Monday, June 6, 2016

John F. Kennedy: Youthful Idealist

John F. Kennedy: Youthful Idealist

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, the grandson of two prominent Boston Irish Catholic families. Nicknamed "Jack," John was the second eldest of a group of nine extraordinary siblings, including Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics, Robert F. Kennedy, a U.S. Attorney General, and Ted Kennedy, one of the most influential senators in American history.

A Lackadaisical Childhood

John F. Kennedy and siblings
Via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Joseph and Rose Kennedy largely spurned the world of Boston society and instead focused on their children. Joe Kennedy obsessed over every detail of his kids' lives, a rarity for a father at that time. A family friend noted, "Most fathers in those days simply weren't that interested in what their children did. But Joe Kennedy knew what his kids were up to all the time." Joe Sr. had high expectations for his children and the belief that winning was everything. He entered them in swimming and sailing competitions and chided them for finishing in anything but first place. John F. Kennedy's sister Eunice later recalled, "I was twenty-four before I knew I didn't have to win something every day." Jack Kennedy bought into his father's philosophy that winning was everything. "He hates to lose at anything," Eunice said. "That's the only thing Jack gets really emotional about — when he loses."

Despite his father's expectations, young Kennedy was a poor student and a mischievous boy. His schoolwork showed extraordinary intelligence when he applied himself, but Kennedy remained at best a mediocre student, preferring sports, girls, and practical jokes to coursework. His father knew his son had greater potential, telling him, "If I didn't really feel you had the goods I would be most charitable in my attitude toward your failings ... I am not expecting too much, and I will not be disappointed if you don't turn out to be a real genius, but I think you can be a really worthwhile citizen with good judgment and understanding." At Harvard University, he repeated his academic pattern, occasionally excelling in the classes he enjoyed but earning only average grades. Handsome, charming and blessed with a radiant smile, Kennedy was incredibly popular with his Harvard classmates. His friend Lem Billings recalled, "Jack was more fun than anyone I've ever known, and I think most people who knew him felt the same way about him."

Kennedy finally grew serious about his studies and began to realize his potential when he became an upperclassman. His father had been appointed Ambassador to Great Britain, and on an extended visit in 1939, Kennedy decided to research and write a senior thesis on why Britain was so unprepared to fight Germany in World War II. An incisive analysis of Britain's failures to meet the Nazi challenge, the paper was so well-received that, upon Kennedy's graduation in 1940, it was published as the book Why England Slept. Kennedy's father sent him a cablegram in the aftermath of the book's publication:

After graduating from Harvard, Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy. He first tried to join the Army but was medically disqualified. After months of rehab for his weak back, he was commissioned in the United States Naval Reserve. When the United States entered World War II, Lieutenant Junior Grade Kennedy was assigned to command a patrol torpedo boat in the South Pacific. On August 2, 1943, his boat, PT-109, was rammed by a Japanese warship and split in two. Two sailors died, and Kennedy severely injured his already weak back. Hauling another wounded sailor by the strap of his life vest, Kennedy led the survivors to a nearby island, where they were rescued six days later. The incident earned him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for "extremely heroic conduct" and a Purple Heart for the injuries he suffered.

JFK, 1942
Public Domain, Via Wikimedia
Unfortunately for the Kennedy family, not all of their sons came back from the war. The eldest Kennedy son, Joseph Kennedy Jr., had also joined the Navy. When his plane exploded in August 1944, the new “gold star” family was devastated. Handsome, athletic, intelligent, and ambitious, Joe Jr. had been pegged by his father as the one among his children who would one day become the President of the United States. In the aftermath of his brother’s death, John F. Kennedy took his family's hopes and aspirations for his older brother upon himself.

Early Political Career

Upon his discharge from the Navy, Kennedy worked briefly as a reporter for Hearst Newspapers. Then in 1946, at the age of 29, he took up the political mantle vacated by his brother’s death and ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. Bolstered by his status as a war hero, his family connections, and his father's money, Kennedy won the election handily. However, after the glory and excitement of publishing his first book and serving in World War II, Kennedy found his work in Congress incredibly dull. Despite serving three terms, from 1946 to 1952, Kennedy remained frustrated by what he saw as stifling rules and procedures that prevented a young, inexperienced representative from making an impact.

In 1952, seeking greater influence and a larger platform, Kennedy challenged Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge for his seat in the U.S. Senate. Once again backed by his father's vast financial resources, Kennedy hired his younger brother Robert as his campaign manager. Robert Kennedy put together what one journalist called "the most methodical, the most scientific, the most thoroughly detailed, the most intricate, the most disciplined and smoothly working state-wide campaign in Massachusetts history – and possibly anywhere else." In an election year in which Republicans gained control of both Houses of Congress, Kennedy nevertheless won a narrow victory, giving him considerable clout within the Democratic Party. According to one of his aides, the decisive factor in Kennedy's victory was his personality: "He was the new kind of political figure that people were looking for that year, dignified and gentlemanly and well-educated and intelligent, without the air of superior condescension."

John, Jackie, John Jr, and Caroline,
Hyannis Port, MA
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
Shortly after his election, Kennedy met a beautiful young woman named Jacqueline Bouvier at a dinner party and, in his own words, he "leaned across the asparagus and asked her for a date." A wealthy, educated Catholic girl, Jacqueline Bouvier's beauty and likability suited his political aspirations and made her the perfect bride, and they were The couple married on September 12, 1953 in Newport, Rhode Island. As perfect as their life should have seemed, beginning a family was heartbreaking. Their first child, Arabella, was stilborn. Daughter Caroline was born on November 27, 1957, and eldest son, John F. Kennedy Jr., was born on November 25, 1960. A fourth child, a son named Patrick Bouvier, who was born on August 7, 1963 but died only two days after birth.

