By the end of the nineteenth century, both of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's grandfathers were important figures in the world of Boston Democratic politics. His father, who was the first member of the Irish Catholic family to attend and graduate from Harvard College, turned his considerable talents to business. In the 1920s, Joseph Kennedy amassed a fortune in banking, securities speculation, and the new motion picture industry. His social and financial success enabled the Kennedy children to penetrate the bastions of New England and New York society.
John F. Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He attended Choate School, spent a year at Princeton College, and then went to Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1940. While John was still in college, his father was appointed ambassador to Great Britain, and John Kennedy spent several vacations and part of a school year in England and on the Continent. Out of these experiences came a senior thesis, which recounted and condemned England's prewar policy of appeasement. Published as Why England Slept, it became a best seller in 1940.
After a brief attendance at Stanford Business School in 1941, Kennedy enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served as the commander of a torpedo boat (PT 109), which was sunk in a 1943 South Pacific engagement; this event was heavily publicized in Kennedy's subsequent political career.
Upon his discharge from the service, Kennedy worked for a few months as a journalist before he plunged into a campaign for Boston's 11th district U.S. House seat. Backed by his father, who had long held political ambitions for his sons, Kennedy waged a well-planned, vigorous effort, which proved a prototype of his future campaigns. Elected with little difficulty from the predominantly Irish–Italian district, Kennedy usually voted with other northern liberals in Congress. His tenure in the lower chamber was a conventional one, although he created a small furor in 1949, when he attacked President Harry S. Truman and the State Department for what he considered the unnecessary loss of mainland China to the communists.
In 1952, Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate against the popular incumbent senator from Massachusetts, Republican Henry Cabot Lodge. Despite Dwight D. Eisenhower's easy win in the state, Kennedy demonstrated remarkable popularity by defeating Lodge by approximately 70,000 votes. As a senator, Kennedy's first few years in office were marked by pivotal personal and political events that shaped his future career. In September 1953, he married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, a beautiful, cultured woman of 24 who would later gain an immense following as the first lady. In October of the next year, Kennedy underwent a long, difficult back operation. His hospitalization and lengthy recuperation forced his absence from Senate business when the upper house debated censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). Although Kennedy had earlier opposed some of McCarthy's methods, he considered the Wisconsin senator popular in heavily Catholic Massachusetts, and he took advantage of his absence to avoid taking a stand when the Senate voted for censure in December 1954. Kennedy later endorsed the Senate's vote, but his equivocation on the issue made him suspect in some sections of the liberal and intellectual community when he ran for president five years later.
During the months when he was convalescing from his back operation, Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, a study of fidelity to political principle exhibited by seven American politicians over a 150-year period. The book, published in early 1956, was a best seller and gave Kennedy important national exposure.
Kennedy nominated Adlai Stevenson for president at the Democratic National Convention in 1956. When Stevenson threw the vice presidential nomination open to the convention, Kennedy and a few aides organized a spirited campaign for the second place on the ticket. They lost to Senator Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) on the third ballot, but Kennedy again achieved widespread political recognition, immediately beginning to lay the groundwork for a 1960 presidential campaign. Over the next three years, he made some 1,000 speeches in all parts of the nation, demonstrated his formidable popularity by winning reelection to the Senate by almost 1 million votes in 1958, and carefully built a national legislative record that would appeal to Democratic Party liberals and moderates.
By the time he officially announced his candidacy in January 1960, Kennedy held a slight edge in the opinion polls over his chief rivals, Senators Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), Lyndon Johnson (D-Tex.), and Stuart Symington (D-Mo.). In addition to his substantial personal and family wealth, Kennedy's greatest asset was a tightly knit, brilliantly staffed campaign organization. His brother Robert Kennedy served as campaign manager; legislative aide Theodore Sorensen wrote many of his speeches; experienced political professionals Lawrence O'Brien and Kenneth O'Donnell took on the often delicate task of winning the candidate support among other powerful forces in the Democratic Party.
