John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963), commonly referred to by his initials JFK, was an American politician who served as the 35th President of the United States from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963. The Cuban Missile Crisis, The Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the establishment of the Peace Corps, developments in the Space Race, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Trade Expansion Act to lower tariffs, and the Civil Rights Movement all took place during Kennedy’s presidency. His “New Frontier” domestic program was largely enacted as a memorial to him after his death. Kennedy increased the number of American military advisors in South Vietnam by a factor of 18 over Eisenhower and tolerated a military coup against the country’s president.
Kennedy’s time in office was marked by high tensions with Communist states, particularly Cuba. An attempt in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs to overthrow the country’s dictator, Fidel Castro, was thwarted by Cuban armed forces within three days. Kennedy’s administration subsequently rejected plans by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to orchestrate false-flag attacks on American soil in order to gain public approval for a war against Cuba. In October 1962, it was discovered Soviet ballistic missiles had been deployed in Cuba; the resulting period of unease, often termed the Cuban Missile Crisis, is seen by many historians as the closest the human race has ever come to war featuring the use of nuclear weapons by more than one side.
Campaign to become president
On January 2, 1960, Kennedy initiated his campaign for president in the Democratic primary election, where he faced challenges from Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. Kennedy defeated Humphrey in Wisconsin and West Virginia, Morse in Maryland and Oregon, as well as token opposition (often write-in candidates) in New Hampshire, Indiana, and Nebraska.
At the Democratic Convention, he gave his well-known “New Frontier” speech, saying: “For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won—and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier…. But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”
In September and October 1960, Kennedy appeared with vice president and Republican candidate Richard Nixon in the first televised US presidential debates in US history. During these programs, Nixon, with a sore, injured leg and his “five o’clock shadow”, was perspiring and looked tense and uncomfortable, while Kennedy, choosing to avail himself of makeup services, appeared relaxed, leading the huge television audience to favour Kennedy as the winner. Radio listeners either thought Nixon had won or that the debates were a draw. The debates are now considered a milestone in American political history—the point at which the medium of television began to play a dominant role in politics.
Kennedy’s campaign gained momentum after the first debate, and he pulled slightly ahead of Nixon in most polls. On November 8, Kennedy defeated Nixon in one of the closest presidential elections of the 20th century. In the national popular vote, Kennedy led Nixon by just two-tenths of one percent (49.7% to 49.5%), while in the Electoral College, he won 303 votes to Nixon’s 219 (269 were needed to win).
John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president at noon on January 20, 1961. In his inaugural address he spoke of the need for all Americans to be active citizens, famously saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He asked the nations of the world to join together to fight what he called the “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself”.
He added: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” In closing, he expanded on his desire for greater internationalism: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.”
The address reflected Kennedy’s confidence that his administration would chart an historically significant course in both domestic policy and foreign affairs. The contrast between this optimistic vision and the pressures of managing daily political realities at home and abroad would be one of the main tensions running through the early years of his administration.
President Kennedy’s foreign policy was dominated by American confrontations with the Soviet Union, manifested by proxy contests in the early stage of the Cold War. In 1961, Kennedy anxiously anticipated a summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The president started off on the wrong foot by reacting aggressively to a routine Khrushchev speech on Cold War confrontation in early 1961. The speech was intended for domestic audiences in the Soviet Union, but Kennedy interpreted it as a personal challenge. His mistake helped raise tensions going into the Vienna Summit of June 1961.
On the way to the summit, Kennedy stopped in Paris to meet Charles de Gaulle, who advised Kennedy to ignore Khrushchev’s abrasive style. The French president feared the United States’ presumed influence in Europe. Nevertheless, de Gaulle was quite impressed with the young president and his family. Kennedy picked up on this in his speech in Paris, saying that he would be remembered as “the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris.”
On June 4, 1961, the president met with Khrushchev in Vienna and left the meetings angry and disappointed that he had allowed the Premier to bully him, despite the warnings he had received. Khrushchev, for his part, was impressed with the president’s intelligence, but thought him weak. Kennedy did succeed in conveying the bottom line to Khrushchev on the most sensitive issue before them, a proposed treaty between Moscow and East Berlin. He made it clear that any such treaty which interfered with U.S access rights in West Berlin would be regarded as an act of war.
Cuba and the Bay of Pigs Invasion
The prior Eisenhower administration had created a plan to overthrow the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba. The plan, led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with help from the US military, was for an invasion of Cuba by a counter-revolutionary insurgency composed of US-trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles led by CIA paramilitary officers. The intention was to invade Cuba and instigate an uprising among the Cuban people in hopes of removing Castro from power.
