John F. Kennedy
A Cold War Leader
John F. Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917. He was born to businessman/politician Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. and socialite Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald. All of Kennedy’s grandparents emigrated from Ireland before having children. JFK’s siblings were just as successful as him. One of them founding the Special Olympics and another serving as the United States Ambassador to Ireland for 5 years. Kennedy, also known as Jack, moved to variety of schools through out his childhood and graduated from Choate School in June 1935. He was voted “most likely to succeed”. While in school at Choate, Jack experienced a variety of health problems including being diagnosed with colitis. Colitis is an inflammation of the colon when patients experience abdominal pain, cramping, and bloating. After a series of educational setbacks due to his health, Kennedy and his brother worked on a cattle ranch in Arizona for a few months.
In September 1936, JFK enrolled at Harvard College where he made the varsity swim team. After a few months in college, he toured Europe, the Soviet Union, the Balkans, and the Middle East in preparation for his Harvard senior honors thesis. On September 1, the day Germany invaded Poland, Kennedy returned to London from visiting Czechoslovakia and Germany. As an upperclassman at Harvard, Kennedy became a more serious student and developed interest in political philosophy. In 1940, he graduated with a bachelor of science in international affairs.
After medical disqualification by the Army for his chronic lower back problems, Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy. He received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for leading and saving his crew after his boat was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. JFK was released from active duty in late 1944 and was honorably discharged just prior to Japan’s surrender in 1945.
The House of Representatives and The Senate
Kennedy served in the House of Representatives from 1946-1952. His older brother Joe Jr. was killed in action on August 12, 1944. This meant that the task of the family’s political standard-bearer now fell to Jack. In 1952, Jack defeated his Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate seat and in the following year, he married Jacqueline. Most of his time in Senate was spent bedridden due to several spinal operations. While healing, he published Profiles in Courage for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957. The following year Kennedy was re-elected to a second term in the Senate by a wide margin.
Presidential Campaign and Inauguration
On January 2, 1960, Kennedy initiated his campaign for president. Major issues included how to get the economy moving again, Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism, Cuba, and whether the Soviet space and missile programs had surpassed those of the U.S.. In September and October, Kennedy appeared in the first televised U.S. presidential debates against Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Many believed that it was his relaxed, personable appearance is what gained him so many supporters. After winning in the closest election of the 20th century, Kennedy defeated Nixon.
John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president at noon on January 20, 1961. In his inaugural address, he said, “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”. Kennedy was optimistic that his administration would be historical significant domestically and globally.
Tensions with Khrushchev
In 1961, Kennedy anxiously anticipated a summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Tensions were raised when JFK misinterpreted what was supposed to be a domestic speech by Khrushchev as a personal challenge. On June 4, 1961 the president met with Khrushchev in Vienna. He left the meetings angry and disappointed that he had let the Premier bully him despite the warnings he had received. The Soviet leader was impressed with the president’s intelligence but saw him as weak.
Kennedy and Berlin
Shortly after JFK returned home, the USSR announced its intention to sign a treaty with East Berlin saying that they were doing away with any third-party occupation rights in either sector of the city. Kennedy once again misinterpreted this and thought the only option was to prepare the country for nuclear war. In a July 1961 speech, Kennedy announced that he would add $3.25 billion to the defense budget stating that an attack on West Berlin would be taken as an attack on the United States. Regarding the Berlin Wall, Kennedy’s first reaction was to ignore it as long as free access from West to East Berlin continued.
Bay of Pigs Invasion
On April 17, 1961, Kennedy ordered what became known as the “Bay of Pigs Invasion”. 1,500 U.S.-trained Cubans landed on the island. After two days, the Cuban government had captured and 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. This incident lead Castro to believe another invasion could occur.
Cuban Missile Crisis
CIA U-2 spy planes took photographs of intermediate-range ballistic missile sites being built in Cuba by the Soviets on October 14, 1962. When Kennedy was shown the photos, a consensus was reached that the missiles were “offensive in nature” and thus posed an immediate nuclear threat. Jack faced a dilemma: if the U.S. attacked the sites then it might lead to a nuclear war with the USSR. But on the other hand, if he did nothing, they would be faced with the increased threat from close-range nuclear weapons.
On October 22, Kennedy announced on TV that the United States Navy would stop and inspect all Soviet ships arriving off Cuba. The United Nations suggested that both parties enter a cooling-off period. Khrushchev said yes, but Kennedy said no. On October 28, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missile sites. The U.S. publically agreed to never invade Cuba. The crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than it ever had been. The crisis improved the image of American strength and the president’s credibility.
Assassination of JFK
President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. He was shot in the throat, upper back, and head. JFK was taken to Parkland Hospital for emergency treatment but was pronounced dead 30 minutes later. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the assassination of Jack. He was killed by Jack Ruby two days after being arrested. Ruby successfully appealed his conviction but died of cancer before his trial date was set.