Kennedy and his staff decided that the candidate's youth and his Catholicism were the two greatest obstacles to the nomination. Their strategy, therefore, was to prove Kennedy's electability by entering and winning a series of Democratic state primaries. Two contests were crucial—Wisconsin in April and West Virginia in May. Against Senator Humphrey, Kennedy carried Wisconsin by a relatively close four-to-three margin, but an analysis of the vote indicated that Catholics and Protestants divided heavily along religious lines when marking their ballots. This made West Virginia, with a 95 percent Protestant population, even more decisive. Kennedy mounted a major organizational and financial effort in the state and surprised political observers by capturing 61 percent of the vote, thereby convincing Humphrey to withdraw as an active contender.
By the time the Los Angeles Democratic National Convention opened in July, Kennedy had won delegates in seven state primaries and had lined up the vital support of such important political leaders as Chicago mayor Richard Daley, Pennsylvania governor David Lawrence, and Ohio governor Michael DiSalle. On the first ballot, Kennedy captured the nomination with 806 votes to 409 for his chief rival, Lyndon Johnson, who received most of his support from the South and West. To balance the ticket, Kennedy then selected Johnson as his vice presidential running mate, a choice that provoked immediate, if transitory, anger among many liberals in the party.
In the general election campaign, neither Kennedy nor his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, could find an issue that sharply divided them. Both thought foreign policy the overriding issue in the election. Both favored a strong defense and vigorous diplomacy to ensure continued American leadership of the West. Although Kennedy took a somewhat less aggressive stance than did his rival on the need to defend Nationalist China's island outposts, the Democratic candidate criticized the Republicans for not taking stronger action against Cuba, and he warned of an ominous, but later disproven, “missile gap” between the United States and the USSR. At home Kennedy promised to “get the country moving again,” although he avoided direct attacks on President Dwight Eisenhower because he recognized and feared the incumbent's immense popularity.
Despite a lack of political controversy, Kennedy's presidential campaign was one of the most effective and resourceful in recent history. He defused the religious issue by declaring his adherence to the “absolute” separation of church and state before a televised meeting of the Houston Ministerial Association in September. Late the next month, Kennedy won new support in the black community when he made a sympathetic phone call to Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., after her husband was jailed in a civil rights incident. Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy called the local judge and secured King's release.
John Kennedy's charm, wit, and sophistication won him the respect of much of the working press, while his boyish good looks and glamorous family and associates excited campaign crowds and brought the word “charisma” into vogue. Many political observers thought the turning point in the campaign came on September 26 during the first of four televised debates between the two candidates. Kennedy, who had sought the debate, proved confident and vigorous, while his opponent, still recovering from a two-week hospital stay, appeared hesitant and weary. Neither candidate “won” the debate, but Kennedy's cool, relaxed style proved attractive to many viewers.
In the election, a record turnout gave Kennedy the victory by a mere 113,057-vote margin—the smallest of the twentieth century. He carried fewer states than Nixon but defeated his opponent in the electoral college vote, 219 to 303, because the Democratic Party carried most of the big industrial states as well as the Deep South. Political analysts later reported that the religious issue had had a major impact on voting patterns. Kennedy lost much of Protestant Appalachia, but probably more than counterbalanced these defections by capturing a solid Catholic vote in the urban North.
Kennedy assumed the presidency determined to give the office the activist orientation he thought it lacked under Eisenhower. The president, Kennedy had declared in his campaign, “must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office—all that are specified and some that are not.” Decision making in the White House would be “tough-minded” and “pragmatic,” unswayed by sentimentality, ideology, or the pull of interest and faction. Kennedy later spelled out the rationale behind his self-confidence. “Most of the problems … that we now face,” he told a Yale audience in June 1962, “are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of ‘passionate movements’ which have stirred this country so often in the past.”
The new president assembled a cabinet that reflected his own sense of political realism and pragmatic liberalism. Kennedy appointed many of his early liberal backers to top domestic policy posts. Connecticut governor Abraham Ribicoff took over the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and AFL-CIO counsel Arthur Goldberg was put in charge at the Labor Department. Other liberals such as Stewart Udall (Interior) and Orville Freeman (Agriculture) also joined the cabinet.