Kennedy continued to suffer frequent illnesses during his career in the Senate. While recovering from one surgery, he wrote another book, profiling eight senators who had taken courageous but unpopular stances. Profiles in Courage won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography, and Kennedy remains the only American president to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Kennedy's eight-year Senate career was relatively undistinguished. Bored by the Massachusetts-specific issues on which he had to spend much of his time, Kennedy was more drawn to the international challenges posed by the Soviet Union's growing nuclear arsenal and the emerging Cold War. In 1956, Kennedy was very nearly selected as Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson's running mate but was ultimately passed over for Estes Kefauver from Tennessee. Four years later, Kennedy decided to run for president.

A New President

In the 1960 Democratic primaries, Kennedy outmaneuvered his leading opponent, Hubert Humphrey, with superior organization and financial resources. Selecting Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate, Kennedy faced then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the general election.

When FDR was elected, he easily hid his infirmities by taking to the radio. Kennedy showcased his youth on television. In several televised debates, Kennedy bested Nixon, an experienced and skilled debater, by projecting a relaxed persona, compared to opponent’s tense demeanor. His personality again carried the election: on November 8, 1960, Kennedy defeated Nixon by a razor-thin margin to become the 35th president of the United States of America. Only 43 years old, he was the second youngest American president in history. (Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated at age 42.) He was also the first Catholic president and the first president born in the 20th century.

Delivering his legendary inaugural address on January 20, 1961, Kennedy sought to inspire all Americans to more active citizenship. "Ask not what your country can do for you," he said. "Ask what you can do for your country." Capitalizing on the spirit of activism, Kennedy used Executive Order to create the Peace Corps 1961. By the end of the century, over 170,000 Peace Corps volunteers would serve in 135 countries.

Inaugural Adress Ceremony
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
He also created the Alliance for Progress to foster greater economic ties with Latin America, in hopes of alleviating poverty and thwarting the spread of communism in the region. Kennedy also presided over a series of international crises. On April 15, 1961, he authorized a covert mission to overthrow leftist Cuban leader Fidel Castro with a group of 1,500 CIA-trained Cuban refugees. Known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the mission proved an unmitigated failure, causing Kennedy great embarrassment.

In August 1961, to stem massive waves of emigration from Soviet-dominated East Germany to American ally West Germany via the divided city of Berlin, Khrushchev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall, which became the foremost symbol of the Cold War. Kennedy traveled to the militarized zone, decrying the order with his 1963 speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

"Ich bin ein Berliner"
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
However, the greatest crisis of the Kennedy administration was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Discovering that the Soviet Union had sent nuclear missiles to Cuba, Kennedy blockaded the island and vowed to defend the United States at any cost. After several of the tensest days in history, during which the world seemed on the brink of nuclear annihilation, the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles in return for Kennedy's promise not to invade Cuba and to remove American missiles from Turkey. Eight months later, in June 1963, Kennedy successfully negotiated the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with Great Britain and the Soviet Union, helping to ease Cold War tensions. It was one of his proudest accomplishments.

President Kennedy's record on domestic policy was rather mixed. Taking office in the midst of a recession, he proposed sweeping income tax cuts, raising the minimum wage and instituting new social programs to improve education, healthcare and mass transit. However, hampered by lukewarm relations with Congress, Kennedy only achieved part of his agenda: a modest increase in the minimum wage and watered down tax cuts. The most contentious domestic issue of Kennedy's presidency was civil rights. Constrained by Southern Democrats in Congress who remained stridently opposed to civil rights for black citizens, Kennedy offered only tepid support for civil rights reforms early in his term. Nevertheless, in September 1962 Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to Mississippi to use the National Guard and federal marshals to escort and defend civil rights activist James Meredith as he became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi on October 1, 1962. Near the end of 1963, in the wake of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Had a Dream" speech, Kennedy finally sent a civil rights bill to Congress. One of the last acts of his presidency and his life, Kennedy's bill eventually passed as the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964.

A fatal ride

On November 22, 1963, President and Mrs. Kennedy, along with Texas Governor John Connally, were on the campaign trail. They rode Dallas in an open Lincoln Continental convertible, with cheering crowds lining the street. However, sitting in an upstairs window of the Texas School Book Depository building was a 24-year-old warehouse worker named Lee Harvey Oswald. This former Marine with Soviet sympathies fired upon the car, hitting the president twice. Kennedy died at Parkland Memorial Hospital shortly after. He was only 46 years old; his son, John F. Kennedy, Jr. was three days shy of his third birthday. One of the most heart-rending images of the 20th century is toddler "John John" saluting his father’s flag-draped coffin as the caisson was pulled through the streets of Washington, DC.

"John John" saluting his father's flag-draped coffin
Photo courtesy of

Born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate before becoming the 35th president in 1961. His presidency came to represent the pinnacle of youthful idealism in the aftermath of World War II, and the shock of his death became the defining “Where were you when…” moment for the “Baby Boomer” generation.

JFK's grave and the Eternal Flame
Arlington National Cemetary
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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