the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the incident spurred the Soviets to undertake a military buildup that enabled them to achieve nuclear parity with the United States by the late 1960s. In 1963 Kennedy concluded an important arms control treaty with Britain, France, and the Soviet Union that banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water.

Outside of superpower relations, Kennedy increased U.S. involvement in the developing world. In 1961 he established the Peace Corps, an agency that sent skilled volunteers overseas to assist people of underdeveloped countries. He also initiated the Alliance for Progress, an aid program aimed at developing the resources of Latin America.

In domestic policy, Kennedy made substantial progress in furthering the cause of civil rights. He advocated school desegregation, established a program to encourage registration of African American voters, issued rules against discrimination in public housing built with federal funds, and appointed an unprecedented number of blacks to public office. Kennedy used federal troops several times to maintain order and enforce the law in the South during the civil rights movement. He sent federal troops and officials to oversee the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the University of Alabama in 1963. That year he proposed sweeping civil rights legislation, but it did not come to a vote during his lifetime.

Kennedy also tried unsuccessfully to convince Congress to cut taxes. The president's advisers convinced him that a tax cut would stimulate the economy and bring growth without large budget deficits or inflation. After Kennedy's death, President Lyndon Johnson was able to secure passage of the Kennedy tax cut and civil rights legislation.

During the fall of 1963 Kennedy made several trips around the country to build political support for his reelection bid the following year. In late November he scheduled a trip to Texas. While riding through Dallas in an open car on November 22, Kennedy was shot once in the head and once in the neck. He died at a nearby hospital without regaining consciousness. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president that afternoon.

Police quickly apprehended the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, a former marine who had once renounced his U.S. citizenship and lived in the Soviet Union. Initial investigations concluded that Oswald had shot Kennedy with a rifle from a sixth-story window of the Texas School Book Depository building. Three days after the shooting, Oswald was murdered in front of millions of television viewers by Jack Ruby, owner of a Dallas nightclub. The Warren Commission, a seven-member panel appointed by President Johnson to investigate the assassination, determined that Oswald acted alone. But Oswald's violent death, his unknown motivation, the difficulty of a single marksman firing several accurate shots so quickly, and other peculiarities surrounding the assassination have fostered speculation that Oswald may have been part of a conspiracy.

Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier on September 12, 1953. They had three children, but their youngest son, who had been born several weeks prematurely, died of a respiratory ailment two days after birth on August 9, 1963. Kennedy's children, Caroline and John Jr., the first young children of a president living in the White House since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, were favorite subjects of the news media. Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline, married Greek shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis on October 29, 1968. She died May 19, 1994, at age sixty-four and was buried beside President Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. John F. Kennedy Jr. (or “John-John”) died on July 16, 1999, when the plane he was piloting crashed into the sea off the Massachusetts coast. His wife and her sister perished with him.

Copyright CQ Press © 2009

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