In contrast, Kennedy ignored the liberal wing of his party when he chose men to fill the offices he considered sensitive. Amid some controversy, he appointed his brother Robert as attorney general. He unhesitatingly reappointed conservatives Allen Dulles and J. Edgar Hoover to lead the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation, respectively. Finally, Kennedy gave individuals closely associated with the Eastern Establishment the posts he thought most vital. Moderate Republicans Robert S. McNamara and C. Douglas Dillon were appointed to head the Departments of Defense and the Treasury, respectively. Kennedy chose the rather colorless head of the Rockefeller Foundation, Dean Rusk, as Secretary of State. The new president planned to conduct American diplomacy himself and saw in Rusk a man who would administer the State Department without threatening White House dominance in international affairs.
Kennedy considered the conduct of foreign affairs his most important responsibility and his most difficult challenge. In an inaugural address devoted almost exclusively to world affairs, he pledged the nation “to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Kennedy thought the Cold War was at its “hour of maximum danger,” and he called for sacrifice and commitment by all citizens. In what became the most memorable line in a speech that many historians then considered the best since Lincoln's, Kennedy proclaimed, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
With his most influential foreign policy advisers, General Maxwell Taylor, McGeorge Bundy, and Robert McNamara—“the best and the brightest” as David Halberstam would later call them—the president sought a new and more effective strategy for countering the communist military and political threat. These New Frontiersmen held their fiscally conservative and ideologically rigid predecessors responsible for a dangerous overreliance on the nuclear deterrent. Kennedy foreign policy strategists sought a more “flexible” response to the communists, one that would counter the enemy regardless of the form its offensive took: local brushfire insurgencies, ideological warfare, or diplomatic maneuver.
The Peace Corps, Food for Peace, the Alliance for Progress, and economic aid for underdeveloped nations and for the dissident communist regimes of Yugoslavia and Poland were programs inaugurated or increased by the administration as part of its more flexible strategy in the Cold War. At the same time Kennedy favored an expanded military establishment possessing sufficient conventional, nuclear, and counterinsurgency forces to effectively oppose any level of communist aggression.
During his first year in office, Kennedy faced a difficult series of diplomatic and military pressures and reverses. He accepted the neutralization of Laos in early 1961 as the most advantageous solution to a troublesome local situation. In April, the president suffered a personal humiliation when a CIA-planned exile invasion of Cuba was routed at the Bay of Pigs. Later in the spring, the Soviets stepped up their pressure on West Berlin and demanded that the West recognize as permanent the postwar division of Germany. When Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June, the new president appeared shaken by the Russian leader's intransigence and believed he had failed to make a strong impression on the premier.
While Kennedy could do little to rectify the American situation in Laos or Cuba, he was determined to demonstrate U.S. firmness in Berlin. In July, the president reaffirmed the American will to defend West Berlin by ordering 250,000 reservists to active duty and asking Congress for another increase in the military budget. At the same time, he outlined a sweeping civil defense program designed to show the Russians America's willingness to risk nuclear war over the German city. The USSR responded to the crisis by building the Berlin Wall in August and letting the issue of a German settlement die by the end of the year.
Kennedy confronted his most serious Cold War crisis in October 1962, when American intelligence discovered that the Soviets had begun to install offensive missiles in Cuba. Working closely with his brother Robert, Kennedy rejected the views of his advisers who favored an immediate air strike, but he also opposed an extended period of negotiations or a public trade-off of Soviet missiles in Cuba for American rockets in Italy or Turkey. Instead, Kennedy and a special committee of the National Security Council, which met each day to “manage” the crisis, decided to impose a “quarantine” of the island, a measure that went into effect on October 24. On October 28, the Soviets turned back from the potential naval confrontation and agreed to remove their Cuban missiles. We were “eyeball to eyeball,” said Dean Rusk, “They blinked first.”