On April 17, 1961, Kennedy ordered what became known as the “Bay of Pigs Invasion”: 1,500 US-trained Cubans, called “Brigade 2506”, landed on the island. No US air support was provided. Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, later stated that they thought the president would authorize any action required for success once the troops were on the ground.
By April 19, 1961, the Cuban government had captured or killed the invading exiles, and Kennedy was forced to negotiate for the release of the 1,189 survivors. After twenty months, Cuba released the captured exiles in exchange for $53 million worth of food and medicine. The incident made Castro wary of the US and led him to believe another invasion would occur.
Cuban Missile Crisis
On October 14, 1962, CIA U-2 spy planes took photographs of intermediate-range ballistic missile sites being built in Cuba by the Soviets. The photos were shown to Kennedy on October 16; a consensus was reached that the missiles were offensive in nature and thus posed an immediate nuclear threat.
Kennedy faced a dilemma: if the US attacked the sites, it might lead to nuclear war with the USSR, but if the US did nothing, it would be faced with the increased threat from close-range nuclear weapons. The US would also appear to the world as less committed to the defense of the hemisphere. On a personal level, Kennedy needed to show resolve in reaction to Khrushchev, especially after the Vienna summit.
More than a third of the members of the National Security Council (NSC) favored an unannounced air assault on the missile sites, but for some of them this conjured up an image of “Pearl Harbor in reverse”. There was also some reaction from the international community (asked in confidence), that the assault plan was an overreaction in light of US missiles that had been placed in Turkey by Eisenhower. There could also be no assurance that the assault would be 100% effective. In concurrence with a majority-vote of the NSC, Kennedy decided on a naval quarantine. On October 22 he dispatched a message to Khrushchev and announced the decision on TV.
The US Navy would stop and inspect all Soviet ships arriving off Cuba, beginning October 24. The Organization of American States gave unanimous support to the removal of the missiles. The president exchanged two sets of letters with Khrushchev, to no avail.United Nations (UN) Secretary General U Thant requested that both parties reverse their decisions and enter a cooling-off period. Khrushchev said yes, but Kennedy said no.
One Soviet-flagged ship was stopped and boarded. On October 28 Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missile sites, subject to UN inspections. The US publicly promised never to invade Cuba and privately agreed to remove its missiles in Turkey, which were by then obsolete and had been supplanted by submarines equipped with UGM-27 Polaris missiles.
This crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any point before or since. In the end, “the humanity” of the two men prevailed. The crisis improved the image of American willpower and the president’s credibility. Kennedy’s approval rating increased from 66% to 77% immediately thereafter.
When briefing Kennedy, Eisenhower emphasized that the communist threat in Southeast Asia required priority; Eisenhower considered Laos to be “the cork in the bottle” in regards to the regional threat. In March 1961, Kennedy voiced a change in policy from supporting a “free” Laos to a “neutral” Laos, indicating privately that Vietnam, and not Laos, should be deemed America’s tripwire for communism’s spread in the area.
In May 1961 he dispatched Lyndon Johnson to meet with South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. Johnson assured Diem more aid in molding a fighting force that could resist the communists. Kennedy announced a change of policy from support to partnership with Diem in defeat of communism in South Vietnam.
During his administration, Kennedy continued policies that provided political and economic support and military advice and support to the South Vietnamese government.Late in 1961, the Viet Cong began assuming a predominant presence, initially seizing the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh. Kennedy increased the number of military advisors and special forces US Special Forces in the area, from 11,000 in 1962 to 16,000 by late 1963, but he was reluctant to order a full-scale deployment of troops. Before his assassination, Kennedy used almost exclusively military advisors and special forces in Vietnam. A year and one-half later, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, committed the first combat troops to Vietnam and greatly escalated US involvement, with forces reaching 184,000 that year and 536,000 in 1968.
When Robert Kennedy was asked in 1964 what his brother would have done if the South Vietnamese had been on the brink of defeat, he replied, “We’d face that when we came to it.” At the time of Kennedy’s death, no final policy decision had been made as to Vietnam. In 2008, Theodore Sorensen wrote “I would like to believe that Kennedy would have found a way to withdraw all American instructors and advisors [from Vietnam]. But even someone who knew JFK as well as I did can’t be certain, because I do not believe he knew in his last weeks what he was going to do.” Sorensen added that, in his opinion, Vietnam “was the only foreign policy problem handed off by JFK to his successor in no better, and possibly worse, shape than it was when he inherited it.” US involvement in the region escalated until Lyndon Johnson, his successor, directly deployed regular US military forces for fighting the Vietnam War. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson passed NSAM 273 on November 26, 1963. It reversed Kennedy’s decision to withdraw 1,000 troops, and reaffirmed the policy of assistance to the South Vietnamese.
