John F. Kennedy's Childhood and Education:
The first president born in the 20th century, Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917. He grew up in a wealthy family. He was sickly as a child and continued to have health problems the rest of his life. He attended private schools his whole life including the famous prep school, Choate. He then attended Harvard (1936-40) majoring in Political Science. He was an active undergraduate and graduated cum laude.
Father: The indomitable Joseph Kennedy - head of the SEC and Ambassador to Great Britain.
Mother: Rose Fitzgerald - Boston socialite.
Siblings: Nine including Robert Kennedy - US Attorney General who was assassinated in 1968, and Edward Kennedy - Senator from Massachusetts since 1962.
Wife: Jacqueline Bouvier - Wealthy socialite and photographer.
Children: Caroline and John F. Kennedy, Jr.
John Kennedy's Military Career (1941-45):
Kennedy served in the Navy during World War II ending his time as a lieutenant. He was given command of PT-109. When the boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, he and his crew were thrown into the water. He was able to swim four hours saving himself and a crewman, but aggravated his back. He received the Purple Heart and Navy and Marine Corps Medal and was hailed for his heroism.
Career Before the Presidency:
Kennedy worked for a time as a journalist before running for the House of Representatives. He won and was reelected twice. He showed himself to be an independent thinker, not always following party line. He was then elected Senator (1953-61). Again, he did not always follow the Democratic majority. Critics were upset that he would not stand up to Senator Joe McCarthy. He also authored Profiles in Courage which won a Pulitzer Prize although there was some question about its true authorship.
Election of 1960:
In 1960, Kennedy was nominated to run for the presidency against Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's Vice President. During Kennedy's nominating speech, he set forward his ideas of a "New Frontier." Nixon made the mistake of meeting Kennedy in televised debates where Kennedy came off as young and vital. Kennedy won by the smallest margin of popular votes since 1888, winning by only 118,574 votes. However, he received 303 electoral votes.
John F. Kennedy's Assassination:
On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was mortally wounded while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. His apparent assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed by Jack Ruby before standing trial. The Warren Commission was called to investigate Kennedy's death and found that Oswald had acted alone to kill Kennedy. Many argued, however, that there was more than one gunman, a theory upheld by a 1979 House Committee investigation. The FBI and a 1982 study disagreed. Speculation continues to this day.
John Kennedy was important more for his iconic reputation than his legislative actions. His many inspiring speeches are often quoted. His youthful vigor and fashionable First Lady were hailed as American royalty; his time in office was termed "Camelot." His assassination has taken on a mythic quality, leading many to posit about possible conspiracies involving everyone from Lyndon Johnson to the Mafia. His moral leadership of Civil Rights was an important part of the movement's eventual success.
Events and Accomplishments of John F. Kennedy's Presidency:
Kennedy had a tough time getting many of his domestic programs through Congress. However, he did get an increased minimum wage, better Social Security benefits, and an urban renewal package passed. He created the Peace Corps, and his goal to get to the moon by the end of the 60's found overwhelming support.
On the Civil Rights front, Kennedy initially did not challenge Southern Democrats. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that only by breaking unjust laws and accepting the consequences could African Americans show the true nature of their treatment. The press reported daily on the atrocities occurring due to nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. Kennedy used executive orders and personal appeals to aid the movement. His legislative programs, however, would not pass until after his death.
Kennedy's foreign policy began in failure with the Bay of Pigs debacle (1961). A small force of Cuban exiles were to lead a revolt in Cuba but were captured instead. US reputation was seriously harmed. Kennedy's confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961 led to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Further, Khrushchev began building nuclear missile bases in Cuba. Kennedy ordered a "quarantine" of Cuba in response. He warned that any attack from Cuba would be seen as an act of war by the USSR. This stand off led to the dismantling of the missile silos in exchange for promises that the US would not invade Cuba. Kennedy also agreed to a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 with Britain and the USSR.
Two other important events during his term were the Alliance for Progress (the US provided aid to Latin America) and the problems in Southeast Asia. North Vietnam was sending troops through Laos to fight in South Vietnam. The South's leader, Diem, was ineffective. America increased its "military advisors" from 2000 to 16000 during this time. Diem was overthrown but new leadership was no better. When Kennedy was killed, Vietnam was approaching a boiling point.