When Khrushchev later suggested that negotiations be reopened regarding a long-deferred Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Kennedy quickly assented. Disagreement over on-site inspection of underground nuclear tests stalled the talks, but in a speech delivered at American University on June 10, 1963, Kennedy announced that he was sending Averell Harriman to Moscow to negotiate a more limited test ban agreement excluding the controversial underground tests. In July, a limited nuclear test ban agreement was initialed in Moscow and, with surprisingly little domestic opposition, ratified by the Senate in September. It was Kennedy's most enduring achievement in foreign affairs.
Kennedy sought to act boldly in the diplomatic arena, but he was far more timid at home, especially in his relationship with Congress. The election had given him no popular mandate; in fact, the Democrats lost 20 seats in the House in 1960. In Congress a coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans dominated much of the legislative progress. The New Frontier, therefore, shaped its legislative program in a cautious fashion. Truman-era programs—such as health insurance for the aged, Medicare, and federal aid to education—were reintroduced, but no new civil rights or labor legislation was sent to Capitol Hill from the White House.
Taking office in the midst of the fourth recession since World War II, Kennedy gave economic recovery and sustained growth a personal priority second only to foreign affairs. His two most important economic advisers were Treasury Secretary Dillon and Walter Heller, the Keynesian economist who headed the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). During his first two years as president, Kennedy deferred to Dillon's conservative fears that an overly stimulative fiscal policy would upset the balance of payments and ignite a round of inflation. The administration's economic legislation was, therefore, of a limited and orthodox scope, including modest increases in the budget for social programs, a 7 percent investment tax credit for business, and the Trade Expansion Act in 1962. Although Congress passed most of these proposals, the economy remained sluggish into early 1963, when Kennedy finally agreed to Heller's long-deferred suggestion of a $10 billion tax cut to stimulate economic growth. The business community quickly backed the innovation, but fiscal conservatives in Congress delayed the legislation's passage until 1964. Combined with the mounting military and space expenditures of the mid-1960s, the Kennedy tax cut provided much of the basis for the longest period of sustained economic growth in the postwar era.
Kennedy's stimulative economic policies made his administration acutely sensitive to inflationary pressures. Because most trade unionists considered Kennedy to be a friendly chief executive, they agreed to keep wage increases within what the CEA considered noninflationary wage guideposts. Ironically, it was the administration's downward pressure on wages that led to a dramatic confrontation with the steel industry over prices. Kennedy had personally used his prestige with labor to keep the 1962 round of wage increases in the steel industry the lowest in 20 years. The president was, therefore, enraged when U.S. Steel and other major producers announced a $6 per ton price increase on April 10.
Because the president hoped to enlist southern support for his domestic economic programs, he moved cautiously in the field of civil rights. He made frequent personal efforts to befriend powerful southern congressmen and appointed several segregationist southerners to federal judgeships in the Deep South. He also delayed signing for almost two years an executive order, promised in his campaign, to ban segregation in federally subsidized housing. The president was sympathetic to the demands of black Americans, but he mistrusted the passions aroused by the civil rights issue and the unpredictable impact of the movement on his ability to command the political initiative. Kennedy and his brother consistently urged moderation on black leaders, especially with regard to public marches and demonstrations.
The rising tempo of the civil rights movement in the South soon forced the administration to put its weight behind Negro demands. Federal marshals were used to ensure the integration of the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama. In April and May 1963, massive and tumultuous demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, forced Kennedy to commit himself to the legislative battle over civil rights he had long sought to avoid. Declaring that the issue was “moral” as well as “legal,” in June Kennedy submitted a civil rights bill to Congress far stronger than any he had contemplated before. Although the bill, chiefly designed to desegregate public accommodations, was blocked by southern resistance for almost a year, Kennedy enjoyed an unprecedented popularity among black Americans at the time of his death.
Looking forward to a sharp, issues-oriented campaign against the probable Republican presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Kennedy scheduled a series of political trips beginning in the fall of 1963. Among the most important was a four-day visit to Texas, where he hoped to unite the Democratic Party in the state by moderating the long-standing feud between factions identified with conservative governor John Connally and liberal senator Ralph Yarborough. While riding in a Dallas motorcade early on the afternoon of November 22, Kennedy was shot and killed with a high-powered rifle fired by Lee Harvey Oswald.
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