West Berlin speech
In 1963, Germany was enduring a time of particular vulnerability due to Soviet aggression to the east and the impending retirement of West German Chancellor Adenauer. At the same time, French President Charles de Gaulle was trying to build a Franco-West German counterweight to the American and Soviet spheres of influence. To Kennedy’s eyes, this Franco-German cooperation seemed directed against NATO’s influence in Europe.
On June 26, President Kennedy gave a public speech in West Berlin reiterating the American commitment to Germany and criticising communism. He was met with an ecstatic response from a massive audience.
Kennedy used the construction of the Berlin Wall as an example of the failures of communism: “Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” The speech is known for its famous phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a citizen of Berlin”). A million people were on the street for the speech. He remarked to Ted Sorensen afterwards: “We’ll never have another day like this one, as long as we live.”
The turbulent end of state-sanctioned racial discrimination was one of the most pressing domestic issues of the 1960s. Jim Crow segregation was the established law in the Deep South. The Supreme Court of the United States had ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Many schools, especially in southern states, did not obey the Supreme Court’s decision. The Court also prohibited segregation at other public facilities (such as buses, restaurants, theatres, courtrooms, bathrooms, and beaches) but it continued nonetheless.
Kennedy verbally supported racial integration and civil rights; during the 1960 campaign he telephoned Coretta Scott King, wife of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been jailed while trying to integrate a department store lunch counter. Robert Kennedy called Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver and obtained King’s release from prison, which drew additional black support to his brother’s candidacy. Upon taking office in 1961 Kennedy postponed promised civil rights legislation he made while campaigning in 1960 recognising that conservative Southern Democrats controlled congressional legislation. Historian Carl M. Brauer concluded that passing any civil rights legislation in 1961 would have been futile. During his first year in office Kennedy appointed many blacks to office including his May appointment of civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall to the federal bench.
In his first State of the Union Address in January 1961, President Kennedy said “The denial of constitutional rights to some of our fellow Americans on account of race – at the ballot box and elsewhere – disturbs the national conscience, and subjects us to the charge of world opinion that our democracy is not equal to the high promise of our heritage.” Kennedy believed the grassroots movement for civil rights would anger many Southern whites and make it more difficult to pass civil rights laws in Congress, including anti-poverty legislation, and he distanced himself from it.
On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy intervened when Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway to the University of Alabama to stop two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from attending. Wallace moved aside only after being confronted by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and the Alabama National Guard, which had just been federalised by order of the president. That evening Kennedy gave his famous civil rights address on national television and radio, launching his initiative for civil rights legislation—to provide equal access to public schools and other facilities, and greater protection of voting rights.
His proposals became part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The day ended with the murder of a NAACP leader, Medgar Evers, in front of his home in Mississippi. As the president had predicted, the day after his TV speech, and in reaction to it, House Majority leader Carl Albert called to advise him that his two-year signature effort in Congress to combat poverty in Appalachia (Area Redevelopment Administration) had been defeated, primarily by the votes of Southern Democrats and Republicans.
Over a hundred thousand, predominantly African Americans, gathered in Washington for the civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Kennedy feared the March would have a negative effect on the prospects for the civil rights bills in Congress, and declined an invitation to speak. He turned over some of the details of the government’s involvement to the Dept. of Justice, which channelled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the six sponsors of the March, including the NAACP. and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
To ensure a peaceful demonstration, the organisers and the president personally edited speeches which were inflammatory and agreed the March would be held on a Wednesday and would be over at 4:00 pm. Thousands of troops were placed on standby. Kennedy watched King’s speech on TV and was very impressed. The March was considered a “triumph of managed protest”, and not one arrest relating to the demonstration occurred. Afterwards, the March leaders accepted an invitation to the White House to meet with Kennedy and photos were taken. Kennedy felt the March was a victory for him as well and bolstered the chances for his civil rights bill.
Nevertheless, the struggle was far from over. Three weeks later, a bomb exploded on Sunday, September 15 at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham; by the end of the day, four African American children had died in the explosion and two other children shot to death in the aftermath. Due to this resurgent violence, the civil rights legislation underwent some drastic amendments that critically endangered any prospects for passage of the bill, to the outrage of the president. Kennedy called the congressional leaders to the White House and by the following day the original bill, without the additions, had enough votes to get it out of the House committee. Gaining Republican support, Senator Everett Dirksen promised the legislation would be brought to a vote preventing a Senate filibuster. The legislation was enacted by Kennedy’s successor President Lyndon B. Johnson, prompted by Kennedy’s memory after his assassination in November, enforcing voting rights, public accommodations, employment, education, and the administration of justice.
The Apollo program was conceived early in 1960, during the Eisenhower administration, as a follow-up to Project Mercury, to be used as a shuttle to an Earth-orbital space station, flights around the Moon, or landing on it. While NASA went ahead with planning for Apollo, funding for the program was far from certain, given Eisenhower’s ambivalent attitude to manned spaceflight. As Senator, Kennedy had been opposed to the space program and wanted to terminate it.
In Kennedy’s January 1961 State of the Union address, he had suggested international cooperation in space. Khrushchev declined, as the Soviets did not wish to reveal the status of their rocketry and space capabilities. Early in his presidency, Kennedy was poised to dismantle the manned space program, but postponed any decision out of deference to Johnson, who had been a strong supporter of the space program in the Senate. Kennedy’s advisors speculated that a Moon flight would be prohibitively expensive, and he was considering plans to dismantle the Apollo program due to its cost.
However, this quickly changed on April 12, 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, reinforcing American fears about being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union. Kennedy now became eager for the US to take the lead in the Space Race, for reasons of strategy and prestige. On April 20, he sent a memo to Johnson, asking him to look into the status of America’s space program, and into programs that could offer NASA the opportunity to catch up. After consulting with Wernher von Braun, Johnson responded approximately one week later, concluding that “we are neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership.” His memo concluded that a manned Moon landing was far enough in the future that it was likely the United States would achieve it first. Kennedy’s advisor Ted Sorensen advised him to support the Moon landing, and on May 25, Kennedy announced the goal in a speech titled Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs:
“… I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
After Congress authorised the funding, Webb began reorganising NASA, increasing its staffing level, and building two new centres: a Launch Operations Center for the large Moon rocket northwest of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and a Manned Spacecraft Center on land donated through Rice University in Houston, Texas. Kennedy took the latter occasion as an opportunity to deliver another speech at Rice to promote the space effort on September 12, 1962, in which he said:
“No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space…. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Full text Wikisource has information on “We choose to go to the moon”
On November 21, 1962, in a cabinet meeting with NASA administrator Webb and other officials, Kennedy explained that the Moon shot was important for reasons of international prestige, and that the expense was justified. Johnson assured him that lessons learned from the space program had military value as well. Costs for the Apollo program were expected to reach $40 billion.
In a September 1963 speech before the United Nations, Kennedy urged cooperation between the Soviets and Americans in space, specifically recommending that Apollo be switched to “a joint expedition to the Moon”. Khrushchev again declined, and the Soviets did not commit to a manned Moon mission until 1964. On July 20, 1969, almost six years after Kennedy’s death, Apollo 11 landed the first manned spacecraft on the Moon.
President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, at 12:30 pm Central Standard Time on Friday November 22, 1963, while on a political trip to Texas to smooth over frictions in the Democratic Party between liberals Ralph Yarborough and Don Yarborough (no relation) and conservative John Connally. Traveling in a presidential motorcade through downtown Dallas, he was shot once in the back, the bullet exiting via his throat, and once in the head.
Kennedy was taken to Parkland Hospital for emergency medical treatment, but pronounced dead at 1:00 pm. Only 46, President Kennedy died younger than any other US president to date. Lee Harvey Oswald, an order filler at the Texas School Book Depository from which the shots were suspected to have been fired, was arrested for the murder of police officer J. D. Tippit, and was subsequently charged with the assassination of Kennedy. He denied shooting anyone, claiming he was a patsy, but was killed by Jack Ruby on November 24, before he could be prosecuted. Ruby was then arrested and convicted for the murder of Oswald. Ruby successfully appealed his conviction and death sentence but became ill and died of cancer on January 3, 1967, while the date for his new trial was being set.
President Johnson created the Warren Commission—chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren—to investigate the assassination, which concluded that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy, and that Oswald was not part of any conspiracy. The results of this investigation are disputed by many. The assassination proved to be an important moment in US history because of its impact on the nation and the ensuing political repercussions. A 2004 Fox News poll found that 66% of Americans thought there had been a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy, while 74% thought there had been a cover-up. A Gallup Poll in mid-November 2013, showed 61% believed in a conspiracy, and only 30% thought Oswald did it alone. In 1979, the US House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that it believed “that Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The committee was unable to identify the other gunmen or the extent of the conspiracy.” In 2002, historian Carl M. Brauer concluded that the public’s “fascination with the assassination may indicate a psychological denial of Kennedy’s death, a mass wish…to undo it.”